Before starting any discussion on the Colonial Historiography of India, we must glance over the situation of historiography during the time period concerned. Over the years historiography – the scholarly activity of constructing and writing history – of India has undergone many significant changes which can be understood against the background of political and intellectual contexts in which they emerged and flourished.
These various schools are often presented and understood in terms of one school making way for the other in a neat forward progression, however, the reality is much more complex as there is considerable variety within the various schools along with dialogue and even conflict between them.
Colonial Historiography of India
The 18th and 19th centuries were dominated by the by European scholars who were usually referred to as Orientalists or Indologists but they described themselves as “antiquarians”. Many of them were employees of East India Company and later the British Government and many of them had their reservations about the culture and history of India and tried to present it as inferior to that of Europe. However, some of them had ‘sympathy’ for India and its heritage like Mountstuart Elphinstone and Thomas Munro.
Also see: Early Notions of History.
Every school has its own shortcomings and contributions. The contributions of the imperialists lay in their founding of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 which provided an institutional focus for scholars working in a number of related fields such as textual study, epigraphy, numismatics, and history. A major contribution of these scholars lay in their efforts to collect edit and translate ancient Indian texts. In this, they depended heavily on information provided by ‘native informants’ who were rarely acknowledged.
The decipherment of Ashokan Brahmi Kharosthi scripts were major breakthroughs by the school of the colonial historiography of India. Officers of the Geological Survey discovered prehistoric stone tools and laid the basis of Indian prehistory. The Archaeological Survey of India was established in 1871 and over the succeeding decades made an important contribution towards unearthing and analyzing the material remains of India. Some of the Orientalists like William Jones, H.T. Colebrook presented a glorious image of the ancient Indian civilization and tried to draw parallels between stories from the Bible and from those from the Indian scriptures.
However, for all their glorification of ancient India, they viewed contemporary India (18-19th century) as inferior and backward. Most of them saw the British rule in India as necessary as they found the Indians lacking in discipline and modernity which was the result of centuries of stagnation.
A branch within the imperialist school was the Utilitarianist school of James Mill and T.B. Macaulay which gave an image of despotic rule and stagnation which prevailed all throughout the history of the subcontinent. These historians divided the history of India into 3 periods, namely the ancient and/or Hindu period, the medieval and/or Muslim period and the modern and/or British period which raised several questions such as ‘Is the religious affiliation of the ruling elite the best basis for labeling a period?’, ‘In that case, why is the third period labeled as British and not the Christian period?’, ‘How can it be applied to the reigns of the many ancient Indian kings who patronized Buddhism and Jainism?’ etc.
The Brahmanical perspective of ancient Sanskrit texts was often uncritically taken as being reflective of the Indian past. Social and religious institutions were critiqued from a western viewpoint. Indian society was presented as static and stagnant over the centuries. Race, religion, and ethnicity were often confused with each other and there was a tendency to exaggerate the foreign influence.