Mukherjee on Finn and Smith, 'The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857'

Margot Finn, Kate Smith, eds.
Rila Mukherjee

Margot Finn, Kate Smith, eds. The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857. London: UCLPress, 2018. 500 pp. $55.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-78735-029-8.

Reviewed by Rila Mukherjee (University of Hyderabad, India) Published on H-Asia (December, 2018) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version:

This immensely engaging volume is the outcome of a Leverhulme Trust-funded three-year project housed at Warwick University and subsequently at University College London. Over three hundred researchers—curators, archivists, family historians, local historians, genealogists, and staff and volunteers at several stately homes—worked on the project, and these diverse specialists bring a wealth of expertise to the finished product.

The volume is singular in that the editors and contributors consciously reverse our gaze; instead of showcasing the activities of the East India Company (EIC) in Asia (India and China in particular), the chapters concentrate instead on how not just people, but also artifacts, ideas, and habits journeyed between Asia and "home"—that is, Britain—and how these then installed themselves over time.

But why country houses? Editors Finn and Smith, referencing the Victoria and Albert’s director, Roy Strong, write that country houses "captured the very essence of national identity and national culture" (p. 5), as the popularity of films and serials such as Gosford Park (2001) and Downton Abbey (2010-15) have demonstrated. But for the editors and contributors of the volume under review, this identity was not just rooted in "Englishness"; Indian material culture—in the form of objects gifted, purchased, inherited, and looted—and the influence of China also contributed to it: "To walk the streets of London, Leamington Spa and Liverpool; to explore the elegant Georgian mansions of Aberglassney, Hertfordshire and the Scottish Borders; or to ramble across agrarian estates in Banffshire, Berkshire and Caernarvonshire is to inhabit a landscape shaped by the British Empire…. Across Britain the close imbrication of colonial history and post-colonial heritage extends far beyond the metropolitan ports" (p. 1).

Heritage and its preservation is big business. This volume not only contributes to ongoing debates about the place of heritage in modern society and its role in the making of British culture and identity, but also sheds new light on how we package heritage for public consumption, thereby creating new narratives and histories. It showcases public history at its best.

The organization of the volume is novel, consisting of five sections, each one introduced by the editors. These are: the social life of things; objects, houses, and homes in the construction of identities; clusters and connections in the Home Counties; country houses in borders and borderlands; and company families and history. The conclusion is repetitive, echoing parts of the introduction.

Nineteen chapters make up the book. Individual chapters are written by Sarah Longair and Cam Sharp Jones; Helen Clifford; Kate Smith; Yuthika Sharma and Pauline Davies; Joanna Goldsworthy; Margot Finn; Georgina Green; Chris Jeppesen; Diane James; Rachel Barnwell; Ellen Filor; Alistair Mutch; Penelope Farmer; David Williams; Sir John Sykes. Some authors contribute more than one chapter.

The volume has several novel features. It showcases the contributions of Asian wealth and material culture to a tangible and intangible heritage that was visible in elite domestic traditions in Britain. These traditions have usually been viewed through the insular "island" optic, but the object histories show that English traditions with European as well as Asian influences made up the national identity.

The volume goes beyond a shared history of London and Calcutta to explore a range of provincial hinterlands in Britain and India; it interrogates the lives, habits, and tastes of the returnees, called "nabobs," to understand the culture of a new class, showing that the nabobs were not a homogeneous category by studying the life of William Gamul Farmer (Penelope Farmer’s chapter); but it also moves beyond the nabob as key exemplar of EIC wealth to uncover the tangled histories of country houses and the complex genealogies of empire.

This volume has borrowed methodologies from the discipline of anthropology as well as utilizing a very diverse range of specialist technical knowledge to study material culture and object histories (Chinese porcelain and ceramics; Chinese lacquer chests; Chinese staircases; Chinese wallpaper, Indian calicoes and silk pelmets and canopies with Cambay embroidery; ivory furniture; gold and silver filigree; metal inlay work; sandalwood cabinets; diverse Indian artifacts collected by Fanny Parkes in Joanna Goldsworthy’s chapter) to enrich conventional narratives of empire in a domestic setting, in magnificent houses whose names end in "House," "Park," and "Hall." Indian influence in lesser-studied seals, crests, and stamps is explored.

The book’s appeal to historians of empire and its aftermath, to culture studies specialists, and to museum personnel is undeniable, and I have no quarrel with the methodology adopted in the volume. I found, however, some lacunae: four specific, and one generic. First, I would have liked a discussion on elements in the new portraiture that developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and whether these elements were also found in the stately and country house collections of the EIC returnees. Globes and maps were featured increasingly in portrayals of the European gentleman as symbols of an expanding world and the centrality of Europe within this new worldview. Did country house art collections also feature globes and maps as symbols of the new world order?

Moreover, clocks and watches were featured in European portraits as the new memento mori. These now replaced the shrouds, tombs, and skulls featured earlier; clocks often carried the motto tempus fugit, or "time flees." Were these too present in country house portraiture?

Third, I would have liked more references to the parks and gardens of the country houses. Were Asian flora experimentally introduced on British soil? Did the parks contain exotic menageries as commemoration of the returnees’ time in the East? We know there was a huge faunal trade across the Indian Ocean from very early times—with Africa and Asia providing the bulk of giraffes, tigers, rhinoceros, lions, and exotic birds. European monarchs sometimes maintained menageries as a symbol of their mastery over the natural realm. Did the returnees also entertain such fancies and did their fancies translate into the setting up of menageries?

Fourth, I would have liked the volume to feature old menus to see the extent to which Indian condiments such as ginger or "curries" formed part of the returnees’ diet. Did Chinese cuisine, not just China tea, feature at all? Was there any Asian medicine in their medicine cabinets?

The generic criticism I now come to is one that the editors are conscious of. When the EIC returnees traveled back with their families, their entourage contained Asian slaves, servants, and retainers. Many nannies (Indian ayahs and Chinese amahs) were abandoned on arrival in Britain, there were sometimes disputes regarding abandonment and theft (see, and the situation reached such alarming proportions that an Ayah’s Home was set up in Aldgate around 1820. Others stayed on with their British masters. These voices are absent in the collection and I wonder if these could be recovered at all. But perhaps that was beyond the scope of the project.

Citation: Rila Mukherjee. Review of Finn, Margot; Smith, Kate, eds., The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018. URL:

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