The Alchemy of Empire: Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism

The Alchemy of Empire: Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism

The Alchemy of Empire: Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism

The Alchemy of Empire: Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism


Named 'Top 6' South Asia studies publications of 2016 by the British Association for South Asian Studies

The Alchemy of Empire unravels the non-European origins of Enlightenment science. Focusing on the abject materials of empire-building, this study traces the genealogies of substances like mud, mortar, ice, and paper, as well as forms of knowledge like inoculation. Showing how East India Company employees deployed the paradigm of alchemy in order to make sense of the new worlds they confronted, Rajani Sudan argues that the Enlightenment was born largely out of Europe's (and Britain's) sense of insecurity and inferiority in the early modern world. Plumbing the depths of the imperial archive, Sudan uncovers the history of the British Enlightenment in the literary artifacts of the long eighteenth century, from the correspondence of the East India Company and the papers of the Royal Society to the poetry of Alexander Pope and the novels of Jane Austen.


Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sun-lights,
I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and
plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions,
and assembled them in China or Indostan. From kindred feelings,
I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared
at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by
cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the
summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was
worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through
all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid in wait for me.
I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which
the ibis and crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years,
in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at
the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by
crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things,
amongst reeds and Nilotic mud. I thus give the reader some slight
abstraction of my oriental dreams…

—THOMAS de quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

The Alchemy of Empire focuses on eighteenth-century British representations of India and the crucial ways in which India’s technology, scientific practice, and epistemology informed European Enlightenment values and sociopolitical norms. the value of this Indian techne was eventually forgotten or lost both in the crises of value and representation that characterized the early decades of the Restoration and in the eventual triumph of Whiggish history that trumpeted the narrative of European exceptionalism. These . . .

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