May 2024

5 PM - 6:30 PM IST

Online Via Zoom


Risky Business: A Critical Rethinking of Land, Imperial Capital, and British “Failures” in the trans-Himalayas

Perception of Risk in the Himalayas
Sayantani Mukherjee | Assistant Professor, Ashoka University

Sayantani Mukherjee

Assistant Professor
Ashoka University

This talk offers a critical inquiry of the history of imperial “failures” in the trans-Himalayas, through the lens of the tea trade. I analyze the emergence of imperial border-making as a form of risk management through chronicling the British Indian state’s attempt, and eventual failure, to break the Chinese monopoly on trading tea in Tibet at the very time Britain replaced Qing China as the largest exporter of tea on the global stage. I explore this short history by analysing the trade marts established in Tibet and the eastern Himalayas between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not simply as centres of imperial trade between two powerful empires, but as occupied territories meant to form key nodes on land networks throughout the Tibetan plateau and highlands. The competition between Chinese and Indian tea has been richly documented as a narrative of ascendancy and industrial modernisation that rapidly reshaped global imperial hierarchies as well as local socio-cultural relationships (including those of labour accumulation). By contrast, the British failure in Tibet highlights how militarised frontier-making alone advanced market capitalism throughout the trans-Himalayan theatre. This talk demonstrates how the exigencies of war propaganda and imperial frontier-making shaped not only the spatial and cultural frames of tea consumption in Tibet, but the territorial entities of the Himalayas as “borderlands”, and indeed, “Tibet” itself.

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Sayantani Mukherjee

Sayantani Mukherjee is a historian of modern China and the trans-Himalayan Tibetan border worlds of nineteenth and twentieth century Asia. She is Assistant Professor at Ashoka University in the Department of History and the Ashoka Centre for China Studies. She received her PhD in History from Columbia University in 2021 and is currently working on her first book manuscript, tentatively titled “Between Two Worlds: British India, Qing China and the Technologies of Empire-Making in Tibet in the Nineteenth Century”. Drawing on archival research in multiple languages and sites across India, England, Taiwan and China, including Tibet, her project foregrounds the coercive socio-technological discourses employed by British India and Qing China in exploring, identifying, and spatially constituting Tibet.