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Home arrow Sociology arrow Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950

The Limits of Cosmopolitanism on the Cusp of Empire

Abstract The lives, friendships and encounters charted in this book reveal partial, uneven and contradictory processes at work in individual lives and across political and social movements. Engaging with knowledge and culture from around the globe at the same time as mediating its impacts through the spiritual and ethical consciousness that emerged out of everyday life was both a practical and a utopian pursuit. It was undertaken, as we have argued, in ways that were not straightforwardly derivative of Europe but which called into question the West’s claims to provide a universal template of rights and conditions that was beneficial and applicable to the world as a whole.

Keywords Alternative cosmopolitanisms • Imperialism • Nationalism • Imperial networks • Global networks • Race • Transnational histories • Colorful cosmopolitanisms

We began this book with W. E. B. Du Bois’ perceptive comment about ‘the color line’ as the key problem of the twentieth century. The cosmopolitan thought zones charted in this book appear to breach that ‘color line’ in the lives, friendships and encounters each of the case studies chart. Taken together, they reveal a range of alternative cosmopolitanisms that accommodated forms of amity, cooperation and confraternity in anticolonial moves to end or ameliorate imperial relations of ruling.

© The Author(s) 2017

J. Haggis et al., Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52748-2_6

However, the biographical approach we have utilised reveals partial, uneven and contradictory processes at work in individual lives and across political and social movements. This cautions us against constructing any simple trajectory from imperial to post-imperial, from racialised to antiracist, or from colonial to anti-colonial. Nevertheless, we continue to believe in the importance of uncovering ‘the mediated and bridged communities of affiliation that connected individuals and groups across lines of difference’.1 Here, we consider the dynamics and limits of the alternative cosmopolitanisms embedded in our case studies, both individually and together, and we explore their implications for transnational histories of empire and its end, as well as for the study of globalisation and the cosmopolitanisms produced in its seams.

The cosmopolitanisms we have investigated emerged over the period 1860-1950, a period framed in the context of emergent anti-colonial nationalisms. Our case studies confirm Sugata Bose’s argument that ‘colorful cosmopolitans’ are not constrained by the opposition of the national to the universal;2 indeed, our examples suggest that it was not only ‘colourful’ cosmopolitans that could explore trajectories through the nationalist/universalist opposition. In Chapter 2, the sedentary Collet’s ability to imagine India as her home in a way which convinced her Indian friends is suggestive of how re-positioning her original sense of national belonging was intrinsic to her cosmopolitanism. Polak’s life-long activism on behalf of Indians and other subjugated individuals in the British Empire is discussed in Chapter 3 in terms of his ability to combine into a cosmopolitan activism his sense of being English, Jewish, Theosophist and at home in the world beyond nation and faith. In Chapter 4, a contrapuntal reading of Sykes and Patel’s ethico-political journeys into cosmopolitan thought-zones and friendship reveals two very different pathways to a universal sensibility through negotiating the coloniser/ colonised binary to arrive at a meeting point of amity and cooperation. The Pan-Pacific networks of the Institute for Pacific Relations, discussed in Chapter 5, show how even when actors are positioned as national representatives within internationalist spaces they articulate and strive for cosmopolitan global imaginaries of peaceful co-existence.

Alongside the shifting imperialism/nationalism dynamic, a key context for the cosmopolitan engagements of the individuals discussed in this book was the changing nature ofreligious and spiritual engagement across the borders of faith, and within imperial Christianity. The Brahmo Samaj trod an, at times, unsteady path between collaboration with westerners to promote social reform and assertion of a national identity traced through Hindu custom, as the furore over Keshub Chunder Sen’s marriage attests. The emphasis on conversion by evangelical mission Christianity, tightly entwined with the imperial ‘civilizing mission’, produced unanticipated outcomes. ‘Native churches’, intended as spearheads of the twin mission to civilise and evangelise, increasingly articulated a decidedly independent cast of mind. At the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, Indian and Chinese Christian leaders lectured their mainly European audience on race as the problem bedevilling the Church. This was a turning point in imperial Christianity, signalling for some at least, the inevitability of building an ecumenical and inclusive international community of faith. In the Indian context, both the nationalist and ecumenical turn were inherited by the likes of S. K Datta and Kotanda Rao, discussed in Chapter 5, and enabled them to combine a strong sense of nationalism with a powerful universalism of faith and politics embedded in discourses of anti-racism, social and economic justice. Christianity did not prevent Marjorie Sykes from building a shared cosmopolitanism embedded in the particularisms of Indian rural life, with Indian followers of Gandhi. For others, Theosophy melded east and west in ways that facilitated their cosmopolitanisms, as the examples of the British and Jewish intellectual Henry Polak, and the Australian feminist Pan-Pacific activist Bessie Rischbieth demonstrate.

As we have shown, liberal thinkers, activists and internationalists on both sides of colonial contact developed both informal voluntary networks of association (as discussed in Chapter 2 for example) and formal international organisations (as discussed in Chapter 5). These offered alternative spaces for respectful mutual interchange between Westerners and nonWesterners, which contrasted with official British-led imperial and colonial networks and were more conducive to the creation of a sense of crosscultural affective community than the new Internationalist organisations such as the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations. These networks encouraged their members to question the subjectivities, structures and privileges of empire. In forming intimate, respectful and admiring relationships across the colour line, and taking on supportive rather than leadership roles in relation to colonial others, people like Collet, Sykes and Polak challenged the racist imperial worldview of colonised peoples as racially and culturally inferior, or at the very least as not-yet sufficiently modern to attain the conditions of individual or collective selfrule.

As this book suggests, it was often people who were in some way outside the religio-cultural mainstream that took the lead in forging cosmopolitan connections across the coloniser/colonised binary to address such issues. As well as the direct motor of cosmopolitan agency, faith can be understood as its biographical context. Polak’s Jewishness, for example, can be seen as a cultural, historical and familial context that shaped his sense of marginality. Collet was part of a network linking heterodox Unitarians, considered heretics by some mainstream Christians, to Brahmos, many of whom had been ostracised by their Hindu families for breaking with caste prescriptions. Patel, from a Zoroastrian Parsee family, was positioned as a member of an ethnic and religious minority in India who were closely identified with the Raj. Sykes’s decision to become a Quaker when working in India moved her Christian positioning from the nonconformist mainstream associated with the evangelical missionary movement to a dissenting group less concerned with religious dogma and Biblical authority, perhaps providing her with a cosmopolitan bridge to Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolence as a Hindu spiritual practice. Rischbieth was a follower of theosophy who admired Indian civilization.

More broadly, colonised men and women challenging both indigenous social and religious norms and colonial racism and imperial rule found common ground with people like Collet, Sykes, Polak and Rischbieth. By reaching across narratives of difference embedded within the authority of imperial rule, however uneven or contradictory their standpoints on matters of race, economic inequality, or gender, the cosmopolitans considered in this book can be said to have mobilised affective forms of anti-colonial agency. They navigated ‘race’ and forms of religious or faith-based difference in the very decades in which the global colour line was being redrawn.

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