The Discourse of Colonial Enterprise and Its Representation of the Other Through the Expanded Cultural Critique

  • Reena Dube
Part of the Language, Discourse, Society book series (LDS)


Within colonial capitalism it is not just wealth, raw materials, and trade balance that shifts from the periphery to the centre. This shift is preceded, accompanied, and followed by a powerful and pervasive discourse event. I name this discourse event “British colonial enterprise” and its binary half “the discursive devaluation of native labour and culture.”1 Colonial historiography and literature mark this discourse event by inscribing into language the supra-valuation of British colonial enterprise and the devaluation of native culture and work practices. The supra-valuation of enterprise is made possible through making indigenous work and play appear inherently unproductive and valueless. Enterprise depends on the following binary oppositions: colonial enterprise names the industriousness and productive labour of empire building; it is a discourse that represents itself as primarily oriented towards work, even play within enterprise is oriented towards work and is a means of learning the rules of work; the binary half of the discourse is indigenous work and play, described as wasteful and unproductive exercises in valueless activity. The discourse of enterprise designates indigenous work habits, cast of mind, physiognomy, habits of work and play as primitive, childish, and pre-modern.2


Permanent Settlement Chess Player Cultural Critique East India Company Revenue Collection 
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  1. 3.
    My choice of the Defoe text, as well as my locating the colonial capitalist discourses of labour in the English Enlightenment is influenced by Marx’s brief but intriguing interpretation of Defoe’s Crusoe. Marx says: “All the relations between Robinson and these objects that form his self-created wealth are here so simple and transparent … And yet those relations contain all the essential determinants of value” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I, intro. Ernest Mandel, trans. Ben Fowkes [1977] 170). In the Grundrisse Marx coins the word “Robinsonades” which for him means utopias along the lines of Robinson Crusoe. He says: The individual and isolated hunter and fisherman, with whom Smith and Ricardo begin, belongs among the unimaginative conceits of the eighteenth-century Robinsonades, which in no way express merely a reaction against over-sophistication and a return to a misunderstood natural life, as cultural historians imagine. As little as Rousseau’s Contrat social, which brings naturally independent, autonomous subjects into relation and connection by contract, rests on such naturalism. This is the semblance, the merely aesthetic semblance, of the Robinsonades, great and small. It is, rather, the anticipation of “civil society”, in preparation since the sixteenth century and making giant strides towards maturity in the eighteenth. In this society of free competition, the individual appears detached from the natural bonds etc. which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate. Smith and Ricardo still stand with both feet on the shoulders of the eighteenth-century prophets, in whose imaginations this eighteenth-century individual – the product on the one side of the dissolution of the feudal forms of society, on the other side of the new forces of production developed since the sixteenth century – appears as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past. Not as a historic result but as history’s point of departure. (Karl Marx, Grundrisse Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. and Foreword, Martin Nicolaus [1973] 83)Google Scholar
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    I refer to one of my chief influences, Ranajit Guha’s, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement (1963). Guha has consistently pointed to the Enlightenment as an important watershed of European ideas, discourses, and philosophies for the making of Britain’s colonial capitalism in India. While he studies the eighteenth-century physiocrats, I use a text that has become part of the colonial imagination, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, because it became part of the European imagination, giving rise to multiple variants and reinventions of the ur-narrative of the “man on the island.”Google Scholar
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    Interestingly the two sites, Bengal and Awadh, are also linked by way of military history and resistance. Not only were the Company’s Bengal regiments primarily composed of men from Awadh, the 1857 armed resistance (variously termed the Mutiny, Rebellion or First War of Independence) by the sepoys of the Company began in the Bengal stations of Berhampore and Barrackpore. For a full account of events see John Pemble, The Raj, the Indian Mutiny and the Kingdom of Oudh 1801–1859 (1977) 165–248. Earlier in the 1764 Battle of Buxar fought by Shuja-ud-daula, then Nawab of Awadh, he led the combined forces of Shah Alam (the fugitive Mughal Emperor of Delhi) as well as Mir Quasim (the nawab of Bengal after Mir Jafar). One of the objectives of the Battle of Buxar was to restore the territories of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa to Mir Quasim. When the combined forces of Shuja-ud-daula lost the battle, and he was again repulsed in the Battle of Kara where he fought the Company forces with the help of the Marathas, he entered into treaty in 1765 with the Company whereby the nawabi of Awadh was restored to him on the payment of fifty lakh rupees to the Company as compensation. At the same time, Governor-General Clive also negotiated a treaty with Emperor Shah Alam, the Treaty of Allahabad (1765) by which the diwani of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa was granted to the Company by the Mughal Emperor, and the nawabs of Bengal became the titular rulers of Bengal. It was the beginning in Bengal of the dual government, a strategy that the Company was to follow later in Awadh. Through the friendship treaty of 1801 half of Awadh became Ceeded Territories under Company rule. On the Battle of Buxar, seeGoogle Scholar
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    Ray’s description of the function of music in the last jalsa is interesting: “that was the high point of the film, where music comes into the foreground almost” (ibid., 116–117). Interview with Satyajit Ray by Dhritiman Chatterjee, “Towards an Invisible Soundtrack?”, Cinema Vision India, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Oct. 1980) 16.Google Scholar
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© Reena Dube 2005

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  • Reena Dube

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