Don’t Believe Your Eyes

in univerCity

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. []

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