[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Asia]: Mukherjee on Finn and Smith, 'The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Tue Dec 4 19:45:33 MST 2018


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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Tue, Dec 4, 2018 at 7:11 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Asia]: Mukherjee on Finn and Smith, 'The East
India Company at Home, 1757-1857'
To: <H-REVIEW at lists.h-net.org>


Margot Finn, Kate Smith, eds.  The East India Company at Home,
1757-1857.  London  UCLPress, 2018.  500 pp.  $55.00 (paper), ISBN
978-1-78735-029-8.

Reviewed by Rila Mukherjee (University of Hyderabad, India)
Published on H-Asia (December, 2018)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Mukherjee on Finn and Smith, eds., _East India Company at Home_

This immensely engaging volume is the outcome of a Leverhulme
Trust-funded three-year project housed at Warwick University and
subsequently at University College London. Over three hundred
researchers--curators, archivists, family historians, local
historians, genealogists, and staff and volunteers at several stately
homes--worked on the project, and these diverse specialists bring a
wealth of expertise to the finished product.

The volume is singular in that the editors and contributors
consciously reverse our gaze; instead of showcasing the activities of
the East India Company (EIC) in Asia (India and China in particular),
the chapters concentrate instead on how not just people, but also
artifacts, ideas, and habits journeyed between Asia and "home"--that
is, Britain--and how these then installed themselves over time.

But why country houses? Editors Finn and Smith, referencing the
Victoria and Albert's director, Roy Strong, write that country houses
"captured the very essence of national identity and national culture"
(p. 5), as the popularity of films and serials such as _Gosford Park_
(2001) and _Downton Abbey_ (2010-15) have demonstrated. But for the
editors and contributors of the volume under review, this identity
was not just rooted in "Englishness"; Indian material culture--in the
form of objects gifted, purchased, inherited, and looted--and the
influence of China also contributed to it: "To walk the streets of
London, Leamington Spa and Liverpool; to explore the elegant Georgian
mansions of Aberglassney, Hertfordshire and the Scottish Borders; or
to ramble across agrarian estates in Banffshire, Berkshire and
Caernarvonshire is to inhabit a landscape shaped by the British
Empire.... Across Britain the close imbrication of colonial history
and post-colonial heritage extends far beyond the metropolitan ports"
(p. 1).

Heritage and its preservation is big business. This volume not only
contributes to ongoing debates about the place of heritage in modern
society and its role in the making of British culture and identity,
but also sheds new light on how we package heritage for public
consumption, thereby creating new narratives and histories. It
showcases public history at its best.

The organization of the volume is novel, consisting of five sections,
each one introduced by the editors. These are: the social life of
things; objects, houses, and homes in the construction of identities;
clusters and connections in the Home Counties; country houses in
borders and borderlands; and company families and history. The
conclusion is repetitive, echoing parts of the introduction.

Nineteen chapters make up the book. Individual chapters are written
by Sarah Longair and Cam Sharp Jones; Helen Clifford; Kate Smith;
Yuthika Sharma and Pauline Davies; Joanna Goldsworthy; Margot Finn;
Georgina Green; Chris Jeppesen; Diane James; Rachel Barnwell; Ellen
Filor; Alistair Mutch; Penelope Farmer; David Williams; Sir John
Sykes. Some authors contribute more than one chapter.

The volume has several novel features. It showcases the contributions
of Asian wealth and material culture to a tangible and intangible
heritage that was visible in elite domestic traditions in Britain.
These traditions have usually been viewed through the insular
"island" optic, but the object histories show that English traditions
with European as well as Asian influences made up the national
identity.

The volume goes beyond a shared history of London and Calcutta to
explore a range of provincial hinterlands in Britain and India; it
interrogates the lives, habits, and tastes of the returnees, called
"nabobs," to understand the culture of a new class, showing that the
nabobs were not a homogeneous category by studying the life of
William Gamul Farmer (Penelope Farmer's chapter); but it also moves
beyond the nabob as key exemplar of EIC wealth to uncover the tangled
histories of country houses and the complex genealogies of empire.

This volume has borrowed methodologies from the discipline of
anthropology as well as utilizing a very diverse range of specialist
technical knowledge to study material culture and object histories
(Chinese porcelain and ceramics; Chinese lacquer chests; Chinese
staircases; Chinese wallpaper, Indian calicoes and silk pelmets and
canopies with Cambay embroidery; ivory furniture; gold and silver
filigree; metal inlay work; sandalwood cabinets; diverse Indian
artifacts collected by Fanny Parkes in Joanna Goldsworthy's chapter)
to enrich conventional narratives of empire in a domestic setting, in
magnificent houses whose names end in "House," "Park," and "Hall."
Indian influence in lesser-studied seals, crests, and stamps is
explored.

The book's appeal to historians of empire and its aftermath, to
culture studies specialists, and to museum personnel is undeniable,
and I have no quarrel with the methodology adopted in the volume. I
found, however, some lacunae: four specific, and one generic. First,
I would have liked a discussion on elements in the new portraiture
that developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and
whether these elements were also found in the stately and country
house collections of the EIC returnees. Globes and maps were featured
increasingly in portrayals of the European gentleman as symbols of an
expanding world and the centrality of Europe within this new
worldview. Did country house art collections also feature globes and
maps as symbols of the new world order?

Moreover, clocks and watches were featured in European portraits as
the new _memento mori_. These now replaced the shrouds, tombs, and
skulls featured earlier; clocks often carried the motto _tempus
fugit_, or "time flees." Were these too present in country house
portraiture?

Third, I would have liked more references to the parks and gardens of
the country houses. Were Asian flora experimentally introduced on
British soil? Did the parks contain exotic menageries as
commemoration of the returnees' time in the East? We know there was a
huge faunal trade across the Indian Ocean from very early times--with
Africa and Asia providing the bulk of giraffes, tigers, rhinoceros,
lions, and exotic birds. European monarchs sometimes maintained
menageries as a symbol of their mastery over the natural realm. Did
the returnees also entertain such fancies and did their fancies
translate into the setting up of menageries?

Fourth, I would have liked the volume to feature old menus to see the
extent to which Indian condiments such as ginger or "curries" formed
part of the returnees' diet. Did Chinese cuisine, not just China tea,
feature at all? Was there any Asian medicine in their medicine
cabinets?

The generic criticism I now come to is one that the editors are
conscious of. When the EIC returnees traveled back with their
families, their entourage contained Asian slaves, servants, and
retainers. Many nannies (Indian _ayah_s and Chinese _amah_s) were
abandoned on arrival in Britain, there were sometimes disputes
regarding abandonment and theft (see www.oldbaileyonline.org), and
the situation reached such alarming proportions that an Ayah's Home
was set up in Aldgate around 1820. Others stayed on with their
British masters. These voices are absent in the collection and I
wonder if these could be recovered at all. But perhaps that was
beyond the scope of the project.

Citation: Rila Mukherjee. Review of Finn, Margot; Smith, Kate, eds.,
_The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857_. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
December, 2018.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52111

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.

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Best regards,

Andrew Stewart


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