Sandip Hazareesingh – Plants, Power and Productivity: The East India Company and Cotton Imperialism in Early Nineteenth-Century Western India

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Event Date: 6 December 2011
Flett Lecture Theatre
Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD


Wallich and Indian Natural History:
Collection Dispersal and the Cultivation of Knowledge



Sandip Hazareesingh (Department of History, The Open University)
Plants, Power and Productivity: The East India Company and Cotton Imperialism in Early Nineteenth-Century Western India


Abstract: This paper will focus on the conquering East India Companyís use of power to transfer different varieties of cotton plants from various parts of the world and to seek to acclimatise them in western India in an effort to improve indigenous cotton productivity and modernise Indian agriculture. It will also examine local peasants’ responses to these attempts to change their accustomed cultivating and cropping practices.

The existing literature on cotton imperialism has charted the ways in which capitalist transformation of the cotton textile industry in Britain and on the European continent in the nineteenth century led to European powersí attempts to expand cotton production and trade in their globally scattered colonies, and the successes and failures of these attempts. However, there has been little detailed examination of the precise modalities and dimensions of colonial power deployed to secure cotton objectives and of the forms of resistance, both human and non-human, encountered. By focusing on the district of Dharwar in western India, scene of some of the most radical experiments, this paper will show how the cause of cotton improvement generated and mobilised new networks, technologies and ideologies of power including the East India Companyís evolving definition of its own mission of governance in India. Colonial governmentality thus came to be fundamentally based on the will to improve and drew on a complex assemblage of power forms that included new modes of administration, changed legal structures and norms of land tenure, as well as the deployment of European botanical knowledge and technical expertise, and of meteorological observations and climate science. However, as this paper will show, colonial rule in the countryside was, in practice, characterised by significant internal contradictions; moreover, cotton cultivators experienced deteriorating livelihoods and proved refractory to improvement schemes, nor were the local climate and soil necessarily amenable to colonial cotton desires.

Biography: I am a lecturer in History at the Open University, having previously taught at Cardiff University, and the author of The Colonial City and the Challenge of Modernity (2007). I am a founder member of one of the main Research Centre in the Arts Faculty, the Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies which focuses on extra-European histories and cultures. I am also Principal Investigator on a British Academy-funded research project, Commodities of Empire (2007-12) which is a collaboration with the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London.


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