«ABSTRACT Title of Dissertation: TYRANT! TIPU SULTAN AND THE RECONCEPTION OF BRITISH IMPERIAL IDENTITY, 1780-1800 Michael Soracoe, Doctor of ...»
In the British metropole, the image of Tipu and the legality of the Mysore Wars became caught up in the parliamentary politics of the day. There was a vigorous debate between a larger majority that supported both the Tory government and the East India Company, and a smaller but still sizable Whig Opposition that insisted on the immorality of the war undertaken against Tipu. This period of the early 1790s was a transitional moment for the wider popular attitudes about empire, as Indian princes like Tipu were increasingly castigated as cruel despots, but the public was somewhat slower to internalize the new discourse about the East India Company itself. During the Third Mysore War (1790-92), the print culture of the day produced seemingly endless references to the events taking place overseas, in the form of newspapers, cartoons, plays, and paintings, all signaling the important role that overseas empire played in constructing domestic popular culture. This print culture was also heavily politicized in nature, and the subject of Tipu was hotly debated both in the halls of Parliament and in the wider popular culture.
In the end, the crushing victories won by the Company in the Third (1790-92) and Fourth (1799) Mysore Wars resulted in a stifling of debate. The political opposition was undercut by the success of the Company’s military, and the British public eagerly embraced the victories that had been won overseas. It became politically impossible for anyone to challenge the Mysore Wars in their aftermath of runaway military success under Cornwallis and Wellesley. This allowed for the earlier representations of the Company and its servants as nabobs to fade away from view, and a new reimagining of these same individuals as patriotic soldier-heroes to take their place. Far from corrupting the British nation, the Company now stood for its defense, going to war to protect British prisoners from ever again falling into the clutches of Oriental despots like Tippoo the Tyrant. With the passage of time, this new understanding of the Mysore Wars established itself as the historical memory of the period, and the earlier era of contestation was largely forgotten.3 The Nabobs: Fears and Pessimism of Empire The territorial conquests of the East India Company in the mid-eighteenth century were a source of both excitement and dread for the British public at home. They offered the prospect of further enriching the nation through greater access to the India trade, as well as potentially increasing the country's military might in its seemingly endless wars against its European rivals. However, at the same time the assumption of control over Bengal was fraught with its own perils. The East India Company was still widely regarded by the British public as a commercial entity, despite the governmental functions that it had assumed since its earliest days, and the British state was only just embarking on the slow process of conquering the Company's administrative structure.4 The responsibility for governing over an enormous foreign populace was a daunting prospect. During the 1760s and 1770s, the Company would have to weather the storms of repeated famines in Bengal and its own continuing insolvency at home, relying on loans from Parliament to stave off bankruptcy.5 At the same time, the conspicuous consumption of wealthy Company servants who had returned home to Britain gave rise to the popular See Conclusion Philip Stern. The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundation of the British Empire in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)
H. V. Bowen. Revenue and Reform: The Indian Problem in British Politics 1757-1773 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1991): 187-89 satire of the nabob, vilified in public opinion for his greed, corruption, and undignified status-climbing. The Company and its servants appeared to be out of control, governing in tyrannical fashion and exploiting Indians overseas with no thought other than personal enrichment. What was supposed to have been a monopoly trading company was widely viewed as a rogue state.6 Anxieties about the Company and its servants were linked to fears of corruption and moral decay, brought on by contact with the very different cultural systems that prevailed in India. Politics in this era were still heavily influenced by the language of virtues and manners, with topics such as moral degeneracy holding great sway over public opinion.7 The nabobs were viewed as a threat to the British nation due to the belief that they had been corrupted by Eastern vice and Oriental luxury. Company servants who had adopted Indian customs and mannerisms were satirized for their effeminacy, lacking the requisite masculinity and toughness that the nation demanded. Nabobs were the subjects of popular hostility because they were themselves the harbingers of a globalized and imperial sense of Britishness, one that the populace in the metropole was not fully ready to embrace just yet, which manifested itself as a consequence of the material culture they brought home with them from South Asia.8 Their profligate spending, through the purchase of country estates and corrupt parliamentary seats, served as a threat to undermine both the country's social order and its political system. The history of the nabobs, as a result, is also a history of the material culture of empire, and the panicked reactions of domestic observers when they found the footprints of empire in their Nicholas Dirks. The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006): 13 Daniel O’Quinn. Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London, 1770-1800 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007): 5 Tillman Nechtman. Nabobs: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth Century Britain (2010): 16 metropolitan world.9 While these fears were exaggerated and eventually proved to be unfounded, contemporaries believed that the nabobs represented a serious danger to the established order of British society.10 Due in part to the reckless manner with which the Company was governing its new territories, this was a period of frequent pessimism about the future of the British possessions overseas, especially after the outbreak of the American Revolution. Without knowing what the future would hold, it was not uncommon for pamphleteers to speak of the impending end of the British Empire in the 1770s and 1780s.
The term "nabob" was an Anglicized corruption of the Bengali word "nawab" ), referring to the Indian rulers of various princely states, or more generally to any ( person of great wealth or status. The word had been in use since the early seventeenth century, but took on a new and more unsavory meaning in the middle of the eighteenth century. Popularized by Samuel Foote's play The Nabob, the word was used as a derogatory reference to the men who returned home from India, bringing with them vast sums of money and an ill-fated reputation. The nabobs induced widespread revulsion in Britain, from their acquired wealth and the means used to achieve it, which were usually attributed to exploiting the native peoples of India. Many of the nabobs engaged in unabashed status-climbing, using their newfound means to purchase large country estates, parliamentary seats in corrupt boroughs, and other signs of high social status. All of these actions were viewed as unseemly and in poor taste by Britain's traditional ruling class.
Like the excessive Eastern luxury that they seemed to embody, the nabobs appeared to Ibid, 16 Philip Lawson and Jim Phillips. “‘Our Execrable Banditti’: Perceptions of Nabobs in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain” in Albion XVI (1984): 225 threaten established moral values, the security of imperial interests, and the sanctity of Britain's unwritten national constitution.11 Although the nabobs came from diverse backgrounds, they nonetheless shared certain characteristics as a group. There was a popular misconception that everyone who traveled to India came back with fortunes in hand; in fact, the great majority of Europeans who went to India during the eighteenth century died overseas, or returned home with very modest sums.12 The nabobs who came back with huge sums to their names were very much the exception and not the rule, but their prominence in the decades following the Company's conquest of Bengal gave them an outsized public presence. There were some 200-300 individuals in this period who could properly be called nabobs, Company servants who brought back enough wealth to entertain notions of climbing into the ranks of Britain's social elites. While only a few of them lived conspicuously, the ones who did so lived very conspicuously indeed. Thomas Rumbold, a former Governor of Madras, spent more than £100,000 on an estate in Essex, while Robert Clive, the most famous of all nabobs, used his Indian wealth to acquire the prestigious Claremont estate, an Irish peerage, and election to the Order of the Garter.13 Small wonder then that the nabobs were ripe for public satire, as former nonentities suddenly thrust into the company of the nation's political and social elites.
Some nabobs also sought election to political office, as another sign of their newfound social status. Due to the outdated and non-democratic electoral system that returned MPs to Parliament in the eighteenth century, it was relatively easy for men of great wealth to secure their election to the Commons through the manipulation of corrupt Ibid, 226 Ibid, 226-27 Ibid, 227-28 boroughs, in which a tiny number of voters could be bribed to support the desired candidate. As a result, the number of nabobs in Parliament grew steadily during this period, starting with twelve in 1761, nineteen in 1768, twenty-two in 1774, and twentyseven in 1780.14 Despite the growing number of MPs who had connections to the East India Company, the nabobs in Parliament never acted as a coherent political lobby, and preferred to stay out of politics whenever possible. However, the nabobs did use their political leverage very successfully when the subject of Indian affairs arose, protecting themselves from charges of corruption and influencing the government's policy towards the East India Company during debates on reform bills and charter renewal. Resentment of the nabobs therefore went beyond mere social snobbery, and touched upon fears that their ill-gotten wealth was subverting the entire political system. Many observers had the feeling that Britain's empire-building overseas had created a beast that was rapidly growing out of control. Unease at the Company's unique position of governance in India ran deep from the very beginning of territorial expansion.15 Nabobs were explicitly disassociated in this period from the rest of the British nation. They were viewed as a source of contamination to the rest of society, seen as having been cut off from the rest of the nation due to their adoption of enervating Oriental luxury. For example, during the trial of Warren Hastings, Edmund Burke clearly and directly separated the Company and its servants from Britain itself, declaring at one point: “The East India Company in India is not the British Nation.”16 Indeed, this was part of the reason why Burke was putting Hastings on trial, as the Company’s “state Ibid, 228 Ibid, 232 Edmund Burke. “Speech on Opening of Impeachment 15, 16, 18, 19 February 1788” in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. 6. Peter Marshall (ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981): 285 without a nation” had only officeholders, with no people to reign in abuses or curb corruption. Burke's statement was particularly noteworthy due to the way in which the two would become conflated together in later decades, as the Mysore Wars against Tipu Sultan allowed the servants and soldiers of the East India Company to rehabilitate their reputation in the eyes of the British public.
The conspicuous consumption and material culture of the nabobs was what opened them up to ridicule in popular culture, as they made an easy target for satirists and opinion pieces. These illustrations testified to the uneasy role that this group occupied within the British political sphere. The most famous such example was Samuel Foote's 1773 play The Nabob, which encapsulated the popular perception of the Company's servants at this particular historical moment. The Nabob tells the story of Sir Matthew Mite (widely known to be a caricature of Robert Clive), returned from India with a vast fortune, and his attempts to purchase his way into respectability and high society. Mite was repeatedly shown to be lacking the refined manners of the gentlemanly class, needing instruction from his butler in how to play games of chance and flaunting his wealth in an attempt to impress the Antiquarian Society.17 Mite runs his household in the fashion of a stereotyped oriental despot, holding court in Indian style, trying to buy off his opposition with the bestowment of a jaghir, and suggesting that he would like to found a seraglio in London.18 Mite is also in the process of purchasing a seat in Parliament, in the satirical borough of "Bribe'em"; he negotiates in the process to buy a second seat for his black slave from the Indies.19 These corrupt electoral practices were typical of the popular beliefs associated with the nabobs in the 1770s, illustrating the fear Samuel Foote. The Nabob (London: Printed by T. Sherlock, 1773, 1778): 27-28, 51-56 Ibid, 9, 37 Ibid, 42-47 that their contact with the moral degeneration of the Orient would undermine the character of the British nation.