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Ethnography and encounter : Dutch and English approaches to cross-cultural contact in seventeenth-century South Asia

This thesis explores the intersections between Dutch and English East India Company (VOC and EIC) enterprise and early modern ethnography. Scholarship concerning both Companies has focused principally on the socio-economic side of Euro-Asian exchanges. In doing so, existing literature has failed to address the importance of ethnographic assumptions in shaping the worldviews of overseas agents. This study suggests a novel way of writing the cultural histories of these commercial-cum-political bodies from a comparative, transnational, and interdisciplinary perspective. It analyses VOC and EIC archives for what they reveals about perceptions of Others, categories of human difference, and approaches to cross-cultural interaction. Each of the three case studies examines a different aspect of Dutch and English involvement in cross-cultural contact in seventeenth-century South Asia – commercial dealings in Gujarat, diplomatic interactions at the Mughal court, and colonial encounters in Ceylon and Madras, respectively. A survey of the principal concepts and categories which structured early modern European ethnographic analyses precedes these discussions. Cultural assumptions about Asian peoples shaped Dutch and English enterprise in South Asia long before the advent of European imperialism. This thesis explores the indebtedness of Company writing to Renaissance ethnography, explains how cultural prejudice and distrust buttressed maritime aggression and fortification policies, and traces how new forms of discrimination based on skin colour became anchored in colonial governance. It also shows how VOC and EIC agents acculturated to their host environment in profound ways. Diplomacy involved adaptation to and incorporation into Mughal imperial culture. Commerce benefited from quotidian social interactions. Colonial governance drew on native participation and South Asian political traditions. While seventeenth-century cross-cultural contact should thus be understood within a power configuration that compelled Europeans to adapt, the way in which Company agents employed ethnographic concepts also points at discursive continuities with later imperial ideologies.
Date January 2015
CreatorsVan Meersbergen, G. A. M.
PublisherUniversity College London (University of London)
Source SetsEthos UK
Detected LanguageEnglish
TypeElectronic Thesis or Dissertation

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