Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Jeffrey N. Cox
John A. Stevenson
"Gambling on Empire" offers the first extended study of a central trope governing literary representations of British colonial expansion in India: "speculation." My study proceeds from a fundamental question: why do authors so frequently invoke this term in relation to the burgeoning Indian empire, relying upon it to characterize, in a negative fashion, the East India Company (EIC), its leaders and employees, and the men and women who emigrated to its stations? Through analyses of a wide range of works both from recognized authors such as Austen, Edgeworth, and Scott, and less well-known writers like Mariana Starke, Elizabeth Hamilton, and Frederick Reynolds, I address this question and situate "speculation" at the heart of British attempts to reconcile new modes of commerce to customary conceptions of value and virtue during an era of unprecedented economic and imperial expansion. Speculation has always held the root meaning of "vision" or "perception," but expanded during the 1770s to encompass suspect financial activities "of a venturesome or risky nature, but offering the chance of great or unusual gain" (OED). The material conditions that precipitated this semantic shift were tied to the economic, cultural, and political instabilities generated by Britain's transition to a global credit economy fueled by the Scylla-and-Charybdis of finance capitalism and imperial domination--specifically, the EIC's conquest of Bengal and the subsequent opportunities for employment, investment, and upward class mobility it created. The spectacle of returning Company employees laden with the spoils of imperial conquest--as well as the popular journalism, novels, plays and travel narratives that represented and narrated these successes--dazzled domestic Britons and reinforced the popular (though ultimately chimerical) view that India was a mine of exhaustless riches. Authors employ a rhetoric of speculation to characterize, reprove, and reform what seemed to be excessively dicey schemes employed by those who, inspired by India's glittering prospects, scrambled to share in the spoils--whether by seeking employment with the EIC; trading in its stocks and imports; emigrating to colonial stations to marry Company servants and leaders; or engaging in other high risk activities.
Leffel, John Curts, "Gambling on Empire: Colonial India and the Rhetoric of “Speculation” in British Literature and Culture, c.1769-1830" (2013). English Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 49.