Overview of Project May 2013

By Principal Investigator Professor Margot Finn

May 2013

This think-piece discusses the purpose, methodologies and preliminary findings of the 3-year collaborative research project, The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857.  Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the project is based at University College London.  English, Scottish, and Welsh country houses—and the families and objects that inhabited them—provide the primary focus for this study of British material culture in a global context.  Its goal is twofold.  First, the project seeks to illuminate the ways in which the activities (encompassing trade, politics, social life and culture) of the English East India Company shaped elite material cultures in Britain—and by doing so, shaped British identities in the Georgian and Victorian periods, and beyond.  Case studies of East India Company objects, families and homes provide the backbone for our analyses of these topics.    Second, methodologically, the project seeks to develop new ways of connecting ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’, ‘local’ and ‘global’ historical practices.  By eliciting and integrating a broad spectrum of historical research (including ‘crowd-sourced’ research findings) and by incorporating historical perspectives from outside the formal academic discipline of history into our programme, the project team also hopes to weave highly dispersed local and family histories into a transnational material narrative.  By disseminating research findings through publically accessible means—YouTube videos, exhibitions, workshops and above all our website—we also hope to make these broadly-based research findings available to a wide and diverse community of historians.

The East India Company at Home’s research team encompasses three overlapping groups of individuals.  These three groups collaborate in the project’s activities and in producing its main output, an open access website that publishes interlinked case studies of country houses, families and material objects associated with the 18th- and 19th-century English East India Company (http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/ ).  The core academic research team comprises Margot Finn (the project’s ‘principal investigator’), two postdoctoral research fellows (Drs Helen Clifford and Kate Smith) and a PhD student (Ellen Filor).  Each member of the core team researches case studies of East India Company material and family history, focusing on sites of domestic life in England, India, Scotland and Wales.  The second group of researchers active in the project is our Advisory Board, a cohort of academic historians, archivists, family historians and curators that extends the institutional base of our study nationally (beyond England to Scotland and Wales) while also expanding our horizons beyond the university to encompass local record offices, libraries and museums  (http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/the-team/  ). Project associates form the third core component of our research collaboration.  These are researchers located in (for example) Australia, Britain, continental Europe, India and North America who volunteer to join the project and to contribute to one or more component of its research activities, either in person or via the internet.  Some are ‘amateur’ researchers without formal historical training; others are archivists, curators and historians with discipline-specific training.  Some are affiliated with universities; most are affiliated with cultural institutions or local or national history societies, either as employees, members or volunteers.  To date, over 230 researchers have joined the project as associates.  Of these researchers, 40% are based at universities, 20% at cultural institutions (such as the British Library, the English National Trust and the Victoria and Albert Museum) and 30% are family or local historians conducting independent research.  The remaining 10% of project associates are predominantly individuals with higher degrees working as independent scholars or as auctioneers, conservators, etc.[1]  Of first four case studies published on the project website, two (Aske Hall, North Yorkshire and Swallowfield Park, Berkshire) were researched and written by the core academic team, and two (Sir Francis Sykes’s seal and Valentines Mansion) were produced by project associates who are not employed by academic institutions (http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/case-studies-2/ ).

The project began in September 2011, and has thus now passed its half-way point.  In what follows, I begin by setting out the research problems that drive the project, outline our collaborative and Web-based research methodologies and indicate some of our preliminary findings.  I then turn to the issues of cross-sector research collaboration and open access publication, examining ways in which 21st-century Web-based technologies are transforming ‘public’ history—perhaps ironically in ways that takes family and local history back to their (arguably more democratic) 19th-century roots.  I conclude by sketching the conceptual and methodological limits of the East India Company at Home, inviting comment on the extent to which it offers a productive paradigm for historical material culture studies.  Readers will, I hope, treat this paper as the starting point for a series of conversations: it is intended as a preliminary set of reflections designed to provoke constructive feedback, not as a summative evaluation of what the project has achieved to date.

Part I: Research Problems:

Five major research questions drive The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857First is the question of the extent to which metropolitan (that is, domestic) British culture was influenced by Britain’s emergence as a major imperial power.  Focusing on the century during which the English East India Company established Britain’s far-reaching territorial grip on the subcontinent, the project enters into a polemical debate spurred in 2004 by the publication of Bernard Porter’s book, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain.  In The Absent-Minded Imperialists, Porter argued that whereas for ‘Foreign observers [in the 18th and 19th centuries]….Britain was defined by her empire’, in Britain’s self image, ‘empire…played almost no part…certainly not a central one.  It was marginalized’.  According to Porter’s analysis, the failure of British imperialism to register on British consciousness in the 18th and 19th centuries derived from the small number of men—much less women—‘committed…to actually ruling it’, to the fact that ‘The empire made no great material demands on most people, at least none that they were aware of, and did not need their support or even interest’.[2]   Hotly disputed by British historians such as Catherine Hall, Sonya Rose and Kathleen Wilson, Porter’s line of analysis also runs entirely counter to the arguments of post-colonial scholars of the subcontinent such as Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty.[3]  By using the country house as an optic for viewing wider British culture, the East India Company at Home seeks to test Porter’s contention that the British empire made few material demands and had little acknowledged material impact on 18th- and 19th-century British society and culture.

A second set of research questions focuses on the acquisition of country houses and landed estates by families enriched by East India Company fortunes.  In this component of the project, issues of colonialism, class and racial identity come to the foreground.  Histories of the British landed class published in the 1970s and 1980s paid scant attention to the role played by imperial wealth in allowing entry into the gentry and aristocracy from the ranks of the professions and the mercantile class.[4]   British history’s recent ‘imperial turn’, has however encouraged us to revisit this established paradigm, in which domestic resources and developments (such as coal mining and the agrarian revolution) rather than the spoils of empire figure as the primary channel through which new wealth bolstered and invigorated England’s established landed class in the 18th and 19th centuries.[5]   How, when and why was wealth that had been accumulated in India under the Company’s aegis translated into landed wealth in England, Scotland and Wales by Company families?  To what extent did capital flow between Britain’s West and East Indian colonies, between the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean Worlds, and from thence to Britain?  Did the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 or the advent of slave abolition in the Caribbean in the 1830s witness a shift of investment from the West to the East Indies among Britain’s colonial governing classes?[6]  Just as the histories of the British landed class have paid scant attention to empire, they have only rarely acknowledged the role of race in shaping Georgian and Victorian landed elites.  As our research has progressed, it has increasingly revealed the prominence of Indians in EIC households (banians, business partners, concubines, servants, slaves) and the significance for Company families of mixed-race progeny.  Which households, which families and which homes—on the Indian subcontinent and in Britain—incorporated Indians alongside Europeans?   Were perceived racial differences the primary determinants of inclusion in or exclusion from the family fold, or did factors such as gender, religion, education or time period often pre-empt race?  How stable were racial identities in Company families, and how did the perception of racial difference change over time and across space?  These questions have emerged as increasingly central to our research agendas as we have drilled more deeply into family archives in England, Scotland and Wales.

A third set of research questions focuses on the dynamics of collection and display that operated in country houses built, purchased, refurbished or furnished by families enriched by East India Company fortunes.  Here both global material culture and gender identities are of central importance.  A substantial secondary literature connects goods imported to Britain by the English (and continental European) East India Company monopolies directly to anxieties about feminine and masculine behaviour.  Thus, for example, both tea-drinking and the collection and use of porcelain are understood to have functioned within British propertied society as markers of appropriate knowledge and behaviour by women.[7]  But these exotic commodities also served as focal points for complaint and criticism of women’s activities and identities.  At once genteel and subversive, luxury goods imported into British homes by East India Company men challenged prevailing conceptions of privacy and nationality even as they helped to secure wives’ positions within the propertied elite.[8]  Although we know much about the stereotype of the so-called ‘nabob’ and ‘nabobina’,[9] we know remarkably little about the day-to-day incorporation of East India Company objects into the homes of Britain’s governing classes.  We know even less about their actual use in these domestic sites.  Histories of the home increasingly underline the pervasive influence of gender in the furnishing of elite houses.  Yet, recent studies such as Amanda Vickery’s Behind Closed Doors isolate the gendered Georgian interior within a terrain of Englishness.[10]  By acknowledging the country house as a site for the accumulation and display of ‘Oriental’ wealth, taste and furnishings, our project seeks to locate domestic interiors within local and regional circuits of gendered consumption while also recognising the salience of national and global pathways of production and exchange.

A fourth cluster of research questions focuses around issues of local, national, transnational and global identities within East India Company families.  In his Imperial Meridian, published in 1989, Chris Bayly argued that the later eighteenth century saw a ‘gentry resurgence’ in Britain, a period in which imperial service worked to create an increasingly unified conception of British identity among the propertied classes.  Particularly successful in bringing Scots within the embrace of a British national identity, he suggested, service in the East India Company played an instrumental role in unifying the nation.[11]  Linda Colley elaborated on these points in 1992 in her Britons: Forging the Nation.  In this influential text, Colley discerned ‘the merging of the English, Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Irish elites’, a process that ‘was increasingly cemented in marriage’.[12]  Like Bayly, Colley argued that Scots in particular benefitted from imperial service, and embraced British identities through their engagement with the Indian empire.  ‘A British imperium…enabled Scots to feel themselves peers of the English in a way still denied them in an island kingdom’, Colley asserted.[13]   How can histories of the country house and the East India Company family illuminate (or challenge) these genealogies of British national identity in the Georgian and Victorian era?  By focusing on the country house as a complex site of longing, investment, family formation, memory, consumption, production, sociability, socialisation, politics and pedagogy, our project seeks to test the extent to which empire forged a unified British governing elite ‘at home’ in the nation.  Did the country houses that clustered in England in Berkshire—a county known since the later 18th century as ‘the English Hindoostan’ due to its high concentration of retired East India Company officials—display the same nexus of characteristics and functions as did Company country houses in the Scottish Borders?[14]  How did differences between Border and Highland identities play out in Company families and Company material cultures?  Did Welsh, Scottish and English Company men and women imagine and inhabit their country houses in ways that attest to the erasure of regional and national identities by an imperial Britishness?  Or does the history of the Company country house instead speak to the continued salience of local identities within global formations of family and empire?

Fifth and finally, the project examines the representation of home, nation and empire in British country houses that are open to the public in the 21st century.  The drama and décor of the country house now pervade British television and film both ‘at home’ and internationally.[15]  How (and why) has the country house—an increasingly anachronistic and remote site of sociability and power in our time—become an iconic representation of British national identity, and of Englishness in particular?  In what ways do homes that have become ‘historic’ sites through ownership or management by organisations such as English Heritage or the English, Scottish or Welsh National Trust represent (or repress) the global pathways that brought wealth, luxury, domestic servants, family members and political power to their Georgian and Victorian denizens?  Working closely with the National Trust team at Osterley House and Park, as well as with local community groups in Hounslow, the EIC at Home team is seeking to re-present an archetypical ‘neo-classical’ Georgian home in ways that capture its deep immersion in 18th-century Company politics, finance and material culture.[16]   The current Coalition government’s Conservative Secretary of State for Education strongly advocates a narrative of British history framed by what he terms ‘our island story’.[17]  By situating the British country house within its global context, this project questions the extent to which even the most iconic nationalist representations of these elite domestic spaces can be understood as exemplars of a shared ‘island story’ dislocated from Britain’s far-flung colonial empire.

Part II: Research Methodologies:

As indicated at the outset of this paper, the methodology chosen to investigate these research questions is collaborative at multiple levels.  In this section of the paper, I look briefly at how collaboration operates within or between each of the three groups of researchers engaged in The East India Company at Home’s research programme.  In each case, I outline a few of the ways in which collaboration shapes our research agenda, and will—we hope—enrich its research findings.

The project’s core academic team comprises three postdoctoral and one doctoral researcher.  Although the division of labour is often fluid, it allows for a level of research specialisation calculated to underpin meaningful comparative analysis.  For example, the project’s PhD student, Ellen Filor, focuses on East India Company families from the Scottish Borders.  Two members of the core team (Helen and Margot) include Lowland and Highland Scottish families in their research, but focus predominantly on England; the third core member (Kate) focuses on England but also conducts research on Welsh Company families and their country homes.  This allocation of labour is designed to allow scrutiny of the prevailing paradigm of empire, in which colonialism is described as a unifying force of national identity in Georgian and Victorian Britain.  Scottish and Welsh historiography typically occupy separate sites on the spectrum of British history-writing, and ‘British’ history is too often ‘English’ history in all but name.  By ranging geographically across distinctive English and Celtic spaces and cultures while retaining a shared focus on core analytical concepts—such as gender, nabob, family and nation—we hope to test the boundaries of Britishness among the colonial governing classes more systematically than has hitherto been possible.

Conducting research in collaboration with an Advisory Board both strengthens this ‘transnational’ British perspective, but also extends substantially beyond it.  Advisory Board members based at archives and universities in North Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales bring added expertise in regional and national identity formation to the project.  More materially, the Advisory Board ‘s archivists and curators have rapidly and effectively connected the project with rich collections of manuscripts, and material objects as well as with the interdisciplinary expertise required to interpret them.   Through such connections, country house manuscripts now located in archives such as the North Yorkshire Record Office (whose director, Keith Sweetmore, is an Advisory Board member) can be analysed in tandem with in situ examinations of the 21st-century built environments they seek to describe and document.  Helen Clifford’s case study of Aske Hall, North Yorkshire, illustrates the operation of this approach, weaving together the scrutiny of public documents and of private domestic interiors.   By relocating  a surviving ‘English’ country house within  a transnational narrative of wealth, consumer behaviour and power that stretches from England to Scotland, continental Europe and India, her analysis reinterprets a regional domestic site as a node of global  connection (http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/aske-hall-yorkshire/).

The Advisory Board collaborators have also played a foundational role in helping to build our base of 230 project associates, who compose the project’s third research grouping.  Margaret Makepeace (lead curator of the East India Company records at the British Library) and Sue Stronge (senior curator in the Asian Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum) have for example been instrumental in connecting the core academic team with museum staff, stately home volunteers and local and family historians associated with their institutions.  Staff working at public libraries and museums bring academics based at universities not only a wealth of expertise but also rich lists of contacts hewn from the coalface of continuous public engagement.  The project’s first two study days for project associates—the first held at the British Library with Margaret Makepeace’s assistance and the second held at Edinburgh University under Viccy Coltman’s aegis—benefitted substantially from these contacts.  The British Library study day alone has given rise to two published case studies on the project website (with several more in the planning stage) and laid the groundwork for a public exhibition at a National Trust stately home, Osterley House.  Advisory Board member Marion Moverley provides the team with a rich stream of bibliographic suggestions, identifying new avenues for exploration across a range of printed primary sources.

Project associates who have been conducting research on East India Company families and material culture for years as independent researchers dramatically increase the volume of research the project can produce and thus the scale of the questions we can address.  They also bring privileged access to material objects held in private collections.  Georgina Green’s case study of Valentines Mansion, the suburban villa of an 18th-century retired East India Company captain and ship-owner, makes use of her collection of Chinese porcelain shards, Indian agate and red dyewood—relics salvaged from the wreck of the Valentine East Indiaman, which sank off the coast of Sark in the ‘English’ Channel in 1777 (http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/case-studies-2/valentines-mansion/ ).  Sir John Sykes’s case study of his ancestor Sir Francis Sykes’s Indian seal likewise uses material objects and archives held in a private collection to illuminate the intertwined Company histories of an English and an Indian family and their respective fortunes (http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/the-india-seal-of-sir-francis-sykes/  ).  A recent study day at the National Museum Wales, Cardiff (graciously hosted by curators Oliver Fairclough and Andrew Renton and attended by Advisory Board member Lowri Ann Rees) allowed project associates to scrutinise a rich collection of Company ‘bling’.[18]    Handled, discussed and interpreted at the British Library study day, these objects—quite literally brought to the table by project associates—now animate our thinking about the ways in which material culture functioned to signal identity, power and kinship in Company families over time, place and space.

Part III: Preliminary Research Findings:

The 3-year East India Company at Home project is now reaching its half-way point.  Although it is premature to report definitive conclusions, our research to date suggests initial findings about a range of issues relating both to gender and to regional, national, transnational and global identities.

First are a cluster of findings about gender, agency and individuality in the making of East India Company country homes.  Dominant stereotypes of ‘Oriental’ objects, their collectors and their consumers in the 18th and 19th centuries depict the East India Company’s material culture as feminine, feminising and effeminate.  Portrayed as dangerously individualised choices that threatened the collective nation, the purchase and use of East India Company tea, cotton, porcelain and silk feaure in the secondary literature on consumption as threats to kinship and the state.[19]  But analysis of the copious family correspondence that describes the furnishing of Company homes in India and Britain paints a very different picture.  The Russells of Swallowfield Park, for example, used interior decoration—first in Calcutta and Hyderabad and then in London and Berkshire—to consolidate the masculine sentiments and practices of paternity, fraternity and brotherhood.[20]  Nor can the consumption patterns of these Company men be fully understood through the lens of the acquisitive individual.  Too often, masculine collection practices are interpreted as forms of ‘self-fashioning’.[21]  Yet elite consumption was a protracted and collaborative process, not a discrete and individulaised event.  Consumption not only crafted individual identities; it also crafted kin.  Sourcing fashionable luxury goods across distances that spanned empires and continents required the mobilisation of elaborate, multi-nodal family networks.  As our Swallowfield Park case study demonstrates, creating and maintaining kinship bonds across distance, space and time likewise depended upon the continuous acquisition, exchange and embedding of exotic goods by the members of the Company’s families.[22]  Nor were stereotypes such as that of the effeminate ‘nabob’, the caricature of the retired East India Company official whose identity derived from his excessive Oriental wealth, uniformly predicated on consumer behaviours.  Clifford’s case study of Sir Lawrence Dundas’s acquisition of a constellation of country houses in the later 18th century demonstrates the ability of the ‘nabob’ stereotype to migrate across a range of geographical, gender and occupational boundaries.  Known as ‘the Nabob of the North’, Dundas was a major shareholder of East India Company stock.  But he made his fortune not in Oriental trade, but rather in woollen textiles, military provisioning during the Seven Years War, banking and canals  (http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/aske-hall-yorkshire/who-was-lawrence-dundas/ ). To understand the East India Company’s impact on British society, we need to attend to a much wider range of behaviours than are captured in prevailing 18th-century cultural stereotypes of the Orient.

Marriage forms a second area of focus within our research.  As noted above, historians such as Colley have emphasised the instrumentality of marriage ties in consolidating the colonial governing class’s corporate identity, and particularly in soldering the Scottish gentry to the British nation.  Without denying that marriage could and did serve as a force for integration within the British governing elite, our research suggests that it also proved a source of major conflict within Company families.  Ideal marriage partners brought into their unions access to patronage networks, capital, gentility and reticulations of stately homes.  But East India Company officials repeatedly made marital choices that defied these criteria.  Liaisons with Indian women provided essential links to cultural and financial capital on the subcontinent, but produced illegitimate progeny whose incorporation into British homes proved highly problematic.[23] Overwhelmingly male, the European population in the Company’s domains in India afforded few appropriate brides.   Young men in the Company’s employ living remote from parental oversight repeatedly married women whose identities failed to meet their parents’ ideal conceptions of Britishness.  Henry Russell, later Sir Henry Russell of Swallowfield Park, took as his first wife Jane Casamaijor, of mixed English, Portuguese and Malay descent; his second wife, whom he married in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, was the French Catholic, Clotilde Mottet de la Fontaine.  Lowland Scots such as Daniel Munro and George Elliot made matches in India to English and Irish women, conforming to Colley’s model of a British nation forged through Anglo-Celtic intermarriage.  But Munro’s marriage ended disastrously in adultery, a duel and death, while Elliot’s bride was ostracised by his English mother for her Irish connections, whose presence at the family home at Minto Castle she declined to countenance.[24]  Ellen’s PhD research for The East India Company at Home on Scottish Border families, moreover, has highlighted the role of female celibacy, rather than marriage, in consolidating the colonial governing class.  Brothers in the Company service, she finds, produced progeny on the subcontinent with Indian concubines or British wives; their sisters, in contrast, typically remained unmarried in Scotland, where they assumed the responsibility for maintaining the family home and socialising their brothers’ children in the interval between their early childhood and adult service in India.[25]  Our case studies confirm that marriage was a key mechanism for forging identities within East India Company families, but they do not suggest that marriage operated predominantly as a unifying force that forged a British nation.

A third set of preliminary findings concerns the enduring significance of locality and region within East India Company families (and, arguably, by extension within the wider British empire).  Case studies of country houses in Berkshire’s ‘English Hindoostan’ by Kate, for example, repeatedly underscore the function of local nodes of country houses in maintaining ties  among Company men after their return to Britain.  The Russell family’s decision to purchase an estate in Berkshire upon retirement from India did not reflect established familial identities: the families of both Sir Henry Russell and his wife were based in Kent.  But Smith’s research on Basildon House, Englefield House and Warfield demonstrates that circuits of sociability established among Company country houses in the second half of the 18th century proved remarkably long-lived, continuing to attract new members from the Company’s ranks to residential ‘hot-spots’ in the countryside in the 19th century.  Connecting nouveaux riche Company families such as the Russells to more established Company families such as the Clives (whose Indian fortunes had been invested in landed wealth for two generations), these local country house networks appear to have played key roles in the incorporation of Company wealth into established landed society and politics.[26]  Project research on Scottish homes and families likewise underlines the continued significance of locality, rather than the unfolding uniformity of a cohesive British nation.  Helen’s analysis of Lawrence Dundas, who had purchased no fewer than eight major properties with his European and Indian fortunes by 1781, demonstrates that different homes participated to very different extents in Dundas’s engagement with East India Company material culture.  In the 21st century, Chinese screens, lacquer cabinets and blue and white porcelain feature conspicuously in the family’s country seat in North Yorkshire.  But in the 18th century, as inventory evidence demonstrates, these ‘India’ goods were instead overwhelmingly concentrated at Kerse, Dundas’s family home in Scotland.  Neo-classical styles appear to have been conspicuous in his London, Edinburgh and county residences, but Dundas selectively chose to furnish his Scottish retreat with Oriental luxuries, marking his most domestic residential space with his most exotic foreign imports.  Basic questions about the signals conveyed by the display of ‘Oriental’ objects in local contexts remain to be addressed.  Stephen McDowall’s case study of Shugborough, for example, confronts us with a fundamental contradiction between English patriotism and global goods:  through the mediation of Admiral Anson, this country house was filled with exotic Chinese luxuries, yet Anson was contemptuous of Chinese culture.[27]

 Part IV: Research Paradigms:

Can the histories of the English, Scottish and Welsh country house be told as an ‘island story’?  The concentration of East India Company imports in the inventory of Lawrence Dundas’s family house at Kerse demonstrates that global goods had penetrated into the heartland of the propertied British home by the mid-Georgian era.   Only recently, however, have historians begun to reconnect these significant commodities to the imperial pathways by which they entered the country house.  Over time, Asian luxury goods have been naturalised into inert backdrops in prevailing conceptions of what a country house is and contains.  A central impediment to our ability to ‘see’ the global and transnational components of English, Scottish and Welsh country house material culture is rooted in traditions of acquisition and display developed by organisations such as the National Trust.[28]  Established in 1894, the English National Trust was founded to celebrate and  conserve ‘English traditions’ of ‘race and language’, to exhibit built environments that exemplified these national characteristics ‘for the enjoyment of the entire race’.[29]   Initially focused on a wide range of ‘historic’ structures—medieval clergy houses, gatehouses, courthouses, and the like—the Trust’s focus shifted sharply to the collection and public display of country houses from the 1930s, when increased levels of taxation on landed estates led to a successful political campaign to ‘save’ the country house.[30]  Increasingly cast as an icon of all that was traditional, national and English, the country houses curated within this highly politicised environment were increasingly distanced from their foundation narratives, which so often hinged upon traditions of imperial service and imperial wealth accumulation in the Caribbean or on the Indian subcontinent.

Re-inscribing colonial narratives into national house histories demands new methodologies of collaborative research and new paradigms for interpreting the British historic house, interpretative strategies that recognise the home as a dynamic site of interlocking local, regional, national and global processes.  Our collaborative project  with Osterley House seeks to capitalise upon precisely this kind of collaboration.[31]  Originally an Elizabethan manor house, Osterley came into the possession of Sir Francis Child, a wealthy City banker with major investments in the East India Company, in 1713.[32]  Inherited by successive Child sons and daughters, Osterley was substantially remodelled by the Scottish architect Robert Adam from 1761, emerging as a monument to neo-classical Georgian taste.  Yes its interior was and remains fundamentally marked by East India Company material culture.  Chinese parade jars, elaborately carved ivory junks, a blue and white armorial porcelain service from Jingdezhen, lacquer screens and chests and Indian silk bed-hangings stand or hang alongside Osterley’s neo-classical statuary and European paintings.  We know almost nothing about the provenance of these East India Company objects, although their place of production was emphatically not in England.  Volunteers at Osterley have already begun to research the Child family’s connections with the Company in the 18th century; East India Company at Home historians are now joining in this effort, bringing additional expertise in art history, family history and Company history to bear on hitherto intractable problems of provenance. Tracing the origins of the house’s current contents to its East India Company past, our collaboration also seeks to situate Osterley’s transnational history within the global present.  Osterley lies in Hounslow, a borough of London that has seen substantial in-migration from the Indian subcontinent since the 20th century.  How do the material objects brought to Hounslow by these local residents compare and relate to Osterley’s East India Company possessions?  A public exhibition combining historical analysis of the routes by which Asian luxuries entered Osterley House together with oral histories detailing 20th- and 21st-century flows of material objects ‘from home’ elsewhere to new homes in Hounslow will seek to address these questions, reconnecting this National Trust property’s ‘island story’ to wider global narratives that stretch from the early 18th to the early 21st century..

Our ability to undertake this collaborative research relies fundamentally upon two convergent trends: the increasing digitisation of historical records (including material objects) and the growing armies of ‘amateur’ stately house volunteers and family historians who conduct and enable conservation, research and display of East India Company material culture.  Major digitisation projects by the National Trust and the Victoria & Albert Museum, for example, have placed in the public domain images of tens of thousands of material objects hitherto largely inaccessible to historians.[33]  Commercial digitisation projects have, for a fee, brought thousands of family and local historians online access to genealogical records, fostering an explosion in amateur historical practice across Britain and internationally.  New methods of ‘mining’ digital data are transforming  historical research—although researchers in digital humanities have recently begun to draw attention to ways in which digitised collections of primary materials distort even as they enable historical research.[34] Humanities and social science university departments in Britain (and beyond) are now caught up in fierce debates over open access publishing.[35]  Rarely mentioned in these debates are the ways in which research conducted outside the university system is transforming historical practice and knowledge.  Local and national organisations of ‘amateur’ historians have produced not only research findings but also research tools that lie fully neither within the licensing systems of major publishing houses nor within the sphere of open access.   Thus FIBIS (Families in British India Society) volunteers provided thousands of transcriptions for the British Library’s invaluable open access India Office Family History Search engine (http://indiafamily.bl.uk/ui/home.aspx  ).  The FIBIS website itself hosts both free and subscription-based search facilities, and publishes research findings in both open access and membership-only forms (http://www.new.fibis.org/ ).  Connecting research conducted across these uneven historical terrains offers real opportunities for historians of the East India Company, but it also poses significant challenges.

In The Gender of History, published in 1998, Bonnie Smith described the period from the later 18th to the mid- 19th century as the heyday of the ‘amateur’ historian.  ‘Superseded, superficial, and associated more with scribbling women than with men, amateur history from the nineteenth century has been so cloaked in professional disdain as to have drawn relatively little scholarly attention’, she argued.[36]  The late 20th and early 21st centuries have witnessed a new wave of amateur historical practice, borne aloft by the tide of digital access and by the internet.  Engaging with this new cohort of historians, rather than rejecting it as ‘amateur’, has substantial potential to enrich historical analysis, as we hope the East India Company at Home’s web-based publications will amply demonstrate.  But open access and public engagement are not panaceas for the conceptual and analytical problems that confront historians of Britain and its empire.  Digitised versions of manuscripts previously located in inaccessible archives are no more revealing than those originals of subaltern identities and subaltern lives.[37]  Digitisation of primary sources, moreover, has exacerbated rather than redressed disparities between British and Indian archives.  Objects and documents in British manuscript collections and museums are increasingly available online to researchers inside and outside university settings.  The absence of corresponding Indian collections worryingly now works to recreate historical processes of erasure, in which the global histories of British India contract, yielding an impoverished   ‘island story’ of a lesser Britain.


[1] These are indicative categories, marked by substantial range and overlap.   The group of university-based researchers includes students as well as postdoctoral researchers.  Many archivists and curators hold higher university degrees, and some hold university affiliations.  Many local and family historians are affiliated with cultural institutions (archives, museums, and stately homes) as volunteers.

[2] Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain (Oxford, 2004), p. 306-307.

[3] See for example Catherin Hall and Sonya Rose, (eds), At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge, 2006); Kathleen Wilson, (ed.), A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity, and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660-1840 (Cambridge, 2004); Dipesh Cahrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2000); and Partha Chatterjee, The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power (Princeton, 2012). Peter Marshall’s earlier arguments are also centrally important: P.J. Marshall, ‘A Nation Defined by Empire, 1755-1776’, in P.J. Marshall,  “A Free though conquering people”: Eighteenth-Century Britain and Its Empire (Aldershot, 2003), 208-222.

[4] Lawrence and Jean Stone, An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 (abridged edition, Oxford, 1986), 125-26, 193-95; F.M.L. Thompson, English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (1963); David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New Haven, 1990).

[5] For the emergence of this ‘imperial turn’ in British historiography, see Durba Ghosh, ‘Another Set of Imperial Turns?’, American Historical Review, 117, 3 (June 2012), 772-793.

[6] Historians of the English East India Company have significantly advanced our understanding of the political and ideological connections between the West and East Indian empires: see esp. the work of P.J. Marshall, The Making and Unmaking of Empire: Britain, India, and America c. 1750-1783 (Oxford, 2005), and idem., ‘The Moral Swing to the East: British Humanitarianism, India and the West Indies’, in Marshall, “A Free though conquering people”, 69-95.  We know much less about economic relations between the two empires.  A 3-month AHRC-funded postdoctoral research fellow, jointly appointed between UCL’s East India Company at Home and Legacies of British Slave Ownership (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs) projects, Dr Chris Jeppesen, is currently conducting foundational research on this topic.

[7] See for example Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (London, 1998), esp. chap. 5.

[8] See for example Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding, ‘“Frailty, thy name is China”: Women, Chinoiserie and the Threat of Low Culture in Eighteenth-Century England’, Women’s History Review, 18, 4 (2009), 659-668; Sarah Cheang, ‘Selling China: Class, Gender and Orientalism at the Department Store’, Journal of Design History, 20, 1 (2007), 1-16; and Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, ‘Tea, Gender and Domesticity in Eighteenth-Century England’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 23 (1994), 131-145;

[9] Tillman Nechtman, ‘Nabobinas: Luxury, Gender, and the Sexual Politics of British Imperialism in India in the Late Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Women’s History, 18, 4 (2006), 8-30; idem., Nabobs: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, 2010).

[10] Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (London, 2009).

[11] C.A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780-1830 (London, 1989), esp. 133-136.

[12] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (London, 1992), 158-159.

[13] Ibid., 130.

[14] Three of our case studies analyse Company houses in Berkshire, while Ellen Filor’s PhD is illuminating Company homes in the Scottish Borders.  For the Berkshire Hindustan, see Kate’s case studies of Englefield and Warfield and Margot’s case study of Swallowfield: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/case-studies-2/ .

[15] One thinks, for example, of the phenomenal commercial success of television series such as Downton Abbey (ITV), or of the film Gosford Park (2001).  Programmes such as Country House Rescue and Restoration Man (both Channel 4) reflect similar tendencies in the media.

[16] Project associates from Osterley, including House & Collections Manager Claire Reed, have worked together with the core academic team and AHRC Cultural Engagement Fellow Dr Yuthika Sharma on this project.  For an update, see http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/2013/04/30/osterley-park-and-house-project-update/ .  This project is discussed in greater detail in the final section of this paper.

[17] Speech by Michael Gove (5 October 2010), http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2010/10/Michael_Gove_All_pupils_will_learn_our_island_story.aspx .  ‘The current approach we have to history denies children the opportunity to hear our island story….Well, this trashing of our past has to stop’, he proclaimed.  Elsewhere in the speech, Gove asserted ‘Our literature is the best in the world—it is every child’s birthright and we should be proud to teach it in every school.’  Failing to celebrate this ‘island’ story and its literature, Gove insisted, would ensure that ‘Our children will never outstrip the global competition’.

[19] See esp. the works by Tillman Nechtmann, cited above.

[21] This is the dominant trope, for example, in Maya Jasanoff, ‘Collectors of Empire: Objects, Conquests and Imperial Self-Fashioning’, Past and Present, 184 (2004), 109-135.

[22] http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/case-studies-2/swallowfield-park-berkshire/ .  See also Margot Finn ‘Colonial Gifts:Family Politics and the Exchange of Goods in British India, c. 1780-1820’, Modern Asian Studies, 40, 1 (2006), 203-231.’.

[23] These liaisons have been examined for example by Durba Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire (Cambridge, 2006) and Christopher Hawes, Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India 1773-1833 (Richmond, 1996).

[24] Margot Finn, ‘Anglo-Indian Lives in the Later Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 33, 1 (2010), 49-65; idem., ‘Family Formations: Anglo-India and the Familial Proto-State’, in David Feldman and Jon Lawrence, (eds), Structures and Transformations in Modern British History (Cambridge, 2011), 100-117.

[25] More broadly, Ellen’s research questions the extent to which Scottish and English Company boys and men considered themselves to be united within a shared British nationality.  Ellen Filor, ‘The East India Company at Home: Scottish and English “Global” Persons, Places and Things’, Reconfiguring the British Seminar, IHR, 14 February 2013.

[26] Case studies on Berkshire houses are noted above.  For a shorter introductory discussion, see Kate’s video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWhPxSvGnkU .

[28] The English National Trust also incorporates Wales and Northern Ireland; a separate Scottish National Trust was established in 1931.

[29] Melanie Hall, ‘The Politics of Collecting: The Early Aspirations of the National Trust, 1883-1913’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 13 (2003), 345-357, citation 345.

[30] Martin Waterson, A Noble Thing: The National Trust and Its Benefactors from 1940 to the Present Day (London, 2011).

[32] For Sir Francis, see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/articleHL/5286?docPos=4&anchor=match .

[34] See esp. Tim Hitchcock, ‘Confronting the Digital: Or How Academic History Writing Lost the Plot’, Cultural and Social History, 10, 1 (March 2013), 9-23.

[35] See for example the Finch Report: http://www.researchinfonet.org/publish/finch/; the British Academy symposium: http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/2012/OpenAccess.cfm ; and the Royal Historical Society President’s statement on open access: http://www.royalhistoricalsociety.org/RHSPresidentE-letterJanuary2013.pdf .

[36] Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Cambridge, MA, 1998), 37.

[37] For the difficulties of discovering subaltern India histories in the colonial archive, see esp. Clare Anderson, Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, 1790-1920 (Cambridge, 2012) and Durba Ghosh, ‘Decoding the Nameless: Gender, Subjectivity and Historical Methodologies in Re-Reading the Archives of Colonial India’, In Wilson, (ed.), A New Imperial History, 297-316.

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