Skip to content

Response to Review no. 492

The thoughtful review of Counterflows to Colonialism by Professor Dodson effectively represents the book’s content and overall approach. Responding to the issues about organisation and emphasis which he raises, however, can perhaps lead us to further historiographical considerations. In particular, when studying highly diverse groups of men and women from one continent who have gone to settle or visit another over a 250 year time period, what kind of periodisation and what perspectives should be followed – those of the incoming peoples or those of the hosts or both?

Which historians among us have not struggled in writing our various books with the problematic of beginning and end points, as well as the markers of shifts in between? The broad periodisation which I deploy in Counterflows reflects a combination of factors, some practical in a book of this length and complexity, some more consciously theoretical. As much as possible, I have tried to represent the patterns that emerged from the subjects of my study: people from India moving to Britain. These patterns depended on cross-cutting factors including the particular military, political, and economic pressures and policies at that historical moment in their specific region of South Asia as the East India Company and regional rulers interacted. These patterns also reflected micro- and macro-economic and political changes in opportunities for them to make the voyage to Britain. Finally, internal British domestic and foreign policies and attitudes toward Europe and Asia also affected the capacity of these South Asians to sail to Britain, their interests in doing so, and what they encountered on their arrival there. As Professor Dodson highlights, the book’s content – as well as its title, Counterflows – argues more for fluidity than rigidity. Further, I should point out that my part headings suggest decade-long transitions (i.e., 1600s–1790s, 1790s–1830s, 1830s–1857), although Professor Dodson periodically in his review misleadingly truncates these into more strict delineations: ‘1600–1790, 1790–1830, 1830–57). Hence his questioning of my occasional alleged ‘easily formulated periodisation’ strikes me as a bit incongruous.

The other major point that Professor Dodson makes concerns my main emphasis on Indian ‘agency’ with ‘sometimes … little depth to his discussions of Europeans’. This also raises methodological issues: whose perspectives are to provide the centre of gravity? In this book, I have deliberately sought to understand and concentrate on the lives of my subjects: Asians in Britain. It is their history I seek to write. Clearly, the attitudes and actions of Britons also stand crucial to understanding what it was to be Asian in Britain. Still, I concur with Professor Dodson that a fully comprehensive study about the British Empire as a whole over this 250 year period would have added much more about native Britons to produce ‘in more depth a stronger sense of the Indian-European entangledness, compromise and even inner conflict’ than Counterflows already brings out in its nearly 500 pages. My publisher, Dr Rukun Advani, and I appreciate Professor Dodson’s insightful, and on the whole constructive, comments and thank the Institute of Historical Research for the opportunity to engage with them.