Robert A. Huttenback. British Relations with Sind, 1799-1843: An Anatomy of Imperialism. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2007. xvii + 153 pp. $21.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-547399-5.
Reviewed by Manan Ahmed
Published on H-Asia (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha
Brits Who Sind
Robert A. Huttenback's 1959 UCLA dissertation, which was first published in 1962, is now reissued by Oxford University Press Pakistan with a nuanced introduction by Matthew A. Cook. It is a slim volume that traverses mostly the same grounds impeccably documented by H. T. Lambrick in his Sir Charles Napier & Sind (1952). Though Huttenback had no training in any relevant Indic languages, he managed to incorporate a thorough reading of local politics via his access to the archives of East India Company correspondence in London, Bombay, Delhi, and Lahore. It is in these meticulous un-tanglings of complex events and people that Huttenback demonstrates, in action, the titular "imperialism" of the British in Sindh.
The monograph consists of six chapters and a conclusion. Chapters 1 and 2 ("The French Threat" and "The Controversy over Cutch") deal with the larger geopolitical framework within which the question of Sindh was understood by London. Huttenback outlines the perceived threats of imperial incursions from Russia, France, Afghanistan, and Punjab that converted this frontier coastal province into a central concern for the Company. Added to security concerns were mercantile incentives with hopes of transforming the lazy waters of the Indus into a torrid shipping channel linking "London to Delhi" (p. 56). Chapters 3 and 4 ("The Establishment of British Preponderance" and "The Afghan Crisis") move the discussion further toward the local arena by focusing on the political alliances between the rulers of Sindh (the Mirs of Talpur), the Company, and the various bordering polities. It is Afghanistan that compelled the Company's initial overtures to Sindh; they wanted to secure passage for troops and supplies and to limit any alliances coming out of Kabul. The disastrous ending of the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1842 converted Sindh from a minor border principality to a perceived first line of defense for the British.
Chapters 5 and 6 ("Ellenborough, Napier and the Amirs of Sind" and "The Annexation and Its Repercussions") form the real core of the book. Huttenback, using both official and personal correspondence, charts in depth the machinations between the upper echelons of the Company (the Governor-General Lord Ellenborough and the commander in Sindh, Sir Charles Napier), the Political Agents (James Outram, Ross Bell, and E. J. Brown), and key power holders in Sindh (Mir Rustum and Mir Ali Murad). In addition, Huttenback notes (though he does not comment on) the compelling role played by the native knowledge brokers (munshis, amils, and vakils) in mediating the transactions (and translations) between the British and the Mirs in this key period. Such traces--"Jeth Anand had not accurately explained [Eldred] Pottinger's views to the amirs" (p. 59)--though ignored by Huttenback, hint at the real mediations that undergird the supra-structure of "imperialism" that he wished to anatomize.
In both form and content, Huttenback's work is historiographically and methodologically rooted in his generation of scholars. Though Cook's introductory essay gallantly attempts to place Huttenback's concerns alongside Ranajit Guha and Eric Stokes, one cannot help but conclude that such a comparison only highlights the limitations in Huttenback's study. Where Huttenback aims to reveal microscopic machinations of imperialism, he ends up concealing the far greater complexity of intra- and interpersonal relationships between the Company officials; the Sindhi elite; and the many translators, lawyers, and businessmen who mediated these transactions. Similarly, while Huttenback seeks to focus on the larger question of imperialism, it is a significantly narrow (and metropole-centric) conception which fails to account for varied local cultural, ideological, historical, or political concerns animating the Mirs of Sindh in their dealings with the Company.
Still, at the moment of assessing this reprint, we can take stock of whether the intervening forty-seven years have been kind to the student of history of the British in Sindh. Cook mentions the works of Hamida Khuhro (1978) and David Cheesman (1997). To that list one can also add Adriano Duarte (1976), Malcolm E. Yapp (1980), Mubarak Ali (see his essay collections from 1983 and 2005), Sarah Ansari (2005), and Cook's own dissertation (2008). These multifaceted works, taken collectively, highlight the immense advancement scholarship has seen on this "neglected" region. These scholars have expanded our understandings of not only the political but also the social and the cultural intricacies--such that the question of imperialism is no longer a purely programmatic one.
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Manan Ahmed. Review of Huttenback, Robert A., British Relations with Sind, 1799-1843: An Anatomy of Imperialism.
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