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Verbing the adjectivised abstraction

March 29th, 2008

I’ve been reading William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal: Fall of a Dynasty about the Indian Rebellion of 1857 with great interest. The complacent reports of the British commanders as they went about destroying the last remnants of independent Indian power are startlingly reminiscent of the “Good News from Iraq” we got so much of in 2003, and which was briefly revived during the now collapsing surge/awakening/truce. More generally, Dalrymple gives an evocative account of the Mughal court on the eve of destruction.

But I was, perhaps unfairly, amused by Dalrymple’s introduction where he extols the merits of archival research, as against the kind of “subaltern history” that pads out existing secondary sources with large dollops of theory to produce more or less interchangeable articles with titles of the general form “Othering the Imagined Construct” (feel free to permute the parts of speech to derive your own). I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this is better or worse than the old standby “Nonsensical Phrase Drawn From Primary Source: Random Word, Random Word, and the Actual Topic of this Book, or the generic economic article of the form “Hot Current Idea, Established Field and Putative Application”.

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  1. swio
    March 30th, 2008 at 08:16 | #1

    Philip Adams had him on Late Night Live a while back talking about this book. Unfortunately the podcast is no longer available but if they repeat it on Classic LNL on Friay or when they put their archives online you’ll be able to listen to it. If I’m not mixing it up with another interview he talked about the amazingly tolerant form of Islam that existed under the Moghuls in India. It is something that even many people relatively knowledgable about Islam don’t know about and alot of ignorant RWDB would simply not believe is possible. The British fitted right into this when they first arrived. They inter married and adopted many local habits and customs but that all ended with the rise fundamentalist Christianity back in Britian. In a way that Fundamentalist Christianity, which was based on the idea that God gave them the Empire to civilise the world, echoes American Exceptionalism today. The single most interesting thing he mentioned was that Wahabism (the very strict form of Islam Bin Laden and Saudi Arabia follow) was a reaction against this Christian Fundamentalism. As they say history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.

  2. March 30th, 2008 at 19:24 | #2

    No, fundamentalist Christianity simply didn’t take in Britain that way. What stopped the cultural merger was the arrival of significant numbers of white women, plus the effects of the mutiny on attitudes – the idea that separation in cantonments and at other levels was both necessary and right.

  3. Ian Gould
    March 30th, 2008 at 21:43 | #3

    I think Swio and PM are both mistaken.

    Any possibility of long-term peaceful co-existence between Indians and the English was probably ended by the Bengali famine of 1770 which was deliberately exacerbated by the British East India Company to profit off grain speculation.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bengal_famine_of_1770#East_India_Company_responsibilities

    Starve 1/3 of a population to death and you’ll have a hard time convincing the survivors of your benevolence and virtue.

  4. March 31st, 2008 at 01:40 | #4

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  5. March 31st, 2008 at 09:57 | #5

    No, JG – there are two things wrong with that:-

    - it was par for the course, so the peasantry expected that sort of thing from pretty much any ruler; and

    - in those days India was “a geographical expression, not a country”, and people in Benares (say) would have viewed it with detachment.

    We can add to that the concrete observation that slow assimilation continued for maybe three generations anyway. Whatever put a halt to it, it wasn’t what happened in 1770.

  6. Ian Gould
    April 1st, 2008 at 09:50 | #6

    P.M, I’ll grant you your second and third points but the Famine of 1770 was pretty extraordinary and was linked directly to specific profit-maximising strategies of the EIC.

    Grain taxes were raised from 10% in the year prior to the EIC take-over to 50% in 1770 and 60% in 1771. The EIC also banned private trading in grain to protect their monopoly and hold up prices.

  7. April 1st, 2008 at 12:31 | #7

    IG, you might like to look at just what was par for the course under Indian rulers and other outside rulers of Indian territory. Tamurlaine’s strategic retreat from Delhi comes to mind…

    And, of course, the East India Company wasn’t the same as Britain by a long chalk, or there never would have been a successful reform mounted in parliament.

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