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  ROBERT TRAVERS
Carina Ray

History
Cornell University

Curriculum Vitae

  RESEARCH PROJECT

My current book project, An Empire of Complaints: Indian petitioning and the making of the British Empire in India, offers a new interpretation of colonial state-formation focused on the dynamic culture of legal and political petitioning that grew up around the fledging institutions of the colonial government in eighteenth century Bengal. Contextualizing colonial rule within the longer history of Mughal imperial state-formation and Indo-Persian political culture, the study suggests how South Asian practices of petitioning as a mode of political representation, and South Asian theories of ethical governance, continued to shape the political culture of early colonial Bengal. At the same time, it shows how British regulations worked to discipline and recast South Asian forms of claims-making within a new colonial judiciary in the service of an authoritarian form of commercial empire. My research shows how numerous South Asian subjects from many different social strata continually and persistently petitioned the Company government for redress of their grievances. Indian petitioners quickly adapted to the new institutional settings of Company rule, claiming rights both by reference to the Company’s own regulations, and also on the basis of Mughal imperial grants, Hindu forms of law, and local custom. My study argues that this dynamic petitionary culture in India also fed into the wider political crisis of the British Empire in the age of the American Revolution. It shows how everyday political and legal struggles in Bengal generated frequent allegations of official bribe-taking and other scandalous practices that fueled parliamentary inquiries into imperial corruption. It suggests how the petitionary culture of Bengal became supercharged by contests in the wider sphere of British imperial politics, and how corruption scandals became both a symptom and a cause of the consolidation and centralization of the East India Company state. Apart from offering a new interpretation of the rise of British power in India, my study aims to contribute to a growing body of historical literature on global interactions in the early modern era, by exploring intersections between European and South Asian practices of petitioning rulers, and between scandal as a mode of politics in different early modern imperial cultures.

  BIO

Robert Travers is Associate Professor of History at Cornell, and holds a PhD from Cambridge University. He is a historian of the British Empire, whose research has focused especially on the origins of the British Empire in India in the late eighteenth century. His book, Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth Century India (Cambridge, 2007), examined the political thought of the first generation of British empire-builders in Bengal, showing how officials of the British East India Company tried to legitimize their conquests by styling themselves as stewards of an ‘ancient constitution’ derived from the history of the Mughal empire in India. His current research continues to explore encounters between British and South Asian forms of political culture, through a study of Indian petitioning and contested ideas of justice in early colonial Bengal. Recent articles include ‘The Connected Worlds of Haji Mustapha (c. 1730-1791); a Eurasian Cosmopolitan in Eighteenth Century Bengal’, Indian Economic and Social History Review 52, 3, 2015, pp. 1-37; and ‘A British Empire by Treaty in Eighteenth Century India’, in Saliha Belmessous ed., Empire by Treaty. Negotiating European Expansion 1600-1900 (Oxford University Press, 2014), pp.132-160.

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