Intelligence, Language, and
Political Access:
Information gathering and Empire,
1770s-1830
Imperial Information and Debate
• Historians of the British Empire point out that
after Plassey British expansion hit several walls:
– Mysore wars—4 battles against Hyder Ali and his son
Tipu Sultan
– Maratha wars—last into 1815, included 3 wars,
numerous battles and raids
• Review past histories that stress military
superiority, such historians point out that
opponents of the British such as Tipu Sultan in
Mysore, the Marathas, Sikhs all had
appropriated and innovated such advancements
Mobility of information &
Technology
• In Mysore Haidar Ali, a former military
commander took over the state of Mysore
• Created a modern military, hired French advisors
to update artillery, tutor his son Tipu
• Tipu continued to implement new reforms and
put up a fierce resistance to BritishOnly joint
campaigns of Marathas, local rulers, allied with
the EIC defeated him
• Such allies were crucial in providing logistical
information and intelligence
S. Asian Information Systems
• South Asian systems were paradoxically both
open, but due to their specialized linguistic and
segmented nature difficult to master.
• Created during the Mughal era to incorporate
local knowledge into a common Persian court
system
– Issue of mastering 100s of dialects over 20 major
language groups
• Relied on specialized categories of agents,
runners, newswriters, clerks, ambassadors,
some of whom could also be termed spies
Replication across ranks
• Each noble, elite Merchant or warlord would hire
the following:
• Akhbarnawis or newswriters—posted at each
court and every important town
• Several runners (qassid) to deliver mail
• Clerks (munshis) skilled in courtly languages as
well as local dialects, also in cyphers
• Representatives (vakils) privy to the more
sensitive details of private affairs and needs
Geographical and Climatic Barriers
• During Monsoon season, late June-August
many roads and routes impassable on wheeled
carriages or horses
• Complicated network of small states in 18th
century require local knowledge and contacts to
ensure safe delivery of mail and information
• Information easier to gather in Gangetic plains,
more difficult in the rugged terrrain of the
Deccan and the mountains of the northwest
Chambal area in Central India
Why did the EIC have trouble with
Information sources?
• By the 1770s growing contempt for indigenous
knowledge systems and the “information order”
• Few officers trained in local dialect, even orientalists
largely studied Sanskrit, Persian, Bengali, or Urdu—
which had limited use in other regions
• Most skilled officers were those of mixed background or
postings in hinterlands—but their indigenized lifestyles
were viewed as problematic
• Top levels of officials did not value or use their insights
very well.
• Complaints about cost of hiring that many employees
Emphasis on European methods
• Trignometric surveys sanctioned soon after the
Plassey years, but funding issues and access to
non-EIC areas prove problematic
• Reliance on horse-power and carriage postal
system did not work as efficiently
• Certain amount of fraud and misdirection against
the EIC was successful due to their ignorance of
local customs
• The issue of “cultural competence” becomes a
serious problem by the 1780s for officers
• Awareness of difficulties of disguise and access
What kinds of Information
necessary for expansion?
• Size of troops and resources of rivals (revenue, supplies,
allies, etc)
• Power factions in rival courts, potential for recruiting
allies or spies
• Routes for attacks, retreats, or supply lines
• Sources for food, fodder, shelter along routes
• Strategic areas (such as elevated spots) for use of
cannons and guns, or flat plains for cavalry action
• Disposition of local villages and peasants—hostile,
neutral, or friendly
• Nature of relationships between court and local
magnates such as zamindars
Barriers for Mastery for EIC
• This level of knowledge needed vastly different
levels of cultural competency
– Specialized knowledge of courtly etiquette and
Persian
– Cordial relationships with local magnates and nobility
– Ability to speak multiple local dialects or hire those
who did
– Be able to retain their loyalty
• Required recruitment of specialized knowledge
providers, but also that they be paid competitive
salaries and treated with respect
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Intelligence, Language, and Political Access: