This paper traces the vicissitudes of the term “corruption” in the early half of nineteenth-century colonial South Asia to understand how the term was repurposed to produce colonial moral authority.
Using examples from the Company era and imperial records, I reflect on how the British understanding of corruption involved a conflicting but simultaneous strategy of containment and naturalization that allowed it to formulate a paternal morality. My paper examines specific understudied instances of corruption, where I focus on how Indians were often incriminated in an already skewed moral conversation. I offer close reading of investigative reports that examine the role of Indian ministers in princely states such as Baroda and Oudh. Through these instances, I demonstrate how the early nineteenth century discourse of colonial corruption was constituted by a double strategy. On one hand, British corruption came to be increasingly re-described as financial (and not moral) disorder whereby the British were presented as ‘supine’ and ‘passive’. On the other hand, the Indians were often characterized as consistently shrewd, possessing abnormal capacities to influence British attitudes. The focus on Indians allowed the British to contain the discourse of internal corruption even as the term expanded to stigmatize Indian administrative relationships and behaviors as morally reprehensible.
This paper examines the various discourses of colonial corruption as a way of demonstrating how racial constructions of morality continue to haunt modern states.