Gunnel Cederlöf. Founding an Empire on India's North-Eastern Frontiers, 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014. xiii + 272 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-809057-1.
Reviewed by Nathan D. Wells (Quincy College)
Published on H-War (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
During the heyday of the British Empire, when the sun never set upon it, India was often referred to as the jewel in the monarch’s crown. This volume covers a period when that empire was in many ways being assembled, and ends just about when Victoria was ascending to the throne. Most of the leading protagonists were initially in the service of the East India Company searching for new markets, rather than the official British political and military officials who would succeed them. This is an often overlooked period, and Dr. Cederlöf, a professor of history at Sweden’s Uppsala University specializing in early and modern Indian history, shines new light upon it. The eighteen and early nineteenth centuries were when Britain’s empire took shape. The Seven Years War (1757-63) is often referred to as the “War for Empire,” as Britain became sole master of affairs in North America, France was humbled in Europe, and many of her colonies and possessions came under the British realm. While Europe and North America were the better known theaters, this had been a world war. One of Britain’s great victories had been won at Plassey in India by East India Company troops under Robert Clive. While technically fought against the Mughal Empire, the French East India Company was involved. This would not be the last time that the British East India Company (hereafter EIC) became involved in affairs with the Mughal Empire. While Clive’s forces had defeated Mughal troops at the battle, the British would use Mughal demarcations and titles for their subjects well into the nineteenth century.
The next global wars, the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, occurred within the timeline of the volume, but they receive little notice, as Cederlöf’s focus is on the small details of the frontier. The EIC would send out several missions for the purpose of opening markets and cartography. The latter was of prime importance in identifying what groups lived in the region, and what the terrain meant for the most direct routes to Yunnan, China. The China trade was key to the EIC, and while the volume does not cover the Napoleonic Wars, they were a major factor in Britain’s increasing interest in overland routes. It might seem odd that a predominantly maritime nation would look at overland routes to China, a nation with an extensive coastline and numerous major ports. Britain had been heavily involved in importing and exporting goods via these ports (eventually owning one at Hong Kong island), but the two decades of war led to a strange side effect. Britain’s maritime empire and dominance of the nineteenth century through the industrial revolution was helped by the fact that she emerged from the Napoleonic Wars relatively unscathed. Catching up to Great Britain was a main goal for those nations that had not been so lucky, and maritime trade and the China markets were quite lucrative. The EIC found itself squeezed out of the Canton market by its former colony the United States. New England merchantmen put into the port so often that all American vessels were referred to as “Boston ships.” It is small wonder then that the EIC (and the British government) saw overland trade with China as a paramount objective.
One of the overriding themes to the book is that there was often a disconnect between the survey teams and trading expeditions and their superiors hundreds (or thousands in the case of London) of miles away. The maps that they provided were to help divide the area into more workable zones, streamline trade routes, and help reduce conflict between groups, including those of the neighboring Kingdom of Burma. One of the major issues is that the borders between these groups often shifted thanks to flooding, monsoons, and simple migration. With borders known only to those with access to the maps, thousands found themselves under unknown masters. For those who migrated for work reasons, the result might be apprehension and execution for violating a border that they did not know existed. Even worse, the Decennial Agreement of 1790 that affixed many of these borders was nearly impossible to amend.
Plassey was not the last military engagement that the EIC fought in the region. The half-century covered by the volume deals with several conflicts fought against different groups in the region, and the Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26). The causes were everything from border disputes to the EIC (and British government proper) seeking greater consolidation. This was occurring just as the “Great Game” with Russia over the same basic region (to the west) was developing, and almost certainly affected decisions made in both London and Calcutta. While the overland trade with China is covered, it should be remembered that Britain also fought two wars to reopen the maritime trade with the importation of the addictive and destructive drug opium. Much of that opium was grown in the North-Eastern Frontier either on EIC territory or in states having trade agreements with the EIC.
Finally, the point is made that Britain and the EIC saw themselves in landowner terms. Great Britain was the great practitioner of mercantilism, and the EIC was but its best-known overseas agent. Her territory was to be used for financial gain, whether it was a source of raw materials to fuel the industrial revolution; a market for good made by that revolution, or initially as a source of taxes. As was the case with all colonies, there would be no representation in decision making until well into the future.
According to her biography, Dr. Cederlöf ‘s research interests span three intersecting fields: environmental history, early modern and modern Indian history, and legal history. This volume fits right into this area. The one major criticism is that there are too few maps, especially detailed maps. This makes trying to track events (primarily survey expeditions and military conflicts) in the book somewhat difficult. That aside, this is a very fine volume overall.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Nathan D. Wells. Review of Cederlöf, Gunnel, Founding an Empire on India's North-Eastern Frontiers, 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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