Theses Doctoral

Paperwork, Governance, and Archive in the British Empire During the Age of Revolutions

Siddique, Asheesh Kapur

What role did documents play in the governance of the British Empire during an age of unprecedented geopolitical transformation? Paperwork, Governance, and Archive in the British Empire During the Age of Revolutions answers this question by examining the role of paperwork in British imperial governance in the Atlantic World during the eras of the American and French Revolutions. The dissertation argues that paperwork served as the facilitative technology through which administrative interactions between metropolitan officials and their imperial servants were conducted. Through the creation and circulation of particular material forms, late eighteenth century bureaucrats across the different offices involved in imperial administration–including the Board of Trade, the Admiralty, the Secretary of State, and the Customs–articulated and enforced an ‘imperial constitution’ that elevated the power of royal sovereignty in the governance of the British empire. This role of paperwork remained consistent throughout the late eighteenth century despite the pressures of revolution and war that transformed the imperial state in other respects. But at the end of the eighteenth century, imperial administrators developed a new approach to documents that had previously been pronounced only in domestic governance: the transformation of the archive from its role as a container of documents, into an active site of policy-making.
Paperwork–meaning any document produced either in response to official demand, or written by bureaucrats in the execution of the processes of administration; and the constellations of practices in which bureaucrats engaged when using them–made Britain’s otherwise ungovernable empire cohere across vast oceanic and territorial expanses. Through the dispatch and circulation of particular forms, the different institutions responsible for exercising authority over imperial possessions in the Atlantic Basin enacted the specific administrative tasks that preserved the political viability of the imperial constitution. Every act of governance involved the seemingly limitless production of paperwork: from collecting taxes (reliant upon keeping account books and receipts) and navigating ships (dependent upon logbooks and geographical atlases), to negotiating treaties (through diplomatic letter writing and drafting) and maintaining order (requiring the composition and circulation of legal codes). The first chapter of the dissertation provides an overview of the structure and growth of imperial bureaucracy and communications in the British empire during the long eighteenth century. The second, third, fourth, and fifth chapters examine how the central institutions involved in governing the British empire in the Atlantic world, including the Board of Trade; the Secretary of State; the Admiralty; and the Customs and Treasury, used documents. While each of these different institutions relied upon different kinds of documents in executing their administrative tasks, in each case the administrative use of paperwork articulated, enforced, and facilitated the relationships of hierarchy and deference between metropolitan and colonial administrators that characterized sovereignty in the British empire. The administrative use of paperwork, these chapters show, centered upon bureaucrats’ use of documents to demonstrate to their superiors that they understood expectations for proper official conduct, and were acting accordingly.
This constitutional and facilitative role of documents, the dissertation argues, continued to inhere in administrative culture during the late eighteenth century despite a set of significant political challenges–notably the American and French Revolutions–to British imperial power. Yet, in one key respect, the material practices of imperial bureaucracy changed in this period. Beginning in the 1790s, administrators began to systematically use the vast archives of paperwork accumulating in the offices and repositories of the British state as sources of knowledge and evidence to inform the development of imperial strategy against the French in Asia, Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. These practices of archival use revived modes of bureaucratic governance that had been developed centuries earlier, and were characteristics of a distinctively ‘early modern’ style of administration. The dissertation concludes by suggesting the complications that this history of the bureaucratic archive introduces for extant accounts of British ‘modernity.’
For over a century, scholarship has fruitfully attended to the ideological origins, political development, and administrative history of the British empire in the long eighteenth century. But virtually all of this research has looked through paperwork for evidence of other phenomena, rather than attempting to understand the significance that contemporaries ascribed to the material forms they used. By accounting for the role of documents in the history of British imperial governance, the dissertation also models an approach to writing the histories of states and empires that departs from both structuralist and poststructuralist perspectives on governance by attending instead to the specificities of bureaucratic practice.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Brown, Christopher L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 2, 2016