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2013 Series Panizzi Lectures 2

2. British India: Liberalism and Imperialism

After the rebellion of 1857, the imperial masters of India realised that they understood very little about the country they had conquered. Therefore, they conducted vast surveys of population, agriculture, transport, and many other phenomena, including books. 

Although printing had existed on the subcontinent since the Portuguese set up a press in 1556, a publishing industry did not develop on a large scale until the mid-19th century. At first it turned out a great deal of ephemera, which the Indian Civil Service dismissed as “bazaar trash”. James Long, a missionary stationed outside Calcutta, was the first expatriate to take this production seriously. In 1859 he produced a remarkable survey of Bengali popular literature and went on to arrange the translation of a play, Nil Darpan, which dramatised the exploitation of peasants by the British oligarchy of indigo planters. A court convicted him of seditious slander in the first of a series of trials, which stifled protest literature, especially after the partition of Bengal in 1905.

While condemning authors and printers, the British judges and juries proclaimed their commitment to the principle of the freedom of the press. Indian lawyers for the defence poked holes in their arguments, quoting Milton and Sidney, but the guilty verdicts and elaborate ceremonies of the courtroom provided a way for the British to ignore the contradiction between liberal principles and imperialist power. Knowledge itself was a form of power. The Indian Civil Service acquired an extraordinary knowledge of virtually all the books produced in all the vernacular languages from 1868 to 1903. Study of its “returns” and quarterly “catalogues”, along with the accompanying correspondence makes it possible to estimate the size and nature of book production and also to follow the imperialist discourse on “native” literature as it evolved over the last half of the 19th century.

Censors at Work: Imperialist India  (PDF format)

The Panizzi Lectures

Censors at Work: Bourbon France, Imperialist India and Communist East Germany

A series of three lectures by Professor Robert Darnton

MP3 file, 55 mins 48 secs, 22.35 MB