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Indirect Rule

Indirect Rule


Within colonial discourse, indirect rule designates a British system of African governance through indigenous chiefs, usually contrasted with French assimilation, a more centralized policy of transforming colonial subjects into replicas of European citizens. Historically, indirect rule can be understood in several ways: as an expedient of all modern colonial regimes; as an explicit British doctrine; and as the political dimension of a twentieth-century colonial syndrome that included the social sciences.

Although indirect rule might describe any exercise of imperial power through the agency of local authorities, the concept best applies to the colonialism that emerged with the establishment of British and Dutch rule in India and Indonesia during the latter 1700s. In these situations, a relatively small number of European officials took charge of territories with populations consisting of indigenous peoples rather than immigrant settlers or slaves. Most such governments, whether in Asia or Africa, would be indirect to some degree, that is, heavily dependent upon local auxiliaries. In no cases (except the very tiny French colonies that survived British conquest before 1815) were efforts made to assimilate the entire population to European culture and political status. In the larger colonial territories (including later-acquired French ones), the only choices were between the proportion and status of native auxiliaries who would either be co-opted from existing structures of authority or created anew via European schooling. Even these distinctions were not always clear: hereditary rulers could be given a European education or assigned a new role (as were provincial landlords in eighteenth-century Bengal and twentieth-century Uganda) based on European precedents. Moreover, all colonial administrations depended heavily upon European-educated clerks and interpreters, who held very low formal positions.

The British doctrine of indirect rule emerged in Africa during the early 1900s when the conqueror of Northern Nigeria, Lord Frederick Lugard (18581945), incorporated the local Sokoto caliphate into his new regime. Both Lugard and later historians linked this mode of administration to the already-established practices of upholding princely states in India. However, the major princely states, which remained separate for at least internal administrative purposes from British India, were far larger and more powerful than even the Sokoto caliphate, unique in tropical Africa for its degree of bureaucratic development. Moreover, indirect rule was extended throughout British Africa to much less articulated states and chiefdoms, even including, in the 1920s and 1930s, joint native authorities based on village councils. In contrast to the princely states (which might better be compared to protectorates of the short-lived League of Nations mandates established by the French and British throughout the Middle East), indirect rule involved continuous intrusion by European administrators into the internal affairs of local rulers through such standardized and highly transparent institutions as native treasuries and native courts.

Indirect rule rested upon a combination of conservatism and paternalist liberalism. Its overseas political goalwhich ultimately failedwas to slow and traditionalize movements toward decolonization. Among European administrators and their domestic audience it became the center of a new colonial orthodoxy (even France abandoned assimilation for the more vague association ). The native, rather than economic gain, was to be the center of concern and was approached with a degree of cultural relativism. Mid-nineteenth-century India here became an anti-model in which aggressive British policies had produced both the Revolt of 1857 and a more enduring class of European-educated babus (actual or would-be native government employees). Reluctance to undermine any more indigenous rulers or landlords was one result of this retreat from direct rule/assimilation, but so was withdrawal of support for indigo planters in Bengal, new ideas about education, and programs of village-based anthropological research. All these concepts extended into newer colonies in Africa and (to a lesser extent) the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Indirect rule, beliefs in peasant versus plantation economies, adapted education, and anthropology all came together in the International Institute for African Languages and Cultures (IIALC, now the International African Institute), founded in 1926. Lugard and similarly minded French and Belgian colonial administrators served as directors of the IIALC. The other founders were missionaries who joined with colonial officials in blocking white settler ascendancy in British East Africa. The most immediate concern for missionaries, however, was education, which they believed had to be less literary and European and undertaken in African languages (the anticlerical French Third Republic balked on the language issue, producing a key difference between the two colonial heritages).

The rising new school of functionalist social anthropology used the IIALCs journal Africa as a platform to publish its research, assert its relevance to indirect rule and related policies, and launch a successful campaign for funding from the U.S. Rockefeller Fund. In reality, most of the ethnography used to implement indirect rule in Africa (as had been the case earlier in India) was done by administrators and missionaries. Indirect rule was thus more important for the development of social science (in France as well as Britain) than academic anthropology proved to be for colonialism.

SEE ALSO Colonialism; Decolonization; Neocolonialism; Postcolonialism


Cell, John W. 1999. Colonial Rule. In The Twentieth Century. Vol. 4 of The Oxford History of the British Empire, eds. Judith M. Brown and William Roger Louis, 232254. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dimier, Véronique. 2004. Le gouvernement des colonies: Regards croisés franco-britanniques. Brussels: Editions de lUniversité de Bruxelles.

Stocking, George W. 1995. After Tylor: British Social Anthropology, 18881951. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Ralph A. Austen

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