Remembering Intermediaries in Colonial South India: Portuguese, British, and French Paradigms

AHA Session 104
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 6
Friday, January 4, 2013: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Gallier Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Danna Agmon, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor
Daniel K. Richter, McNeil Center for Early American Studies

Session Abstract

Commercial, linguistic and religious mediation was crucial for the success of European colonial projects in South Asia. Yet Portuguese, Dutch, English and French agents, and the subsequent histories of their actions, did not often recognize the crucial roles filled by local intermediaries, nor the epistemological, intellectual and bodily transformations wrought by the act of mediation. This panel examines colonial intermediaries and mediated encounters which took place in south of India, from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century. It seeks to shed light on the work carried out by different kinds of go-betweens, both native and European, and to reflect on both retellings and elisions of their role in the history of colonial India. Taken together, the papers suggest that intermediaries make possible a more general reflection on who and what counts as “native,” and the extent to which the answer to this question is mutable and at times capricious.

Županov’s paper, “We prove it with the Words from Their Books and Because All These People Desire to be Saved”: Missionary Accommodation in Early Modern South India,” serves as a reminder that in colonial settings, some Europeans were no less intermediaries than those they employed as formal go-betweens. The paper focuses on the socio-linguistic conversion in which Catholic missionaries and their Indian “translators” negotiated the shape of the language in which to express new spiritual and social identities, in the shadow of colonial entanglements in the region. The paper shows how the European Jesuits cast themselves in the role of linguistic and cultural intermediaries, and then turns to Goan Brahman Christians who reinterpreted and readapted the Jesuit intermediary role in their own 18th century mission in Sri Lanka. Agmon’s paper “Throwing off Their Masks”: Reading a Catechist Rebellion in a French Jesuit Mission in South India,” examines a dramatic conflict which took place in 1700, when three catechists – native Christians who served as religious interpreters - became apostates and brought about the arrest of their former employer, the French Jesuit heading the Madurai mission. An account of the catechist rebellion, and an examination of its narration in Jesuit documents, sheds light on the complex relationship between the Jesuit missionaries and the native converts they employed. Based on a reading of widely-circulated Jesuit letters, this work also points to the ways in which local intermediaries were embedded within global and cosmopolitan networks. Ramaswamy’s contribution, titled “Their Histories, Our Memories: The Posthumous Fate of a Colonial Dubash,” discusses the ways in which a late-18th century “Madras dubash” or intermediary Pacchaiyappa Mudaliar (1754?-1794) has been negatively depicted in colonial archives, and memorialized and celebrated in Tamil prose, poetry and pictures. In the colonial archive, he appears in rather dubious terms as a rapacious moneylender and behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealer. In contrast, Tamil memories of Pacchaiyappa since the 1840s have differently (re)constituted this shadowy 18th-century figure.  The paper explores the ethics of Tamil memorializing activities in order to argue that such narratives teach modern Tamils how to lead exemplary and philanthropic lives in our times.

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