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The Origins of Indirect Rule in India: Hyderabad and the British Imperial Order


The main problem with the orthodox account of modern world politics is that it describes only one of these patterns of international order: the one that was dedicated to the pursuit of peaceful coexistence between equal and mutually independent sovereigns, which developed within the Westphalian system and the European society of states....Orthodox theorists have paid far too little attention to the other pattern of international order, which evolved during roughly the same period of time, but beyond rather than within Europe; not through relations between Europeans, but through relations between Europeans and non-Europeans. Instead of being based on a states-system, this pattern of order was based on colonial and imperial systems, and its characteristic practice was not the reciprocal recognition of sovereign independence between states, but rather the division of sovereignty across territorial borders and the enforcement of individuals' rights to their persons and property.

The American Revolution and the “revolution” in Bengal posed new political questions for domestic British politics and inaugurated a new era for the British empire. As the British committed themselves to the administration of a vast population of non-Europeans in the Indian province of Bengal, and estimations of financial windfalls were presented to stockholders and politicians, the center of the British Empire came slowly to shift toward the East. The evolution of a system of indirect rule in India as it related to larger political questions being posed in Britain, partly because of its protracted and diverse nature, has not received the same attention. Attention to Indian states, in the scholarship on eighteenth century South Asia, has closely followed the expanding colonial frontier, focusing on those states that most engaged British military attention: Bengal, Mysore, and the Marathas. And yet, the eighteenth century should also command our attention as a crucial moment of transition from an earlier Indian Ocean world trading system, in which European powers inserted themselves as one sovereign authority among many, to that of being supreme political authorities of territories that they did not govern directly. India's native states, or “country powers,” as the British referred to them in the eighteenth century, underwrote the expansion of the East India Company in the East. The tribute paid by these states became an important financial resource at the company's disposal, as it attempted to balance its books in the late eighteenth century. Additionally, the troops maintained to protect these states were significant in Britain's late eighteenth century military calculations. These states, in other words, were absolutely central to the forging of the British imperial order, and generative of the very practices that came to characterize colonial expansion and governance.

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1. Keene Edward, Beyond the Anarchical Society: Grotius, Colonialism and Order in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 56.

2. Dirks Nicholas, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2006); Pocock John G. A., “Political Thought in the English-speaking Atlantic, 1760–1790: (i) The imperial crisis,” in The Varieties of British Political Thought, 1500–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Travers Robert, Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth-Century India: The British in Bengal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Hussain Nasser, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003); James M. Vaughn, “The Politics of Empire: Metropolitan Socio-Political Development and the Imperial Transformation of the British East India Company, 1675–1775” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2009); and Spencer Austin Leonard, “A Fit of Absence of Mind? Illiberal Imperialism and the Founding of British India, 1757–1776” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2010).

3. Notable exceptions are Sen Sudipta, “Unfinished Conquest: Residual Sovereignty and the Legal Foundations of the British Empire in India,” Law, Culture, and the Humanities 9 (2013): 227–42; and Benton Lauren, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Stern Philip J., The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) provides an account of the longer history and precedent for imperial formations in India.

4. Alexandrowicz C. H., An Introduction to the History of the Law of Nations in the East Indies (16th, 17th and 18th Centuries) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

5. Robert Travers , “‘The Real Value of the Lands’: The Nawabs, the British and the Land Tax in Eighteenth-Century Bengal,” Modern Asian Studies 38 (2004): 517–58.

6. Bowen Huw V., The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756–1833 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

7. McAuliffe Robert Paton, The Nizam: The Origin and Future of the Hyderabad State (London: C. J. Clay and Sons, Cambridge University Press Warehouse, 1904).

8. Although in North America, also, questions of native sovereignty were disputed throughout the eighteenth century. For one such example, see Yirush Craig Bryan, “Claiming the New World: Empire, Law, and Indigenous Rights in the Mohegan Case, 1704–1743,” Law and History Review 29 (2011): 333–73.

9. Fisher Michael, Indirect Rule in India: Residents and the Residency System, 1764–1857 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). For an account of the ideological contours of indirect rule in the late nineteenth century, see Mantena Karuna, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); and Mamdani Mahmood, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

10. Dirks, Scandal of Empire, 177.

11. Harry Verelst, Letter to John Carter, Esq. and Council of Fort William, dated December 16, 1769, in View of Rise, Progress, and Present State of the English Government in Bengal: Including a Reply to the Misrepresentations of Mr. Bolts, and other Writers (London: J. Nourse [etc.], 1772), Appendix, p.123.

12. Travers, Ideology and Empire, 46; Philip Stern notes: “The opinion thus made a far more extensive claim to a right to dominion by conquest in the East Indies, independent of the East India Company, than any previous British monarch had.” Stern, The Company-State, 198.

13. Pocock, “The Imperial Crisis.”

14. Verelst, Letter, View of Rise, 122.

15. Chatterjee Partha, Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 5658.

16. Travers, Ideology and Empire.

17. Stein, Thomas Munro, 217.

18. Davis Kathleen, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2008), 7172. Emphasis in the original.

19. Sen, “Unfinished Conquest,” 240–41.

20. Marshall P. J., The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America c. 1750–1783 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 55.

21. Dodwell Henry, Dupleix and Clive: The Beginning of Empire (London: Methuen & Co., 1920).

22. Aitchison Charles U. (comp.), A Collection of Treaties, Engagements, and Sunnuds Relating to India and Neighbouring Countries: Volume V, Containing the Treaties, &c., Relating to Hyderabad, Mysore, Coorg, the States under the Madras Presidency, and Ceylon (Calcutta: J.L. Kingham, Foreign Department Press, 1864; 1876 [reprint]), 145–46.

23. Stein Burton, Thomas Munro: The Origins of the Colonial State and His Vision of Empire (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), 25.

24. Extract of a letter from President Palk to the Court of Directors, dated October 11, 1765, India Office Records (hereafter IOR) H/262, 105–6.

25. Extract of a separate letter from Fort St. George, dated January 22, 1767, IOR H/262, 149–50.

26. Extract of a general letter from Fort St. George, dated April 11, 1766, IOR H/262, 129.

27. IOR H/285D, 6.

28. Clearly, the acquisition of these territories and the setting aside of the Nawabs of Bengal led the Nawab of Arcot to believe that revolutionary changes might be in the offing. For a pamphlet arguing the Nawab of Arcot's case, see A Seasonable Letter on the Late Treaty with Nizam Allee Kawn, and the Commotions in Consequence of it, on the Coast of the Coromandel: Addressed to the Serious Consideration of the Present Directors of the East-India Company and the Propreitors of India-Stock (London: Printed for J. Williams [etc.], 1768).

29. Extract of a general letter from Fort St. George, dated November 9, 1762, IOR H/262, 55. The British had, in fact, been involved with Husain Ali Khan prior as foujdar of Ellore, Rajahmundry and Mustafanagar (the Northern Circars). For details, see Bawa V. K., “The French in India: The Case of Hyderabad,” in Studies in the Foreign Relations of India, from the Earliest Times to 1947: Prof. H. K. Sherwani Felicitation Volume. ed. Joshi P. M. (Hyderabad: Andhra Pradesh State Archives, 1975), 269–70.

30. Extract from a general letter from Fort St. George, dated March 26, 1764, IOR H/262, 62.

31. Manuscript minutes, dated 27 Mar-13 Apr 1767, of a House of Commons Committee of the Whole House 1766–67, set up to enquire into East India Company affairs, including evidence by civil and military officers in India, British Library (Hereafter BL) Mss Eur D1018, 10. These are not official proceedings, but rather private notes.

32. Extract from a general letter from Fort St. George, dated March 26, 1764, IOR H/262, 56.

33. Faruqui Munis, “At Empire's End: The Nizam, Hyderabad and Eighteenth-Century India,” Modern Asian Studies 43 (2009): 32. See also Leonard Karen, “The Hyderabad Political System and its Participants,” Journal of Asian Studies 30 (1971): 569–82.

34. Entry dated Thursday, February 21, 1743, in Pillai Ananda Ranga (trans. and ed. Price Frederick), The Private Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, Volume I, (Madras: Superintendent, Government Press, 1904), 213–14.

35. Description taken from ibid. The first Nizam's testament, dictated just before his death, instructed his successors to “pass most of your life in travel, as every day brings you to new destinations and new waters, and you should make a habit of living under tents, as very often the administration of the country and the organization of the State affairs lie therein.” Translation to be found in Khan Yusuf Husain, Nizāmu'l-Mulk, Āsaf Jāh I: Founder of the Haiderabad State (Mangalore: The Basel Mission Press, 1936), 285.

36. Wink Andre, Land and Sovereignty in India: Agrarian Society and Politics under the Eighteenth-century Maratha Svarajya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 85101.

37. See, especially, Chekuri Christopher, “A ‘Share’ in the ‘World Empire’: Nayamkara as Sovereignty in Practice at Vijayanagara, 1480–1580,” Social Scientist 40 (2012): 4167; Rao Velcheru Narayana and Subrahmanyam Sanjay, “Notes on Political Thought in Medieval and Early Modern South India,” Modern Asian Studies 43 (2009): 175210.

38. Subrahmanyam Sanjay, Penumbral Visions: Making Polities in Early Modern South Asia (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2001), 175.

39. Faruqui, “At Empire's End,” 29, n. 58.

40. Frykenberg Robert Eric, Guntur District, 1788–1848 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 31.

41. For an example of one dynasty operating in the central Indian hills, see Bhukya Bhangya, “The Subordination of Sovereigns: Colonialism and the Gond Rajas in Central India, 1818–1948,” Modern Asian Studies 47 (2013), 288317.

42. Letter to Fort St. George, dated January 10, 1781, IOR/E/4/869, 398–99.

43. Letter to Fort St. George, dated January 11, 1781, IOR/E/4/869, 564.

44. “But it was precisely the growth of the central government in response to war with revolutionary France that gave Old Corruption such force as a rallying-cry for radical political change. Of course, allegations of ministerial greed and systematic corruption had frequently been made by the government's critics from at least the 1660s forward, and it seems fair to characterize Old Corruption as a latter-day manifestation of the ‘country ideology’ common to opposition politics throughout the eighteenth century. But what Cobbet and other radicals meant by Old Corruption was in many a new system created by the Napoleonic war machine. For…radicals emphasized that the wars had prompted the ministries of Pitt and his followers not only to suppress traditional liberties, but also greatly to enlarge the central bureaucracy and hence, they assumed, the opportunities for bribery and peculation.” Harling Philip, “Rethinking ‘Old Corruption’,” Past & Present 147 (1995): 128–29.

45. Dirks, Scandal of Empire, 59.

46. “However, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century in southern India sees the beginnings of a process of erosion in the domain of the Asian portfolio capitalist. There is, on the one hand, a decline in the size and complexity of the enterprise; on the other hand, one item on the portfolio—namely independent seaborne commerce—seems increasingly to disappear in the face of severe competition from European private trade.” Subrahmanyam Sanjay and Bayly C.A., “Portfolio Capitalists and the Political Economy of Early Modern India,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 25 (1988): 412.

47. Dirks suggests something very similar for Arcot: “Indeed, the dependence of Company servants on the wealth and perquisites of local politics gave the nawab a new kind of political power, as he managed circuits of redistribution and entitlement that made him as indispensable as he was bankrupt….Besides, the Company was embodied in the unparalleled avarice and venality of a growing group of Englishmen who accession to the position of nabob was entirely dependent on the survival of the nawab. As a consequence, the debts of the nawab of Arcot were enmeshed in a form of Company politics that both parodied precolonial performances of sovereignty and made the ‘old corruption’ of midcentury English politics seem tame by comparison.” Dirks, Scandal of Empire, 63.

48. Raman Bhavani, Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012).

49. Sutherland Sally, The East India Company in Eighteenth-Century Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 262.

50. In arriving at this suggestion, I am indebted to the paths opened up by the scholarship of Leonard, “Fit of Absence of Mind?” and Vaughn, “Politics of Empire”.

51. Bawa, “The French in India,” 259.

52. So, for example, Alexandrowicz notes: “In 1765 a trilateral treaty was negotiated between the English Company, the Nawab of Bengal and Shuja-ul-Dowla, the Ruler of Oudh. It is noteworthy that in these negotiations the Ruler of Bengal was represented by Robert Clive (acting jointly with John Carnac), which showed that the Nawab had been reduced to the level of a nominal Ruler.” Alexandrowicz, History of the Law of Nations, 137.

53. The treaty, dated May 14, 1759 stipulated that the “whole of the Circar of Masulipatam, with eight districts, as well as the Circar of Nizampatam, and the districts of Condavir and Wacalmanuer, shall be given to the English Company as an enam (or free gift), and the Sunnuds granted to them in the same manner as was done to the French.” Aitchison, Collection of Treaties, 145.

54. Quoted in Sarojini Regani, “French Influence in the Deccan,” Studies in the Foreign Relations of India, 252–56; quote taken from 253.

55. Vaughn provides a compelling explanation of why the Company reversed course and committed itself to a territorial empire in India; for an extended discussion of the different political visions of Clive and Sulivan, see specifically Vaughn, “Politics of Empire,” 493.

56. The British did ultimately conclude a treaty with the Raja for more limited territories on the banks of the Godavari River. Regani, “French Influence in the Deccan,” 255.

57. Aitchison, Collection of Treaties, 147.

58. For an account of the Mughal emperor's attempt to receive similar assistance, and the alliance between the emperor and British radicals, see Leonard, “Fit of Absence of Mind?” 50.

59. “[A]t best you will be kept in perpetual Alarms, and whenever any Hostile attempts shall happen to be made in one part of the vast Line of Country you have now to defend, it will be a Signal for a like attempt in another, from Tinnavelli to Cuttack.” IOR/E/4/863, 571.

60. Regani Sarojini, Nizam–British Relations, 1724–1857 (Hyderabad: Distributed by Booklovers, 1963), 133.

61. Letter to the Honorable the Court of Directors, dated September 21, 1767, H/262, 230–31.

62. On the importance of succession to Mughal politics, Faruqui Munis, The Princes of the Mughal Empire, 1504–1719 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

63. As was, for example, the case with samasthans, Cohen Benjamin, Kingship and Colonialism in India's Deccan: 1850–1948 (New York: Palgrave, 2007); Karen Leonard draws our attention to how the allegiances of foreign vakils could shift. Leonard, “Hyderabad Political System,” 572.

64. Calendar of Persian Correspondence: Vol. II, 1767–9 (Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, India, 1914), 169.

65. Dated November 22, Ibid., 182.

66. Letter to our president and council at Fort William in Bengal, dated May 11, 1769, IOR/E/4/619, 462–4.

67. Keene notes a similar transition in Dutch policy toward the kingdom of Kandy in the same period. See Keene, Beyond Anarchical Society, 79–83.

68. Aitchison, Collection of Treaties, 154.

69. Ibid., 154.

70. The Nizam saw this differently. “In 1768…the Company promised thereby to provide a fixed sum of money as tribute to the Nizam from the revenues of the Northern Circars, leased to the Company.” “Original Draft of the Letter, Addressed to Sir Eyre Coote by the Nizam,” dated January 16, 1781, in Diplomatic Correspondence between Mir Nizam Ali Khan and the East India Company (1780–1798), ed. Husain Yusuf (Hyderabad: Central Records Office, Government of Andhra Pradesh, 1958), 6.

71. Ibid., 157.

72. Another example of overlapping jurisdictions and territories is the Gadwal Samsthanam, subject to the revenue demands of both the Marathas and the Nizam. Cohen, Kingship and Colonialism, 40.

73. Aitchison, Collection of Treaties, 160.

74. Letter to our president and council at Fort St. George, dated May 13, 1768, IOR/E/4/864, 337, 342.

75. Extract of the Company's separate letter to Fort St. George, dated March 17, 1769, “Appendix No. 6,” Appendix to the Fifth Report from the Committee of Secrecy Appointed to Enquire into the Causes of the War in the Carnatic, and of the Condition of the British Possessions in Those Parts: Volume 4 (London: [n.p.], 1782).

76. Husain Yusuf (ed.), News-Letter, 1769–1799 (Nawab Mir Nizam Ali Khan's Reign) (Hyderabad: Central Records Office, Hyderabad Government, 1955), 1517.

77. Letter to the Honorable Charles Smith Esquire, Present and Select Committee at Fort St. George, dated July 2, 1781, IOR/H/246, 191–95.

78. Letter to Alexander Elliott, dated January 12, 1777, cited in Gleig George R., Memoirs of the Life of the Right Hon. Warren Hastings, First Governor-General of Bengal, Volume 2 (London: Richard Bentley, 1841), 136–37.

79. Enclosed in Elliott's letter, dated February 10, 1777, cited in ibid., 145.

80. Ibid., 143.

81. Ibid., 146–47.

82. Alexandrowicz, History of the Law of Nations, 230.

83. Sen Neilesh, “Warren Hastings and British Sovereign Authority in Bengal, 1774–80,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 25 (1997): 61.

84. Early examples of the Nizam's efforts to communicate directly with the King of England can be found in Husain Yusuf (ed.), “Appendix A,” in Diplomatic Correspondence between Mir Nizam Ali Khan and the East India Company (Hyderabad: Central Records Office, Government of Andhra Pradesh, 1958), 110.

85. Benton, Search for Sovereignty, 237.

86. Benton Lauren, “From International Law to Imperial Constitutions: The Problem of Quasi-Sovereignty, 1870–1900,” Law and History Review 26 (2008), 595619; and Mantena, Alibis of Empire.

87. For a discussion of how indirect rule in South Asia has been periodized, see Ramusack Barbara, The New Cambridge History of India: The Indian Princes and their States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 5659.

88. Leonard, “Fit of Absence of Mind?” 399–409.

89. An Enquiry into the Rights of the East-India Company of Making War and Peace; and of Possessing their Territorial Acquisitions without the Participation or Inspection of the British Government: In a Letter to the Proprietors of East-India Stock: Written in the Year 1769, and Now First Published (London: W. Shropshire [etc.], 1772), iii–iv.

90. Stern, The Company-State.

91. Mukherjee Mithi, India in the Shadows of Empire: A Legal and Political History (1774–1950) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

92. Benton, Search for Sovereignty, 2.

93. Sylvest Casper, “The Foundations of Victorian International Law,” in Victorian Visions of Global Order: Empire and International Relations in Nineteenth Century, ed. Bell Duncan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 4850.

94. Jennifer Pitts, “Boundaries of Victorian International Law,” in ibid., 67.

95. Ibid., 68.

96. Anghie Antony, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 5.

The author thanks Teena Purohit, Rama Mantena, Bhavani Raman, Tamer el-Leithy, Thomas Metcalf, and Karuna Mantena for their careful reading and valuable suggestions, and Mount Holyoke College for the financial assistance that made this research possible.

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