Technology's role as the handmaid of imperialism

Science in the Service of the Empire
June 25, 1999

John Gascoigne's book is a welcome addition not only to the history of science but to social history generally. It draws on sources that are mostly unavailable to scholars from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka or Australia, also engaged in research on the history of science and technology and the colonial encounter, such as Claude Alvarez, Ian Inkster, Dhruv Raina, S. Irfan Habib, Satpal Sangwan and Deepak Kumar. Yet, apart from Kumar, none is mentioned in the bibliography - not even D. R. Headrick, who in The Tools of the Empire advocated a kind of technological determinism to legitimate colonialism.

Although Sir Joseph Banks, as president of the Royal Society, is the key figure around whom the narrative is constructed, the book is by no means a conventional biography. The author admirably explores the conflicts and collaborations between the Crown, Parliament, landholders, manufacturers and tradesmen. Particularly interesting is Gascoigne's treatment of the relationship between the East India Company and the "levers of power".

But the book perhaps belies the promise of its ambitious title. As presented, imperial science consisted of imperial botany, animal husbandry and some geographical expeditions; there is very little allusion here to anything taking place beyond the elite precincts of the Royal Society in the domain of technology. And yet it was technology that became the handmaid of imperialism.

Gascoigne refers casually to Matthew Boulton, particularly in relation to the reformation of the Royal Mint, but his relationship with James Watt is omitted. It is well known that Boulton provided the capital, but the technical brains behind their famous enterprise were those of Watt, and the firm was accordingly named Boulton & Watt.

Also surprising is that the activities of the Lunar Society go totally unnoticed. It was not the Royal Society but the Lunar Society that in this period brought about a marriage of scientists and technologists. Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, the iron-master John Wilkinson, the potter Josiah Wedgewood, and of course Watt and Boulton, all used to meet under the umbrella of the Lunar Society in Birmingham. Linked with them by personal ties were many other people from different disciplines, perhaps most prominently Adam Smith, the chief promoter of laissez-faire economics.

Although Gascoigne deals well with the impact of Smith's ideas and the French revolution, he does not mention the burning of Priestley's house in 1791 by the "Church-and-King mob" as a result of a dinner at which toasts were drunk to the French revolution.

Another omission is any reference to the portfolio in the collections of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta containing correspondence between James Kyd, the East India Company and Joseph Banks. Perhaps the author will be able to take note of these materials in a future edition. Despite the omissions, Gascoigne's book remains not only very informative but also readable. Without recourse to jargon it provides new insight into the slow growth of the bureaucratic mechanism of the state after Britain's initial period of expansion of her empire and her industrial development.

Amitabha Ghosh is at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, India.

Science in the Service of the Empire

Author - John Gascoigne
ISBN - 0 521 55069 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 247

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