Making and Debating Empires in South Asia and the Global British Empire, 1756-1799

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Pincus, Steven


Why did a strong centralizing British imperial state emerge in South Asia in the eighteenth century? The partial loss of the British Empire in North America, the ferment of partisan politics in Britain and the rise of powerful regional South Asian states during this period amply demonstrate that such a transformation was not inevitable. This dissertation argues that continuous and multi-sited contestation drove British imperial state-building in South Asia. The formation of a centralizing British imperial state in South Asia was not only violent and coercive but, akin to the concurrent emergence of the United States of America and revolutionary France, also a momentous and participatory experiment in state and empire making. Elite and non-elite South Asians and Britons alike routinely debated and opposed imperial governance and underlying political economic schemes. Not unlike their “revolutionary” counterparts in North America, South Asians articulated their conceptions of imperial rule, vociferously debating taxation, labor and political authority. This dissertation draws upon Persian and vernacular sources to show that South Asians, from salt-workers to bankers, were neither unwitting witnesses nor mere intermediaries in the formation of a British imperial state. Rather, they were sophisticated and reflexive political actors, crafting new ideas of space and political community amidst upheavals while also actively debating the proliferation of new institutions of governance. Equally, Britons clashed over whether British territories in India ought to be governed directly by Parliament; if increased British settlement could be permitted; and whether unfettered commerce or heavy taxation would produce greater value. Such alternative visions constituted both a response and provocation to British ministerial coalitions intent on a pan-imperial thrust towards authoritarian governance. With the establishment of a Board of Control for India Affairs in 1784, the Pitt-Dundas ministry cemented ministerial control over subcontinental administration and decisively expanded the institutional support necessary for a British imperial state-in-formation to sustain itself and challenge rivals. Scholars have long explained the rise of the British Empire in South Asia either by highlighting the role of rapacious English East India Company officials or by emphasizing broad continuities with local statecraft. Indeed, much of the historiography has portrayed the eighteenth century in South Asia as a chaotic period of “Company rule” that prefaced more settled and organized governance with the advent of “Crown rule” in the 1850s. By contrast, this dissertation shows that the institution of a ministerial Board of Control rendered Company rule fictional as early as the 1780s and tightened the link between governance in South Asia and British imperial administration across Ireland, Canada, the Caribbean and Australia. Therefore, this dissertation departs from the scholarly tendency to study the British Empire in South Asia by focusing exclusively on events in London or a particular Presidency, often the Bengal Presidency. An emergent British state governed its multiple South Asian territories as part of a global Empire underpinned by the pan-imperial exchange and movement of officials, soldiers, slaves, money and commodities. By depicting the contentious politics surrounding such shifts, this dissertation overturns standard narratives of a politically quiescent and dormant subcontinent and demonstrate the centrality of debate over imperial governance in India to political life within British as well as the wider Atlantic world. Importantly, it excavates a history of everyday political thought and practice that has largely remained hidden from view.

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