Current research interests include: global knowledge production and the history of ideas, archives and collections; architectural style and urbanization; trade routes, ports and the administration of commercial(ized) lives with multiple ‘locations’ (co-constitution and triangulation of sites); history of work and technology, especially with regard to mode of production debates; illicit trade and ‘piracy’ as catalyst for neo-liberal incursion; the politics of prisons and confinement.
Research in six areas is of particular interest at present:
- in terms of globalizing knowledge production, important scientific investigation and ‘collecting expeditions’ as well as key literary studies and publications which can be sourced to Bengal. For example, the first printed edition of the 1001 Nights was at Fort William College on the Hooghly in 1814 (ed: Shaikh Ahmad ibn-Mahmud Shirawani), as well as a second four volume edition (ed: William Macnaughten 1839) used by Burton for his translations (1885-86). In terms of collecting, this too must be sourced from the ‘other’ end than usually acknowledged. What labour and whose labour goes into collections, such as, for example, the Horniman Museum in South London which holds important records and collections of musical instruments related to Chhau dance traditions of Bihar and West Bengal, even as these collections are conspicuously uninterested in practitioners. In CCS Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay is also working on vernacular globalization and colonial era and East India Co. archive records regarding taxation on shipping, boats, on building boats, and port levy’s etc.
- in terms of architecture, the buildings of the East India company have significant resonance with those in other port cities such as Manchester and Melbourne largely by way of shared commercial enterprise in multiple locations. This is a record of connections amongst the global sites of early colonization that can sometimes be seen in buildings still standing (this is easier for later periods of course, compare the neo-Baroque of Calcutta’s Metropolitan Building on Jawaharlal Nehru Rd with Manchester’s ‘India House’, Melbourne’s State Savings Bank of Victoria, and the London War Office Building on Whitehall etc.).
- co-constitution of the Caribbean trade with the East India trade: the global connection reaches back to the earliest days – Job Charnock having ‘rented’, with military support, three villages on the Hooghly from 1690, The British had purchased land in Hooghly with silver gleaned from the sale of slaves in the West Indies (note: Charnok is not the ‘founder’ of Calcutta and the city was not ‘built by the British’ but by local labour. Reference mention of Saptagram in Bipradas Pipilai’s Manasa Mangala 1495).
- the changes in production narrative of the established scholarship might be reworked from the other end. In The Age of Revolution Hobsbawn notes that until the industrial revolution Europe had always imported more from the East than it had sold there (Hobsbawn 1975:34) and Marx notes the ruin of handicraft through the advent of machine production which ‘forcibly converts [the colonies] into fields for the supply of its raw material. In this way East India was compelled to produce cotton, wool, hemp, jute and indigo for Great Britain (Marx 1867/1967:451). The clue here is that these exports, crafts, conversions and re-organizations had to involve workers in situ – the changes were not produced from afar, but rather sourced on site. A history of labour, labour force, forms of work and workplace change, will look quite different if read from the ‘other’ end of colonialism.
- the Opium trade. This is often written up in terms of British gunboat diplomacy, but it is also curious how important the controversy was in Europe, how much of the sensibility of European public life was governed by events abroad. Marx, among many, also mentions the opium trade, recommending the Chinese ‘celestials’ legalize the drug so as to undermine the English traders. The baneful impact of opium is not only felt in China, but in India the trade ‘forces the opium cultivation upon Bengal, to the great damage of the productive resources of that country’ (Marx 1958 New York Tribune).
- colonial incarcerations – the development and adaptation of coercive punishments, legal protocols, discipline and incarceration. From the ‘Black Hole’ to contemporary terror laws’. Given the central role of the city in later political intrigues – Calcutta’s early ‘bad reputation’ is undeserved and should be countered. Thus if the Black Hole story must be told, it can be in a critical version: Marx calls the incident a ‘sham scandal’ (Marx 1947:81). In an extensive collection of notes made on Indian history, Marx comments that on the evening of June 21, 1756, after the Governor of Calcutta had ignored the order of Subadar Suraj-ud-duala to ‘raze all British fortifications’ in the city:
“Suraj came down on Calcutta in force … fort stormed, garrison taken prisoners, Suraj gave orders that all the captives should be kept in safety till the morning; but the 146 men (accidentally, it seems) were crushed into a room 20 feet square and with but one small window; next morning (as Holwell himself tells the story), only 23 were still alive; they were allowed to sail down the Hooghly. It was ‘the Black Hole of Calcutta’, over which the English hypocrites have been making so much sham scandal to this day. Suraj-ud-duala returned to Murshidabad; Bengal now completely and effectually cleared of the English intruders” (Marx 1947:81 my italics).
Marx also reports on the subsequent retaliation against and defeat of Suraj-ud-duala by Lord Clive (‘that Great Robber’ as he calls him elsewhere Marx 1853/1978:86), and Clive’s 1774 suicide after his ‘cruel persecution’ by the directors of the East India Company (Marx 1947:88). There seem to be very good reasons to conclude that the black hole incident is counterfeit. The single report from a ‘survivor’ some months after Clive’s savage response to Suraj-ud-duala’s occupation of Calcutta – the famous/notorious Battle of Plassey – reads very much like a justification forged to deflect criticisms of brutality on the part of the British forces.