The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

20
The Evolution of Colonial Cultures: Nineteenth-
Century Asia

SUSAN BAYLY

This chapter examines the phenomenon of 'invisible empire', that is, the many different encounters of the intellect and imagination which brought Asians and Britons together, often violently and contentiously, during the 'long' nineteenth century. Its aim is to ask what cultural differences British rule made to the complex societies of colonial Asia. Of course not all of these encounters were overwhelmingly important in the lives of Asians. Despite its apparent capacity to reshape minds as well as material environments in the age of the steam-powered loom, the railway, and the Gatling gun, colonialism was far from being an all-powerful agent of change in any extra-European society. Even where British power was exercised most intrusively, both through the use of military force and in the great Victorian enterprise of scientific data-collection, much of the colonial world was only lightly and unevenly touched by Western-style schools, laws, printing presses, and campaigns of missionary evangelism.1

These were, nevertheless, the agencies which Britons saw as bringing revolutionary transformations to their Asian subjects. Asian ways of life did change significantly in the age of high colonialism, though rarely as anticipated by Imperial social reformers and Christian evangelizers. The most far-reaching source of change for the big rural populations of South and South-East Asia was the collapse by mid-century of the many independent kingdoms which had survived the earlier phases of Britain's expansion. The destruction of such great

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1
On South-East Asia particular use has been made of the following: Nicholas Tarling, ed., Cambridge History of Southeast Asia (hereafter CHSEA) ( Cambridge 1992), Vol. II; Anthony Milner, The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya: Contesting Nationalism and the Expansion of the Public Sphere ( Cambridge, 1995); L. A. Peter Gosling and Linda Y. C. Lim, eds., The Chinese in Southeast Asia, Vol. 2, Identity, Culture and Politics (Singapore, 1983); Victor Purcell, The Chinese in Southeast Asia, 2nd edn. ( London, 1965); and C. M. Turnbull A History of Singapore, 1819-1975 ( Kuala Lumpur, 1977); for Hong Kong: Henry Lethbridge, Hong Kong: Stability and Change ( Hong Kong, 1978); on colonial Calcutta, Sukanta Chaudhuri, ed., Calcutta the Living City, Vol. I ( Calcutta, 1900); and for 'syncretistic' religion in India, Susan Bayly Saints, Goddesses and Kings, Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700- 1900 ( Cambridge, 1989).

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