«ABSTRACT Title of Dissertation: TYRANT! TIPU SULTAN AND THE RECONCEPTION OF BRITISH IMPERIAL IDENTITY, 1780-1800 Michael Soracoe, Doctor of ...»
Richard Koebner. “Despot and Despotism: Vicissitudes of a Political Term” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 1951 14 (3/4): 300-01 The innumerable portrayals of Tippoo the Tyrant were also a means to reject the claim that the Company's own servants were acting in despotic fashion in India, and were guilty of practicing Warren Hastings' famous "geographical morality" when they traveled overseas. Many of the early anxieties associated with the Company’s rule were bound up in these concepts of tyranny and despotism, the fear that the exercise of absolute power in the Orient was corrupting the native sons of Britain.
See for examples Lord Mornington to Colonel William Palmer 19 February 1799 (p. 257-63) IOR/H/574 and Lord Mornington to Colonel William Palmer 10 May 1799 (p. 455-60) IOR/H/574 for the military efforts of the Company. Through the spectacle of the Mysore Wars, the servants and soldiers of the Company came to embody the best qualities of the British nation, fighting a virtuous war of liberation to free southern India from the degradations of Tippoo the Tyrant. It was a vision of empire that the British public found easy to embrace.
The concept of "despotism" had its origins in ancient Greek, derived from the word despotes and referring to the relationship between master and slave. Aristotle made occasional remarks connecting arbitrary and tyrannical rulers with barbarian kingdoms;
this was the original genesis of the phrase "Oriental despotism."8 However, it did not enter the political lexicon of Europe until a relatively late period, revived by the French pamphlet wars of the late seventeenth century and used in reference to Louis XIV's absolutism, which was said to remove political liberty and destroy private property. In particular, the reign of Louis was compared by his critics to the tyranny of the Turkish Sultan, demonstrating again how despotic rule was understood through reference to Asian political systems.9 The encounters between European travelers and powerful Indian rulers served to reinforce the concept of despotism as a mode of governance that characterized Eastern states. Visitors to the Mughal court during the seventeenth century such as Thomas Roe and Francois Bernier suggested that Indian rulers acted in despotic fashion, accruing vast sums of wealth while denying their subjects the right to own private property. Bernier wrote in 1671 that this system of "oriental despotism" resulted in tyrannical rulership, and brought about the destruction of the landscape: "Take away the right of private property Koebner, Richard. “Despot and Despotism: Vicissitudes of a Political Term” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 1951 14 (3/4): 277-78 Ibid, 300-01 in land, and you introduce, as a sure and necessary consequence, tyranny, slavery, injustice, beggary, and barbarism: the ground will cease to be cultivated and become a dreary wilderness."10 The lack of property ownership and intermediary bodies between the absolute monarch and the individual (such as parliaments or juries) were seen as the chief characteristics of this system, which was how Europeans believed Asian states to be governed.
Although the usage of the term "despotism" had changed over time from its original usage in ancient Greek, by the middle of the eighteenth century it had come to embody a standard set of political tropes. A despotic system of government was characterized by an all-powerful sovereign, in which individuals were nothing more than instruments of the ruler's will. A despotic system not only denied personal liberties, but also abrogated private property and all corporate bodies. Laws did not exist under such a system, and trade and cultivation of land were believed to be heavily retarded due to the constraints of the sovereign.11 Despotism was very frequently associated with nonEuropean rulers, most often the Turkish Sultan, but increasingly with regards to Indian rulers as well. As the Mughal Empire continued to decline during the eighteenth century, the notion of "Oriental despotism" was increasingly invoked by Europeans as an explanation, arguing that this tyrannical system of rule had impoverished the peasantry and brought about the faltering state of affairs. It was only a short step from this position to advocating Company rule over India as a remedy, replacing the corrupt native political system with superior British institutions. These arguments would become a common refrain during the Third and Fourth Mysore Wars of the 1790s.
Francois Bernier. “Letter to Colbert” from Travels in the Mogul Empire, Vol. 2 (Delhi: S. Chand, 1968;
1671): 238 Franco Venturi. “Oriental Despotism” in Journal of the History of Ideas 1963 24 (1): 133-42 One such example of the way in which this discourse on oriental despotism informed British understanding of India in this period can be seen in Alexander Dow's History of Hindostan (1768). Dow was a disaffected former Company servant who wrote critically about its actions overseas in his history of the subcontinent. Nevertheless, he still viewed India through the framework of despotism, writing how "The [Mughal] Emperor is absolute and sole arbiter in every thing, and controlled by no law. The lives and properties of the greatest Omrahs are as much at his disposal, as those of the meanest subjects."12 In the preface to his third volume, Dow wrote a "Dissertation on the Origins of Despotism in Indostan", in which he argued that the hot climate of the subcontinent predisposed its peoples towards despotic forms of rule.13 He also found that Islam as a religion was "peculiarly calculated for despotism", based on the life of Muhammad and the Muslim family structure.14 However, despite these conditions, Dow claimed that Bengal was prosperous under the Mughals and commerce flourished to a wide extent. It was only after they were replaced by the local nawabs that conditions began to deteriorate, a process which
reached its nadir after the Company's administrators assumed control of the region:
The distemper of avarice, in the extreme, seemed to infect all... Nothing in the conquered provinces was premeditated but rapine. Every thing, but plunder, was left to chance and necessity, who impose their own laws. The farmers, having no certainty of holding the lands beyond the year, made no improvements. Their profit must be immediate, to satisfy the hand of Avarice, which was suspended over their heads... Year after year brought new tyrants, or confirmed thereof, in the practice of their former oppressors. The tenants, being, at length, ruined, the farmers were unable to make good their contracts with government...15
Alexander Dow. The History of Hindostan: Translated from the Persian, 3rd Edition, Vol. 1 (London:
Printed by John Murray, 1792, 1770, 1768): xii Mark Harrison. Climates and Constitution: Health, Race, Environment, and British Imperialism in India, 1600-1850. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999) Alexander Dow. The History of Hindostan, Vol. 3 (1792): i-v Ibid, lxvii-lxviii Dow explicitly referred to the British servants of the East India Company as tyrants in this particular passage. When the peasants were unable to pay their taxes due to this exploitation, Dow wrote that the Company became more oppressive still, and turned to armed military force for collection. They brought terror and ruin throughout the Company's domains, ruling over an immiserated populace through military dictatorship.16 These descriptions of the sufferings of the Indian peasantry were not imaginary, as modern historians have estimated that the Bengal Famine of 1770 was responsible for the death of 10 million people, or roughly a third of the region's population.17 The system of Company rule in Bengal portrayed by Dow was unquestionably despotic in its own makeup, abrogating the right to private property from poor Indian farmers and exploiting them for revenue. At least under the Mughals there had not been such a destructive famine. The prevailing political philosophy of this period further suggested that empires of conquest were likely to bring enslavement eventually to both conquered and conqueror alike, which meant that the actions of the Company's servants overseas had potentially dire consequences for the British nation at home.18 This language of tyranny and despotism was explicitly referenced in British popular culture as a way to criticize the actions of the East India Company. For example, a simple cartoon designed to mock Robert Clive from 1772 played upon these political tropes. "The Madras Tyrant" depicts a British man in military uniform riding on horseback, with a haughty expression on his face and a riding crop in his hand ready to Ibid, Vol. 3, lxviii Romesh Chunder Dutt. The Economic History of India under Early British Rule (New York: A. M. Kelly, 1969, 1902): 52-53. More recently, see Sushil Chaudhuri. From Prosperity to Decline: Eighteenth Century Bengal (New Delhi: Manohar, 1995) See P. J. Marshall. A Free though Conquering People: Eighteenth Century Britain and its Empire (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2003). This is also discussed further in Chapter 4.
spur on the animal to greater speed [Figure 1].19 The caption below the image reads "Jos.
or the Father of Murder. Rapine etc." While this was indeed a very basic cartoon, it was useful nonetheless for its unequivocal evidence of negative popular perceptions of the Company, and in particular its leading figures. The association of tyranny with the governors and administrators of the East India Company in this period holds great significance in light of how the same political language would be later deployed against the Company's Indian opponents. In the 1770s there was public condemnation of the nabobs, as in this image of the "Madras Tyrant"; by the 1790s, the same epithets had been transferred successfully to the Indian prince Tipu Sultan, who became "Tippoo the Tyrant." The continued deployment of this language of tyranny was not a coincidence, and Enlightenment thinkers across Europe had used similar terminology to argue that overseas imperialism was inherently unjust.20 References to the Company's overseas servants as tyrants had a long currency in popular opinion. A dozen years after the appearance of "The Madras Tyrant", satirist W.G. Phillips continued to use the same terminology to characterize the nabobs in his prints. His cartoon "The Mirror" shows Charles Fox addressing an election crowd in London, making the case for why Fox should be returned to his former post as prime minister. More importantly for this project, the image includes the presence of a welldressed British man in the crowd labeled “Indian Tyrant”, who stated: “Had he [Fox] passed the India Bill/ I could no more my Coffers fill/ With Rupees. Or in Blood have J. S. "The Madras Tyrant, or the Director of Directors." Published by M. Darly, 16 March 1772. Image #5017 in Mary Dorothy George. Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Musuem, Vol. 5-7. (London: British Museum Publications, 1978) Sankar Muthu. Enlightenment Against Empire. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) glutted/ Oh! I should like the Reformer gutted.”21 When Phillips created this cartoon in 1784, the notion of the "Indian Tyrant" still referred to the traders and soldiers of the East India Company, the British men who had traveled across the oceans and then been corrupted by the decadent morals of the East. While Asian rulers could also be associated with tyranny and despotic rule, prior to the Mysore Wars of the late eighteenth century they were no more likely to be portrayed as such than Europeans were. The rehabilitation of the Company's public image in the following decades was intimately connected with the redefinition of who and what constituted an "Indian Tyrant", which makes the use of this terminology of such interest.