Rajani Sudan, The Alchemy of Empire: Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism

Rajani Sudan, The Alchemy of Empire: Abject Materials and the Technologies of Colonialism (New York: Fordham University Press 2016) $16.99 EPUB, $25.00 Pb, $85.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780823270675

In The Alchemy of Empire, Rajani Sudan exposes the significant extent to which British Enlightenment science was informed by Indian technology, thus undermining the traditional Orientalist idea that ‘scientific and technological progress developed exclusively in Enlightenment Europe’ (6). Sudan’s analysis of the relationship between British and Indian science in the ‘long’ eighteenth century is centred on the exchange of material culture and commodities. In particular, Sudan discusses surgical cement, mortar, nutmegs, textiles, ice, inoculation, plasters and paper. The book is thematically divided into five chapters, with each chapter focusing upon one or more of these colonial technologies and materials. Fundamental to Sudan’s thesis is the medieval concept of the transmutation of matter, known as alchemy. In the eighteenth century, the practice of alchemy as a protoscience was subsumed by experimental chemistry. However, Sudan proposes that the theoretical and allegorical paradigm of alchemy remained influential into the twentieth century. The Alchemy of Empire treats alchemy as the ‘relationship between attribute and substance’ (8), arguing that the process of ‘transforming materials into knowledge relies on an alchemical mutation’ (5). To exemplify this point, Sudan reasons that the British ascribed marvellous qualities to Eastern base materials such as mud or stone, thus transforming them, through an alchemical paradigm, into ‘something with infinitely more value’ (6).

Sudan’s study is based upon a range of source material, which can be divided into two main categories. The first of these categories is the reports that members of the British East India Company sent to the Royal Society. These accounts offer an image of Indian science and technology as something that was fascinating, marvellous and wondrous to the British observer. By representing Indian science in this way, these British correspondents endowed Indian scientific techniques with miraculous qualities. Sudan calls this the ‘sublimination’ of Indian science, the process by which ‘alien forms of knowledge are transmuted by the alchemic paradigm into marvels’ (15). The second type of primary evidence is literary; The Alchemy of Empire engages with the poetry and prose of a selection of different British authors, including Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Jane Austen, Bram Stoker and George Orwell. Through a detailed analysis of various sources, Sudan demonstrates that the Indian technology that had once been considered marvellous was in time ‘discarded, forgotten or rewritten as the fruit of British ingenuity’ (15). Sudan calls this the ‘abjection’ of Indian materials. The Alchemy of Empire illuminates the process by which the British came to disregard Indian dominance in the fields of science and technology. The process ‘begins with sublimination and ends with abjection’ (15), and is interwoven into the discourse of British imperial domination.

Chapter One, ‘Alchemy and Empire’, asserts that Britain felt a sense of technological inferiority in the eighteenth-century world, and that this anxiety was informed by the British East India Company’s exchange of techne with India. Sudan finds evidence for this in Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest and the letters of East India Company correspondents, in particular those of Scottish physician Helenus Scott. For example, in the 1790s, an excited Scott wrote to the head of the Royal Society expressing his amazement regarding the techniques of Indian medicine. Scott described the use of a magical cement that could reattach severed limbs without the need for stitches, noting that this technology was ‘not known among the Europeans’ (33). Whilst a cement with such wondrous qualities had not existed in reality, Sudan explains, Scott’s elevating description of Indian medicine, in addition to his readiness to recognise European technological inferiority, is testament to Britain’s anxieties on the international stage. After all, the commercial relationship between Europe, Asia and Africa was disproportionate, with Europe having little to offer the rest of the world in terms of commodities.

The first English holding in India, Fort St George or ‘White Town’, was founded in Madras in 1644. With sustained focus on Fort St George, Chapter Two examines the role of geographical space in the imperial narrative by looking at mortar, textiles and nutmegs. Initially, English travellers readily acknowledged the superiority of Indian plastering techniques, expressing their awe at the beautiful marble-like mortar developed by the natives in Madras. However, after Fort St George was established and the city was racially segregated into ‘White Town’ and ‘Black Town’, it became necessary for the English to appropriate this local technique for the two Towns to be architecturally on par. Because ‘White Town’ was not visibly superior to its Indian counterpart, Sudan argues, the racial subordination of Indians had to be continually reinforced legally and ideologically, and so Fort St George was transformed into a ‘dominant imperial space’ (58). The superiority of Indian technology was written out of the history of British empire-building in India, and this revised discourse manifests itself in Jemima Kindersley’s 1765 statement that ‘Madras is built entirely by the English’ (49).This chapter then discusses the English preference for Indian cloth, before revealing the relationship between Yale University and the mobile commodity of nutmegs, a jar of which its founder, Elihu Yale (1649-1721), had acquired during his time as Governor of Fort St George. This jar of nutmegs formed part of the donation upon which the University was founded. Sudan explores why this connection with India is often overlooked in popular versions of Yale’s biography.

Chapter Three,  ‘Ice and the Production of British Climate’, analyses the symbolic role of ice in British India. Looking firstly at George Orwell’s Burmese Days, Sudan proposes that ice is a ‘metonym of British climate’ (77), and thus the dwindling supply of ice in Orwell’s British India foreshadows the demise of the British Raj. The chapter then turns its attention to travel narratives, comparing Benigné Poissenot’s description of a terrifying ‘cave glacière’ in France in the 1580s, to the records of Sir Robert Barker, who wrote to the Royal Society from Allahabad in the 1700s recording his amazement regarding the local method of ice-making using porous clay vessels of water. In essence, Sudan argues that control of the land in British India required control of the climate. Therefore, the Europeanization of India’s climate became an integral part of British imperial domination, and so the British harnessed local Indian ice-making technology and even imported ice from America in order to maintain the cold – a state that was clearly ‘associated with being English’ (91).

Chapter Four, ‘Inoculation and the Limits of British Imperialism’, likewise begins with a consideration of Orwell’s Burmese Days, this time looking at the British beefsteaks that were imported into colonial India for consumption by British officials. These beefsteaks were a metonym of the metropole, and Sudan draws a parallel between the import of British meat into British India and the import of Edward Jenner’s cowpox vaccination in the late nineteenth century. What is particularly striking and ironic about this example is that smallpox inoculation had been practiced in India for hundreds of years prior to the development of Jenner’s vaccination. Sudan looks to the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to explain why Jenner was reluctant to openly acknowledge the pre-existence of inoculation in India, finding that ‘a complicated ideological amalgam of class, race, gender, and imperial identity [...] driven by xenophobia’ (108) is to blame. Jenner reinvented inoculation, rendering his innovation as something traditionally English through the anecdote of the English milkmaids. Because women in Eastern cultures traditionally practiced inoculation, it was thus constructed by British imperial discourse as ‘a feminine, foreign practice in contrast to vaccination, which [was] constructed as masculine, English and expert’ (108). The chapter goes on to discuss inoculation, contagion and the xenophobic resistance to vaccination as themes in John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker’s depiction of a vampiric disease that spreads from remote Castle Dracula to the metropole, for instance, parallels the spread of smallpox.

Chapter Five, ‘“Plaisters,” Paper, and the Labor of Letters’, offers a detailed literary analysis of the roles of court plasters (also known as ‘plaisters’), pencils, and paper in Jane Austen’s Emma, elucidating the novel’s material connections to India. Court plasters, which consisted of a strip of fabric – often silk – with an adhesive consisting of isinglass and glycerine on one side, originally functioned as a cosmetic product among aristocratic women. This chapter provides an in-depth analysis of the episode in Austen’s novel when Emma receives a court plaster as a gift from Harriet Smith. Sudan also considers the British discovery of the Indian method of paper-making, and draws a connection between paper and ropes, which were both made from hemp. The paper that Austen and her characters were writing on, therefore, has in it ‘embedded [and] hidden’ the semantic meanings of rope: imperial expansion, bondage and connection (132). Maintaining close reference to Emma, Sudan concludes by exploring the commodification of human intellect, postulating that ‘following the alchemical trajectory, female intellectual labor is harnessed in the same way that Indian techne is appropriated and sublimated into a masculinist imperium’ (135).

The Alchemy of Empire is an interdisciplinary study, and it is necessary to recognise that Sudan’s research occupies a niche area of scholarship on Enlightenment science. On the one hand the book contributes to the transnational turn in the historiography of British history, on the other hand its sustained literary focus offers a sophisticated analysis of the symbolic significance of colonial technologies in eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century English literature. Moreover, Sudan frames both her historical and literary analyses within the paradigm of alchemy. The unique nature of Sudan’s study can be somewhat disorientating for the reader. The Alchemy of Empire shifts between its historical and literary focuses; for instance, Chapter Two is almost entirely centred on the historical significance of mortar and nutmegs in the British Fort St George in Madras, whilst Chapter Five is largely an in-depth literary analysis of the role of court plasters and paper in Jane Austen’s Emma. One would hardly expect to find these examples of historical and literary expertise alongside one another in the same book. The result is that it can be difficult to follow Sudan’s argument from cover to cover; a historian, for instance, may find Sudan’s literary analysis – which is in parts esoteric – difficult to decipher. Nevertheless, Sudan successfully ties these different styles together through the theme of colonial technology and her interdisciplinary approach is particularly successful where she neatly integrates literary sources into her historical analysis, such as using Burmese Days as a stimulus for her discussions on ice and inoculation. Given its interdisciplinary scope, therefore, The Alchemy of Empire will be a valuable point of reference for a range of scholars.

Carissa Chew, University of Edinburgh