Gifting the East from the Early Modern to the Modern Period

Ladan Niayesh, Stéphanie Prévost, Marine Bellego

As commodities endowed with symbolic value and involving social circuits of allegiance and power, gifts played a crucial role in Britain’s involvements with the East ever since the English entered the competition for global markets and colonies in the 16th century. Looking through the lens of gift-giving as a strategy for conducting international trade and diplomacy helps us refine our understanding of the history of Britain’s transactions with its various Eastern interlocutors, from the proto-imperial Tudor stage to the high age of the Empire in the 19th century.

In a seminal essay entitled Le Don (1925) on gift-giving primarily in archaic societies, Marcel Mauss analysed the gift as ‘a system of total prestations’, which relied on three interrelated obligations: to give, to receive and to reciprocate, and spoke to economic logics, but also to realms of politics, morality and law (Mallard, ‘The Gift as Colonial Ideology’, The Journal of International Political Theory, 2018). French sociologist Alain Caillé has recently proposed adapting the definition of gift-giving to modern societies in Anthropologie du don. Le tiers paradigme (Paris: La Découverte, 2007 [2000]),124). He proposes the following definition: ‘any provision of goods and services carried out, without guarantee of reciprocation and with a view toward creating, maintaining, or regenerating a social bond’. Such an approach makes room for exploring contexts of solidarity, cross-cultural encounters and miscounters, as well as the boundaries between the economies of market and bribery. It also invites us to compare the rhetoric of patronage and cultural (dis)agreements over it in different systems, and to consider the shifts of power relations between individuals and groups over time, including in British imperial contexts.

As part of the “Eastern Ways, Eastern Voices” programme of our research group at the LARCA, we plan a series of blog entries and online sessions on the topic of “Gifting the East” over the coming months, in preparation for a research event and a publication on the topic in 2021-22. Following the broad definition by Caillé, we will pay attention to what is being given, to what bonds it creates/dislocates/disrupts, to contexts of giving (ceremonies, loci, spaces, etc.). Our focus will include global/translocal circulations of gifts, as well as their display, insofar as the latter can be a way to strengthen or reframe the social bonds established by gift-giving over time. Our programme being also inspired by Harry Lieberson’s The Return of the Gift (2011), it will pay attention to the changing value of gift-giving as a performance, and to the gift as a material object that changes its meaning over time (for instance with tensions between imperial and postcolonial contexts). In particular, we will consider contexts in which a gift, once received, may be gifted again with added, sometimes different, possibly contradictory agenda. By looking at actors and processes involved in gift-giving, we will pay special attention to the legal/ political etc. personality of those who give and who receive. Our reflection will include the role of civil societies/NGOs in the context of diplomatic gift-giving and will appraise their relations with States (collaborations, tensions, etc.).

Overall, the programme approaches gifts and gift-giving transhistorically and will also bear the imprint of thing theory to reinforce our broad conceptualisation of gifts beyond objects. We mean to further detect the social bonds that gifts allow, as well as ‘to better register the agency of things’ (Bruno Latour, Tanner Lectures, March 2014) as potentially fully-fledged actors of social relations. In terms of method, the programme will be an occasion to think about how concepts from anthropology can (or cannot) be used historically (Christophe Granger (dir.), À quoi pensent les historiens, 2013).

Participants: Ladan Niayesh, Stéphanie Prévost, Marine Bellego, Mathilde Alazraki, Alice Decouvelaere.