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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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Benjamin Cohen , Kingship and Colonialism in India's Deccan: 1850–1948 (New York: Palgrave, 2007)

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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