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Tongues Untied: Lord Salisbury's “Black Man” and the Boundaries of Imperial Democracy

  • Antoinette Burton (a1)
    • Published online: 01 July 2000

In the general election of 1886 Dadhabai Naoroji (1825–1917), one-time Bombay mathematics professor and longtime Parsi merchant-entrepreneur, ran on the Liberal ticket for the constituency of Holborn and lost, with a total of 1,950 votes against 3,651 cast in favor of the Tory candidate, Colonel Duncan.R. P. Masani, Dadhabai Naoroji: The Grand Old Man of India (London: George Allen Unwin, 1939), 247. Naoroji's candidacy received little publicity outside Holborn itself and indeed, but for Naoroji's second bid for a parliamentary seat in 1892 the Holborn debacle might have gone unnoticed in the annals of parliamentary history, as did the attempts of two compatriots: David Octerlony Dyce Sombre, who was elected for Sudbury in 1841; and Lal Mohan Ghose, who ran as a Liberal candidate for Deptford just a few years before Naoroji.Rozina Visram, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain, 1700–1947 (London, Pluto, 1986), 78; see also S. R. Mehrotra, The Emergence of the Indian National Congress (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971), 405 and ff. Dyce Sombre (1808–1851) was a person of mixed Indian and European ancestry who, despite the fact this his election was “controverted” the next year, did sit and vote on several bills. I am indebted to Michael Fisher for this information. See his entry on Dyce Sombre in The New Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). Even so, Naoroji's accomplishment—i.e., election to the House of Commons as the spokesman for a colonial territory that many contemporaries, even those who were sympathetic to the cause of India, scarcely recognized as a legitimate nation, let alone a viable electoral constituency—remains one of the last untold narratives in the high political history of the Victorian period.Though he ran for a London constituency and was its official representative, Naoroji was also, and consistently, viewed as “the representative for India” to the House of Commons. This omission persists despite the availability of information on Naoroji's career in Britain through the work of Rozina Visram and others, not to mention the attention given to it in the contemporary Victorian press. More remarkable still, Naoroji's bid for parliamentary representation as an Indian for “India” remains obscure despite recent attempts to understand how thoroughly empire helped to constitute “domestic” politics and society across the long nineteenth century.See for example Jonathan Schneer's London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), which devotes an entire chapter to Naoroji but only briefly mentions the “Blackman” incident.

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The title of this piece owes its origins to the late Marlon T. Riggs and his film Tongues Untied (1989).
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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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