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  • Margot C. Finn


This address explores the writing of history in Britain during the Georgian and Victorian eras, arguing for the need both to trace British historiographical genealogies along routes that extend from Europe to the Indian subcontinent and to acknowledge the importance of material histories for this evolution. Focusing on military men who served in the East India Company during the Third Anglo-Maratha and Pindari War (1817–18), it examines the entangled histories of material loot, booty and prize on the one hand, and archival and history-writing practices developed by British military officers on the other. Active in these military campaigns and in post-conflict administration of conquered territories, a cadre of Company officers (assisted by ‘native’ interlocutors trained in Indian historical traditions) elaborated historical practices that we more conventionally associate with the Rankean historiographical innovations of the Victorian era. The Royal Historical Society's own history is shaped by these cross-cultural material encounters.



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I am especially grateful for comments and suggestions from Penelope J. Corfield, Felix Driver, Jagjeet Lally and Sue Stronge.



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1 Jones, Colin, ‘French Crossings: I. Tales of Two Cities’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 20 (2010), 126, at 2.

2 Pioneering studies of this kind include Berg, Maxine, ‘Women's Consumption and the Industrial Classes of Eighteenth-Century England’, Journal of Social History, 30 (1996), 415–34; and Lorna Wetherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain, 1660–1760 (1996). For an overview of more recent iterations of this approach, see Writing Material Culture History, ed. Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello (2014), esp. 1–13.

3 Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford, 2005). For an analysis of these trends within British history, see Trentmann, Frank, ‘Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics’, Journal of British Studies, 48 (2009), 283307.

4 Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC, 2010).

5 See the vigorous debates between RHS presidents on these themes: Mandler, Peter, ‘The Problem with Cultural History’, Cultural and Social History, 1 (2004), 94117; Jones, Colin, Mandler's, ‘PeterProblem with Cultural History”, or, Is Playtime Over?’, Cultural and Social History, 1 (2004), 209–15; and Mandler, Peter, ‘Problems in Cultural History: A Reply’, Cultural and Social History, 1 (2004), 326–32.

6 Lipartito, Kenneth, ‘Reassembling the Economic: New Departures in Historical Materialism’, American Historical Review, 121 (2016), 101–39, at 101.

7 The earlier focus on production and indigenous growth is for example captured in The Economic History of Britain since 1700, i: 1700–1860, ed. Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey (Cambridge, 1981). Mintz's, Sidney Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York, 1985) marked an early turning point. Exemplary of British historians’ attention to consumers and material goods are, for example, Berg, Maxine, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford, 2005); Lemire, Beverly, Fashion's Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660–1800 (Oxford, 1991); and Rappaport, Erika, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, 2017).

8 Examples of this rapidly expanding literature include Hall, Catherine, McClelland, Keith, Draper, Nicholas, Donnington, Kate and Land, Rachel, Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge, 2014); McAleer, John, Britain's Maritime Empire: Southern Africa, the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, 1763–1820 (Cambridge, 2017); Qureshi, Sadiah, Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, 2011); and Kathleen Wilson, The Island Race: Englishness, Empire, and Gender in the Eighteenth Century (2002).

9 Allen, David, ‘Scottish Historical Writing of the Enlightenment’, in The Oxford History of Historical Writing, iii: 1400–1800, ed. Rabasa, José, Sato, Masayuki, Tortarolo, Edoardo, and Woolf, Daniel (Oxford, 2012), 497517, citation 507.

10 O'Brien, Karen, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997).

11 Kidd, Colin, ‘The “Strange Death of Scottish History” Revisited: Constructions of the Past in Scotland, c. 1790–1914’, Scottish Historical Review, 76 (1997), 86102.

12 ‘Whig history…is, by definition, a success story: the story of the triumph of constitutional liberty and representative institutions’, Burrow observed. Burrow, J. W., A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (Cambridge, 1981), 3.

13 Bentley, Michael, ‘Shape and Pattern in British Historical Writing, 1815–1945’, in The Oxford History of Historical Writing, iv: 1800–1945, ed. Macintyre, Stuart, Maiguashca, Juan and Pók, Attila (Oxford, 2011), 209.

14 Georg G. Iggers, ‘The Intellectual Foundations of Nineteenth-Century “Scientific” History’, in Oxford History of Historical Writing, iv, ed. Macintyre, Maiguashca and Pók, 41–58.

15 Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (1997), 35.

16 Iggers, ‘Intellectual Foundations’, 47–50; Bentley, ‘Shape and Pattern’, 212–16.

17 Lubenow, William C., ‘Only Connect’: Learned Societies in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Woodbridge, 2015), 109.

18 O'Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment; Groot, Joanna de, Empire and History Writing in Britain c. 1750–2012 (Manchester, 2013), chs. 1–2.

19 For Robertson's Indian and cosmopolitan histories, see O'Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment., esp. chs. 4–5; Brown, Stewart, ‘William Robertson, Early Orientalism and the Historical Disquisition on India in 1791’, Scottish Historical Review, 88 (2009), 289312; and William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire, ed. S. J. Brown (Cambridge, 1997).

20 Brown, ‘William Robertson’, 296–9, notes the prominence of Scots in Orientalist scholarship of this era. See more broadly Rendall, Jane, ‘Scottish Orientalism: From Robertson to James Mill’, Historical Journal, 25 (1982), 4369.

21 Ludden, David, ‘Orientalist Empiricism: Transformations of Colonial Knowledge’, in Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, ed. Breckenridge, Carol and van der Veer, Peter (Philadelphia, 1993), 250–78; Mantena, Rama Sundari, The Origins of Modern Historiography in India: Antiquarianism and Philology, 1780–1880 (New York, 2012); Wagoner, Phillip B., ‘Precolonial Intellectuals and the Production of Colonial Knowledge’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 45 (2003), 783814.

22 Majeed, Javed, Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill's ‘The History of British India’ and Orientalism (Oxford, 1992), ch. 4, esp. 135–7, 148–9.

23 Burrow, Liberal Descent, 62–4; Catherine Hall, Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain (2012), ch. 5.

24 Thomas Macaulay, ‘Minute on Education’ (2 Feb. 1835),

25 Iggers, ‘Intellectual Foundations’, 48.

26 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2000).

27 Gordon, Stewart, The Marathas 1600–1818 (Cambridge, 1993), 163–77; Burton, Reginald George, The Mahratta and Pindari War. Compiled for General Staff, India (Simla, 1910).

28 Cooper, Randolf G. S., The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India: The Struggle for Control of the South Asian Military Economy (Cambridge, 2003); Vartavarian, Mesrob, ‘Pacification and Patronage in the Maratha Deccan, 1803–1818’, Modern Asian Studies, 50 (2016), 1749–91.

29 Philip F. McEldowney, ‘Pindari Society and the Establishment of British Paramountcy in India’ (MA dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1966), 5.

30 Ibid., 6; Roy, Mahrendra Prakash, Origin, Growth, and Suppression of the Pindaris (New Delhi, 1973), offers the most comprehensive overview.

31 Vartavarian, ‘Pacification and Patronage’, 1756–67.

32 Henry T. Prinsep, History of the Political and Military Transactions in India during the Administration of the Marquis of Hastings 1813–1823 (2 vols., 1825), i, 36–7, 38, 39.

33 McEldowney, ‘Pindari Society’, 9.

34 Vartavarian, ‘Pacification and Patronage’, 1759–61.

35 Prinsep, History of the Political, ii, 333–4.

36 Bombay Gazette, 4 Sept. 1816, 1 Jan. 1817.

37 Burton, R. G., ‘A Hundred Years Ago: The Mahratta and Pindari War’, Royal United Services Institution Journal, 62 (1917), 800–11.

38 For the baghnaka, and the context of its use, see Jackson, Anna and Jaffer, Amir with Ahlaway, Deepika, Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts (2009), 1617. For Shivaji, see Laine, James, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford, 2003).

39 James Grant Duff, A History of the Mahrattas (3 vols., 1826), i, 229.

40 Vaida, Suman G., Peshwa Bajirao II and the Downfall of the Maratha Power (Nagpur, 1976).

41 Grant Duff, History, iii, 427–8; Prinsep, History of the Political, ii, 57.

42 Vartavarian, ‘Pacification and Patronage’, 1769–72.

43 Gomans, Jos. J. L., The Rise of the Indo-Afghan Empire, c. 1710–1780 (Leiden, 1995), 136–7, 138–9.

44 Ibid., 142.

45 Deák, Francis and Jessup, Philip C., ‘Early Prize Court Procedure: Part One’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 82 (1934), 677–94, esp. 679–82; Musa, Shavana, ‘Tides and Tribulations: English Prize Law and the Law of Nations in the Seventeenth Century’, Journal of the History of International Law, 17 (2015), 4782.

46 Harris Prendergast, The Law relating to Officers in the Army (1855), ch. 7.

47 The disputes over the so-called ‘Deccan Prize Money’ of the Third Anglo-Maratha War are chronicled in British Library (henceforth BL), MSS Eur F88/447. The main Deccan Prize ledgers, extending in many volumes from 1819 to 1850, are found in BL, IOR/L/AG/24/24.

48 Deshpande, Prachi, Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India, 1700–1960 (New York, 2007), 5760; Gordon, Marathas, 160–2. See more broadly Kadam, V. S., ‘The Institution of Marriage and Position of Women in Eighteenth-Century Maharashtra’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 25 (1988), 341–70.

49 Bombay Gazette, 21 Jan. 1818.

50 Ibid., 28 Jan. 1818.

51 Local villagers who fled to the hill forts to escape warfare took their moveable property with them, but these goods were vulnerable to seizure as booty. See for example Grant Duff, History, ii, 429–31.

52 Petition of Lt-Colonel David Prother to the privy council (1833), BL, MSS Eur, F88/447, 184.

53 For ‘vibrant matter’ and the ‘vital materiality’ that links persons, things and political agency, see Bennett, Vibrant Matter.

54 Prother Petition, BL, MSS Eur, F88/447, 184–5.

55 Rhyghur Prize Committee Proceedings, May 1818, BL, MSS Eur F88/447, 416–18.

56 Prother to Lt-Colonel Leighton, 12 May 1818, BL, MSS Eur F88/447, 417.

57 Cooper, Anglo-Maratha Campaigns, 377 n. 168.

58 Prother Petition, BL, MSS Eur F88/447, 184–7.

59 For the wider Scottish tradition of Orientalist administration, see Frew, Joanna, ‘Scottish Backgrounds and Indian Experiences in the Late Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 34 (2014), 167–98; McLaren, Martha, British India and British Scotland: Career Building, Empire Building and a Scottish School of Thought on Indian Governance (Akron, 2001); and Powell, Avril, Scottish Orientalists and India: The Muir Brothers, Religion, Education and Empire (Woodbridge, 2011).

60 Gregorian, Raffi, ‘Unfit for Service: British Law and Looting in India in the Mid-Nineteenth Century’, South Asia, 13 (1990), 6384.

61 John Briggs to Mountstuart Elphinstone (henceforth ME), 25 Apr. 1818, BL, MSS Eur F88/201, 56. For the disputed Nassak diamond, see Evan Bell, Memoir of General John Briggs, of the Madras Army; With Comments on Some of his Words and Work (1885), 61–71.

62 The broader contours of military service as a medium of colonial knowledge formation are explored in Nicholas Dirks, ‘Colonial Histories and Native Informants: Biography of an Archive’, in Orientalism, ed. Breckenridge and van der Veer, 279–313; and Peers, Douglas, ‘Colonial Knowledge and the Military in India, 1780–1860’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 33 (2006), 157–80.

63 Deshpande, Creative Pasts, 77–8; James Grant Duff (henceforth JGD) to ME, 28 Dec. 1819, BL, MSS Eur F88/205, 70v–74v.

64 For Maratha historical traditions, see Guha, Sumit, ‘Speaking Historically: The Changing Voices of Historical Narration in Western India, 1400–1900’, American Historical Review, 109 (2004), 1084–103; for wider Indian historiographical traditions relevant to these British officers, see Chatterjee, Kumkum, The Culture of History in Early Modern India: Persianization and Mughal Culture in Bengal (New Delhi, 2009), and Rao, Velcheru, Shulman, David and Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, Textures of Time: Writing History in South India 1600–1800 (New York, 2003).

65 Henry Dundas Robertson to ME, 3 Sept. 1818, BL, MSS Eur F88/201, 97. Robertson himself reported having ‘dreamt the whole night of large Boxes of gold’ carried away by Maratha antagonists. Robertson to ME, [1818], BL, MSS Eur F88/201, 216r–v.

66 JGD to ME, 19 [July 1819], BL, MSS Eur F88/205, 74.

67 JGD to ME, 2 Aug. 1819, BL, MSS Eur F88/205, 84v.

68 JGD to ME, 8 Aug. 1820, BL, MSS Eur F88/205, 123.

69 JGD to ME, 12 Aug. 1820, BL, MSS Eur F88/205, 126.

70 JGD to ME, 14 Mar. 1822, BL, MSS Eur F88/205, 158.

71 JGD to ME, 14 Mar. 1822, BL, MSS Eur F88/205, 158.

72 JGD to ME, 29 Dec. 1822, BL, MSS Eur F88/206, 18.

73 Cited by Hall, Macaulay and Son, 209.

74 JGD to ME, 21 Feb. 1822, BL, MSS Eur F88/205, 152v.

75 Grant Duff, History, i, viii–x.

76 John Briggs, History of the Rise of Mahomedan Power in India, till the Year a.d. 1612… (4 vols., 1829), i, xiii.

77 Ibid., xv–xvi.

78 Grant Duff, History, i, 330. See also i, 389.

79 O'Brien, Karen, Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, 2009), esp. ch. 2; Sebastiani, Silvia, ‘“Race”, Women and Progress in the Scottish Enlightenment’, in Women, Gender and Enlightenment, ed. Knott, Sarah and Taylor, Barbara (Basingstoke, 2005), 7596.

80 Grant Duff, History, i, 18.

81 JGD to ME, [1818], BL, MSS Eur F88/204, 10v.

82 Grant Duff, History, i, 298.

83 For the family's genealogy of this object, see

84 Grafton, The Footnote, challenges the conventional chronology of historiographical ‘modernity’ in referencing, but confines his argument to a European context.

85 See for example the many letters and draft replies in BL, MSS Eur F88/447.

86 Examples include BL, MSS Eur F88/447, 334v–338; contemporary histories used to substantiate claims included Prinsep, History of the Political, esp. ii, 12–13, and Valentine Blacker, Memoir of the Operations of the British Army in India during the Mahratta War of 1817, 1818, & 1819 (1821).

87 See esp. Arthur James Lewis, A Letter to the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury, relative to the Claim of the Representatives of Naroba Govind Ouita on the Deccan Prize Fund (1833), and Inagaki, Haruki, ‘Law, Agency and Emergency in British Imperial Politics: Conflict between the Government and the King's Court in Bombay in the 1820s’, East Asian Journal of British History, 5 (2016), 207–24, esp. 217–22.

88 The recipients were assistant surgeon Thomas Tomkinson (£17 13s 2d, 1874); Mrs Catherine Carmody (on behalf of Sergeant Patrick Carmody, deceased, 6s 8d, 1896) and the children of the late Lt-Colonel Charles Heath (£69 17s 9d, 1897), BL, IOR/L/AG/24/25/8, 414.

89 On the subcontinent, Grant Duff's History became a standard text in the increasingly Anglicised curriculum for men – both Indian and British – serving the Company, and after 1850 its canonical status was such that it spurred fierce Indian nationalist critiques of British imposition of Western education. Deshpande, Creative Pasts, 80–5, 94–114.

90 ‘Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff’, Times, 13 Jan. 1906, 17.

91 Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, Notes from a Diary 1851–1872 (1897), i, 1.

92 Duff, M. E. Grant, ‘Presidential Address’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 13 (1899), 9. Liberal imperialism's infantilisation of Indians is underlined by Mehta, Uday, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago, 1999); and Koditschek, Theodore, Liberalism, Imperialism and the Historical Imagination: Nineteenth-Century Visions of Great Britain (Cambridge, 2011).

93 Grant Duff, ‘Presidential Address’, 6.

94 Matthew, H. C. G., ‘Duff, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant (1829–1906)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2008).

95 Mountstuart E. Grant Duff, Notes of an Indian Journey (1876), 221, 220.

96 Ibid., 232, 231.

97 Ibid., 231.

98 Ibid., 28, 58, 70, 138 149.

99 Peers, ‘Colonial Knowledge’, offers an excellent introductory analysis of the production of scholarly works by military men. Bonnie Smith notes the broader, non-academic context in which much Victorian history was produced (by women as well as men) in her The Gender of History: Men, Women and Historical Practice (Cambridge, MA, 1998).

100 See for example JGD to ME, 6 Feb. 1819, BL, MSS Eur F88/205, 2–4v.

I am especially grateful for comments and suggestions from Penelope J. Corfield, Felix Driver, Jagjeet Lally and Sue Stronge.


  • Margot C. Finn


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