“Empire of Influence: The East India Company and the Making of Indirect Rule” by Callie Wilkinson

Detail of portrait of Henry Russell, Hyderabad, India, ca 1800-05 Detail of portrait of Henry Russell, Hyderabad, India, ca 1800-05

The story of the British Empire in India is not about battles and conquests alone. There were quite a number of cases in which the East India Company maintained a grip over individual kingdoms through what roughly translates into rule by proxy. This other side of the story of the consolidation of the Empire is that of Residency, the institution that operated through the deputation of a British official, generally an army official, to kingdoms such as Hyderabad, Mysore, Pune and so on. 

The Residents, originally thought of as low ranking Company officials, acted as brokers between the Indian sovereign and the highest officials of the East India Company. They were tasked with maintaining strategic relationships between the two administrations from the points of view of finance and foreign policy. Residents walked the tightrope of maximizing the Company’s interests while also pacifying their hosts or local powers. How did they accomplish their goals? What dilemmas did they face as they attempted to reconcile the conflicting wants and desires of the two parties, and more often, the tension aroused by the impractical nature of the Company’s orders? The project of history writing around the Empire is densely populated by Viceroys and Governor Generals; very little is known about the Residents as stakeholders, or rather as pawns, in the larger scheme of things.


 Empire of Influence: The East India Company and the Making of Indirect Rule,  Callie Wilkinson (Cambridge University Press, March 2023)
Empire of Influence: The East India Company and the Making of Indirect Rule, Callie Wilkinson (Cambridge University Press, March 2023)

In her book Empire of Influence: The East India Company and the Making of Indirect Rule, Callie Wilkinson has written a cultural history of Residency as practiced between 1798 and 1818 in the kingdoms of Awadh, Hyderabad, Delhi, Travancore, Nagpur, Pune, and Gwalior. Her work on the available correspondence between the Residents, the higher Company officials, and the local administration reveals that when East India Company did not resort to annexation of territories, it worked through a “subsidiary alliance system”  which “was a complex, social, cultural, and intellectual enterprise, difficult to justify as well as to implement.”

One example from the book conveys the nature of this complexity that translates to farce. An incident narrated by Richard Strachey, Resident at Lucknow, in 1816 discusses what must have looked like a comedy of errors when the Nawab of Lucknow appealed to the governor general for the transfer of a deceased relative’s property to himself. The reply he received from the governor general through Strachey was in the negative but the Nawab celebrated the reply as if the contents of the letter were in the affirmative. Wilkinson quotes from Strachey’s record to show his bewilderment:


public rejoicings also took place, and His Excellency’s satisfaction ahs been so unequivocally manifested that I cannot but believe his Excellency to have countenanced the report which has gained universal Currency, that he has received the Authority of the Governor General to the fullest extent of his wishes regarding Fyzabad [the territory that the Nawab had asked for].


With such instances, Wilkinson establishes that being a Resident was far from being in-charge of or authoritative about anything. The incident also registers the frustration that was a part of Residents’ everyday lives given that they were caught between the “oblique and circuitous tactics” in the game of appearances and deceit between the colonial and local rulers. Here is one more example from Hyderabad where Thomas Sydenham was the Resident:


In the year 1808, Thomas Sydenham decided to host an entertainment for Sikander Jah as a gesture of good will, an invitation that the nizam refused despite having previously shown signs of eagerly anticipating the party. Eventually Sydenham traced the nizam’s uneasiness to a rumour that the Company intended to depose him and place his brother on the musnud [throne]. The most straightforward solution would seem to be for Sydenham to confront the gossip head-on, but Sydenham was reluctant to address the problem so candidly, afraid of exciting nizam’s suspicions. ‘If I had urged the Nizam to perform his promise his suspicions would have increased with the Earnestness of my manner. On the other Hand if I permitted the Nizam to decline my Invitation, I should have encouraged the belief of the Truth of the Report.’ Sydenham ultimately resorted to rumour himself. In his replies to ‘Indirect Enquiries’, Sydenham ‘treated the Nizam’s Fears with ridicule and expressed my compassion only that his Highness should seriously entertain such unmanly and absurd suspicions.’ By addressing a rumour directly Residents risked exacerbating the suspicions that had given rise to it in the first place; when the rumour was unlikely to have implications beyond the court, it was usually best for Residents to wait for it to die out of its own accord.


Very often, this game of I-know-what-you-know-but-you-don’t-know-what-I-know turned violent as the Residents would turn to “coercive tactics”. In principle, the subsidiary alliance system treated the Company and the local rulers as equals but as this letter by Mountstuart Elphinston, Resident in Pune, reveals, in practice, the Company officials acted out of the belief that Indian rulers needed “authoritative interference”:


their restlessness, their rapacity, their weakness and the general want of confidence in them that results from their want of faith, continually bring them into situations where we are forced to interfere, either to save them from utter ruin or to orient their making our power instrumental to their injustice and oppression.


The Residency system was precariously located amidst “an environment of instability and change”, as Wilkinson shows through innumerable examples from the lives of various Residents.

The stories of relationships that the Residents forged with the officials at the courts of the regional powers, especially with the munshis (scribes), the accounts of the relationships with internal familial politics that the Residents found themselves caught up in, and the maze of bureaucracy that they had to navigate to justify every expense make for engaging mini narratives in the book.

But the larger point of the book is to argue for the need to examine indirect rule as an alternative way in which the British Empire manifested on the Indian subcontinent. What transpired in the early 19th century deserves as much attention as the Company’s territorial dominion. Wilkinson has made a solid contribution to the history of bureaucracy at East India Company that also provides an intimate view of how the logic of Empire shaped and was shaped by interactions with regional powers.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.