The many penniless English servants of the East India Company who landed at Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta in the eighteenth-century were not terribly interested in uplifting the natives. They were, however, very keen to enrich themselves. And, by wheeling and dealing in the markets and courts of the subcontinent, a good number of them did just that, going, as we say, from rags to riches.
This class of imperial nouveau riche might have gone unnoticed if, like their successors in the Indian Civil Service, they had stayed in India and, at the end of their careers, returned to modest retirements in Cheltenham. But they did nothing of the sort. As Tillman Nechtman’s new book Nabobs: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2010) demonstrates, as often as not they waddled back to the British Isles dripping diamonds and proceeded to exchange their new found wealth for positions of power in the British socio-political system. The press dubbed them the “nabobs”–a corruption, or modification, of the Indian nawab, or “governor.” The name was hardly complimentary; they were ruthlessly caricatured for their perceived ambition and arriviste pretensions. Influential though they were, many fell hard–Hastings faced an impeachment trial, Clive, hauled up before Parliament, took his own life, and yet others lost battle after battle with their rapacious colleagues. Listen to Tillman discussing these pioneers and the impact they had on the imaginations of the English speaking world, an impact that lingers to the present day.