Britain – India – Empire

The British India Society


British India Society spokesman George Thompson (centre) with American abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, c. 1850.

‘Peaceful, Bloodless and Anti-Slavery Commerce’? The British India Society and the Ethics of East India Trade, 1833-1857. (British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant, 2012-14)

In the 1840s British and American abolitionists, East India Company men, and private traders came together to form the British India Society. They argued that, if properly managed, India’s ‘fertile soil and willing sons’ could provide a source of ‘free grown’ sugar, cotton and other tropical goods, and new markets for British manufactures. Indian commodity production was endorsed as ethically superior to that of slave regions, and its development was championed partly on the basis that it would undercut slavery in the American South. Yet concerns about famine, poverty, exploitation, slavery and EIC misrule in India complicated any simple ‘moral’ argument, and the coalitions that formed to promote an enhanced role for India within a post-emancipation empire blurred the boundaries between humanitarian motives, commercial agendas and vested interests.

This project traces the interests, affiliations and rhetoric of the British India Society’s members to reveal the overlapping and intricate networks of colonial philanthropy and commercial enterprise that linked this little studied organisation to transatlantic abolitionists, ‘free traders’, Indian reformers and private commerce. In so doing it explores the complex and sometimes problematic interactions between humanitarianism and capitalism, as India’s role in a post-emancipation empire was re-imagined in narratives on ‘free’ production, ethical consumption and globalisation.

The project uses material held in London, Manchester, Hull, Calcutta and Boston, and in on-line archives and databases. This includes published speeches and minutes of the British India Society, British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, Anti-Corn Law League and other organisations, private papers, correspondence and publications of British India Society supporters (G. Thompson, F.C. Brown, W. Lloyd Garrison, J. Pease, R. Cobden, D. Tagore, D. Mukherjee etc.), specialist newspapers (British India Advocate; The Liberator), the British and Bengal press, periodicals, pamphlets, parliamentary debates and EIC records.

The project will result in two forthcoming articles:

‘An Abolitionist in Bengal: George Thompson’s India, 1838-1858’ explores the development of abolitionist orator George Thompson’s idea about Indian reform, as expressed through his work for the British India Society, his public pronouncements on Bengali political culture in Calcutta, and his advocacy of the cases of the dispossessed Raja of Sattara and Mughal Emperor. In doing so, it treats Thompson’s involvement in Indian reform not as a distraction from his more famous anti-slavery work, but as a fundamental part of his emerging world-view, in which colonial exploitation in India was inextricably interconnected with slavery in America, illegal slave-trafficking in Africa and poverty and inequality in Britain. It thus contextualises Thompson’s involvement with East India reform not only in terms of his anti-slavery thought, but also of wider debates about the nature of EIC rule, the responsibilities of Britain to her subjects overseas and the place of India within an increasingly interconnected post-emancipation empire.

‘Peaceful, Bloodless and Anti-Slavery Commerce’: The British India Society, Transatlantic Abolitionism and Empire, 1838-1843′ explores the formation, activities, ideas and eventual demise of the British India Society from the perspective of transnational debates about slavery. By exploring responses to the BIS not only in Britain, but also in India and America, it argues that the British India Society’s vision of India’s potential place within a post-emancipation empire, and the real and imagined global networks it mobilised in articulating that vision, marked a significant moment of debate and discussion about how people, places, products and issues interconnected in an increasingly globalised mid-nineteenth-century world.

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