Reviewing The News of Empire; Telegraphy, Journalism, and the Politics of the Reporting in Colonial India
[This is first review of MBH book review section. Reviews are solicited from interested scholars on titles and themes associated with mobility (broadly defined). For instance, the following review explores historical impact of adding mobility to news/information through the introduction of electric telegraph in nineteenth-century colonial India]
The News of Empire: Telegraphy, Journalism, and the Politics of the Reporting in Colonial India c.1830-1900, Bonea, A, New Delhi (India), Oxford University Press (First Published 2016) pp-376
ISBN: 0199467129 (Hardback) Price: 1644 INR (US$: 25)
Amelia Bonea’s The News of Empire: Telegraphy, Journalism, and the Politics of the Reporting in Colonial India c.1830-1900 is a welcome addition to the genre of social history of communication technology in South Asian history. The book offers the additional advantage of offering a fresh perspective to history of journalism in South Asia. As such, the book represents a successful combination of bringing together history of ‘technologies of communications and the politics of news reporting in nineteenth-century India’ (p-2).
Historiographically speaking, the aims and the content of the volume is inter-disciplinary. The book seeks an answer to an apparently simple and narrow question of ‘how technology and English language journalism intersected in colonial India’ (p-2). But as Dr Bonea succinctly argues in the introduction, there is no single or simple answer to the question. Indeed, any attempt to answer the question, as the volume successfully illustrates, requires bringing together two distinct historiographical narratives: one, history of technology and transmission of technology in colonial contexts; and two, the evolution of news reporting as a consequence of the development of communication technology.
The volume admirably tackles this objective by focussing on the ways in which technologies of communications such as telegraph ‘enabled articulation of certain practices and visions of journalism in colonial landscape that was set on controlling and even repressing the circulation of intelligence’ (p-3). In short, the volume represents a historiographical shift in both history of communication technology and history of mechanisms of news making, including the content and form of the news. Additionally, it makes wider, though largely implicit contributions to the ongoing debate on relations between technology and social change as well as the complex role of technology and ‘colonial modernity’.
Broadly speaking, Bonea’s volume adds a layer of information and new perspective to an expanding field of social history of communication technology in South Asia. In a relatively recent shift away from a narrow focus on the economic impact of the ‘grand technologies’ (railways, canals) on South Asia; scholars have turned their attention to social and cultural impact of the introduction and expansion of communication technologies. Paralleling this widening scope of analysis, the term communication technologies too, have witnessed expansion with steamboats, telegraph, roads, public works, and even bicycles being included in the list. The investigation of these ‘tools of empire’ have yielded rich dividends; with excellent analyses by Clive Dewey, Ravi Ahuja, Nitin Sinha, Ritika Prasad, Smritikumar Sarkar, Deep Kanta Lahiri Choudhury and others have illustrated the imbrication of the ideological and practical role of communication technologies in the growth and consolidation of the colonial state in South Asia. At the same time however, these studies have underscored critical gaps between colonial rhetoric and desire for control over the colonised through an exaggerated belief in the abilities of modern technologies and how in reality such claims were undermined both by the complex socio-political realities of technology transmission and other compelling factors such as cost or physical conditions in India.
More importantly, these explorations have revealed how Indians responded to these technologies at abstract as well as more mundane, everyday levels through a complex web of negotiation, adoption, appropriation and even rejection of colonial technologies and accompanying claims of superiority. Historiographically speaking therefore, The News of Empire fits squarely in this scholarly consensus of critically interrogating the limits of communication technologies in colonial South Asia. More specifically, this book offers a vital and complementary addition to the outstanding analyses of Deep Kanta Lahiri Choudhury’s Telegraphic Imperialism: Crisis and Panic in the Indian Empire, c. 1830 (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Inasmuch, this volume adds to our knowledge about the between communication, empire and social change. But it also deviates from Lahiri Choudhury’s contention in a critical manner. Unlike Choudhury, for Bonea, the ‘turning point’ marking the use of telegraph was later in the nineteenth century; in the decades between 1870s and 1880s. This chronological shift Bonea claims, is especially visible through the changes that gradually affected the nature and content of English language journalism in colonial India – the second intersecting theme of this volume.
The News of Empire also makes a significant contribution to our current understanding of the evolution of journalism, albeit the English variety, in colonial South Asia. Admittedly, Bonea’s work aims to explore ‘how news reporting in India made use of and developed alongside various technologies of communications from the beginning of the century’ (p-25). Consequently, the volume takes a ‘longer view of the nineteenth century’ (p-25) underlining the continuities and discontinuities of the growth of news making in colonial India. Additionally, while largely agreeing to the current scholarly consensus evidenced in the works of Chandrika Kaul and G.N.S. Raghavan; the volume also makes a strong claim for a near-absent analysis of the role of communication technology such as telegraph in forging ‘press and imperial networks’ (pp-20-21). Even more so perhaps, deviating from established assumptions about the role of communication technology in forging a ‘national consciousness’ especially through newspaper columns (among other things) this book agues for a more nuanced picture, sceptical of the ‘temptation to invest technology with a power to shape collective thinking and behaviour’ (p-21). In other words, the book provides complex and nuanced answers to its beguilingly simple central question alluded above.
The need to combine two distinct historiographical traditions have influenced the methodological tools as well as the structure of the volume. As for the former, the book deftly cuts its losses by clearly outlining its admittedly narrow aims(p-3) and methodological choices. This however, adds to the strength of the book, as the discussion is enriched by a focus on the impact of telegraph on the development of English language journalism in colonial India, though not entirely without relevant comparisons with either developments in vernacular journalism in South Asia or across the world. The chapter scheme too, reflects the author’s desire to integrate the dual themes of the volume. As such, of the five chapters (excluding introduction and conclusion) the first two concentrate on the expansion and adoption of telegraph technology in colonial South Asia; while the remaining three engages with the ways in which telegraph shaped the contours of English language journalism, intersecting with the shifting needs of state and non-state actors (p-20).
The introduction and the conclusion of the volume provide sufficiently elaborate and cogent explanation of the main question it seeks to answer, hinting at wider implications of such evidence. Of these, the introduction provides relevant theoretical, historiographical and methodological underpinnings that shaped the volume, while the conclusion offers a reflective exercise, mulling over the conclusions reached alongside suggestions of further fruitful enquiries along similar lines.
As noted, methodologically speaking, the first two chapters provide the historical context of the introduction of telegraph technology in colonial South Asia and its usage by both the imperial state, as well as Indians of all varieties. Not surprisingly therefore, the first chapter discusses at detail the imperial imperative of introducing telegraph in India. Underlining the political and military needs that influenced this decision to bring a costly new technology to the colony, this chapter acknowledges that the ‘use of electric telegraphy added a new dimension to the circulation of intelligence between Britain and India’ (p-79). This admission of a clear break however, comes with a critical caveat, i.e. the endurance of older technologies and modes of communications, most notably the runners well into the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century. In other words, the new technology and its transmission is circumscribed within a context wherein despite the introduction of a range of modern technologies of communications, viz., railways and telegraph, the old lingers for a variety of reasons including natural disasters, conflicting interests between official and non-official users of telegraph; and last but not least, considerations of cost, more of which shortly.
The second chapter expands upon the preceding by bringing out the ‘social life of technology’ (p-80) or in other words, ‘contradictions and paradoxes of telegraphic science and practice’ (p-96). This chapter is the centre-piece of the volume as it infuses different meanings and usages of technology for different people – arguably the life-blood of a social history of technology. It is a detailed and vivid account of the myriad ways in which ‘practices and discourses associated with the introduction and use of electric telegraphy in nineteenth-century India’ (p-135). Underscoring both practical and cultural entanglements (pun intended) of Indians with the new technology of information transmission, this chapter shows the ways in which an imperial technology was appropriated and adopted, occasionally challenging or substantiating the aims of the colonial state. One of the high-points of this chapter is a use of a wide range of historical evidence in form of ‘popular and specialist press, memoirs, (auto)biographies, folk songs and literary texts to capture the wide range of experiences with and responses to telegraphy, electricity and other “modern” technologies in colonial India’ (p-29).
The third chapter of the volume moves to journalism as a prominent though historiographically neglected site of telegraphic practice. Predictably therefore, the chapter offers the historical background and context of journalism in colonial India focussing on the shifts that occurred in the self-definition of the profession. Additionally, the chapter also shows the hierarchies of the ‘colonial press world’ (p-191), underscoring both its organising principle of Indian journalists and vernacular language press as inferior, as well as the ways in which various state and non-state actors influenced the former. Continuing with the theme of the hierarchy of the press world and the involvement of various participants at different levels, chapter four focuses on the news Agency Reuters, the wider newspaper-press and the colonial state in nineteenth-century India. In essence, the chapter argues that the twin objectives of the colonial state, viz., to monitor and control the content of the news did not change over the course of the nineteenth-century. What changed however, was the bureaucratic ways devised to accomplish this aim, though with varying degrees of success, a reality that allowed news agencies like Reuters as well as Indian newspapers to engage with the colonial state on the issue of press release and nature of news as ‘public good’ (p-254). The fifth chapter examines the ‘environment of newspapers in colonial India with a focus on the content and form of news’ (p-267). Making a strong case for physical as well as content based transformation of the newspaper press in the course of the nineteenth-century, this chapter argues for standardisation, while suggesting variation in the ‘final product’ (p-314) influenced as much by financial considerations or the politics of the colonial government as by ‘editors’, proprietors’ and printers’ own visions of journalism and news reporting’ (p-314).
As a volume, The News of Empire makes significant contribution to our current understanding of role of communication technologies in influencing the nature and scope of English language journalism in colonial South Asia. Additionally, the contextualisation of telegraphy into a broader system of communications in colonial India underlines the ways in which technologies interact with one another as well as with the social and cultural milieu in which they are introduced. This approach is particularly relevant in a colonial context of technology transmission as it permits an exploration of the complex interaction between a technology imposed from above, and the responses of colonised people and society. At this level however, the book merely offers a glimpse of a more richer possibility of illustrating interactions of a colonial technology with the colonised, without pushing the arguments towards a more radical direction. After all, Dr Bonea admitted a scepticism for technologies ability to shape ‘national consciousness’. Given this, and the diverse nature of historical material used in chapter two, interpreting the impact of telegraphy on ‘collective thinking’ can perhaps be more nuanced than currently proffered. This said, the volume certainly makes a bold and empirically rich attempt to understand the complex relationship between a technology of communication and its impact on journalism in a colonial setting. At a related level, the book also shows, in very tangible ways, the impact of adding mobility to information had consequences that were neither envisaged nor expected by the colonial power. In short, The News of Empire is a valuable addition to the growing genre of social history of communication technology in colonial South Asia.
Dr Aparajita Mukhopadhyay,
Salisbury University, MD, USA