Migrant Knowledge

From Nabob to Saheb: Reflections of British Rule in The Indian Vocabulary

Published in 1788, The Indian Vocabulary was perhaps one of the first English language lexicons that sought to explicate the plethora of new “things,” “ideas,” and “spaces” one could encounter in the context of colonial India. However, such an attempt to classify and categorize a broad spectrum of “Indian” terms raised and still raises several questions: Whose India did it put to words? What understanding of India were the Englishmen responsible for the dictionary creating to cope with the anxieties of life in the colony? What effects did the distance from the homeland have on the English mind? The Englishmen’s labor was to write India into existence in English and, in doing so, to articulate their own identity in relation to the constructed “India.” In this process of mutual invention, one can observe a curious mutation of knowledge that occurred as it migrated from the colony to Britain and was then compiled to be read by future company officials and those interested in the affairs of India.

“India”: A Lover’s Rhetoric

Language (vocabulary) has long since posited the equivalence of love and war: in both cases it is a matter of conquering, ravishing, capturing etc.1

In the late eighteenth century, the English East India Company in India was making its first forays into governance. A failed experiment of dyarchy under Robert Clive had made clear to company officials that they would have to acquire knowledge about their newly acquired “subjects” of rule. The result would be the objectification of these subjects in a long, drawn-out process of producing knowledge. Paradoxically, this process of producing colonial knowledge both enabled conquest and was made necessary because of it. Colonial knowledge was not simply knowledge about India; it was a creation of something entirely new, distorted by a colonial lens, gift-wrapped in the guise of “understanding.” Company officials found themselves in the crucible of meaning. Their unquenchable desire to “understand” the objects of their governance has long been referred to as their “love” of wisdom about India. However, as Roland Barthes pointed out, the object of capture is the subject of rape, wherein the subject of conquest is transformed into the object of love.2

Company men suffered from a lover’s plague, a gnawing need to continuously define the object of their affection and suffer the uncertainties of this definition. This allowed for the rise of an epistemologically fraught discipline, namely, Orientalism, a supposed cure for this malady. Orientalism was not a mere political praxis or ideological tool; it was a produced discourse that existed in uneven exchange between various levels of power. Edward Said noted that most nineteenth-century Orientalists and scholars were aware of the imperial project, and their hyperawareness shaped their racial attitudes, forming part of the discourse that produced a hegemonic culture that still persists today.3 Thomas Trautmann referred to this as “Indomania,” perhaps accurately conveying the madness that had taken hold in certain company officials, including Warren Hastings, the British colonial administrator who served as the first governor, and then governor-general, of the presidency of Fort William, an early center of the colonial administration. Under Hastings’s tenure, the institute of higher learning there, Fort William College, was transformed into a center of linguistic learning and scholarly patronage.4 Bernard Cohn, in his Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge, classifies this sort of learning as “objectification”—that is, Indian systems were coded to make them increasingly available for colonization.5 Cohn further notes that the years 1770–1785 marked a formative period during which the British successfully started appropriating Indian languages to serve as a crucial component in articulating their system of classical rule.6 Underlying this Orientalism was a process of tacit “reverse acculturation.”7

As Britain opened her arms wide to more colonies, engulfing them in the same lover’s embrace, she became more odious, monstrous even, determined to fashion her beloved anew in her own image. Indomania was supposedly killed off decisively by a rising tide of Indophobia in Britain, rooted in liberal thought. Liberalism transformed the tacit endeavor to colonize India into overt anglicization. It created the background for Utilitarian thinkers who used Orientalist studies to systematically reinforce the idea that “Indian” culture, learning, and language were base and inferior.8 This new trend was marked by an essential conflation of race, language, and nation. The language of the Raj had to be English, and “Oriental” vocabulary had to fit within the “superior” idiom of the colonizers’ language. Lexicons were no longer meant to equip company officers with an “Oriental” language but simply translate carefully picked words from many languages in the form of a succinct vocabulary.

Hastings’s Trial: When Rival Suitors Collide

The complete title of The Indian Vocabulary reads The Indian Vocabulary to Which Is Prefixed Forms of Impeachments. The text opens with a discussion of appropriate trial procedures and impeachment proceedings, which had to be upheld to prevent “the” trial from being erroneous. The commentary comes to an abrupt end with no mention of why such a discussion was invoked in the first place. However, the date of publication and several comments by the anonymous author reveal that the subject of discussion was Warren Hastings and his impeachment trial of 1788–1795.

Warren Hastings by Sir Joshua Reynolds oil on canvas, 1766-1767, ©National Portrait Gallery, London, used with permission.

At this point, it is necessary to reflect more deeply on the relationship between Orientalism and Utilitarianism as they collided in Hastings’s trial. The “prefixed forms of impeachments” listed in the beginning of The Indian Vocabulary also help to highlight these ongoing tensions. The rise of Utilitarianism sought to use Orientalist studies in order to highlight India’s “depravity,” its “barbarian” customs and its “lack” of historical consciousness. India was to be built anew in the image of more “English” institutions. However, such attempts did not express hatred as much as an unhealthy obsession with the colony. Here was a different kind of love, one that sought complete erasure of the indigenous self and attempted to rewrite it. There was no longer an attempt to “understand” but to convert an Indian into an Englishman and birth Macaulay’s children.9 Hastings’s trial became the site of collision for these two lovers.

Warren Hastings had emerged as a champion of Orientalism. Trautmann argues that he displayed a “rhetoric of love” for India that he expressed in his tenure as governor-general. In a dictum to the company directors in 1772, Hastings stipulated that the company had to adapt its regulations and manners to meet the ancient uses and customs of the country.10 This dictum, included in his 1772 administrative, revenue and judicial reforms in Bengal, led to a commitment to learning about ancient India. Hastings’s dealings with the Indian princes had made him a nabob as well, nabob being a British derivative from the Hindustani term nawab, or viceroy of the Mughal emperor. It was applied sarcastically to company officials to emphasize that they enjoyed royal splendor comparable to that of Indian rulers. This status prompted attacks by the Indophobes, such as Edmund Burke, which landed Hastings in court on charges of corruption. The trial became a public spectacle. Burke criticized the British in India, who, he believed, had become replicas of the despised Oriental despots; Hastings, for his part, had ventured too close to the sun, Burke charged; his decision to use Indian models of governance in order to “understand” them led to his impeachment.11

Fruits of Love: The Indian Vocabulary

The context of the trial is elaborated on eleven pages in the preface to The Indian Vocabulary, but it remains baffling why the Utilitarians would deem it necessary to write a lexicon: Why further legitimize the Orientalists’ attempts at “understanding” by using their studies to frame a succinct vocabulary? A critical reading of the text does not reveal an attempt to “understand” India but a desperate call to articulate the self, that is, the role of the company in these tempestuous times. Although the text conveys some nostalgia for Orientalism, the Utilitarian narrative of its anonymous author undermines this.

Title page of The Indian Vocabulary (London, 1788).

The dictionary is intended for Englishmen without any necessary knowledge of other languages who may or may not be concerned with Indian affairs. Like many subsequent lexicons, it was published in London. It does not employ any complex systems to translate the phonetic sounds of Indian vernaculars to English, a subject of much debate between other prominent Orientalists both before and after its publication, including William Jones, Charles Wilkins, Friedrich Max Müller, and, finally, Monier Monier-Williams. It simply uses what sounds best to the ear. Furthermore, the author contends that the various phonetic systems in use were so different from one another that no consensus could be reached. Instead, this study merely attempts to provide the reader with a succinct description of Indian vocabulary. The author hopes that “one who disclaims all study of the Bengal language and its cognates, may hope at least for the indulgence of the learned reader.”12

The main body of the text itself exclusively utilizes the Roman (Latin) alphabet and gives short definitions of names of rulers, places, and terms, often devoid of context. Some entries, like that for Adeetyas, presuppose a knowledge of who Adeetee is (Aditi: the mother of the celestial gods in the Vedas). The entry carries no indication of the context wherein one may encounter such a term and why familiarity with it is necessary.13 This lack of context could indicate ignorance on the part of the compiler or that knowledge of Indian deities was presumed of readers—a trace of Orientalism hidden in the 133-page long Vocabulary.

Entries that do provide some context often relate to names of places as they were known at that time, such as Agra, Ahmedaba’d, Ahmadnagur, or geographical landscapes, like Attoc. The entry for Attoc even mentions the location of a fort that allows the military to pass by peacefully. Areas like Luckypore are only mentioned as being 285 miles from company strongholds like Calcutta. In this, the Vocabulary compiler commits the same error as many indigenous attempts at map-making—that is, heavy reliance on details or peculiarities of pāḍas (localities) indicating the social or cultural function of place. This practice, the British criticized, made the maps less “cartographic,” so indigenous map-making was generally frowned upon.14 Yet, as the Luckypore definition shows, a similar technique is employed in the dictionary: places are defined in relation to places considered important to the British and even include details that may be considered useful to the British. In other words, the Vocabulary reflects the English mind mapping the new landscape, placing itself in the center.

The Vocabulary also defines words not simply to convey their meaning but, in some cases, to explain what they should mean to company officials. A clear example is the entry for the term Banyan, which it defines as any Gentoo servant employed in commercial affairs, but elaborates the definition as follows: “Every Englishman in Bengal has a Banyan … His business is to … buy and sell for his masters.”15 This added context reduces the Banyan merchant to a slave of the Englishman. This is ironic in light of the work of scholars who have charted the rise of these merchants as portfolio capitalists and collaborators in British Rule.16 Yet, to the Company a Banyan must be a servant to the Englishman, regardless of what his historical role indicates.

The most prominent example of Utilitarian overtones in the text arises in the entry on Saheb, which does not define what a Saheb is but what it is supposed to be. Whereas the term Saheb is supposed to be a title referring to a companion, it is defined here not as a person but as the company in its relationship to Indians. This definition reveals the company straddling two major roles—governance in India and business in Britain—and suggests that Indians turn to the company when they have no option but to look to the benevolence of the British. The text translates the “Hindu” exclamation “Dowbay Company Saheb” as “Help, my Lord the Company”17 to convey this idea. This is the epitome of the company donning the new shoes of the Saheb in its governance role.

In conclusion, the example of The Indian Vocabulary shows that the British were in the process of understanding their own place in the colony and mediating perceptions that arose in Britain of the company’s power in India. Hastings’s trial highlights a contemporary debate about the nature of colonial rule and demands an articulation of the role of the colony and the colonizer. By having the forms of impeachments as its preface, the Vocabulary touches upon the duplicity of the Orientalist rhetoric and shows how the late-eighteenth-century British Raj was a period of ideological tumult, in which various groups sought different but sometimes overlapping modes of control over the colony. The same was probably a source of anxiety for the Raj. The Vocabulary is not only a reflection of the changing tide in the company order, that is, a slow decline of Orientalism and rise of Utilitarianism, but also a reflection of what the company wished to be—a Saheb neither to be found in the mania of Orientalism nor the strategems of Utilitarianism. The Vocabulary is a labor of love—a perverse rendition of love bearing traces of the manic obsession of the Orientalists and a strong narrative that dictates the identity the company wished to take on and hiding the ambivalences of the Raj in its allegory.


Mayukhi Ghosh is an undergraduate student of history at St. Stephen's College, Delhi, India. Her interests include histories of language, education, and knowledge production.

  1. Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, transl. Richard Howard (London: Penguin Books, 1979 [1977]), 188. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 188 ↩︎
  3. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 1–28. ↩︎
  4. See also David Kopf, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization 1773–1835 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 87–94. ↩︎
  5. Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 4–5. ↩︎
  6. Bernard S. Cohn, “The Language of Command and the Command of Language,” in Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 20–21. ↩︎
  7. Reverse acculturation in this case refers to the training of British officials to assimilate into the “native” way of life. See also Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 28. ↩︎
  8. See also Thomas R. Trautmann, “Introduction,” in The Aryan Debate, ed. idem (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005). ↩︎
  9. This is a reference to Thomas Babington Macaulay. He is perhaps most well-known for his advocacy of English language learning among Indian students. This is clearly articulated in his 1835 “Minute on Education,” where he says that the company should resolve to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” “Macaulay’s children,” thus, alludes to this new class of persons and in the postcolony refers to Indians so enraptured by Englishness that they become alienated from their own communities and languages. ↩︎
  10. Thomas Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007 [1995]), 10. ↩︎
  11. P. J. Marshall, “The Making of an Imperial Icon: The Case of Warren Hastings,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 27, no. 3 (September 1999): 1–16. ↩︎
  12. The Indian Vocabulary to Which Is Prefixed Forms of Impeachments (London: John Stockdale, 1788), xvi. ↩︎
  13. The Indian Vocabulary, 3. ↩︎
  14. Keya Dasgupta, “A City Away from Home: The Mapping of Calcutta,” in Texts of Power: Emerging Disciplines in Colonial Bengal, edited by Partha Chatterjee (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1995). ↩︎
  15. The Indian Vocabulary, 14. ↩︎
  16. See also Sanjay Subrahmanyam and C.A. Bayly, “Portfolio Capitalists and the Political Economy of Early Modern India,” Indian Economic & Social History Review 25, no. 4 (December 1988): 401–24. ↩︎
  17. The Indian Vocabulary, 111–12. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Mayukhi Ghosh, "From Nabob to Saheb: Reflections of British Rule in The Indian Vocabulary," Migrant Knowledge, September 20, 2023, https://migrantknowledge.org/2023/09/20/reflections-of-british-rule-in-the-indian-vocabulary/.