Family and Empire: Kinship and British Colonialism in the East India Company Era, c. 1750-1850
Speaker: Professor Margot Finn (President of the RHS & Chair in Modern British History at University College London)
Demography is not destiny, but Georgian and Victorian Britain demographic patterns played a key part in fostering imperial endeavour. Too often, British historians restrict their explorations of colonial demography to settler societies, such as the North American colonies, Australia and New Zealand. But British demographic behaviours also had a major impact on why and how the East India Company functioned in South Asia. Demographic surplus—too many aspiring members of the propertied classes, too little domestic capital to satisfy their ever-increasing material needs—propelled men, women and adolescents of both sexes from Britain to the subcontinent. Here, in keeping with both biblical injunctions and the liberal norms of masculine sexual behaviour, they were fruitful and multiplied. The birth of children—including both ‘mixed-race’ progeny and far more legitimate ‘white’ children than historians have hitherto acknowledged—strengthened the familial nature of Company rule and fostered the Company’s implacable territorial expansion. Historians have often underlined the impact of high mortality rates on Company rule in India. This lecture argues that not only such colonial ‘deathscapes’ but also the ‘birthscapes’ of the subcontinent conditioned and drove Company policy. Marriage and childbirth were not merely family matters, but vital motors of British imperialism.