Catherine Pickett. Bibliography of the East India Company: Contemporary Printed Sources, 1786-1858. Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues Series. London: British Library Publishing, 2015. 400 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7123-5778-4.
Reviewed by Lakshmi Subramaniam (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences)
Published on H-Asia (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
To review a bibliography is never easy; to review an exhaustive one that is excellently conceived of and meticulously arranged is even more daunting. This is partly because the reader’s imagination is seduced, even paralyzed by the tantalizing possibilities of research suggested and seemingly made easy by the catalogue of source material made available. In this case, the bibliography also happens to track a history of the English East India Company, its conquest of India, and its consolidation by simply allowing the arrangement of the sources to tell the story with meticulous detail and disarming simplicity. Behind that lies a painstaking exercise in identifying and arranging the printed information that addressed the affairs of the English East India Company, and the various facets of its rule in the Indian subcontinent and its operations outside extending over the eastern Indian Ocean.
What makes Catherine Pickett’s Bibliography of the East India Company important is not simply its value as an immaculately produced guide to research but also its subtle commentary on the very history of the English trading company during a period of momentous change. The bibliography begins in 1786, a date that saw the operationalizing of the India Act of 1784 that opened the English East India Company to greater supervision and regulation by the Indian Parliament. This involved, at the individual level, such dramatic episodes as the impeachment of administrators like Warren Hastings and critical indictments against Company misrule by protagonists in the British Parliament, and at the larger organizational level the introduction of major changes that led to the dismantling of the Company’s monopoly claims on trade with India and China.
Pickett prefaces each year’s list with a clear and comprehensive introduction to the principal developments that marked the Company’s affairs. She looks at war and peace; at corruption and regulation; and at the many explorations of territory, natural resources, and populations that various wings of the Company establishment undertook. Thus we have references to digests published in the three colonial cities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras on fisheries, naval signs, seamanship, detailed local ethnographies of local populations, etc. The bibliography does full justice to the range of activities that the trading Company undertook and that paved the way for a particular mode of understanding the country that they set out to rule.
Needless to say some themes are better served than others. The material on missionaries and colonial Western education is especially striking just as the compilations on mutinies (Vellore mutiny and Sepoy mutiny, for instance) and on the traffic in opium are very detailed and exhaustive. But this is hardly a disqualification. In fact, the very many asides on issues ranging from the removal from power of local chiefs and rajas to price lists and cargo manifests is testimony to the complex profile of the English East India Company and that of the politics it pursued first as trader and then as sovereign.
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Lakshmi Subramaniam. Review of Pickett, Catherine, Bibliography of the East India Company: Contemporary Printed Sources, 1786-1858.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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