Cycles of Empowerment? The Bicycle and Everyday Technology in Colonial India and Vietnam
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 October 2011
In recent years, discussion of technology in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century colonial world has moved away from earlier insistence on the centrality of imperial agency and the instrumentality of empire's technological “tools” of conquest and exploitation. There has been a broad shift from diffusionist preoccupations with a one-way traffic in “technology transfers” that privileged Euro-American innovation and entrepreneurship, to consideration of the “social life of things” within the colony. This has corresponded with a move away from understanding technology through European representations of machines as the measure of the imperial self and colonized other, to rethinking technology's role in reconfiguring social hierarchies and cultural practices in colonized or semi-colonized non-Western societies. Without ignoring empire's importance in facilitating change or restricting the socio-economic parameters within which innovative technologies might operate, there has been a growing tendency to identify colonialism as a conduit for technological modernity rather than its primary embodiment. The colony is understood as a locally constituted, rather than merely imperially derivative, site for engagement with techno-modernity and its discontents. Scholars now commonly eschew emphasis on the implanting of “big technologies” such as railroads, telegraphs, steamships, modern weaponry, major irrigation works, and electrification systems (capital-intensive, often state-managed technologies that figured proudly in the rhetoric of imperial achievement), in favor of the ways in which these were understood, assimilated, and utilized by local agency. There has also been growing interest in small-scale, “everyday technologies,” from the sewing machine, wristwatch, and radio, to the typewriter, camera, and bicycle. Colonial regimes were unable to monopolize or disinclined to control these, and they passed with relative ease into the work-regimes, recreational activities, social life, and cultural aspirations of colonized and postcolonial populations.
- Research Article
- Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2011
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35 Like setting up a rice-mill, opening a bicycle shop became an important manifestation of local entrepreneurship in small-town and village India by the 1960s, including among castes and communities not traditionally engaged in trade: Dandekar, Hemlata C., Men to Bombay, Women at Home: Urban Influence on Sugao Village, Deccan, Maharashtra, India, 1942–1982 (Ann Arbor: Michigan Papers on South and Southeast Asia, 1986)Google Scholar, 42, 192, 197.
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44 Report of the Police Administration in the Punjab, 1936, 9.
45 Report on the Administration of the Police of the Madras Presidency, 1937, 55; 1938, 58. On cycle thefts and detection, see idem., 1933, 51; 1939, 54; 1948, 35.
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49 In the 1920s a Calcutta firm offered for sale a locally made “patent water cycle.” The only practical use for this machine appears to have been duck-shooting: Bombay Chronicle, 24 Dec. 1926: 11.
50 Leonard Woolf relates how, around 1910, as a colonial official in Ceylon, he visited a hill station on the island: a servant carried his bicycle up to a mountain peak, and Woolf freewheeled downhill for miles before being met in the plains below by another servant with his horse: Woolf, L., An Autobiography, Volume 1, 1880–1911 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 233Google Scholar.
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66 “Les jeux olympiques de Hué,” France-Annam, 4 Mar. 1938; “Tuần lễ thể thao ở Huế [Huế's week-long sports festival],” Tràng An Báo, 4 Mar. 1938.
67 “Vì sao Trung-kỳ ta không có ngôi sao thể thao? [Why does our Central Province not have sports stars?],” Tràng An Báo, 18 Mar. 1936.
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70 On the growing use of cycles and cycle-rickshaws in village and small-town India by the 1970s, see Wiser, William H. and Wiser, Charlotte Viall, Behind Mud Walls, 1930–1960 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 244–45Google Scholar.
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84 Such changes were not unopposed. In 1923, when the Madras government decided to replace the Rs 25 horse allowance for police sub-inspectors with a Rs 5 bicycle allowance, the inspector-general complained, in vain, that this would be “a severe blow to the efficiency and well-being” of rural sub-inspectors: Report of the Administration of the Police of the Madras Presidency, 1923, 7.
85 Madras Judicial, Government Order 47, 12 Jan. 1912, Tamil Nadu Archives, Chennai.
86 Quarterly Indian Army List for January 1, 1911, 539, 554, 572, 577, 578. Most, if not all, of these cycle units had disappeared by 1920. The rationale for the use of bicycles as a “useful accessory to modern warfare” is discussed in India, Home (Municipalities), 1902, nos. 31–33, National Archives of India.
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89 On the use of this concept in the context of modern India, see Fuller, C. J. and Bénéï, Véronique, eds., The Everyday State and Society in Modern India (London: Hurst, 2001)Google Scholar; Corbridge, Stuart, Williams, Glyn, Srivastava, Manoj, and Véron, René, Seeing the State: Governance and Governmentality in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
90 Administrative Report of the Corporation of Madras, 1906–07, app. I, table IV-F, p. 81.
91 Administrative Report of the Corporation of Madras, 1931–32, 16; 1932–33, 18; 1934–35, 16.
92 See letters to this effect from various constables in the file titled “Accidents d'autos voitures administratives: Voitures immatriculées dans autres pays circulés en Annam. Plaques de bicyclettes,” 1934, VNA-IV, Résidence Supérieure d'Annam, dossier 3144.
93 Unfair taxes on bicycles and other everyday goods deemed to be “luxury” commodities by the authorities feature repeatedly in the “wishes” collected from ordinary people, many of them rural, as part of the Commission Guernut, an extensive inquiry in 1937 into the lives of imperial subjects under the Popular Front government. “Voeux des peoples,” 1937, Centre des Archives d'Outre-Mer, Commission Guernut, carton 22, dossier Ba. See also Long, Ngo Vinh, Before the Revolution: The Vietnamese Peasants under the French (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 61–81Google Scholar.
94 See the minutes of a commission responsible for considering such a scheme in Saigon in 1922: Procès-verbal, 13 Apr. 1922, VNA-II, Goucoch, VI.A/8/303 (1–2).
95 For example, see the description of accidents in: “La route mandarine de Tourane à Hué,” Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Hué, Jan.–Mar. 1920: 1–135; “Vấn đề giao thông [The traffic problem],” Tràng An Báo, 20 June 1937; “Tai nạn nông thôn [Rural accident],” Tiếng Dân, 15 Oct. 1931.
96 Newspapers with anti-colonial proclivities such as Ánh Sáng [Light] used nearly every accident to criticize elite abuses of authority, from the emperor Bảo Đại to the Résident Supérieur of Annam. This was especially true after the emperor critically wounded a poor old farmer while speeding along a rural road on the way from his villa in the hill-station Đà Lạt to the imperial capital Huế. See “Đức Bảo-Đại cho ông Hồ-đắc-Cung 300p [His Highness Bảo Đại gives old man Hồ Đắc Cung $300],” Ánh Sáng, 23 May 1935; “Xe ô-tô đức Bảo-đại cán một ông già [His Highness Bảo Đại's car runs over an old man],” Ánh Sáng, 14 Sept. 1935. Colon and more moderate newspapers tended to report accidents while lampooning ignorant poor and rural road users. See “La circulation à Hanoi,” Le Courrier d'Haïphong, 10 July 1887; “Voeux d'un automobiliste,” L'Avenir du Tonkin, 22 Apr. 1912; “Les chemins dans nos compagnes,” L'Echo Annamite, 18 Nov. 1920.
97 Report on the Administration of the Police of the Madras Presidency, 1937, 58.
98 Pedestrians and cyclists were held responsible for nearly 50 percent of the accidents in the Madras Presidency in 1937, according to the inspector-general of police, “and the necessity for instilling road sense” had become “a very urgent need” (ibid., 27).
99 Report on the Administration of the Police of the Madras Presidency, 1939, 63.
100 See the report on “Mesures à prendre pour éviter les accidents survenus sur les routes du Tonkin,” 6 Jan. 1937, Vietnam National Archives Centre I (hereafter VNA-I), Hanoi, Résidence Supérieure du Tonkin, dossier 4243. See also the file from several years earlier with letters from the Société de Secours Mutuels des chauffeurs indigènes en Cochinchine demanding a lowering of the license fee and a reduction in the number of licenses: Letter, president of the society to the Governor-General, 9 Jan. 1934, CAOM, Fonds du Gouvernement Général de l'Indochine, dossier 45683. By way of comparison, in that year a laborer of the Distilleries de l'Indochine in Hanoi made $0.35 per day, a middling Vietnamese functionary in that company earned $37 per month and a room in the Hôtel de la Rotonde in Hanoi cost $3 per night. Prices respectively taken from tables of representative wages in Mairie de Hanoi, dossiers 3715 and 3001; and a table concerning the cost of living in Hanoi, Résidence Supérieure du Tonkin, dossier 41355, all VNA-I.
101 E.g., “Các điều lệ đi trên đường [Traffic regulations],” Trung Kỳ Nam Giới, 15 Nov. 1931.
102 Postal note from the office of the Résident Supérieur du Tonkin to all provincial governors, 29 Mar. 1937, VNA-I, Résidence Supérieure du Tonkin, dossier 4246.
103 Việc Giao-thông trong thành phố. Những điều cần thiết cho trẻ em đi xe đạp trong đường phố [City traffic: some indispensable facts for children cycling in city streets] (Hanoi: Tòa Thị Chính, 1951). The persistent attempts to educate children as well as adults in India in “road sense” are evident from the Illustrated Weekly of India, for example the issues of 9 August 1936, and 2 January 1938.
104 Another example is the camera; see Pinney, Christopher, The Coming of Photography in India (London: British Library, 2008)Google Scholar.
105 See Lynch, Owen M., The Politics of Untouchability: Social Mobility and Social Change in a City of India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969)Google Scholar, for a photograph, facing page 98, showing a portrait of B. R. Ambedkar mounted on a bicycle. The role of modern technologies—the motor-car, telephone, and camera, as well as the bicycle—has hardly been noticed in the conduct of political agitation in India, but there are suggestive indications in Krishnadas, , Seven Months with Mahatma Gandhi: Being an Inside View of the Indian Non-Co-operation Movement of 1921–22 (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1951), 122–53Google Scholar.
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109 Report of the Indian Tariff Board (1946), 3.