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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: March 2012



Hearing the phrase ‘civilizing mission’ usually conjures up the idea of European colonialism, so it seems to be a rather dated nineteenth-century expression. In the nineteenth- and twentieth-century era of imperialism the civilizing mission was an ever-shifting set of ideas and practices that was used to justify and legitimize the establishment and continuation of overseas colonies, both to subject peoples and to citizens or subjects in the homeland. For the British Raj in India the civilizing mission meant many things, including bringing the benefits of British culture to the subcontinent in the form of free trade and capitalism as well as law, order and good government. British rule was supposed to bring an end to a supposed condition of chronic warfare, violence, disorder and despotic rule in India, and it would institute peace and order in the form of Pax Britannica. At its core, the civilizing mission was about morally and materially ‘uplifting’, ‘improving’ and later ‘developing’ the supposedly ‘backward’ or ‘rude’ people of India to make them more civilized and more modern. A fundamental difference between colonial subjects in India and their British overlords was posited, with Indians and other subject peoples placed at lower or ‘inferior’ positions in new ‘scales of civilization’, and the British (and Europeans generally) at the top. Indians were thereby condemned to continually try to catch up to their British rulers and ‘European civilization’, which claimed to be – and was widely accepted as – the universal or ‘silent referent’.

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