SMU Associate Professor of English Rajani Sudan is pioneering a new approach to the study of British imperialism. Her research challenges a long-held theory that the British Empire brought technology and commerce to pre-modern India. Instead Sudan, a scholar in postcolonial theory, says that India's superior scientific and technical advances informed the development of science in Europe during the 18-century Enlightenment.
With her current book, Mud, Mortar, and Other Technologies of Empire, Sudan focuses on the non-European origins of the Enlightenment. She has found her history of the British Enlightenment in the literary artifacts of the 18th century, from the correspondence of the British East India Company and the papers of the Royal Society to the poetry of Alexander Pope and novels of Daniel Defoe and Jane Austen. "This interdisciplinary study aims at turning our understanding of the Enlightenment and the rise of Europe upside down," she says.
During the Enlightenment the East India Company brought from India exotic elixirs that English scientists explained in terms of alchemy, that superstitious "science" that present-day scholars say was displaced by the rational science of the 18th century. In their efforts to comprehend the foreign and the "exotic," British scientists, just as earlier alchemists had done, acknowledged there was much in the world that they simply could not understand.
"They certainly couldn't understand many aspects of Indian science, not the least being its sophistication," Sudan says. "It was their own superstitions, fantasies, and reasons the British saw in Indian science. Enlightenment reason and science weren't equipped to comprehend foreign places, people, and ways of understanding, and the British knew it."
Sudan contends that the Enlightenment was born largely out of Europe's sense of insecurity and inferiority in the early modern world. Only much later, at the height of the colonial empires, did historians use it to account for European hegemony, she says.
Initially interested in the origins of Romantic literature during the 18th and 19th centuries, Sudan turned her attention from Britain to the global encounters of the first British Empire. Her first book, Fair Exotics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), traced the fascination with and fear of foreign people and places, sensibilities that influenced thinking in the Romantic era. The hallmarks of Romantic literature, Sudan argues, were forged during the Enlightenment, not afterward, as has long been assumed. Fair Exotics received a Godbey Award for outstanding research by an SMU faculty member.
The daughter of Cornell University faculty members, Sudan earned her B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell. Frequent trips to India created an interest in literature reflecting Britain's colonial rule. On research leave last summer and fall, Sudan was one of the few Western scholars to analyze Indian archives of the East India Company in Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay.
This story first appeared in the 2006 edition of SMU Research magazine.
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