Structuring Imperial Knowledge about India at the Great Exhibition of 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851 excited curiosity in nineteenth-century contemporaries and continues to garner interest among scholars today. Attracting some six million visitors and comprising over 100,000 exhibits that filled 76,720 square meters of exhibition space, it entered media, memory, and historiography as an emblem of British industrial capabilities, free-trade ideology, and imperial globalization.[1] Yet it is seldom discussed in relation to the consequential contemporaneous transformation of modern sciences into a set of powerful, highly institutionalized social practices.[2]

To what extent did sciences of the time shape the representation and structuring of the knowledge on offer at the exhibition? An especially interesting site at which to study such effects are the Indian courts at this world fair, embedded as they were, in the spatial, taxonomical, and textual frameworks of contemporary science, while also leading to substantial transformations in British knowledge about India.

An inside view of the Crystal Palace. Lithograph by J. McNeven (London, 1851), via the Victoria and Albert Museum, no. 19625

Knowing and Imagining India in the British Empire before 1851

Since the eighteenth century, the East India Company, on behalf of the British Empire, had steadily become the most important political power in South Asia, establishing territorial rule over vast areas of the Indian subcontinent. Although the increasingly government-controlled company lost most of its monopolies during the first half of the nineteenth century, its de facto colonial rule saw the establishment of various trade networks from the Indian subcontinent to Great Britain. Thus, various representations of India found their way to the imperial metropolis as commodities and military booty. The Oriental Repository in the East India Company’s Leadenhall Street headquarters functioned as a nodal point in this trade, becoming Britain’s largest collection of Indian objects.[3]

The paintings, idols, models, panoramas, and dioramas imported from India mostly lacked reliable information about their provenance. They came unaccompanied by what Bruno Latour calls a “chain of reference.”[4] This deficit ultimately transformed the artifacts into disconnected objects that lacked any meaningful context. They were simply regarded as something exotic, that is, unexamined, subject only to wonder or disgust.[5]

At the same time, imperial networks of science and knowledge production had been carrying out various endeavors to produce useful information about India. Employing groups of European and Indian researchers, the East India Company launched different schemes to harness scientific knowledge with which to further the company’s territorial and commercial aspirations.[6] Multi- and interdisciplinary studies collected information about the natural environment and local manners of living and organizing. Begun in the late eighteenth century, such efforts were now embedded in institutional contexts and often developed into highly sophisticated survey systems.[7]

Furthermore, the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Royal Asiatic Society, the East India Company’s India Museum, South-Asian branches of other British scientific societies, and Indian facilities such as botanical gardens and experimental farms saw the institutionalization of imperial scientific culture, contributing to its persistence and expansion.[8] Not only did the East India Company establish such sites of knowledge production but it actively shaped the circulation of knowledge by means of capital and patronage networks.[9]

When John Forbes Royle, an Anglo-Indian botanist and Professor of Materia Medica at King’s College, was charged with writing a report about possible East India Company contributions to an international exhibition in 1851, he elaborated explicitly on this epistemic schism between imperial science and metropolitan culture. Royle asserted that British authors, in ignorance of existing imperial scientific culture, “try to define things of which they have no knowledge.”[10] Indeed, he perceived an international exhibition as an antidote to this ignorance. One could finally frame Indian objects systematically for the visiting public and, in particular, British and international commercial interests.[11]

Science and the Great Exhibition

On May 1, 1851, the Great Exhibition was inaugurated with an ostentatious ceremony in London. Royle’s scientific framing of the event was rearticulated by numerous authorities in the following months. In his ceremonial opening speech, Prince Albert stated that the construction of the exhibition was proof of what was achievable “by the means that modern science has placed at our command.”[12]

Perhaps the most effort-intensive production of scientific framing was the symbiotic creation of the exhibition’s taxonomy and its monumental Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue. The 1400-page publication, which listed and analyzed every display, opened with a world map that indicated the origins of the exhibition’s objects. Besides representing the exhibition’s global basis, the map suggested the exhibition’s ostensibly profound empirical foundation in traceable sources of knowledge.

Mapping the geographical origins of the different exhibit types at the Great Exhibition. Source: “Geographic View of the Great Exhibition of 1851,” large fold-out map at beginning of Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue (London: Royal Commission, 1851), vol. 1.
Legend for “Geographical View of the Great Exhibition of 1851”

The sophisticated taxonomy designed by the chemist Lion Playfair was based on four primary categories: “raw materials,” ”machinery,” “manufactures,” and “fine arts.” Below this level came thirty subdivisions, with further distinctions under those.[13] The taxonomy not only structured the “scientific” exhibition catalog and loosely guided the collection of objects but was applied to all British and Indian displays.[14]

Digby Watt, later a surveyor for the East India Company, asserted that the exhibition building itself, the Crystal Palace, served as a kind of epistemic instrument. Its gridded glass surface and differently colored columns and girders were expected to reduce the exhibition’s visual experience “to order and simplicity.”[15]

The Exhibition’s Indian Courts and their Interpretation

In the final arrangement of the Crystal Palace interior, the Indian courts comprised 2,800 square meters and were awarded a strategically central position. Administered by Royle, the exhibition focused on what was believed to be the East India Company’s economic future, the raw products that India “could furnish to our manufactures.”[16] Nevertheless, the decentralized nature of the collection process and British reliance on voluntary Indian contributions meant that numerous Indian elites donated works of manufacture.[17]

The Indian exhibits occupied four-and-a-half times the space of the second-largest colonial contribution, from Canada, and were only outsized by the displays of the major industrial powers, Britain, Austria, France, and the United States. The last of these only utilized some 1,200 square meters, however. Half of the Indian display was situated next to the British “steam engine,” “machine engine,” and “machinery in motion” courts—presumably for the obvious visual juxtapositions.

The Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue offered an empirically rich analysis of the Indian contribution in a 130-page overview of the displays in the Crystal Palace’s Indian Courts. Its seemingly endless list of objects and their descriptions was organized according to the exhibition’s taxonomy and supplemented with Royle’s commentary. Royle reemphasized the scientific nature of the display and the economic usefulness of India’s raw materials. Now, ordered properly, India’s economic value was supposed to be epistemically accessible.[18]

In line with famous commentators like William Whewell and Lyon Playfair, Royle also used his “Lecture on the Results of the Exhibition” before the Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce to situate India on the stage of world history. He stressed the supposed stagnancy of Indian manufacture since “antiquity.” Exploiting a grammar of linear social progress,[19] Royle compared nineteenth-century India to the ancient Egyptian and ancient Etruscan societies. Although the excellence of Indian manufactures was apparent at the exhibition, he asserted that this had nothing to do with “progress.” It did not represent technological or scientific advances but rather a genuinely Indian “delicacy of touch.” In this way, Royle transformed a supposedly stagnant “ancient civilization” into a supplier of raw products Britain’s own “advanced” industry.[20]

Consistent with these images of India and Britain, the botanist made the case for British interventions in Indian patterns of production and market supply. These would “improve the inhabitants,” that is, raise their relative position on the teleological ladder of progress, albeit not more than befitted suppliers of raw materials. Although Royle had already proposed a similar theory of development and imperial rule in earlier texts, the taxonomical and logistical efforts exhibited at the Crystal Palace helped make further scientifically legitimated inferences possible.[21]

Ground floor plan of the Great Exhibition with the Indian courts outlined in red (click to enlarge). Located adjacent to the Refreshment Court (top center) and the Crystal Fountain (center), the Indian Courts were highly frequented. Their direct proximity to the steam engines (outlined in blue) reinforced taxonomized differences between India, with its raw materials and “stagnant” manufacturing, and Britain, with its “advanced” level of human production. Source: detail from “Plan of the Building, ” in Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue, vol. 1.


The knowledge created for the exhibition was personally and intellectually shaped by the networks of imperial science centered around the East India Company. As a result, this knowledge differed decisively from the preceding dominant frame of metropolitan exoticism. This does not mean that the preexisting metropolitan exoticizing of India was dissolved by the Great Exhibition. In many aspects, it was even promoted. [22] Nonetheless, in a strikingly similar logic to the exhibition’s arrangement of goods and artifacts, Royle and other commentators used the perceived order of the displays and their claim of epistemic completeness to formulate theories about ideotypical civilizational levels and historical differences between them. In mobilizing the latest scientific framing to articulate imperial narratives of progress, these experts made the India of the Great Exhibition into a reference point for the scientific validation of contemporaneous legitimizations for imperial rule and civilizational superiority.

Miguel Ohnesorge has studied history at the University of Kassel, Germany.

This essay sketches central themes from my “Reassembling the Indian Courts: India and Imperial Knowledge at the Great Exhibition of 1851" (BA thesis, University of Kassel, 2018).

  1. Geoffrey Cantor, The Great Exhibition: A Documentary History (London: Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 2013), 1:vii.  ↩
  2. See Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 779–80; Floris Cohen, How Modern Science Came into the World (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), 731–33.  ↩
  3. Ray Desmond, The India Museum 1801–1879 (London: HMSO, 1982), 8–9.  ↩
  4. See Bruno Latour, “A Textbook Case Revisited—Knowledge as a Mode of Existence,” The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 83–112. Repaginated reprint available on the author’s website. See esp. p. 23.  ↩
  5. Carol A. Breckenridge, “The Aesthetics and Politics of Colonial Collecting: India at World Fairs,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, no. 02 (1989) 195–200; Desmond, India Museum, 41–42.  ↩
  6. Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 223–34.  ↩
  7. Christopher Alan Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (1996; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 45.  ↩
  8. Deepak Kumar, Science and the Raj: A Study of British India, 2nd ed. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006), 35–45; Richard Axelby, “Calcutta Botanic Garden and the colonial re-ordering of the Indian environment,” Archives of Natural History 35, no. 1 (2008): 150–63.  ↩
  9. Jessica Ratcliff, “The East India Company, the Company’s Museum, and the Political Economy of Natural History in the Early Nineteenth Century,” Isis 107, no. 3 (2016): 502.  ↩
  10. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Royle, John Forbes (1798–1858),”  ↩
  11. John Forbes Royle, On the Culture and Commerce of Cotton in India, and Elsewhere; With an Account of the Experiments Made by the Hon. East India Company up to the Present Time (London: Smith, Elder, & Co, 1851)_, 588.  ↩
  12. “The Opening of the Great Exhibition,” Illustrated London News, May 2, 1851.  ↩
  13. "An Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations”, The Times, October 18, 1849; Utz Haltern, Die Londoner Weltausstellung von 1851: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der bürgerlich-industriellen Gesellschaft im 19. Jahrhundert (Münster: Aschendorff, 1971), 84–85.  ↩
  14. Robert Ellis, “Scientific Revision and Preparation of the Catalogue,” in Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851 (London: Royal Commission, 1851), 1:86.  ↩
  15. M. Digby Watt, “The Construction of the Building,” in Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue, 1:67.  ↩
  16. Royle, On the Culture and Commerce of Cotton in India, 587.  ↩
  17. Priti Joshi, “Miles apart: The India display at the Great Exhibition,” Museum History Journal 9, no. 2 (2016): 145; William Urquhart Arbuthnot, “Introduction,” in Proceedings of the Madras Central Committee for the Exhibition of Industry and Art of All Nations (Madras: St. George Gazette Press, 1853), ii.  ↩
  18. John Forbes Royle, “East Indies.” in Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue, 2.2:859–62.  ↩
  19. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 9.  ↩
  20. John Forbes Royle, “The Arts and Manufactures of India,” in Lectures on the Results of the Great Exhibition of 1851: Delivered before the Society of Art, Manufactures, and Commerce at the Suggestion of H. R. H. Prince Albert (London: David Bogue, 1852), 339, 336, and 334.  ↩
  21. Ibid., 334.  ↩
  22. On this last point, see Lara Kriegel, “Narrating the Subcontinent in 1851: India at the Crystal Palace,” in The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays, ed. Louise Purbrick (Manchester, UK, 2001), 146–78; Paul Young, “Carbon, Mere Carbon”: The Kohinoor, the Crystal Palace, and the Mission to Make Sense of British India,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 29, no. 4 (2007): 342–58  ↩
Suggested citation: Miguel Ohnesorge, “Structuring Imperial Knowledge about India at the Great Exhibition of 1851,” History of Knowledge, January 18, 2019,