J. Hevia: The Imperial Security State

The Imperial Security State. British Colonial Knowledge and Empire-Building in Asia

Hevia, James
Critical Perspectives on Empire
viii + 304 S.
€ 85,62
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
David A. Campion, Lewis & Clark College, Portland

James Hevia begins this ambitious and far-reaching book by invoking Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, the plucky protagonists of Kipling’s famous novella The Man Who Would Be King. Armed with a motley collection of old books, outdated maps and encyclopedia entries, the two ex-soldiers announce their plans to reject their limited prospects in British India and venture beyond the northwest frontier into unknown “Kafiristan” to become kings in their own right. Against this popularized conceit about the gathering of information at the boundaries of empire, Hevia launches into his study of the professionalization of military intelligence and logistics in the Indian Army, the building of an imperial security state, and, more broadly, the European formation of knowledge about Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He argues persuasively that gathering intelligence not only advanced European geopolitical goals in the East, but actually “produced” Asia, at least in European eyes, as “the very object of intervention itself” (p. 16).

At the outset, Hevia describes at length the impact within the British Army of the techno-scientific and organizational revolutions taking place in the armies of its European rivals in the early nineteenth century. In France, the army officer corps was transformed by revolution and Napoleonic conquests from an ancien régime bastion of aristocratic privilege into an open meritocracy and bureaucratic machine. Meanwhile in Prussia, the army developed a highly professional General Staff, one that fused organization, logistics, supply, intelligence and training through a holistic approach that became the envy of the world. The more conservative British officer corps was aware of the changes but took longer to respond to them. Eventually these developments, combined with disasters of incompetent leadership in Crimea (1853-6) and the upheaval of the Indian Revolt (1857-8), prompted major military reform both in Britain and India. The rising importance of staff officers selected through competitive examination was concurrent with the diminishing influence of the old aristocratic elite and their purchased commissions. The restructuring of the Indian Army that replaced the three presidency armies of the East India Company led, among other things, to the creation of the Military Intelligence Branch headquartered in Simla. Its chief concern remained the gathering of information and maintenance of external security beyond India’s northwest frontier in Afghanistan.

Throughout the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, British intelligence officers amassed a vast archive of route books, statistical surveys, maps, reports, handbooks and ethnographic studies in the service of both the colonial state and the military and diplomatic leadership in London eager to use these as leverage against European rivals. These forms of knowledge allowed British India to maintain a high degree of control and surveillance over Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia, but without the liability of formal colonization or military occupation (previous attempts at which had failed spectacularly). They also signaled a gradual shift in the culture of the officer corps away from the gentlemanly amateurism of those born to command and instead toward technical mastery, a tireless work ethic and self-discipline honed through constant training and advancement by merit - a shift reflective of larger social and political transformations underway in industrial Britain and its empire. Hevia goes as far as to characterize this phenomenon as a “new kind of imperial masculinity, one associated with intense study and the capacity to manipulate complex technologies skillfully” (p. 51). Moreover, his descriptions of the professional expertise and systematic precision of intelligence gathering on India’s northwest frontier offer a valuable corrective to tales of dashing adventure and Kiplingesque romance that still animate popular imagination about the “Great Game.”

Apart from describing the inner workings and objectives of the intelligence branch of the Indian army, Hevia demonstrates how the orbits of military intelligence and diplomacy often overlapped in regions of Central Asia where European colonial control was either indirect or altogether non-existent. He also reveals that, in many ways, professionalization in the Indian army reflected similar reforms taking place elsewhere in the subcontinent among the civil service and which, as a Europe-wide phenomenon, had long existed among diplomats. Quoting Timothy Mitchell, he characterizes this growing “rule of experts” (p. 14) as one of the central features of military reform and the accumulation of knowledge along the frontiers of British India.

Among the many strengths of this book is the description of how the Indian Army, and the imperial security state more generally, shifted away from traditional European military conventions and codes and faced up to the challenges, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, of what today is known as “asymmetrical” warfare. Indeed, much of the work of British intelligence officers focused on knowing this new type of “savage” enemy and engaging him effectively - and, in the process, creating the stereotypes that would shape European perceptions of Asia while informing the imperial policies that would have such far-reaching impact on Asians themselves. Hevia leavens his extensive archival work with Foulcauldian theories of governmentality and discipline while invoking Said’s arguments about the West’s “orientalizing” of Eastern cultures (the latter more compelling than the former). Even more noteworthy is the extensive treatment of China and its importance in imperial Britain’s larger project of knowing Asia. Hevia’s earlier research gives him an enviable command of this topic and, more importantly, draws together British India and Qing China as parts of a larger strategic whole, with regard to imperialism and knowledge formation, rather than as the more common study in contrasts: the former being the “Jewel in the Crown” of empire and the latter a string of treaty ports and settlements that, at best, exerted indirect control. Instead, Hevia describes how military intelligence fused China with the rest of Asia “into a terrain of calculation and surveillance” (p. 151). This is the book’s most original contribution to the historiography of British imperialism.

For all its strengths, however, The Imperial Security State gives surprisingly little consideration to the enormous influence of Indian society and culture on British administration in India, including the military. The reform and reorganization of the Indian Army after 1858, even with regard to intelligence and logistics, drew heavily upon practices that had evolved over centuries under the Mughals and their princely successors (in whose service more than a few Europeans had learned much) and which owed little or nothing to European traditions. Moreover, for all its later failures, the East India Company had long excelled at adapting itself to Indian methods of surveillance, diplomacy and combat. Hevia refers to the path-breaking scholarship of C. A. Bayly and Bernard Cohn about the formation of colonial knowledge, but overall the book’s engagement with South Asian sources and historical scholarship is limited. In fact, the overlap in India between military and civil power with regard to information gathering, especially in the nineteenth century, was longstanding and deep. Paramilitary policing and the use of informants, in particular, had served chiefly as the eyes and ears of the colonial regime well before 1857. They often drew on Indian methods and their successes owed to brilliant individuals like Charles Napier and William Sleeman (neither of whom is mentioned). Such practices remained especially effective in frontier zones where the colonial government exercised tenuous control over restive and alienated populations. This Indian inheritance played a crucial role, alongside European military reform and technological innovation, in shaping British military intelligence and security in the northwest frontier and Central Asia in the late nineteenth century.

These limitations, however, detract little from what is an impressive and important book. It is rigorously researched, well organized and accessible (though given its topic it would have benefited from the inclusion of a few maps) and has much to offer to scholars of British imperialism, military administration and geopolitics and the production of knowledge.

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