The Description of Poverty and Slavery as a Way to Sedentarize the Poor
Opposed to this set of ideas expressed by Crole, another group—of government servants, journalists, missionaries, and others—became concerned primarily with poverty. Specifically, they became preoccupied with the political and bodily effects of impoverishment. The members of this “new school” claimed that though the government had emancipated former Pannaiyals or debt-bonded men by a series of laws, they structurally still served as slaves. What this suggests is that the question of “emancipation” in the Chingleput district had two meanings to the officers of the government resident there in the 1880s. One sense alluded to the “liberation of the land” from the Mirasidars, providing “land” with a new signification. The other signification referred to the “emancipation of the slaves,” providing “slavery” with a new signification.
This development is important for our purposes because in Chingleput a direct connection existed between the emancipation of the land from the Mirasidars and the emancipation of the Pannaiyals from their vellala and brahman masters. Specifically, for the project of sedentarizing the peasantry of Chingleput to succeed, the construction of the Tondaimandalam village as immobile and antique had to be linked with an equally new production of “truth,” in which the paraiyars, even though they were the poorest, became constructed as the most loyal and the most sedentary of anybody in the entire population. To effect this linkage, a general cultural project had to be undertaken in which all inhabitants, all voices would participate in creating the knowledge that ensured that all members of the population remained in identifiable places.
In Chapters 2 and 3, we examined the cultural thinking and practical working out of the first task of this historical project, the archaicizing of Tondaimandalam villages as a basis for a future state and society. In this chapter and the Conclusion, we will look at the strategies undertaken to accomplish a second historical task, that of creating a description of the situation of the poor. This attempt showed that the paraiyars of Tondaimandalam were the original settlers of the area in order to give them the right to individual dwellings so that they would not move. This naturally included the development of a separate ethnic identity for the paraiyars as the original Dravidians, who were in fact the original settlers of the area. The project of establishing a sedentary population became directly connected with ethnic singularity. The general movement toward an increasingly settled population in the nineteenth century incited all members of the community to discourse no matter what their location in the social hierarchy. As we know from many other contexts, this involved enormous excitement and pleasure for individuals at all levels of society. It also involved a vast elaboration of the description not only of the poor but of many other elements of the society as well. In a sense, the more social repression there was, the more knowledge was created.
The movement to sedentarize the population of Chingleput was mirrored by other similar developments in many other areas of India. As part of that general intellectual and economic activity, specific attempts were made to speak about what was conceived to be the growing poverty of India under British rule. In many ways, this discussion about the poverty of India became intertwined with and extended the earlier Condition of England debate in Britain. Both discussions had as their goal the continuing classification of the social community. Though much of the debate focused on the poor, the discussion aimed at defining the values of middle-class society and of citizenship generally.
As part of the extended Condition of England debate, a discussion about housing for the poor arose in the 1880s in Britain. This was particularly concerned with the destitute of East London. One of the most influential pamphlets on the subject, The Bitter Cry of Outcaste London, jointly authored by a nonconformist minister named Andrew Mearns and others, appeared in 1883. As K. S. Inglis has noted, the pamphlet served as “a plea for parliamentary action, especially to provide decent cheap housing” for the poor. It is also certain that The Bitter Cry was partly based on “a more vivid tract” by G. R. Sims entitled How the Poor Live. These two publications joined a number of other pamphlets and articles, as well as reviews of the day by Joseph Chamberlain, Richard Cross, and others, and articles published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1883 and later about the housing conditions of England’s poor.
Some authors argue that this spate of publicity simply formed an attempt to disempower the dangerous classes. Anthony Wohl, for instance, has pointed out that Charles Kingsley had written a quarter of a century earlier that “better working-class housing would pay in many ways, especially by ‘gradually absorbing the dangerous classes.’ ” In the same way, Sims observed that “this mighty mob of famished, diseased, and filthy helots is getting dangerous, physically, morally, politically dangerous.” He warned that “its lawless armies may sally forth and give us a taste of the lesson the mob has tried to teach in Paris, when long years of neglect have done their work.” Therefore, the concern of British middle-class reformers with the housing of the poor and their economic plight, according to Wohl’s analysis, focused on making the poor powerless. What Wohl does not see is that this activity also helped to interactively create categories that defined both the poor and the middle classes in a society in which productivity and living to maturity became increasingly important.
Another work, printed toward the end of the period when the terms and vocabulary of the debate had already been largely set, was “General” William Booth’s In Darkest England and the Way Out. This book appeared in late 1890 after the appearance of Stanley’s In Darkest Africa. Booth noted in his preface that the strategies traditionally employed by Christian philanthropy were totally inadequate for dealing with the “despairing miseries” of a group of people he called the “outcast classes.” Booth said, “As there is a darkest Africa is there not also a darkest England? Civilisation, which can breed its own barbarians, does it not also breed its own pygmies? May we not find a parallel at our own doors and discover within a stone’s throw of our cathedrals and palaces similar horrors to those which Stanley has found existing in the great Equatorial forest?” Whether it was prostitution in England or slavery in Africa, the problem was the same. “And when once,” he wrote, “the poor girl has consented to buy the right to earn her living by the sacrifice of her virtue, then she is treated as a slave and an outcast by the very men who have ruined her.” Moreover, Booth asked whether any “African slave system, making allowances for the superior civilisation, and therefore sensitiveness, of the victims, reveals more misery,” saying, “Just as in Darkest Africa it is only a part of the evil and misery that comes from the superior race who invade the forest to enslave and massacre its miserable inhabitants, so with us, much of the misery of those whose lot we are considering arises from their own habits. Drunkenness and all manner of uncleanness, moral and physical, abound.” Booth felt, as Stanley had indicated, that there was a way out, that change was possible. In other words, with discipline, planning, and application of the appropriate methods, even poor people could make a social and economic contribution and live a better life.