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      The instrumental Brahmin and the “half-caste” computer: Astronomy and colonial rule in Madras, 1791–1835

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          Abstract

          What did science make possible for colonial rule? How was science in turn marked by the knowledge and practices of those under colonial rule? Here I approach these questions via the social history of Madras Observatory. Constructed in 1791 by the East India Company, the observatory was to provide local time to mariners and served as a clearinghouse for the company’s survey and revenue administration. The astronomical work of Madras’ Brahmin assistants relied upon their knowledge of jyotiśāstra [Sanskrit astronomy/astrology], and can be seen as a specialized form of the kind of South Indian scribal labor and knowledge that also staffed the company’s tax offices. If at Greenwich the division of labor meant observatory work bore resemblances to the factory and the accounts office, in Madras, astronomy and accounting drew on similar labor forms because they were part of the same enterprise. But the company did not just adapt preexisting forms of labor, it also attempted to produce its own at a school built near the observatory to train “half-caste” orphans as apprentice surveyors and assistant computers. The school, staffed by the Brahmins, drew upon knowledge and pedagogical practice associated with the tinnai, the schools in which upper-caste children learned to read, write, and calculate. For a time, the observatory’s social order was literally “half-caste.” The paper also considers how the relationship between caste, status, and instrument was reflected in the visual and material culture of the observatory, such as in Indian-language inscriptions on its central pillar. For company astronomers, the measurement of time meant reworking the relationships among the Indian past, the colonial present, and an imperial posterity. Science under colonial rule spanned multiple temporal and social registers because it was the result of negotiations between the demands of political economy and the knowledge and practices of colonized others.

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          Author and article information

          Journal
          Hist Sci
          Hist Sci
          HOS
          sphos
          History of Science
          SAGE Publications (Sage UK: London, England )
          0073-2753
          1753-8564
          23 April 2022
          September 2023
          : 61
          : 3
          : 308-337
          Affiliations
          [1-00732753221090435]Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
          Author notes
          [*]S. Prashant Kumar, Graduate School for Global Intellectual History, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Koserstr. 20, Berlin, 14195, Germany. Email: prashant.kumar@ 123456hu-berlin.de
          Author information
          https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9467-5364
          Article
          10.1177_00732753221090435
          10.1177/00732753221090435
          10466975
          35466747
          1478210f-5d8c-487a-95a6-49f6b3b0e000
          © The Author(s) 2022

          This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages ( https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).

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          observatory,historical memory,colonial science,global history,scientific labor,human computers,time,caste,india,orphans

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