Wednesday’s Book Review: “Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge”


k5870Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. By Bernard S. Cohn. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

This is a collection of five previously published essays that explore aspects of British colonialism in India during its five centuries of involvement there. This collection originally published in the 1980s and 1990s offers insights into how the English collection, organization, and systematization of knowledge about Indian society led to a belief in the Indian inferiority and therefore absolved the empire of guilt about the colonial status it placed the Indian subcontinent under. In essence, the British constructed a mythical India that deserved, and was even raised through the cultural hegemony and political control emphasized by Great Britain.

In this decidedly challenging book Bernard S. Cohn, a longtime professor at the University of Chicago, lays out a model for understanding empire using the British construction of India as an example. He views it as fundamentally an intellectual and cultural phenomenon. Like the work of Edward Said, Cohn helped to establish the modern conceptions of colonialism with this important study. The first major section deals with language, both that of command and that of subservience, as the British asserted control over India in the eighteenth century. Gaining a knowledge of the many languages of the region, and codifying the people who spoke them under a single English language, enforced the sense of control the empire exercised over their daily lives.

Likewise, the imposition of law—both British precedent and Indian practice—under a single legal system ensured suzerainty over the colonial population. Through the use of legal mechanisms, Cohn finds that the British not only established order in India but also established legitimacy as the rulers of the vast “other” of the population. It reaffirmed British power; it also ensured Indian submission to a system that kept order and meted out rational responses to practices.

Cohn also demonstrates the collection of cultural, historical, and sacred relics from India helped British scholars create a sense of what it meant to be Indian, and to establish a chronology of the people. That construction might bear little relationship to the reality of the situation but it allowed for the codification of a set of knowledge that enabled the British to “make sense” of those peoples. Antiquarian collections, museum pieces, archaeological excavation, and studies of art and literature led to a sense of the inferior state of the Indian peoples deserving too be ruled. Finally, Cohn analyzes Indian dress and its relationship to English customs, suggests that clothes have served always as a measure of setting groups apart, both those engaging in colonialism and those fighting it.

This book is a fascinating foray into the concept of “otherness” and how cultures set one another apart. It forces one to think about these relations in ways different from the norm.

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