Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2020
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
History, New York University
Commerce as an Ethical Problem: Caste Norms, Devotional Poetry, and Property Disputes in Bengal in a Global Capitalist Context, 1720s-1830s

My dissertation shows that in Bengal between the 1720s and the 1830s, both lower and upper castes reflected upon the implications of capitalism for caste norms, and that lower castes looked to the possible normative significance of labor to articulate historically new critiques of caste. I use three groups of sources in my work. The first group includes caste genealogies spanning the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and private papers of leading business families of early colonial Bengal, who belonged to upper or socially mobile middling castes. The genealogies are detailed family histories of various caste groups, and include reflections about caste mixing. The business papers will become available online in spring 2020, courtesy of the Endangered Archives Program of the British Library. From these sources, I trace how upper and middling castes thought about the changing commerce-caste relationship. The second group pertains to the history of devotional religion, and provides a window into how lower castes criticized caste norms. It focuses on the poetry of the two major devotional sects that comprised of lower castes – the Vaishnavas and the Kartabhajas – and especially on the use of market metaphors in this poetry. The third group includes Proceedings of the Calcutta Mayor's Court and the Sadar Dewany Adalat between 1727 and 1841, decisions of cases referred to the Privy Council in London, and printed reports of cases heard at the Calcutta Supreme Court after 1774. Using these, I narrate how different groups were implicated in the conflict leading up to the passing of the Caste Disabilities Removal Act (1850), which decreed that the right to own and inherit property would no longer be forfeited by expulsion from a caste group. By comparing Bengal's experience with the ways in which capitalism inspired demands for greater civic equality in eighteenth-century Britain and France, my work illuminates the stakes of a truly global history of capitalism and norms.