Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

20 March 2018

Insurgency in the archives

DEAR READER, Please realize that this book will be no suitable ornament at present for Mahogany drawing tables or ivory bookshelves - no doubt its rightful place. The despoilers and oppressors of India will want to hunt it out of view. They cannot stand its fierce light. Whether, therefore, you are an Indian, or a foreigner temporarily in India, we entrust this and subsequent volumes to you for safe custody, by all the ingenious means one employs to save a treasure from theft or robbery, and for as many people to read as you can personally arrange.

Free India Committee, India Ravaged, January 1943 (Delhi, 1943), shelfmark EPP 13

On Friday 12 and Saturday 13 January 2018 the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, hosted a two-day workshop on ‘Insurgency in the archives: the politics and aesthetics of sedition in colonial India’, with focus on the British Library’s collection of publications proscribed by the Government of India. As discussed in a previous post, this collection is one of the largest archives of primary sources relating to any twentieth century decolonization movement. Unable to do justice to the papers presented in such a short space this blog will present collection items related to the workshop’s five panel themes.

Archiving revolution

Both censors and insurgents were concerned with the maintenance of records and circulation of texts. Revolutionaries sometimes also appropriated the apparatus of the colonial state: distributed their writing in the mails or adopted the style and format of official literature. India Ravaged (above) collects texts documenting ‘atrocities’ committed under ‘British Aegis’ during the Quit India movement of 1942. Elsewhere a ‘balance sheet’ published by Indians based in San Francisco estimates that whilst Englishmen extract $136 million from India per year, the daily income of an average Indian is 2.5 cents.

EPP 1(8)
The Balance Sheet of British Rule in India (San Francisco, n.d.), shelfmark EPP 1/8

Communism in the vernacular

British anxiety about Soviet incursions in this region was such that communist literature was automatically banned.

PIB 69(1)
Sāmrājyavāda, a Hindi translation of Lenin’s Imperialism (Benares, 1934), PIB 69/1

PIB 18(1)
Lenina aura Gāndhī by René Fülöp-Miller, a comparative study of Lenin and Gandhi translated into Hindi from German (Delhi, 1932), shelfmark PIB 18/1

Networks of extraterritorial sedition

Banned works not only discussed international affairs, but were also sometimes disseminated via transcontinental underground networks. The wide-ranging nature of these is evident in a cache of Chinese language pro-German propaganda produced during WW1.

PIB 215(65)
A collection of German war reports and speeches translated into Chinese (n.d. and n.p), shelfmark PIB 215/65

Regulating ‘hatred’ and ‘disaffection’

The two main criteria for censorship were established in the 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure, which defined ‘seditious material’ as that likely to incite ‘disaffection’ towards the Government of India or ‘class hatred’ between India’s different communities. The proscribed publications are therefore a valuable archive of both the nationalist movement and communal tensions in the lead-up to Independence and Partition.

PIB 126(2)
A handbill printed on saffron paper urges Hindus to only buy produce from coreligionists in order to protect Gomāta (Mother cow). (Ayodhya, n.d.), shelfmark PIB 126/2

PIB 93p1
A special edition of the Arya Samaj Urdu-language periodical Vedik Maigzīn disputes the authority of the Quran (Lahore, 1936), shelfmark PIB 93

Spoken texts, picture texts

The collection is particularly strong in popular print and street poetry. These texts were intended for a mass audience during a period of low literacy levels, and meant to be seen and heard as much as read.

PIB 210(2)p1
Vidrohiṇī (Rebel woman), a collection of nationalist songs (Bombay, 1942), shelfmark PIB 210/2

 PP Hin F93
Gore kuttoṃ kā harāmīpana (The bastardy of the white dogs), a stream of invective printed on red paper (n.p., 1930?), shelfmark PP Hin F93

Such literature would have circulated hand-to-hand and by word of mouth, before being intercepted by the colonial censor and kept in the British Library.

Pragya Dhital

Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London

Further reading:

Pinney Christopher. 2004. ‘Photos of the Gods’: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (London: Reaktion Books)

Shaw, Graham and Mary Lloyd (eds.) 1985. Publications proscribed by the government of India: a catalogue of the collections in the India Office Library and Records and the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books, British Library Reference Division (London: British Library)

Singer, Wendy. 1997. Creating Histories: Oral Narratives and the Politics of History-making (New Delhi: Oxford University Press)

Previous blog posts on the proscribed publications collection:

Alex Hailey, 'Caught out at Customs', 4 April 2017 

Pragya Dhital, 'Inflammable material in the British Library', 25 September 2017


15 March 2018

Preventing disorder at the East India Company factories

More than 1500 volumes of East India Company Factory Records are being digitised though a partnership between the British Library and Adam Matthew Digital. The factories were the Company’s overseas trading posts from the 17th to 19th centuries. The Factory Records are copies of documents sent back to London to be added to the archive at East India House.  

EIC factory Cossimbazar 1795 Add.Or.3192 - Cropped East India Company Factory at Cossimbazar 1795 Add.Or.3192 Online Gallery Noc

The main categories of documents included in this series are formal minutes of official meetings; diaries recording daily business and life at the factory; and correspondence.

A wide range of topics is covered, for example:
• Commercial transactions and dealings with local merchants
• Descriptions of goods traded, with prices
• Private trade of Company servants
• Relations with other European nations and with local inhabitants
• Ship arrivals and departures; negotiations with captains
• Personnel management
• Misdemeanours
• Establishments and salaries
• Complaints and petitions
• Sickness and death

The first of two modules of digitised Factory Records was launched recently. It includes the Company trading posts in South and South-East Asia. Amongst these are the records for the Hugli Factory in the Bay of Bengal, 1663-1687.

IOR G 20 2 p.19IOR/G/20/2 part 2 pp.19-21 Rules for good behaviour December

In December 1679 the Agent and Council for the Coast of Coromandel and the Bay of Bengal composed a set of orders ‘’for advanceing the Honour of the English Nation and the preventing of Disorders’. All Company servants employed in the Bay of Bengal were instructed to –

• Stop lying, swearing, cursing, drunkenness, ‘uncleaness’, ‘profanation of the Lord’s Day’, and all other sinful practices.
• Be sure to be back inside the Company house or their lodgings at night.
• Say morning and evening prayers.

Penalties for infringement were specified.

• For staying out of the house all night without permission or being absent when the gates were shut at 9pm without a reasonable excuse – 10 rupees to be paid to the poor, or one whole day sitting publicly in the stocks.
• For every oath or curse, twelve pence to the poor, or three hours in the stocks.
• For lying - twelve pence to the poor.
• For drunkenness – five shillings to the poor or six hours in the stocks.
• For any Protestant in the Company’s house absent without a valid excuse from public prayers on weekday mornings and evenings - twelve pence to the poor or one week’s confinement in the house.
• For any Christian absent from morning and evening prayers on a Sunday - twelve pence to the poor.  If no payment was made, the money was to be raised by selling the offender’s goods, or he might be imprisoned.

If these penalties failed to ‘reclaim’ someone from these vices or if any man was found guilty of adultery, fornication, or ‘uncleaness’, or disturbed the peace of the factory by quarrelling or fighting, he was to be sent to Fort St George for punishment.  The orders were to be read publicly at the Factory twice a year so no-one could profess ignorance of them.

One of the Company officials who signed the regulations was Matthias Vincent. He was accused in India of corruption, immorality and extortion!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

The East India Company digital resource is available online from Adam Matthew and there is access in British Library Reading Rooms in London and Yorkshire.


13 March 2018

Getting a fair price: a handy pocket-book for merchants (and smugglers?)

We recently acquired a little book with strong ties to Cornish trade and smuggling in the 18th century.  Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal was printed in the sea port of Falmouth, Cornwall, in 1787.  It is a pocket-sized book of tables and calculations of the rates of exchange between Portugal and England, together with conversion tables for measures of cloth, wine and corn, and weights – indispensable for the merchants and sailors involved in Falmouth’s lucrative trade network, clandestine or otherwise, wanting a fair price for their goods.

Photo 1Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal Noc

During the 18th century there was a thriving maritime trade between Lisbon and Falmouth, as described by Daniel Defoe in his Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain, 1724:

"Falmouth is well built, has abundance of shipping belonging to it, is full of rich merchants, and has a flourishing and increasing trade.  I say 'increasing,' because by the late setting up the English packets between this port and Lisbon, there is a new commerce between Portugal and this town carried on to a very great value.  It is true, part of this trade was founded in a clandestine commerce carried on by the said packets at Lisbon, where, being the king's ships, and claiming the privilege of not being searched or visited by the Custom House officers, they found means to carry off great quantities of British manufactures, which they sold on board to the Portuguese merchants, and they conveyed them on shore, as it is supposed, without paying custom.  But the Government there getting intelligence of it … that trade has been effectually stopped.  But the Falmouth merchants, having by this means gotten a taste of the Portuguese trade, have maintained it ever since in ships of their own”.

The Falmouth-Lisbon Packet Service described by Defoe started operation in 1689.  It was an early postal service that carried mail on packet ships from country to country.  There were other packet stations on the south and east coasts and, together, they ran important routes across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and through Northern Europe.  The packet crews furtively traded goods on their own account, duty-free, on the side, making the packet service risky but potentially lucrative work.  Even when the government got wind of this practice and stamped it out, the smuggling continued using privately owned boats.  Portuguese gold bars and coin were particular favourites, and often found their way up to London.  This little pocket book would have been a handy guide for converting measures of smuggled goods, and calculating the exchange rate between currencies.

Photo 2Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal Noc

The last page has an advertisement for Elizabeth Elliot, bookseller, stationer and printer.  Elizabeth was the widow of the printer Philip Elliot and, together, their business was responsible for ten out of the 24 early printed books with Falmouth imprints that survive today.  Elizabeth’s shop sold an eclectic range of “books in all languages and all manner of bindings; stationary/wares of all sorts; mathematical instruments; violins, German and common flutes, and fifes, music, music-books and music-paper; the late Sir John Hill’s medicines, by appointment of Lady Hill; Wash-Balls, lavender-water, eau de luce, &c. &c.”.  Elizabeth took over the shop in 1787 and printed this book of tables, an English grammar for “young beginners”, two sermons, a book of spiritual songs and a satirical poem about slavery.

Photo 3  Money of England, reduced into money of Portugal Noc

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections