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Current scholarship on British and princely Indian gift-giving presents it as at first a negotiation and manipulation in the eighteenth century and then an elimination of the ambiguities of gift-giving by 1858 when India came under the rule of the British Crown. However, through a discursive and symbolic analysis of a diplomatic gift to the Queen of Britain from the titular Maharaja of Mysore and the British precedent set in 1861 for British and princely Indian gift-giving in the latter half of the nineteenth century, this diplomatic and bureaucratic dominance turns into a contested issue of sovereignty wherein the Maharaja subverted colonial expectations and myths of sovereignty within the material and legal spheres while the British sought to conflate treaties, grants, and gifts into the notion of the “true gift.” Gift-giving continued to play a central role in the negotiations around sovereignty in late nineteenth-century colonial India, yet the British efforts to manage the meaning of exchange, such as categorizing ornate objects as tokens or souvenirs of a personal nature, obscured the continuation of the diplomatic practice within the policy of indirect rule.
Fort St George, Madras, on the Coromandel Coast of India, served as a key site for European natural philosophical knowledge production in the period 1690-1730. As a colonial port city at the centre of cosmopolitan networks of trade under the English East India Company, Fort St George can be considered a “contact zone.” In this space, interactions between European surgeons and clergymen stationed at the Fort, and local Tamil, Telugu and Malawanlu informants had particular implications for the natural philosophical, natural historical, geographic and ethnographic knowledge produced there. While questions around local informants and the hybridisation of knowledge in colonial contexts are becoming a priority in the scholarship of science and empire, the mechanisms operating in these interactions remain underexplored. This paper works to address this by reconstructing cross-cultural knowledge-making interactions between Europeans and Indians at Fort St George, highlighting the way that Europeans treated information from local informants in a dual sense, seeing it as containing potentially useful practical information embedded in flawed religious or cultural explanations. This attitude guided the way Europeans selected and recorded local knowledge, but was only ever applied imperfectly. Indeed, this paper argues that there was an ongoing tension between the ways Europeans intentionally appropriated local information, and the unintended infiltration of Indian cultural knowledge into European natural philosophical accounts. Exploring the particular dynamic of knowledge production that emerged in the contact zone at Fort St George reminds us why we must consider local contexts more closely if we are to properly understand the European natural philosophical project of cataloguing the globe and its imperial implications at the turn of the eighteenth century.