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The Initiation of Engineering Education in Colonial India and the "Colonial Way" of Understanding Science

Hausarbeit 2019 17 Seiten

Sozialwissenschaften allgemein


Table of contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Goal of the Paper
1.2 Problem to be investigated

2. The Beginning of New Dynamics

3. Local and European Knowledge5-
3.1 The Discourse about “Modern Science”
3.2 Colonial Imperial Science6

4. European Knowledge in Indigenous Learning

5. Manifesting European Methods

6.Traditional Engineering Institutions

7. Technological Surveys in India
7.1 The Hindu College of Calcutta
7.2 The Roorkee College and the Public Works Department
7.3 Engineers

8. Criticism

9. Conclusion

10. Literature

1. Introduction

The history of science is itself a science and one of the most interesting and important of them all. “(by Deepak Kumar)1

The emergence of modern science along with the commercial and industrial application coincided with colonial exploration and understanding. Colonialization had brought an extremely historical process with different results. One result refers to the changes in technology2, which played a vital role and was shaped with various ideas. Modernization, science and domination all marched together3. The British people introduced technology “projects” such as, the telegraph, irrigation and railways4. Unfortunately, Western historians of science usually presented western experiences as some part of universal paradigm and their accounts are mostly Eurocentric5. Science helped to secure colonial rule, to justify European domination over other people and to transform production for an expanding world economy. However, the theory of “science of empire” did not simply define a structure of domination. In the name of commercial transformation, “Imperial science” became a great laboratory, in which the natural world was studied, but also technically manipulated6. For several experiments in the application of science and technology, the “Colonial powers” preferred British India. The early phase of the British Raj (from 1858 to 1847) was shaped by a non-existing explicit formula of “science and technology policy”, because there was constant experimentation, trial and error7. What followed during the 19th–century, India was one of the largest state-sponsored scientific research and development activities undertaken in modern times. The country had not only become a “social laboratory”, but also a testing ground8. Fortunately, with the discourse of physical science and technology in India, an increasing number of technical schools and universities followed9.

1.1 Goal of the paper

This paper examines the ways in which the implementation of different kinds of science innovations had been done in the British Raj between 1858 – 1947. This period was powerfully influenced by new creations from the Europeans (the British) and Indian people within the system of Colonial rule. The paper traces and compares the different understanding of science and technology. Therefore, it will contrast the relationship of science between Indians and English people. In order to comprehend “colonial science”, it is first of all important to understand the development and knowledge of local traditional (or indigenous) and European (especially the British) understanding and knowledge of science. The paper seeks to give a precise answer to the reason why the development of technology and science was so vital then. The next main part deals with engineering teaching and learning and how the Indian caste system contributes to the participation of Indian population in engineering science.

1.2 Problem to be investigated

In order to answer all the questions, which are mentioned above, several themes will be historically analysed by the help of literature from Aparajith Ramnath (a historian of science, technology and industry, teaching the business history and global history of industrialization to the Indian society). The paper will make a comparison between how the British approached to the Indians with their learning methods and how the Indian elites took the offer. Also, the question, what is modern, western and local science will be answered. Benjamin Zachariah analyses in his work “Uses of Scientific Argument” from 2001, to understand why science was vital and used during the late colonial period in India. In doing so, he mentions that there was a lack of technical education, which leads to the establishment of engineering colleges and survey in India10. As already explained, the Indian social system was defined by a caste system. In this context, the paper will highlight the position and anticipations of the Bhadraloks and if they adapted themselves to European learning methods. Several technical schools will be mentioned as well like the Hindu College of Calcutta, The Engineering school at Roorkee and last the Public Works Department. At the end of the paper, criticism from Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi will be presented on technical processes and machinery. And last, the negative impacts of industrialisation on the natural world will be discussed.

2. The Beginning of New Dynamics

From the 18th century, the East India Company set a new plan about imposing a new “imperial order” to India. However, the new order did not only lead to a large development, but also made the lives of many Indians complex. And from the early nineteenth century in the Asian subcontinent, the colonial state provided a framework of technical experiences11. Science then, new scientific innovations have been made. As already mentioned in the introduction. India with its large environment served for construction, individual and the amalgamation of different scientific research systems. Furthermore, the nineteenth century period was characterized by an extended, creative and expanded contact between Indian savants and European scientists and bureaucrats12. During this time, which is also called “the high colonial period”, many British and Indians observers regarded this kind of relationship as a process of modernization13 and could see some positive impacts and benefits (like the establishment of engineering schools in chapter 7). Now the question is, if the different experiences, knowledges and views coexisted peacefully.

3. Local and European Knowledge

This chapter will emphasise and highlight with theoretical methods how the local-/ indigenous understanding matched and encompassed with European knowledge about science, engineering and technology methods. It is actually not so long ago that the Indian’s were described as “the people without history” by Eric Wolf14. This is not only a statement; it is somehow also a discourse. Eric Wolf, who was an anthropologist, studied the aspect of western domination in the “third world”. The anthropologist has written a book named “Europe and the People without History” which was published in 1982, in which he criticizes the studies of peasants and rural development15. In this book, Wolf, emphasizes that anthropology must pay more attention to history. According to Wolf, there is even a failure in answering and confronting questions of “power” and “domination”16. Even in the 20th century, there were no clear clues about the difficult question of having a history in the third world and how Europeans were involved. The following chapter will discuss the question of what could be defined as local and modern science, and if modern science stands contrary to local indigenous knowledge.

3.1 The Discourse about “Modern Science”

This chapter is going to highlight the discourse about what is modern science and its connection to colonial science. Or did the development of indigenous knowledge contribute to modern science? In their work, Irfan S. Habib and Dhruv Raina distinguished17 between local and European science and how the development of “modern science” has developed Moreover, it is questioned if modern science assimilated with the so–called traditional local knowledge. Habib and Raina appealed that is must be clarified how the transmission of modern science happened. As a matter of fact, modern science is often considered a primal Western cultural import. In addition, the expansion of European science was characterized by the efforts of imperial bureaucrats18.Zaher Baber agreed to the statement and wrote that the colonial construction of modern science was also done by the administrative imperatives in colonial India, which contributed to “colonial imperial science”19. First of all, science can never take one result and be just science, it is more a complex process. However, the definition and assimilation of modern science as a “Western Culture” import was inadequate and completely excluded the exchange between European, Native Indian and traditional knowledge20. This statement gives the fact that modern science did not exist immediately, it is more a development between different scientific researches and investment undergoing.

3.2 Colonial Imperial Science

The politics of scientific has been growing for a long time and reached a field of investigation, which has drawn from several disciplinary frames21. It is impossible to give a simple definition of “colonial imperial science”. However, imperial science is still often viewed as Western science which was constructed in the British Raj colony. However, what does “Western” mean? Western often means “official”, while indigenous is often considered “pre–colonial in origin” and “unofficial”22. That results into the fact that Western knowledge could just be characterized with modern because it happened in the context of the colonial period. Even the use of locally vital techniques [like irrigation canals in India] would still be considered Western23. Now the question is if modern imperial science is a contrast to traditional science? A precise answer could be given by analysing the change of engineering learning in colonial India. The development of modern science attributed to Europeans, which “ruled” there for a long period of time. For many, they bought something new (which happened with the establishment of railways, for instance), however, they also replaced indigenous traditions and learning methods. It is vital to emphasize that there was not only a parallel combination or development between the European and Indian scientific methods. Rather, the replacement of indigenous tradition of education by English education methods belonged to the most valuable gift for British rulers in India24. Therefore, Kumar Deepak describes it in this introduction of British imperialism ruling in India as the spirit of rule, which remained in dominance and predominance25. Moreover, this explains why my historians used the words “Colonial imperial science” and “imperial power”26.

4. European Knowledge in Indigenous Learning

At the beginning, there was the scientific question of “how European knowledge matched with indigenous27 learning therefore, this chapter will explain how the local people take the understanding of British people. This question will be answered by approaching the investigation of British impacts in local indigenous scientific paths. The Colonizers (the British bureaucrats) were fully aware of their influence of science as a very active instrument of control28. Colonial themes were constructed through educational systems and the assimilation of “modern scientific approaches” at the level of educational pedagogy29. In the early 19th century, several British surveys on Indian education paid special attention to the curriculum and pedagogy of the indigenous learning institutions30, which was, however, not welcomed by everyone. Already from 1813 to 1835, the British did not complete their duty rightfully. Instead of giving local people instructions of European scientific approaches, they only wasted their time in the “moral and mental improvement” of the Indian population31. Eventually, by the 1930s, concerns and different opinions had risen from the aspect of “Indian practising western science”. At the beginning, the introduction of “modern science values” in Indian society was welcomed. But there were mostly projects to impose only “western” values on Indian society. Among the western values were the adoption of European customs, consumption patterns and manners32. They also introduced their kind of modern science into the education in Bengal. For instance, the school there also started to teach English33 alongside the native local language34. Especially the Bengal elites had shown an active interest in the new forms of learning, they were now aware of the introduction of European knowledge into the practises in India35.Therefore, science teachers also had to be content with local cultural expansions and knowledge forms36. Thus, it can be said that the British accepted the indigenous learning method, but also implicated their view of science, which was, however, welcomed by the elites.

5. Manifesting European Learning Methods

In this chapter, the centre of attention will be the imposing of British technology learning methods into the Indian society and who participated in this system of engineering education. As already mentioned, the British wanted to “improve” the Indian local people morally and mentally. Actually, the British were against oriental or Asian literature and scientific methods. Furthermore, in order to improve the promotion of English education, it was important to first enhance the morals and mental facilities and skills of the Indians in their view37. Mostly, during the second quarter of the 19th century, the “English Education (system)” was seen to be more important in British India.


1 Cp. Kumar, Deepak. “Science and Society in Colonial India. Exploring an Agenda”. Social Scientist 28 (2000): 24 – 46, p.24.

2 Cp. Kumar, Deepak. Science and the Raj. A study of British India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 1.

3 Cp. Kumar, D. “Science and Society” 2000, p. 24.

4 Cp. SEN, S.N. „ The character of the Introduction of Western Science in India during the Eighteenth and the Nineteenth Centauries, edited by Irfan Habib, Dhruv Raina, 69–82. Oxford: University of Oxford, 2007, p. 33.

5 Cp. Ibid., p. 38.

6 Cp. Gilmartin, D. „Scientific Empire and Imperial Science. Colonialism and Irrigation Technology in the Indus Basin”. Journal of Asian Studies 53, No. 4 (1994): 1127– 1149, p. 1128.

7 Cp. Baber, Zaheer. The Science of Empire. Science knowledge, civilization and Colonial Rule in India. New York: Suny Press, 1996, p. 185.

8 Cp. Ibid., p. 186.

9 Cp. Gilmartin, D. “Scientific Empire” 1994, p. 1128.

10 Cp. Zachariah, Benjamin. “Uses of Scientific Argument. The Case of Development in India, 1930–1950.” Economic and Political Weekly 36, No. 39 (2001): 3689–3702, p. 3690.

11 Cp. O’Hanlon, Rosalind. “Colonialism and Social Identities in Flux. Class, Caste, and Religious Community”. In the Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by Douglas M. Peers, Nandini Gooptu, 100–134. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 102 – 104.

12 Cp. Habib, S. Irfan, and Dhruv Raina. Social History of Science in Colonial India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. xxi.

13 Cp. O’Hanlon, R. “Social Identities in Flux” 2012, p. 100.

14 Cp. Baber, Z. The science of Empire” 1996, pp. 16–17.

15 Cp. Braudel, Fernand. “Agrarian Review Series “2018, p. 220.

16 Cp. Roseberry, William. “Review Work”. Review of Europe and the people without History, by Eric R. Wolf. Dialectical Anthropology, July 01, 1985, Review Essay.

17 Cp. Habib, S.I and Raina, D. “Social History of Science” 2007, pp. xii–xxxiv.

18 Cp. Ibid., pp. xiv – xxiii.

19 Cp. Ramnath, Aparajith. “Engineers in India: Industrialisation, Indianisation and the State, 1900 – 47”. PhD diss., Imperial College London, 2012, p. 16.

20 Cp. Ibid., p. 15.

21 Cp. Habib, S.I and Raina, D. “Social History of Science” 2007, p. xii.

22 Cp. Ramnath, A. “Engineers in India” 2012, p. 21.

23 Cp. Ramnath, A. “Engineers in India” 2012, p. 17.

24 Cp. Sangwan, Satpal. “Science, Education in India under Colonial constraints, 1792 – 1857”. Oxford Review of Education 16, No.1 (1990): 81– 90, p. 81.

25 Cp. Kumar, D. “Science and the Raj” 2006, p. 1.

26 Cp. Mandal, Debashis. „Techno – Engineering Education and the Railways in Colonial India”. Indian Journal of History of Science 51 (2016): 223–236, p. 227: “Technology and Science were the main weapons of the British Raj to control the imperial power”.

27 Cp. Ramnath, A. “Engineers in India” 2012, p. 19: Indigenous is often used to refer to a body of knowledge, that existed in the past. Therefore, it is also connected with their “backwardness”.

28 Cp. Kumar, A. “Science and the Raj” 2006, p. 263.

29 Cp. Habib, S.I and Raina, D. “Social History of Science” 2007, p. xiv.

30 Cp. Babu, D. Senthil. Indigenous traditions and the colonial Encounter. A historical perspective on mathematics education in India. Mumbai 2012, p. 40.

31 Cp. Sangwan, S. “Education in India” 1990, p. 88.

32 Cp. Zachariah, B. “Use of Scientific Argument” 2001, p. 3694.

33 Cp. Raj, Kapil. Relocating Modern Science. Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650 – 1900. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 162–163.: The learning of the English language was economically essential for the Indians. However, mainly the Bhadralok’s (a wealthy and well – educated society) took part in this learning. They attended private colleges like the Hindu College and Calcutta School Book.

34 Cp. Ibid., pp. 162–163.

35 Cp. Ibid., p. 166.

36 Cp. Habib, S.I and Raina, D. “Social History of Science” 2007, pp. xxi–xxxiv: Local forms of science is acquired in locally grounded knowledge of science development.

37 Cp. Sangwan, S. “Education in India” 1990, p. 88.


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Titel: The Initiation of Engineering Education in Colonial India and the "Colonial Way" of Understanding Science