Review: Corporate Character (Representing Imperial Power in British India, 1786-1901) by Eddy Kent

Corporate Character

First and foremost let it be made amply clear that I am in no way qualified to review Eddy Kent's Corporate Character (Representing Imperial Power in British India, 1786-1901). I picked it up expecting illuminating historical incidents from British India and how the ethos and values of that time still shape our corporate culture. That it turned out to be totally different and a difficult read, however, didn't disappoint me, but, on the contrary, pleased me that there are still countless ideas out there about which I know nothing. Corporate Character is not at all meant for the general reader; not for the one unaware of British Empire; not for the one who is shielded from Spivak, Foucault, Malthus, Adam Smith, Zizek, Edward Said, Benedict Anderson, C.A. Bayly to name a few; not for the one who has never heard of or read Anglo Indian literature of, to name a few, Kipling ("who identified three distinct branches of the imperial governing apparatus: the ignorant political overseers, the nominally superintending central power, and the silently heroic individual field agents"), William Delafield, George Otto Trevelyan amongst others. The above mentioned filters will leave out hardly a few men and women who will be found nowhere but in academia.

Kent begins with how controlling agents of power is impossibly difficult with the omnipresent warning of a looming "night shift" - the term taken from Donald Rumsfeld's justification of powerlessness to control or stop in entirety events like Abu Gharib. His book "explores how the British Empire colonized the minds of the men it sent overseas to act in its name. A long way from London and invested with plenipotentiary powers, these agents had ample opportunity to enrich themselves through corruption or to embark upon heroic military campaigns. Instead, they nearly unanimously suspended their private pursuit of wealth or glory in order to serve an employer that offered meagre wages and little public recognition". He explores how the noble Englishman was written about as sacrificing his good life in the verdant lands with his family only for the sole benefit of the locals (i.e. subject Indians) and their country (i.e. India). The passing over of the control from East India Company to the Crown hardly resulted in a sudden change of reality as the same men continued their roles only with new titles. Kent mentions sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies and his categories: Gemeinschaft - an organic community bound together by kinship, fellowship, custom etc.; Gesellschaft - individuals interacting with each other through self-interest, contracts, and formal laws. Kent writes about the transition which the Crown had to undergo or was rather forced to undergo, from Gesellschaft to Gemeinschaft.

There are five chapters - chapter one about the impeachment of Warren Hastings by Edmund Burke; chapter two about the beginnings of Indian Civil Service; chapter three about the working conditions in Company India; chapter four about post-Company culture; and five about Kipling's characters in his work Kim. Impeachment of Warren Hastings is written in great detail and he credits Edmund Burke with initiating the instilling of a moral ethos in the agents (who toiled in India), even though Hastings was acquitted. The legacy of Burke was taken over later by Richard Wellesley, Thomas Robert Malthus, and Thomas Babington Macaulay, all of whom believed in making employees believe in the idea of a virtuous empire. Wellesley was able to get his plan of opening a training college approved by a court of directors. It was built in 1806 and called East India College, but also commonly referred to as Haileybury. Macaulay saw in the system of patronage, which was in practice for selecting recruits, as grossly inefficient and inappropriate and made a call for a competitive examination in a 1833 speech. Here Kent takes a more accepting view of Macaulay, who in "Minute on Indian Education" had suggested administrators Indian in blood and English in character and is now considered "by postcolonial critics as one of the most egregious excesses of the Eurocentric cultural chauvinism", by stating that his purpose was to "how best to create instruments for the machine of government".

In his analysis of various Anglo Indian and other literature, Kent indicates that literature even of before Rudyard Kipling does have literary merit. In conclusion he states his work "is an account of colonial consciousness as a subjectivity uniquely articulated by the contingent and often improvisational responses of an institution plagued by an irreducible logistical challenge: how to manage the actions of one's overseas agents".

A book which can't be just read once and kept in a closet, for it draws on many concepts and ideas which, even if one is aware of all of them at once, can overwhelm. It is rich in references and its prose sophisticated.


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