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Essay: ‘All empires have a civilizing mission.’ Discuss.

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  • ‘All empires have a civilizing mission.’ Discuss.
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Empires have always utilized the notion of civilizing their subjects in order to justify their imperial ventures, and ‘Standards of civilisation’ has always been measured in terms of western empires that structured international society during the colonial era. However, this common conjecture has turned to be quite untrue because the intent to bring about a social development that would be in consonance to the metropole was present in the eastern empires like the Qing and the Mughal empire. Hence, all empires did have a civilizing mission whereby their notions of development shaped their administrative policies in the areas of their imperial ventures. The Qing and the British empire, though quite different in their forms, were no exception. In order to present a holistic approach, I will be comparing the Qing imperial venture in Inner Asia (17th-19th century) and the British Empire in India (18th-19th century) to prove that though they had different methods and forms, they converged on a common point i.e. to mold their respective newly acquired territories to benefit their imperial trait.
Both the Qing and the British empire, being foreign conquerors took initiatives to include indigenous collaborators within their respective imperial systems. From 1683 to 1760, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Tibet became permanent territorial acquisitions of the Qing empire where systems of administration and communication were worked out without wholeheartedly “Sinicizing” their domain. In Inner Asia, the Qing dynasty incorporated the native characteristics while administering, however “Qing did usher something of China, in the form of certain aspects of organisation and ideology.””If the Qing ruler was the Son of Heaven for his Chinese subjects, he was also the Khan of Khans for the Mongols, the Chakravartin for the Tibetans, and so on.” This showcases the diversity which existed in the Qing empire, however, what held the Inner Asian territories with the metropole in a single thread was the systematic order brought in by the empire itself, thus, bringing in the concept of “orderly union of peoples under a common canopy”. On the other hand, the British believed that India was too ill-equipped for any rapid change and thus the practice to operate within Indian practices and institutions became the need of the hour. However, the British rule in India was of a hybrid nature and the need to “introduce system and order” was felt because of its state of lawlessness, misrule and disorder. The importance of commercial interests in early 19th century Britain was growing; however, the empire’s dominant ideas were evangelist and agrarianist. Thus, in India a class of landholding elites was maintained that would undertake the British model of concentrated landholding. On the other hand, the evangelist notion often justified the imperial rule in India by promoting that the subjects would ‘awaken’. Thus, even if the earlier phase of colonization in India witnessed a dependence upon the native officials and systems, soon they were acclimatized in British ways of governance. The outer layer remained unchanged in terms of names of native agents their offices and sometimes in their functions, however only those features were incorporated which comfortably reflected the metropole’s concepts of civilisation. Hence, the British rule in India was characteristically hybrid in nature.

The Qing administered the Inner Asian territories with the help of a compilation of the use of artillery, modern cartographic and standardized ethnographic conventions. A “civilizing mission” was conjured up by the Qing empire whereby, “China’s own history as the patrilineal-patrilocal family system, partible male inheritance, incest taboos, marriage and funerary practice, sedentary agriculture, proprietorship of agrarian land by registered and tax-paying households, and literacy in the Chinese language were vigorously implanted in frontier as the norms of civilized human society.” The Qing also incorporated notions from the Inner Asian territories which not only aided in maintaining imperial security for the different people in the Inner Asian regions but also helped in maintaining the imperial agenda of the dynasty. In terms of the empire’s multi-ethnic culture, “during the Qianglong reign, the five linguistic or ethnic blocs (Manchus, Han Chinese, Mongols, Tibetans and Muslims) existed not in starkly hierarchical, but in something more like parallel relationship to each other. Though the empire was centripetal, at the center lies neither an abstract ‘Chinese civilisation’ nor even the Confucian Son of Heaven but rather the Aisin Gioro (Qing imperial) house, in the person of the many-faceted Qing emperor”. The dynasty introduced a number of military and civil administrations known as the “Banner system”, the setting up of an administrative court known as Lifan Yuan, and a ministry Lifan Bu, the department of colonization which would oversee the emigration process to Mongolia and also a school for the colonization of the frontier. These developments took place in the 20th century, thus, justifying the civilizing process which took place over a long period of time which in turn strengthened the process of unifying the Inner Asian population.

Similarly, in India the British civilizing mission took place over a long period of time, whereby, initially, the government wanted to rest on the pre-existing structures. The changeover of the company (whose primary motive was to reap commercial benefits) from being a trading enterprise “into a trading corporation with territorial responsibilities was not smooth,” thus, the prudent step would be to depend on the local structures until a better form of administration would be formed. The preceding empire (Mughal empire) however ‘arbitrary’ it was, helped the Company in structuring governance in India which could later be developed accordingly. As time progressed the British empire with renewed zeal to transform the Indian society in order to match up to the civilizing standards of Britain tried to introduce number of administrative changes like judicial courts, framing a legal base for the society, structuring economic model, spreading English education and introducing ICS examinations.

“In Tibet, Mongolia and Central Asia the Qing dynasty tried to retain control over the administrative and social structure without committing large number of troops or spending large sums of money. Imperial residents with military and civilian powers would supervise an administrative structure based on local traditions and institutions and staffed by natives.” The empire required a tool to justify their imperial expansion and needed to maintain institutions that would keep the hierarchy in place, often, that would take the form of “restraining the number and type of actors entitled to use violence”. In Inner Asia owing to its huge territorial expanse organizing a military occupation wasn’t feasible, “instead the Qing created a form of self-government in the colonies within an imperial judicial and administrative framework.” In Tibet, like Outer Mongolia a similar method was undertaken where the authority of Dalai Lama was entwined with the dynasty, thus trying to promote centralization under an indigenous authority. The Qing ruled Inner Asia with the help of local chieftains and administrators which came to be known as indirect rule under the supervision of Lifan Yuan. Here mention must be made that the Qing use of language to define those to be included and those to be excluded from the “civilized” realm depended on who submitted to their rule and who opposed it. The ones who resisted integration were exterminated. This shows how the Qing Empire structured its civilizing intent in the Inner Asian territories whereby the tool to determine what could be incorporated from the native society depended mainly on the fact that it was in consonance with their idea of civilisation.

Similarly, in the British Empire, the company in its initial phase only incorporated those who they thought had certain social standing and was crucial in the process of transforming the Indian society to fit the metropole’s civilizational standards. The interest of the British in gaining knowledge of Indians was a “similar aim of domination.” Thus, primarily the Company decided to rely on the Indian functionaries such as the Hindu Pandits and Muslim Maulvis with the belief that the actions taken by the company would be backed by the indigenous written sources interpreted by them. Thus, building correspondence began with the help of the functionaries such as Dubashi or translator, the Akhund or ‘the Muhammedan School teacher’ who helped the Company in the initial phase of its rule. The British since the early days of their rule understood the importance to glean knowledge from every corner of the subcontinent due to its direct relation with power. The help from indigenous political surveillance from the year 1760s witnessed the assimilation of information in a different level. “The networks of Indian running spies, news writers and knowledgeable secretaries whom the East India Company recruited and deployed in their efforts to secure military, political and social information became a major determinant of their success in conquest and profitable governance.” A hybridization was noticed in the system where “Indian intelligence system was allied with the writing skills and knowledge of learned Brahmins with the hard bodies and running skills of tribal and low caste people”. The utilization of Indian intermediaries or Indian crowns were “rendered hollow and their powers were mostly ceremonial” presenting a face to the British enterprise in India. “The company’s dominion was also an “empire of opinion” in which Indians were coerced by the reputation or scientific and cultural superiority of their conquerors.” Thus, a duality existed in the mode of governance in British India whereby native methods were attuned with western forms of communication, representation and western notion of a developed society.

All empires’ primary motive was to establish security, bring in stability and accelerate economic development in their respective imperially ventured areas. The idea of a civilizing mission was to bring in a sense of security and stability as has been seen in the case of the Qing imperial missions in the Inner Asian territories. “In 1692, the Kangxi emperor had insisted that troops sent to the frontiers should cultivate land to support themselves and Eastern Mongolia was one such colony which provided the land for agricultural cultivation,” thus bringing in the concept of settlements in the frontier region. Beginning in 1758, Qing officials launched a serious, continuous campaign to promote extensive agricultural settlement and each of them had particular fiscal and agrarian features in Inner Asia. “Criminals were often sentenced to military exile and were excellent subjects for involuntary migration to the frontiers” so that they could cultivate the fields. A wave of semi voluntary population movement to Turkestan took place as well, whereby there was not only “migration of military troops but thousands of agrarian settlers too.” This brings in the concept of establishing an agrarian society coupled with bringing in economic development as well as security, thus justifying the civilizing intent. The need for security witnessed the building of fortresses across Mongolia where an extensive development took place in the forms “of digging irrigation canals, clearing fields, and planting crops.” Spectacles constituted a key aspect of the Qing Empire and this was noticed in the construction of the summer palace complex at Chengde, a place where China, Mongolia and Manchuria came together, in other words, the palace was the proof of the empire’s imperial expansion and prowess. It not only expressed the Qing sovereignty but was also instrumental in projecting its cultural domination over conquered territories of Inner Asia. Under Yongzheng, the other principle region targeted for settlement witnessed a similar developmental system. The notion of self-sufficiency and security went hand in hand where, the dynasty focused on “making the conquered region pay on its own way, including support for permanent large military garrisons.” Here, mention must be made that the notion of a civilized society was one which could be self-sufficient and the motive for any empire was to aid in the process, at least theoretically. The Qing in the Inner Asian territories established a permanent military and civil presence which had no expiration date, and was in fact unprecedented. The emperor, the Grand Council, and a specialized group of officials all contributed towards unified imperial planning and, though, no single policy was applied all over the empire, there was a special Qing vision of a unified empire. The administrative structure though was a multi-cultural system; it was drawn along the lines of Qing identity. For example, “in Altishahr, the oases town ringing the Tarim basin, the begs though governed independently under the supervision of the military residents their influence was still very prominent.” The begs themselves were no longer hereditary nobles; subjected to the Qing rule of avoidance, they wore the queue and Han clothing, thus proving that no matter how much the Qing administrative system relied on the local systems and agents, the ultimate legitimacy to the local rule could only be attained if it was connected to the metropole’s social and cultural standing – thus, explaining the sort of civilizing process.

Likewise, in British India the need to secure stability and bring in profitability was the need of the hour where, though the decision was to rule and legally arbitrate its Empire by India’s own laws and customs but the legal framework was more institutionalized. “Law making was a cultural enterprise in which the colonial state reshaped the native rule, rank, status and gender to a different political economy with a more exclusive definition of sovereign right” and certain aspects of its claim to legitimacy were expounded through the assertion of a difference from past regimes as these were characterised as arbitrary despotisms while company governance, though authoritarian – was said to be bound by law. The Company’s judicial reforms of 1772 brings forth the novel conceptions of sovereign right as it was widely believed that a regular system of law was absent during the Mughal rule and the reforms of 1772 established Faujdari Adalats in each district which was supposed to bring in consistency in judicial proceedings. “The critique of the Mughal rule characterised the company’s judicial measures as the first step in a liberal progression towards reason, humanity and natural justice.” The company officials were of the opinion that oriental despotism had gripped the subcontinent during the Mughal rule and though, according to Adam Smith, Ancient Indian civilisation were at a higher pedestal in terms of civilisation, economically it needed a modern framework, in short, the British framework and that could only be achieved if a stable and consistent legal framework was established. British style courts were introduced along with a system that combined English common law with Hindu and Muslim jurisprudence, providing a legislative basis for the prosecution of Indians. There was a need to delineate criminal and civil proceedings and to form judicial courts of Sadr Nizamat Adalat and Sadr Diwani Adalat respectively. “It was widely viewed by the colonial government that individual cases of homicide seldom received a death penalty from Indian rulers and chiefs” thus, there was inconsistency as well as limit in the ways punishment was meted out in Islamic law. The 1772 reform established faujdari adalats in each district which was supposed to bring in consistency in judicial proceedings. Though, officials of an orientalist inclination such as Hastings, had argued that it was the natural right of Indians to be ruled by the laws and customs with which they were familiar and that these laws were not antithetical to reason, humanity and natural justice but when certain presumptions of British justice such as the right of habeas corpus, or individual liability to the law had to be kept at bay or qualified, then cultural particularity was invoked with a different inflection, to stress that India stood on a lower rung of the civilizational ladder than England. In terms of debates around a permanent settlement of revenue, Ranajit Guha explains that for Philip Francis it was not the law which would institute civil order, but the stabilization of the property rights of the zamindars and their co-operation in civil administration. The themes of security for property, civil order and a ‘spirit of industry’ raised in discussions about a permanent settlement which invoked in criminal justice as well but with different tonalities and different notions of agency: hence, civil order was conceived of as a routine state of pacification in which the state alone had the right to legitimately exercise violence. The changes introduced to conceptions of sovereignty and property rights had repercussions for the agencies of governance as the loose interdependence of official and non-official agencies for the Mughal and the eighteenth century regimes gradually developed towards more bureaucratized hierarchies which centralized military and judicial functions separated them from property relations. Thus, reiterating Jones’ argument in using established legal system to prepare the inhabitants for superior British system.
The notion of preparing the inhabitants for superior system was present in the Qing Empire as well, however, some believe “that the dynasty acted as a cultural sponge absorbing all who came within its orbit.” Here mention must be made of ethnic identity which was closely tied to the institutions, in particular the banners, whose visibility surfaced in social terms, since the banner system imposed a hereditary aristocracy. Thus, this distinctly shows that even though there was an existence of multiethnic culture in the Qing Inner Asia with regard to the banner system, it was highly hierarchical and was available to the group they deemed fit to be culturally congruous so that homogeneity could be maintained. Di Cosmo explains in terms of shamanic ceremonies, where, there was a peculiar combination of Inner Asian and Chinese traditions which created a continuum between the sedentary agricultural world of China proper and the pastoral nomadic world which superficially resembled Chinese practices. In terms of cultural influence, “women played a key role in the Qing civilizing mission among aboriginal minorities in the imperial periphery, acting as essential carriers of proper behaviour. Correspondingly, the status and actions of ethnically “other” minority women were often regarded as yardstick of the completeness of Qing colonization efforts. “ As the Qing expanded, the Qing imperium evolved a plural political structure whereby the universal emperor adopted multiple political personalities, however, after the mid-nineteenth century, this multi-national model of universal emperorship was revised in favour of a more unitary, centralizing and sinicizing approach. Following the so-called ‘Tongzhi Restoration’ of 1862-74, the Qing was increasingly beholden to such officials, under whose guidance it pursued a more sinicizing agenda in relation to areas of the empire beyond ‘China proper’ whereby attempts to impose cultural uniformity on the frontier region was undertaken and where, many newly empowered Han officials pursued ‘direct rule’ and cultural integration. For example, Xinjiang was designated a province and these initiatives demonstrated the ‘provincialisation of the frontier, with the concomitant promotion of Han migration and implementation of Chinese institutions in areas with sizeable non-Han populations, was part of a beleaguered dynasty’s attempt to shore up its position on all frontiers.’ By 1883, there were already seventy-seven free Confucian schools established in urban centres across Xinjiang and these schools followed a similar curriculum to those in China proper. Thus, the cultural superiority does take the shape of a sort of ‘civilizing mission’.

In British India, the notion of cultural superiority dominated the company’s mindset from the beginning of 19th century where the period was marked by heightened sense of intolerance towards Indian customs and traditions. The feeling of intolerance was so prominent that the act of debasement of the company officials were blamed on the “native practices”, thus there was a dire need to make the administration “more honest, reliable, streamlined and ‘British’.” Utilitarianism was an influential system of thought in Britain and Lord William Bentinck was greatly influenced by utilitarian thinkers active in Britain and thus a lot of reforms took place under his governor generalship. This widely believed notion gave rise to something known as the ‘Age of reform’ in the Indian historiography which bore witness to the Company official’s intent to modernize India through the application of western practices and beliefs. This was achieved through the efforts of James Mill, and governor generals like William Bentinck and Lord Dalhousie who certainly “committed themselves to improving Indian society: the former through his efforts to stamp out Sati and thugee and his promotion of western education, the latter through his strategy of sweeping away the remaining Indian states and his encouragement of railways, telegraphs and irrigation schemes.” A general call to the Christian missionaries to India took place , who brought in a “heightened emphasis on western education since it was felt that a combination of enlightened despotism, Christianity and western science would liberate India from the shackles of what was increasingly viewed as its oppressive past.” This in turn led to the abolishment of Sati and the establishment of the Widow Remarriage act in 1829 and 1856 respectively. Here mention must be made of the Indian authorities like Ram Mohan Roy whose support was garnered by the British and were a byproduct of western education promoted by the Macaulay minute. They in turn came to be known as Babu which was a cultural representation of the western educated Bengali middle class and was crucial in reforming and modernizing India. The Macaulay minute on Indian education further promoted that English was to be the official language of the government and birth of an exclusive Indian intelligentsia was noticed. There was an evident strange synergy between imperialism and cultural superiority and evangelical religious beliefs which was noticed in British ideology in spreading western educational reform which would have enabled the British ‘to strike their roots into the soil by the gradual introduction and establishment of their own principles and opinions, of their laws, institutions and manners, above all as the source of every other improvement of their religion and their morals’.

Scholars have described the Qing project as a “civilising mission” by analogy with French imperial aims. However, cultural diversity ruled the domain where the Qing Empire included Manchu, Chinese and Mongolian bannermen which gave a multicultural vibe. The civilizational process took the shape of migration in the Inner Asian territories where 10 million soldiers and civilian colonists migrated to Xinjiang and Mongolia which enumerated the importance of the land clearance system and the eighteenth-century economy was based on imperial control. The region of Xinjiang noticed economic development whereby the growth of communication and transport routes, models of taxation were established- the Han immigrants and the state subsidies they brought with them, raised the productivity of lands which had been vacant or used only for low-yielding activities such as grazing which in turn saw the replacement of grazing with intensive agriculture as an advance in social and economic development. This feature placed the Qing Empire as a developmental state dedicated to improving the economic livelihood of all its subjects and uniting under its sovereignty. The concept of land rights was brought into Dzungaria, Turkestan and southern Xinjiang but was not uniform. In east Turkestan and southern Xinjiang, a well-established land system had already existed and local begs were in charge of it, however the new rulers inserted themselves at the top of an old hierarchy. Colonization of Inner Asia happened under purely military auspices and soon there was a proliferation of civilian population and soldiers began to lease their land illegally to civilian investors, creating a de facto trend towards civilisationization and privatization, which in turn gave the peasants more land rights. Transcending, the narrow goals of military support there was a full scale programme of economic development as civilians expanded their settlements with state support. This increased agricultural population and attracted merchants, who stimulated the growth of towns and commercial links with the interior, thus transforming the society of the Inner Asian territories in accordance with the empire’s view of modernity.

Fiscal modernity was the argument given by the British as well, who opined that for the bureaucratic structure to flourish a strong commercial base in the Indian subcontinent was needed and that was noticed in the way the tax system was managed by the company. The British tried to increase the tax yields by introducing a contractual system that allowed individuals, use of their lands, subject to an annual payment of tax – the permanent settlement, which was structured by Lord Cornwallis creating a highly hierarchical social structure. Thus, both attempts to impose a modernizing class of landlords through the permanent Settlement and efforts at encouraging the more rapid commercialization of Indian agriculture which reflected the British ways were noticed. In the south though Thomas Munroe, who was the chief architect of the Ryotwari system borrowed it from Tipu Sultan, infused his notions of peasant rights in India through this system. The British systems of land revenue aimed at giving land to only those who were recognised by the Company’s officials, thus, bringing in the concept that land rights couldn’t be given to nomadic tribes since that would have hindered their idea of an improved society as nomadic tribes were not agriculturalists – directly contending with the British view of an improved society which depended on personal ownership of property. “All of these were in the name of liberating Indians from former ‘feudal’ associations – officials believing that in India they found parallels to medieval Europe.” The new land revenue settlements were often described as offering a ‘gift of proprietary rights’ to Indians and the freedom to sell their labour in ways that had never been possible before. This coupled with industrial revolution at the metropole exhausted the indigenous commercial pockets and gave rise to an industrialized society in the subcontinent.

Thus, all empires did have a civilizing mission. The idea was to always bring in elements of change that was necessary to accommodate the imperial intent of the empire as was seen in both the British and the Qing empires. For example, in the Qing Empire the notion that the Manchus were sinicized by the Han culture of the preceding Chinese dynasties which induced them to acculture the people of the Inner Asian territories was erroneous. They depended on the local systems in order to make the administration of the Inner Asian territories smooth, which was a break from the way China proper was governed. Thus, the Qing Empire characteristically differed from one Inner Asian territory to the other – bringing in elements from the indigenous systems. However, the reliance on the native agencies didn’t mean the notion to civilize was absent, as only those elements were included from the indigenous systems which were in compliance with the empire’s idea of civility. The indigenous elites did gain favour but, that could only happen if they undertook a subservient role and structured it around the ideology of the empire. Similarly, in British India, though initially, the Company was reluctant to meddle in the subcontinent’s local administration, the idea from the beginning was to structure the society so that it could be well integrated within the system of the metropole. Hitherto, it was depended on pre-existing structures, however, mention must be made that the power to administer was only reserved for the exclusive elites which resembled the British system of aristocracy. Later on, the British were consumed with the idea that even though Ancient India had a higher degree of civilisation which could be compared to the British standard, the preceding empire denigrated its status to being a land of lawlessness and thus, the onus of civilizing or bringing back the erstwhile glory was upon the British Empire. Mention must be made about the wave to civilize that swept in, in the 19th century India where the need to transform the entire society existed due to the empire’s preoccupation with western standard modernity.


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