In 1806, James Mill (1773–1836) – father of John Stuart Mill – began writing his monumental History of British India. It was finally published in 1817, in 3 vols, and he claimed, in his preface, that it was the first such comprehensive history to have dealt with India. The preface of this history is one of my favorite documents.

Mill sets out to write a critical history of India since the “knowledge of India” was sorely lacking in both the general public and those whose job it was to know India. Mill correctly identifies the one big objection which would be raised against him: “This writer, it will be said, has never been in India; and, if he has any, has a very slight, and elementary acquaintance, with any of the languages of the East.”1 That shouldn’t matter, Mill asserts, since the Company never requires from the men who are sent to govern India that they know any languages or have prior experience. Why such requirement, then, for a historian? Furthermore, Mill argues:

Some of the most successful attempts in history had been made, with out ocular knowledge of the country, or acquaintance with its languages. Robertson, for example, never beheld America, though he composed its history. He never was in either Germany or Spain, yet he wrote the history of Charles the Fifth. Of Germany he knew not so much as the language; and it was necessary for him to learn that of Spain, only because the documents which it yielded were not translated into any of the languages with which he was acquainted. Tacitus, though he never was in Germany, and was certainly not acquainted with the language of our uncultivated ancestors, wrote the exquisite account of the manners of Germans.2

Mill grants that there is some utility in “seeing” India, perhaps, even in “speaking” India but all that still remains the purview of a single individual and his limited life-experience. To write a proper history of India, the task must encompass many such lives and many such experiences, combined with that needed faculty to think, to analyze, and to judge:

Whatever is worth seeing or hearing in India, can be expressed in writing. As soon as every thing of importance is expressed in writing, a man who is duly qualified may obtain more knowledge of India in one year in his closet in England, than he could obtain during the course of the longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India.3

To Mill, a certain character, a certain training, and a certain location were necessary to write a history of India (him, his, Europe) and not the mundane details of first-hand experience. His “critical” history and his formulation of “historian the judge” did not need to interrogate the archive itself – it was, after all, produced by fine servants of the Company. He didn’t need the local language, because the knowledge in them was untrustworthy – it needed to undergo the act of “translation” so that truth could rise.4

Mill’s history drew favorable reviews.

Mr. Mill has proved by incontrovertible evidence, that the Hindus, though superior to the savage tribes of America and Africa, are far removed from the civilization of modern Europe, or even of Europe as it existed in the middle ages; that they should be ranked on nearly the same level with the Chal-dagans, the Assyrians, and the Egyptians of antiquity; that they are not superior to the present inhabitants of Bootan, China, Cochin-China, Siam, or Pegu; and that there never was a time when they were more highly civilized than they are to-day.5

The tension between knowing India through what is “written” about it in the metropole and what can be “experienced” from India itself, persists.

———
  1. James Mill. Preface to The History of British India. i-xxxvi. (London: James Madden And Co., 1840), xviii []
  2. ibid., xix. []
  3. ibid., xxii. []
  4. Lewis Smith writes in the introduction to his translation of Qissa Chahar Derwish: “Clive never knew the languages of India. When asked why he never learnt it, he replied `Why, if I had, I should not have conquered India; the black knaves would have led me astray by their cunning advice; but as I never understood them, I was never misled by them’. []
  5. The British Review, and London Critical Journal, Vol. XII, 1818. []

16 thoughts on “Don’t Believe Your Eyes

  1. Airminded · History Carnival 77
  2. Dear Spencer
  3. “The distinctiveness of the bourgeois perspective (which we all share) and which “the europeans” brought to India meant that entire dimensions of Indian society become visible in historical documents which were never visible before, not in millennia of documents written in Sanskrit (a language I know), nor, indeed, in any documents produced in other language. This is not because of the native genius of europeans, but because it is only modern bourgeois subjects to whom “society” (and, therefore, “history”) appears as an object.”

    History as an object has been concern to the Chinese and Greeks for over two thousand years. I understand that these were largely histories of the upper classes, but there were some concerned with the development outside the aristocratic sphere.

    But more importantly, back to the topic of Indian history as an object, I think we should remember the buranjis from Assam, which are basically chronicles. Their authors viewed history as an object to a certain extent, thought also wrote, if I remember correctly, so that their kings would understand the past. But I agree with your basic point of history as an object not existing until much later, though this is an exception.

    (check out page ninteen – indicated as page ten of the preview – of this book for an introduction to the buranjis: http://books.google.com/books?id=KYLpvaKJIMEC&pg=PP4&dq=medieval+indian+literature+anthology#PPA10-IA9,M1 )

  4. “The distinctiveness of the bourgeois perspective (which we all share) and which “the europeans” brought to India meant that entire dimensions of Indian society become visible in historical documents which were never visible before, not in millennia of documents written in Sanskrit (a language I know), nor, indeed, in any documents produced in other language. This is not because of the native genius of europeans, but because it is only modern bourgeois subjects to whom “society” (and, therefore, “history”) appears as an object.”

    History as an object has been concern to the Chinese and Greeks for over two thousand years. I understand that these were largely histories of the upper classes, but there were some concerned with the development outside the aristocratic sphere.

    But more importantly, back to the topic of Indian history as an object, I think we should remember the buranjis from Assam, which are basically chronicles. Their authors viewed history as an object to a certain extent, thought also wrote, if I remember correctly, so that their kings would understand the past. But I agree with your basic point of history as an object not existing until much later, though this is an exception.

    (check out page ninteen – indicated as page ten of the preview – of this book for an introduction to the buranjis: http://books.google.com/books?id=KYLpvaKJIMEC&pg=PP4&dq=medieval+indian+literature+anthology#PPA10-IA9,M1 )

  5. Just wanted to thank Sepoy for the initial post. I’ll also confess that I enjoyed reading some of the back and forth on this specific post — I agree that in some ways the initial criticisms “complement” the original post.

  6. Thanks Conrad, I had not heard of Quigley’s book, will add it to my list.

  7. Generally speaking; I think Mill’s history is a pretty poor piece of work. Most economic historians will now tell you that he was speaking absolute crap about the state of the economy and standards of living during the period of the EIC ascendancy. Like most writers of the period he remained deeply ignorant about a lot of aspects what was going on in South Asia. Ok, yeah, he critiqued the EIC policies and identified certain ‘illiberal’ trends in Indian society at the time. That isn’t much to justify wading through several volumes of boring, essentially repetitive prose. The earlier parts of his history, are just laughable in the crude simplifications of Hindu society they contain.

    Personally I prefer the work of people who actually did travel and live in India; though they had their own problems, like Bernier.

    There’s an excellent discussion of Mill’s history in Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind (one of my very favorite books on Indian history)…

    Q, if you liked Dirks’ book check out Declan Quigley’s Interpretation of Caste; I think it is much more rigorous and comprehensive than Dirks’ work and correctly identifies the different appoaches to understanding caste as a system. It essentially prefigures the neo-Hocartian view that Dirks’ puts forward.

    1. I’d like to know who these economic historians of the period are, exactly. As for boring repetitive prose, do you feel the same way about Gibbon’s Roman Empire, Robertson’s America or Empire of Charles V, and Hume’s England? I’d say Mill has a quite refined early 19th century style. As a history, of course it’s dated. It’s a bit churlish to criticize the book for that, don’t you think? After all, the book was published over 190 years ago.
      One thing I would point out is that Mill had access to sources the likes of which we can only envy, i.e. extended conversations with numerous people who had lived for extended periods in late 18th and early 19th century South Asia.

    2. I’d like to know who these economic historians of the period are, exactly.

      No problem, one that comes immediately to mind is David Washbrook who was my supervisor at MPhil level. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Tirthankar Roy, Muzzafar Alam, Om Prakash are all great reads and authorities in this period.

      As for boring repetitive prose, do you feel the same way about Gibbon’s Roman Empire, Robertson’s America or Empire of Charles V, and Hume’s England?

      Ask any historian studying this period what they think of these histories; sure they have some historiographical value but to claim that any of these wrote “great histories” of their period is bit of stretch imo. I liked Gibbon, but his approach to his subject, though trashed by modern scholars of the period; is infinitely more sophisticated and nuanced than Mills. I think you need to re-examine them both if you can even mention them in the same breath. I am unfamiliar with the other works but I am not a fan of 17th-19th century writing on the whole.

      After all, the book was published over 190 years ago.
      One thing I would point out is that Mill had access to sources the likes of which we can

      Hey I am just pointing out why I don’t think it was a “great piece of history” so this point is kind of obvious. It isn’t that there wasn’t other writing at the time which I preferred – I gave Bernier’s works on India as an example.

      One thing I would point out is that Mill had access to sources the likes of which we can only envy, i.e. extended conversations with numerous people who had lived for extended periods in late 18th and early 19th century South Asia.

      Oh, wow, you mean the EIC merchants and colonialists who lived in India for a few years at most before returning to speak to Mills. Not necessarily the best source to write a good history of India; a good source to write a history of what a Englishman thinks was the history of India.

    3. Neither Subrahmanyam nor Washbrook are really authorities on the 18th century. Neither is Tirthankar Roy for that matter. As for Om Prakash, I would scarcely call any of his book “a great read”. Certainly, he does great things with the Dutch archive, but the work’s a bit dry. As for Muzaffar, his writing is important, of course, but (though most people skip this part of the story) he very largely confirms the broad story of decline in 18th century North India, for instance in and around Delhi itself and in the Punjab. The economically dynamic regions he identifies are Awadh and Bihar. To the extent that this seriously alters James Mill’s views (after all, Mill perfectly well that India had had a considerable manufacturing base in the 18th century), I expect he would gladly accept Muzaffar’s findings, since he and Muzaffar (and this is the crucial point) share the same basic protocols of what constitutes “proof” in historical inquiry.

      Of course, someone who has lived and done business in India in the 18th century would be a great source if writing the history of that period (Mill’s is chiefly concerned with what was for him the most recent period). As any practicing historian of the period (such as myself) can tell you, there are innumerable things that such a person would know which we will never be able to learn, because our documentary evidence is so impoverished. Information about tools, habits, production processes, building styles, everyday technologies of all kinds, etc., etc. is lacking because of the narrowness of the interests of those who produced the archive. Much of the most critical knowledge that we have of peasant production processes, property forms, folklore, religion, and habits comes from the important surveys and local histories written precisely by the Englishmen (or, rather, Britons) you affect to despise. For instance, there is no one who writes seriously on 18th century Bengal and Bihar who would ignore the meticulous survey reports of Buchanan-Hamilton. For those with a real interest in the everyday lives of the working people of that region of India, such european sources shed more light than any documents we have from an earlier time.

  8. Personally, I don’t see the sepoy and Spencer L. posts as contrary so much as complementary. Mill’s importance, his significance, is undeniable, as is his abiding relevance, given how “we” are enframed by the same paradigm (i.e. inasmuch as we too are modern bourgeois subjects to whom history appears as an object that may be studied) — that is precisely why the assumptions and attitudes implicit and explicit in his work ought to be critically examined (and any naive notion that one can liberate oneself “out of” the paradigm by such critique).

  9. Okay. Just to keep up my record of contrariety here, I’ll bite. James Mill was a great historian of India, the most important if not the only of the early British historians of India, and he was absolutely correct to claim, as Sepoy puts it, that “a certain character, a certain training, and a certain location were necessary to write a history of India (him, his, Europe) and not the mundane details of first-hand experience.” Writing history is not and could never be a matter of “experience.” Moreover, what was far more important that knowledge of Indian languages or experience of India, which, of course, everybody living in India at the time had, was precisely what Mill brought to the task – modern thought. The distinctiveness of the bourgeois perspective (which we all share) and which “the europeans” brought to India meant that entire dimensions of Indian society become visible in historical documents which were never visible before, not in millennia of documents written in Sanskrit (a language I know), nor, indeed, in any documents produced in other language. This is not because of the native genius of europeans, but because it is only modern bourgeois subjects to whom “society” (and, therefore, “history”) appears as an object.

    Mill was a radical egalitarian and universalist and this is evident throughout his History. He was not a racist and his ideas about the relative backwardness of India in his day was motivated by a conceptual framework which is by no means foreign to us today (but is rather institutionalized in myriad ways) and one that would apply no differently to other areas of Europe as well as the past of his own society. It was a backwardness that every Indian monarch opposed to the Company recognized when they hired european mercenary officers and imitated the Company’s state practices for the administration of their domains (and there were none who didn’t do these things). All subsequent historians are heirs to Mill.

    Mill’s History is also extremely valuable for its seering criticisms of the illiberalism of the East India Company’s own policies and past in the subcontinent. It took Macaulay’s review of the book to begin the process of whitewashing that past, though writers like Marx (another who didn’t know Indian languages, but whose writings on India remain extremely valuable) did preserve the memory of the British working class’s struggle against the East India Company’s monopoly privilege, its role in propping up the British oligarchy, and its role in underdeveloping the Indian economy, and its stifling of the development of commercial (and other) relations between Europe and India.

  10. “some scholars talk about Indian society without ever visiting or learning an Indian language. I mean, who would take such a person seriously?”

    Several occupy distinguished chairs in the academy. :-)

  11. “The tension between knowing India through what is “written” about it in the metropole and what can be “experienced” from India itself, persists.”

    I’m not sure how India differs from any other place in this regard. Many people talk about how much they know about a society or a culture, whether its the Confucian, Islamic, or European countries, without actually having lived or visited any of those places.

    That said, I certainly understand that colonialism has been a powerful, negative force in creating perceptions about India. But I also think that its important to distinguish between colonialist attitudes and xenophobic attitudes. Both are negative and, well, evil, but I think the later is slightly forgivable while the former is not in any way.

    I think the fact that a lot of the scholarship we’ve inherited was from colonialists is the problem, more so than the fact that some scholars talk about Indian society without ever visiting or learning an Indian language. I mean, who would take such a person seriously?

  12. There’s an excellent discussion of Mill’s history in Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind (one of my very favorite books on Indian history)…

  13. links for 2009-05-12 « Rumblegumption

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