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The Crisis of Liberal Reform in India: Public opinion, pyrotechnics, and the Charter Act of 1833

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 August 2018

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This article reveals the Charter Act of 1833 as a turning point in the history of British-Indian political thought, which foreclosed, for a generation, liberal efforts to reform Britain's avowedly despotic regime in India. Anticipating a victory in their transmarine campaign to make the state accountable to an Indian ‘public’, reformers were disillusioned to find instead that the new Act was founded on enlightened despotism. Attempting to gather popular support for the authoritarian vision of reform espoused by Thomas Babington Macaulay and the other framers of the Act, Governor-General William Bentinck organized a grand fireworks display in Calcutta. The failure of this event, however, compounded the initial backlash against the Act, widening the rift between state and ‘public’, and precipitating the latter's decline as an effective political formation.

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* For comments on versions of this article, the author would like to thank Robert Travers, the anonymous referees, and audiences at Harvard, Lisbon, and London.


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87 Bentinck to Wilson, 1 May 1834, in ibid., Vol. 2, pp. 1263–4, p. 1264.

88 Bentinck to Peter Auber, 12 May 1834, in ibid., Vol. 2, pp. 1278–80, p. 1279. Although Bentinck's views had been consulted occasionally during the negotiations, his direct involvement had been limited.

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93 House of Commons Debate, 15 July 1833, p. 3007.

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101 Bentinck, Minute (14 October 1833) (emphasis added).

102 ‘The grand fete’, Calcutta Literary Gazette, repr. in Bengal Hurkaru (6 January 1834).

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111 See James Mackintosh to Richard Sharp, August 1804, cited in Mackintosh, Robert James (ed.), Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Sir James Mackintosh, 2 vols (London, 1835), Vol. 1, p. 212Google Scholar.

112 Bentinck, Minute (14 October 1833).

113 ‘The grand fete’, Calcutta Literary Gazette.

114 Ibid., p. 133. The first motto is from Virgil (Georgics, 1.249) and translates as ‘Dawn returns from us, and brings back the day’. The second means ‘By command of the King and Parliament of England’.

115 Calcutta Courier (15 January 1834).

116 See the frontispiece to Primitiae Orientales (Calcutta, 1803), Vol. 1; and for the design of the College medals, Puddester, Robert, Commemorative and Historical Medals from 1750 to 1947 (London: Spink, 2002), pp. 1618Google Scholar.

117 A Native Correspondent [pseud.], ‘The levee and fire-works’, Calcutta Courier (17 January 1834). This correspondent identified some of the attendees: ‘Mysore Princes, Newábs Zuffer-jung, Taháwer-jung, Hesám-jung Behadurs, Rajah Kálikishen Behadur, Baboo Radhakánth Deb, Rajnarain Roy, and Vakeels of Lucknow, Joypore, Joudpore, &c. &c’.

118 For the pamphlet, see Programme of the Grand Exhibition of Fire Works in Celebration of the Charter of 1833 (Calcutta, 10 January 1834), Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, Mss. C. 413.

119 Calcutta Courier (15 January 1834).

120 Englishman (Calcutta; 9 January 1834).

121 ‘The fireworks’, Bengal Hurkaru (15 January 1834).

122 Calcutta Courier (15 January 1834).

123 Bengal Hurkaru (16 January 1834).

124 ‘The grand and appropriate celebration of the renewal of the charter’, India Gazette (16 January 1834); Bengal Hurkaru (16 January 1834).

125 Lost in a Fog [pseud.] to ed., ‘Tuesday night's tumasa’, 15 January 1834, Bengal Hurkaru (16 January 1834).

126 A Native Correspondent, ‘Levee’.

127 Bengal Hurkaru (16 January 1834).

128 ‘Celebration’, India Gazette.

129 Bengal Hurkaru (16 January 1834); see also India Gazette (16 January 1834).

130 ‘Celebration of the renewal of the charter’, Asiatic Journal ns 14 (1834), p. 167.

131 A Native Correspondent, ‘Levee’.

132 ‘The tumasha’, Reformer, repr. in Englishman (Calcutta; 13 January 1834).

133 Bengal Hurkaru (6 January 1834).

134 India Gazette, repr. in Calcutta Courier (13 January 1834).

135 A Believer in Revelation [pseud.] to ed., ‘The fete’, 4 January 1834, Englishman (Calcutta; 9 January 1834).

136 ‘Tumasha’, Reformer.

137 ‘Celebration’, India Gazette.

138 On Shore, see Penner, Peter and MacLean, Richard Dale, ‘Introduction to Frederick John Shore’, in Penner, P. and MacLean, R. D. (eds), The Rebel Bureaucrat: Frederick John Shore (1799–1837) as Critic of William Bentinck's India (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1983), pp. 350Google Scholar; Kolff, Dirk H. A., Grass in Their Mouths: The Upper Doab of India under the Company's Magna Charta, 1793–1830 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 343449CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

139 Shore, F. J., ‘On the future internal government of British India’ (March 1834), in his Notes on Indian Affairs, Vol. 1, pp. 390408, p. 392Google Scholar.

140 ‘The great programme!!! A grand irregular Alexandrine ode!’, Englishman (Calcutta; 14 January 1834).

141 Englishman (Calcutta; 16 January 1834).

142 Werrett, Simon, ‘Watching the fireworks: Early modern observation of natural and artificial spectacles’, Science in Context 24 (2011), pp. 167–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

143 Ibid.; see generally Johns, Adrian, Nature and the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

144 Bartolozzi Brown [pseud. Henry Whitelock Torrens] to ed., ‘The fireworks’, Meerut Observer (19 December 1833), repr. in Calcutta Courier (28 December 1833); B. Brown [pseud. H. W. Torrens] to ed., ‘The fireworks—The allegory explained’, Meerut Observer (30 January 1834), repr. in Calcutta Courier (10 February 1834). For the basis of the attribution, see Torrens, H. W., A Selection from the Writings, Prose and Poetical, of the Late Henry W. Torrens, (ed.) Hume, James, 2 vols (Calcutta, 1854), Vol. 1, pp. 3, 17Google Scholar. For a biography of Torrens, see J. Hume, ‘Introduction’, in Torrens, Writings, Vol. 1, pp. i–cxiii.

145 [Torrens] to ed., ‘Allegory’.

146 Salatino, Kevin, Incendiary Art: The Representation of Fireworks in Early Modern Europe (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 1997), Vol. 3, pp. 1921Google Scholar; Simon Werrett, ‘Picturing pyrotechnics’, Public Domain Review (25 June 2014),, [accessed 23 April 2018].

147 Bentinck, Minute (14 October 1833).

148 R. C. C. to ed., ‘The East India Bill’, Reformer (Calcutta; 29 December 1833), repr. in Ghose, Benoy (ed.), Selections from English Periodicals of 19th Century Bengal (Calcutta: Papyrus, 1978), Vol. 1, pp. 217–18, p. 217Google Scholar.

149 Shore, ‘Internal government’, Vol. 1, p. 391 n. † (emphasis added).

150 [Torrens] to ed., ‘Allegory’ (emphasis added).

151 An Impartial Observer [pseud.] to ed., Gyannaneshun (January 1834), repr. in Moitra (ed.), Selections, pp. 135–7, pp. 135, 136.

152 A Poor Bengallee [pseud.] to ed., ‘A native's complaint’, India Gazette (17 January 1834). This correspondent wrote that he ‘would have petitioned Lord Bentinck’ directly, but had turned to the press instead, expecting his lordship to be in a temper as ‘the fireworks . . . were all so bad’.

153 ‘Conduct of Europeans towards natives’, Bengal Hurkaru (22 January 1834).

154 ‘Devil Dutchman’, Meerut Universal Magazine 1 (1835), pp. 30–33, p. 33. ‘The leading journal’ would seem to be the Bengal Hurkaru. For subscription data, see Ahmed, Social Ideas, p. 82. The Latin phrase comes from Horace (Ars Poetica, 143) and translates as ‘smoke from the flash’.

155 Eden, Letters from India, Vol. 2, p. 171.

156 ‘Fireworks at Calcutta in honour of Her Majesty's birthday’, Calcutta Star (31 May 1844), repr. in Friend of India (6 June 1844), p. 358; Englishman (Calcutta), cited in Ball, Charles, The History of the Indian Mutiny, 2 vols (London, 1859), Vol. 2, p. 520Google Scholar; see similarly An Idler [pseud.], Letters to Friends at Home (Calcutta, 1845), pp. 10–22; Ritchie, Gerald, The Ritchies in India (London: John Murray, 1920), pp. 140–1Google Scholar.

157 Lost in a Fog, ‘Tumasa’; Jack i’ the Bush [pseud.] to ed., ‘Economy and extravagance’, Englishman (Calcutta; 21 January 1834).

158 India Gazette (16 January 1834).

159 ‘Lord Bentinck's foolery’, Alexander's East India Magazine 7 (1834), p. 98.

160 Bentinck to Metcalfe, 4 February 1834, in Philips (ed.), The Correspondence of Bentinck, Vol. 2, pp. 1200–1.

161 Bentinck to G. Norton, 11 April 1834, in Barber, James, A Letter . . . on Steam-Navigation with India (London, 1837), pp. 43–8Google Scholar.

162 Bentinck to Wilson, 1 May 1834, Vol. 2, p. 1264.

163 Bentinck, 1 June 1834, in Philips (ed.), The Correspondence of Bentinck, Vol. 2, pp. 1286–8, p. 1286; Bentinck, ‘Lord William Bentinck's reply to the Society's address’ (8 April 1835), Transactions of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India 2 (1836), pp. 210–11, p. 211.

164 Metcalfe, Charles, ‘Liberation of the Indian press’, Minute (6 September 1830), in Kaye, John William, The Life and Correspondence of Charles, Lord Metcalfe, 2 vols (London, 1854), Vol. 2, pp. 254–6, pp. 255 and 256Google Scholar.

165 Bentinck, Minute (15 January 1834), repr. in Calcutta Monthly Journal (May 1834), pp. 109–14, p. 113.

166 India Gazette, cited in ‘Governor General's Minute’, ibid., pp. 115–24, pp. 122–3.

167 Henry Whitelock Torrens, 15 September 1835, cited in Hume, Introduction, p. xvi.

168 H. V., ‘What has Lord William Bentinck done for India?’, Meerut Universal 1 (1835), pp. 1–12, p. 3; see Shore, F. J., ‘A slight sketch of the administration of Lord William Bentinck’ (December 1834; ‘P. S.’, February 1835), in his Notes on Indian Affairs, Vol. 2, pp. 216–28Google Scholar. Bentinck took the charge seriously enough to explicitly disavow it in his Minute on the civil service reports: Bentinck, Minute (15 January 1834), p. 114.

169 Hardwick, ‘Vestry politics’, p. 105.

170 T. B. Macaulay, Minute (16 April 1835), in Dharker, C. D. (ed.), Lord Macaulay's Legislative Minutes (Madras: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp. 165–7, p. 165Google Scholar; see Clive, John, Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian (New York: Knopf, 1973), pp. 323–33Google Scholar.

171 Dickens, Theodore, Report of the Meeting of the Inhabitants of Calcutta, Held at the Town Hall, on the 5th January, 1835 (Calcutta, 1835), p. 14Google Scholar.

172 Bengal Herald, repr. in ibid., p. 25.

173 House of Commons Debate, Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 14 July 1836, Vol. 35, pp. 189–203. Hume himself probably expected the motion to fail. See A Friend to India [pseud.], ‘Mr. Hume's resolution’, Asiatic Journal ns 21 (1836), pp. 42–7, p. 42.

174 On the speeches, see Kling, Blair B., Partner in Empire: Dwarkanath Tagore and the Age of Enterprise in Eastern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 162–5Google Scholar. On the petition signatures, see ‘The Black Act petition committee’, Calcutta Monthly Journal (July 1836), pp. 269–70b; Turton, T. E. M., Remarks on the Petition to Parliament of the Inhabitants of Bengal and Madras Against the Act No. XI of 1836 (London, 1838), p. 5Google Scholar. On this alienation, see ‘Public meeting—Saturday, June 18th, 1836’, Calcutta Monthly Journal (July 1836), pp. 255–6.

175 A Lawyer [pseud.], ‘On the Local Act, No. XI. of 1836’, Bengal Hurkaru, repr. in Calcutta Monthly Journal (August 1836), pp. 231–7, p. 231; Longueville Clarke, in ‘Public meeting—1836’, pp. 258–9; see Report of a Public Meeting Held at the Town Hall, Calcutta, on the 24th November, 1838 (London, 1839), p. 42.

176 Macaulay, Minute [1836], in Dharker (ed.), Legislative Minutes, pp. 175–80, p. 180; see Clive, Macaulay, pp. 333–8.

177 Macaulay, Minute [1836], in Dharker (ed.), Legislative Minutes, pp. 183–97, 194.

178 Wilson, Jon, ‘The silence of empire: Imperialism and India’, in Craig, David and Thompson, James (eds), Languages of Politics in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 218241, p. 237CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

179 For the phrase, see Rothschild, Emma, ‘Arcs of ideas: International history and intellectual history’, in Budde, Gunilla, Conrad, Sebastian, and Janz, Oliver (eds), Transnationale Geschichte: Themen, Tendenzen und Theorien (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2006), pp. 217226, p. 221Google Scholar. See generally Bell, Duncan S. A., ‘Dissolving distance: Technology, space, and empire in British political thought, 1770–1900’, Journal of Modern History 77 (2005), pp. 523–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

180 The Article on the Colonization and Commerce of British India (1829; repr. London, 1830), p. 31; see similarly Liverpool Times (13 January 1829), p. 211.

181 Shore, F. J., ‘The system of economy lately introduced’ (15 October 1833), in his Notes on Indian Affairs, Vol. 1, pp. 344–56, p. 345 n.Google Scholar; Shore, ‘Internal government’, Vol. 1, pp. 389–90; Rasik Krishna Mallick, in Report of the Meeting of the Inhabitants of Calcutta, 1835, p. 15.

182 Buckingham, James Silk, 17 July 1834, in Parliamentary Inquiry into the Claims of Mr. Buckingham on the East India Company (London, 1834), p. 89, see p. 52Google Scholar; Taylor, ‘Hume’, p. 302; Zastoupil, Rammohun, pp. 111–28.

183 Macaulay, Minute [1836], in Dharker (ed.), Legislative Minutes, pp. 179–80.

184 Kling, Partner in Empire, p. 158; see also pp. 46–8, 241.

185 Macaulay to Selina and Frances Macaulay, 28 November 1836, in Pinney (ed.), The Letters of Macaulay, Vol. 3, pp. 197–8, p. 198.

186 Eden, Letters from India, Vol. 1, pp. 215–16; see also Vol. 1, pp. 234–5.

187 Auckland, cited in Sinha, D. P., Some Aspects of British Social and Administrative Policy in India During the Administration of Lord Auckland (Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, 1969), p. 313Google Scholar; Curzon, British Government in India, Vol. 1, p. 224.

188 Bengal Hurkaru (30 November 1836); Mittra, Kissory Chand, Memoir of Dwarkanath Tagore (Calcutta, 1870), p. 74Google Scholar.

189 Bengal Hurkaru (30 November 1836).

190 Sartori, Bengal in Global Concept History, pp. 68–108; Chatterjee, Partha, ‘An equal right to the city: Contests over cultural space in Calcutta’, in Kaarsholm, Preben and Hofmeyr, Isabel (eds), The Popular and the Public: Cultural Debates and Struggles Over Public Spaces in Modern India, Africa and Europe (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2009), pp. 263–83Google Scholar; Chatterjee, P.The curious case of liberalism in India’, Modern Intellectual History 8 (2011), pp. 687–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chatterjee, Black Hole, pp. 155–8; see also Bose, Neilesh, ‘The cannibalized career of liberalism in colonial India’, Modern Intellectual History 12 (2015), pp. 475–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar. These interpretations clash, notably, with that of Bayly, Recovering Liberties.

191 For the phrase, see Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 811Google Scholar (apparently paraphrasing Müller, Heiner, ‘The walls of history’, Semiotext(e) 4 (1982), pp. 3676, p. 39Google Scholar.

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