Gender, Race, and Fortunes in the East India Company's 'Familial Proto-State': The Evidence of Scottish Wills and Testaments, c.1740-c.1820

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Andrew MacKillop


The family unit has become an important lens for investigating the social, gendered, and racial dimensions of early British imperialism in Asia. Using evidence derived from wills and testaments registered by Scots at the English East India Company’s settlements between 1740 and 1820, this article explores how colonial wealth was redistributed. In doing so it reconsiders how families and kinship acted as both a transhemispheric connection between Europe and the Indian Ocean World and a disruptor of social, gendered, and racial dynamics.

It queries arguments that family boundaries could be porous enough to incorporate mixed-race children resulting from relationships between Europeans and local women. Analysis of overall patterns of wealth allocation, rather than individual family case studies, reveals a clear tendency to separate or ‘silo’ such children. Offspring born to local women received far less than family back in Scotland and were usually left in the place of their birth. Families in Scotland stressed a political economy of profit remittance and discouraged the creation of new obligations to children and local women. Considerable sums were instead allocated to female relatives. One result of the policing of extended family boundaries was a heightening in pre-1820s Scottish society of colour consciousness and racialised notions of identity. In this way, the Indian Ocean World, just as surely as better-known processes such as the Atlantic slave trade, contributed a practical and immediate set of imperatives driving new concepts of race and racialisation in Enlightenment era Scotland.

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Special Feature: Scotland, Scots, and the Indian Ocean World (Articles)