The Fabulous Nabob: Miscegenations of Empire and Vocation in Eighteenth Century British Literature
Type of DegreeDissertation
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This dissertation has grown out of my interest in literary representations of the Nabob, a British Returnee from India who appeared in the aftermath of the 1757 Battle of Plassey.The representations of the Nabob in popular literature, which appeared between 1757 and 1789, constitute one of the important cultural sites in which concerns about the vocational integrity of the overseas merchant are interwoven with anxiety about the potentially harmful associations between an assertive British imperial nation-state and the Mughal Empire. The Nabob of literary representation was frequently condemned in many eighteenth-century literary texts for imitating the manners and mores of the Nawab to the detriment of his idealized calling as a pacific merchant. Consequently, a substantial section of the literary representations of the Nabob from this period emphasizes his anti-British and unchristian militarism. Although many eighteenth-century authors were acutely aware of the uniqueness of the Nabob as a new social type, some twentieth and late twentieth-century social historians have tended to treat the Nabob as a minor phase in the on-going eighteenth-century project to recuperate the British mercantile classes in terms of social respectability. I argue, on the contrary, that the Nabob, far from being a minor colonial stereotype, was a major social type in his own right, and eighteenth-century literary investigations of the Nabob were central to the struggle over the control of mercantile representations. This historical argument allows me to put forward two major theoretical arguments. First, the Nabob representations were not only born out of the fears and prejudices of the British, but they also reflected the real-life interactions between the British and Mughal Empires. Second, these representations are indicative of the capacity of the East to shape Western perceptions directly through material as well as conceptual means, a fact which reflects the radically different balance of power between the East and the West prevalent at this time. This second theoretical argument allows me to read eighteenth-century British literature in ways that critique an influential paradigm in postcolonial historiography which projects an anachronistic power inequity between the West and the “rest” backwards into the eighteenth century, when, no matter how prejudiced they happened to be, British authors were aware of the potency of Eastern cultures and polities. This anachronistic model has been critiqued and largely revised in recent historical scholarship that take into account the material and conceptual realities, by no means exclusively Western, governing the power relations between the East and the West ; however, literary criticism is certainly lagging behind historical scholarship in this regard, although substantial advances have been made recently. In order to contribute to the ongoing project of reenvisioning the existing paradigm for exploring the East-West contact in postcolonial literary criticism, I intend to read the Nabob as a Western representation wrought out of Eastern agency. In this particular case, Western representation does not respond directly to Eastern agency but to the presence in the cultural/historical scene of real-life Britons whose subjectivities have been substantially shaped by the material as well as conceptual agency of the East, namely the still-potent Mughal Empire and its subjects. With that goal in view, I explore representations of the Nabob in a number of eighteenth-century British texts that range from the popular and the ephemeral to the literary or the near-literary. In addition, I read a number of texts written by eighteenth-century Mughal Indians that reflect a peculiar cultural self-confidence and autonomy that allow the Indian protagonists to assimilate and accept the Britons who lived and worked among them on equal terms.