Writing to Empire

Most books about India, in the broadest sense, written in the nineteenth century, fall into predictable, expected categories. British officers commanding native troops compile dictionaries and grammars suitable to their purposes, full of court martial, attack, and pay disputes. Missionaries compile their own dictionaries and grammar, in different tones, and translate Christian text into Indian languages to convert and educate. The Indian-owned presses which spring up produce Indian texts for Indians, replicating manuscripts lithographically and printing texts anew.

British authors compose their travelogues and studies on India in turn; some even write memoirs of their years in country. So far, much as one might expect; distinct spheres of production and readership, segregated by class, culture, and colonial rule. But there is another thread running through the history of printing and publishing in India, that of Indians writing for a British audience, more often than not in unexpected ways.


Iqbal al-Dawla, a grandson of published a Persian poem in praise of British rule in 1834, Icbal-e-Furung or British Prosperity: being a short description of the manners, customs, arts, and science of the enlightened British, together with an English translation. A grandson of one of the Nawabs of Awadh, his work is, underneath the weight of florid style and literary allusion, a petition directed to the Governor-General to restore his pension, recently stopped by the British-controlled government of Awadh.

In the face of his avowed penury he journeyed to Calcutta, “knowledge-fostering Egypt, and Equity-sifting Mansion”, to study English and produce this slight tome, which clearly succeeded both in purpose and in circulating amongst the British at Calcutta. Thirty years later he would be appointed to administer British disbursements from the Oudh Bequest for Indian Shia resident in Karbala.

Thirty-six years later, Amir Ali, Deputy Commissioner of Patna during the events of 1857, published his Ameer Namah Calcutta. A Persian account of his life, with an English gloss; Ali arranged for the insertion of mounted photographs of British notables, from Queen Victoria and her Prince-Consort to the Earl of Mayo, and included a magisterial frontispiece photograph of himself. Most copies appear to have been presented by Ali himself, with his inscription and the photographs captioned in the same hand. He even presented a lavishly illuminated manuscript copy, with photographs, to Queen Victoria herself; it is now in the Royal Collections (RCIN 1051398).

Neither Amir Ali nor Iqbal al-Dawla seem typical examples; a dispossessed princeling and a senior civil servant producing their own literature, in the vein of a much older tradition of courtly literature, to promote their own interests and reputations. These are only two samples from a much wider genre of Indian writing, relatively little-studied and known.