Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Riffing on Empire

Getting ready for a second trip to India, I want to be better prepared than I was last time. So I spent most of yesterday with John Keay’s The Honorable Company: A History of the East India Company (link). It’s chatty and entertaining, although I could have used a bit more depth and focus. Still, there are some takeaway point. Herewith some thoughts on the nature of commerce and the development of sovereignty.

It’s really hard for one—me—to put his mind into a time back before Adam Smith, before Thomas Hobbes, when current notions of commerce and sovereignty were still struggling to be born. It’s not easy to imagine a world where it seems that most of the noisy people believed that in every trade, one gains and another loses, and that if the English were shipping out goods for sale, then it must be that someone was taking advantage of them.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is to track the place of sovereignty (I don’t think Keay ever uses the word) in the development of the company. The British came to the Indies first as traders or raiders—the line was not always clear, even to them, interested in profit more than power. It wasn’t until a half century after their first arrival that (Cromwell’s) government back in London issued a charter granting “the authority to hold, fortify and settle overseas territories.” But even before this, we find traders showing up at royal courts and passing themselves off, with greater or lesser justification, as representatives of the English nation. And it isn’t long at all before they are occupying real estate, building forts and the like. Still, it is another century or more before the project blossoms into that full blown empire which the British acquired, as the saying goes “in a fit of absent-mindedness.”

One item of possible current relevance is the question of exactly who is exercising the sovereignty here—is it the English (or British) crown (or protectorate?) or is it the Company on its own account? Granted that the company never made an outright claim of sovereignty, but it did a lot of things that make it look like a sovereign, right up to the time when the British finally folded India into full empire status, after the Mutiny of 1857.

One has to speculate: in a world of private police and military, how soon will we come to think of Halliburton or Blackwater as a sovereign? Will we eventually have to annex Iraq to pull Blackwater’s chestnuts out of the fire? Or will they remain (now I am off on a different analogy) like Mameluks in Egypt, an isolated military elite, ruling from inside a beleagured fortress of their own?

No comments: