Letter Writing

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Letter Writing


Colonized Peoples. Letter writing was a central feature of life in Europe and its empires during the nineteenth century. Long-established as a feature of familial, commercial, and diplomatic communication in Europe, letter writing took on even greater significance within the context of empire building, and it remained absolutely foundational to imperial politics and colonial cultures into the twentieth century. Within modern imperial systems and colonial societies letter writing fulfilled four essential functions. First, it played a crucial role in imperial diplomacy and international relations. In Asia, European merchants and colonial administrators encountered local populations that possessed vibrant literary cultures and sophisticated diplomatic conventions. This development meant that Europeans had to work within these traditions in order to win trade concessions, to negotiate political relationships, and to fix commercial arrangements. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, leading Dutch, French, and British traders and colonial officials spent many years mastering these traditions and using their letter-writing skills to protect the interests of their companies and nations. In India the British East India Company initially relied heavily upon local munshisy expert writers and diplomats, who guided the British in the conventions that structured their social and political relationships with the Mughals and regional kingdoms. As time passed, the British tried to break free of their reliance on “native informants,” and company officials published textbooks (such as Francis Gladwin’s The Persian Moonshee) that distilled the knowledge of local experts for use in the classrooms of the company’s training colleges in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. In colonial contexts (such as in southern Africa or Australasia) where Europeans encountered nonliterate peoples, letter writing became an extremely important form of communication after the introduction of literacy by missionaries and by colonial schools. Literate members of indigenous communities seized upon the power of letter writing, using it to communicate with other leaders, to request medical aid or doctrinal clarification from missionaries, or to explain their aspirations and grievances to colonial administrators. Thus, letter writing was an essential medium for the negotiation of cross-cultural differences and conflicts in the colonial world.

Imperial Administration. A second essential function of letter writing was its role in imperial administration. Handwritten correspondence was of vital importance in the machinery of imperial government as European officials in the colonies wrote to their masters in Europe, providing the latest news and seeking advice on important policy matters. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries such correspondence was slow, and frequently officials in the colony had to make decisions before they received advice in the return post from Europe. Communications between colonial and metropolitan governments were revolutionized with the advent of the electric telegraph, which allowed rapid and efficient communication between colony and metropolis. By the 1870s letter writing was of greatly reduced significance in colonial administration as crucial news and policy decisions were transmitted by the telegraph rather than through the exchange of letters.

Private Correspondence. A third function of letter writing was its role throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in the general dissemination of information among private individuals. People corresponded with one another for a range of reasons: shared political and intellectual interests, common economic concerns, or most commonly, familial bonds. In light of the divergent forces that underpinned correspondence, letters dealt with a range of topics. For example, they might describe changing political circumstances, emergent economic opportunities, or conflict within a community or a family. Such correspondence often played a key role in the shaping of cross-cultural understandings, policy making, the establishment of new commercial ventures, or an individual’s decision to migrate. Letters allowed correspondents not only to share news but also to provide sustained analysis or commentary on recent developments and to communicate their feelings and emotions. Thus, letter writing tended to be more discursive and personal than other forms of communication, especially in comparison to the abbreviated and elliptical style of telegraphic communication or the often dispassionate voice of newspaper reports.

Traditional Bonds. A fourth important function of the exchange of letters was to maintain and affirm bonds of connection amid the upheavals and disruptions that characterized the new industrial and imperial world. Movement to urban centers by masses of people in search of work, men engaged in overseas service in the military or in merchant fleets, and waves of migrants to distant colonies stretched family structures and potentially undercut the ties of affection and affiliation that linked individuals to their traditional communities. Letter writing was one way to maintain these connections. With the growth of literacy throughout the world in the nineteenth century it became an increasingly important way of creating and sustaining social relationships. Letter writing took on particular importance for Europeans living or serving in distant colonies, as it provided a vital link with home. These imperial networks of personal correspondence were important in the social life of the colonies, as the latest gossip, ews, books, fashions, and even seeds were disseminated along these lines of communications. Letter writing might not have been an adequate substitute for the intimacies of face-to-face contact, but it was one of the most important forms of social communication within a world where “traditional” social relationships were disrupted by migration, industrialization, and colonialism.


C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870 (Cambridge 6c New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Roger Chartier, Alain Boureau, and Cecile Dauphin, eds., Correspondence: Models of Letter-writing from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, translated by Christopher Woodall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

David Fitzpatrick, Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994).

Frances Porter and Charlotte MacDonald, eds., My Hand Will Write What My Heart Dictates: The Unsettled Lives of Women in Nineteenth-century New Zealand as Revealed to Sisters, Family, and Friends (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996).

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Letter Writing

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