Family, State & Empire

How would our understanding of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history differ, if twentieth-century British historians had spent less time reading the first volume of Karl Marx’s Capital (1867) and expended more effort perusing Friedrich Engels’s 1884 Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State? By following in the footsteps of Engels and de-centring both the patriarchal nuclear family unit and its primary exemplar in modern liberal theory—the acquisitive, autonomous, adult, propertied male—this lecture underlines the foundational role played by ‘baggy’ British families in the making of East India Company rule. It taps into primary sources that include but also extend beyond the official records of East India Company commerce, administration and warfare to access powerful familial impulses that incentivised and rewarded imperial endeavour over successive generations. In the absence of robust British state structures and sizeable cohorts of British personnel in India, reticulated family formations served to underpin trade, administration and war. Viewing family, state and empire from these vantage points raises essential questions about the shape of modernity in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain.