Pathways of Empire: Circulation, ‘Public Works’ and Social Space in Colonial Orissa, c. 1780–1914
Ravi Ahuja
140 x 216 mm
Year of Publishing
Territorial Rights
Orient BlackSwan

More and ‘improved’ roads, railways and canals—are they ‘in the public interest’ under all circumstances? Phrases like ‘public works’ or ‘infrastructure’ are rarely subjected to historical reflection. Colonial, nationalist and postcolonial operators have presented their transport policies as if they were informed by the needs of a ‘general public’ and not shaped according to preferences of particularistic forces. Pathways of Empire moves beyond the technocratic progressivism of earlier writings on the history of transport. For the first time theories of ‘produced social space’ are concretised in order to open a new perspective on India’s social history of circulation and infrastructure. Moreover, the prevalent and narrow focus on railways is overcome. The effects of the ‘steam revolution’ are thus located in the wider context of existent South Asian regimes of circulation.

Part I of this book develops a conceptual framework of social space that is applied in Part II to the specific historical contexts of the British-ruled districts and princely states of Orissa in the long nineteenth century. It reconstructs the slow transformation of an ancien régime of circulation that largely survived the colonial annexation of coastal Orissa by half century into a new regime of circulation that was well tuned in to the exigencies of colonial capitalism by World War I.

Drawing upon extensive and unexplored archival materials, Ravi Ahuja discusses a wide range of issues including caravan and river trade, rural resistance against roads and canals, the effects of the 1866 famine, pilgrimage and migration, the commercialisation of princely states and the modernisation of forced labour.

Interesting features of this book are eight historical maps grouped towards the end of the book and a 20 x 30 pull out map which shows in great detail the uneven terrain of Orissa and the feudatory states. The latter is folded and tucked into a pocket on the inside of the back cover.

Ravi Ahuja teaches modern South Asian history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He has published widely on various problems of social history since the eighteenth century including labour, urbanism, infrastructure and war.
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