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Abstract

This dissertation seeks to recover a transregional tradition of colonial dissent that was sustained by a network of reformers extending from Boston to Bengal. Approaching British India as a zone of exception where colonizers’ “liberal” values were frequently overridden by rationalizations for despotic rule, this tradition critiqued the various anomalies that undergirded an exploitative system of authoritarian statecraft. Although the reformers who participated in the British India Society (est. 1839), the India Reform Society (1853), and the East India Association (1866) belonged to varying races and classes, most adopted certain liberal principles: constitutionalism, free trade, governmental accountability, and individual, unfettered proprietorship of land were key concerns. At the same time, many articulated “conservationist” ideologies that favored the use of the Indian villages’ municipal machinery and the defense of princes’ internal sovereignty. Reformers also drew attention to India’s widespread impoverishment, observing that the country had long been regarded purely as “a carcass for a certain number of Englishmen to prey upon.” Seeking to bolster India’s productive capacities and spur much-needed material development, they fused an orientalist affirmation of native political structures with a vision of unfettered intra-imperial communication and equitable economic exchange. By excavating these reformist networks over a fifty-year period, this study offers a non-canonical analysis of Victorian liberal imperialism and diverges from historical narratives that foreground Britain’s civilizing mission.

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