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“All man’s pollution does the sea cleanse”: Revisiting the Nabobs in Britain, 1785-1837

Meike Fellinger

This essay details a historical moment when the future of the British Empire in the East stood at a watershed and when the implications of the colonial expansion were hotly debated at home In particular, it investigates the precarious social position of East India Company employees in a British society that was only beginning to define itself as a global colonial power. Labelled 'nabobs', East India merchants were socially defined ad criticised through their relation to this unknown but highly imaginative India. By focusing on the figure of the nabob, this work seeks to explore the complex relationship between individual and collective identities in domestic Britain around the turn of the nineteenth century. Britishness - as a forged national identity - forums the nexus for analysing the personal conflicts and social location of 'imperial Britons'. Corruption in its multiple meanings will be treated as a key concept to understand the various charges against nabobs, which defined them as a marginal and dangerous group in the perception of eighteenth-century commentators. This work argues that stereotypes and negative representations of Company servants in contemporary newspapers, pamphlets, novels and caricatures deeply shaped the self-understanding, habitus and chances of those men who had often spent decades of their life in British India. To give a detailed picture of this heteterogenous group of imperial Britons, this study is divided into two parts. First, it discusses in detail the social discourses surrounding the figure of the nabob. Second, it uses a comparative framework to write an analytical biography of three EIC merchants, focussing on the categories of influence, wealth and patriotism - and how these profoundly shaped their personal trajectories. In tracing the careers of three nabobs, this paper will also shed light on the shifting relationship and self-understanding of Britain vis-à-vis her emerging empire in the East.

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