Theses Doctoral

The Cantonments of Northern India: Colonialism and the Counter Urban, 1765–1889

Cowell, Christopher

This dissertation is a spatial, urban, and architectural history of the British East India Company’s colonial rule in northern India (1765–1858) and the operations of its military. It examines one of the most essential yet overlooked phenomena used to shape colonial territorial governance during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the “cantonment” or permanent army encampment. To date, there has been no comprehensive history written on this. Yet the system of cantonments as a functioning legacy remains intact, while their influence upon modern northern Indian urbanism and its infrastructure are considerable. Significantly, the study repositions the sites for control over India, as imagined by the Company, from its colonial cities to its perceived hinterlands and margins, its mufassil.

Cantonments were quickly established by the colonial armies of India as permanent military bases, spreading across more than one hundred locations by the mid-nineteenth century. These were scattered throughout the subcontinent, though concentrated within the north under the jurisdiction of the Bengal Presidency. They were unique, initially, to India. Their organizational versatility allowed them to form enclosed garrisons, to sprawl as massive camps, to reconfigure forts, and to become sanitarium hill stations. The dissertation begins with a study of the first cantonments created to safeguard the Company’s new territories acquired in 1765 under the Treaty of Allahabad. It concludes in 1889 with the second Cantonments Act, a crucial municipal code regulating military-civilian cities within India and settlements beyond.

A central argument of this study is that cantonments, both individually and as a conjoined system, reveal a peculiar strategy of territorial governance over the subcontinent by the Company that may be described as “counter urban.” Cantonments as they spread enabled the army to disengage with local populations, co-inhabiting territory while maintaining discreet distances from the urban settlements of an older India. In part, this was in order to invigilate them, providing a precisely “detachable” character to the Company’s actions of spatial security. This separation also allowed the army to control a cantonment’s internal growth and any adjustments as to its form, crafting laws that regulated each cantonment enclave, determining the exclusion of or differentiation of peoples and practices. This “countering” or separation from local urbanism by a cantonment must be read consistently against broader geography. More comprehensive analysis reveals an understanding that the Company, from the beginning, determined that their cantonments had to form logistical, economic, and infrastructural relations between each other, relations distinct from that generated by India’s existing inter-urbanism. This process was both actual and ideological. It can be understood as what made India’s geographical space progressively imperial. The “counter urbanism” of these entities, then, will be shown to be nothing more than the spatial practices of modern Indian colonialism acting across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Martin, Reinhold
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 12, 2020