Friday, June 30, 2006

Getting Into It With Niall Ferguson/Facts About Empire

I know Priyamvada Gopal slightly from Cornell, and I'm always happy to read something she's written. A recent editorial she published on neoconservative imperial historians in the Guardian provides lots of food for thought. I think she makes some important points about the current conservative fad for praising British imperialism, but I wanted to supply some quotes from Niall Ferguson's book Empire that might challenge some of Gopal's assertions. My own goal is to use this discussion as a learning opportunity, rather than a chance to throw around more polemical language; there's been quite enough of that as it is.

(Incidentally, there are quite a number of intelligent comments in respone to Gopal's essay at the Guardian site linked to above [check out especially the the comments by "Sikanderji"], as well as a lively discussion at Pickled Politics.)

* * *
Let's start with Gopal's substantive, factual claims:

More famines were recorded in the first century of the British Raj than in the previous 2,000 years, including 17-20 million deaths from 1896 to 1900 alone. While a million Indians a year died from avoidable famines, taxation subsidising colonial wars, and relief often deliberately denied as surplus grain was shipped to England.

Tolerance? The British empire reinforced strict ethnic/religious identities and governed through these divisions. As with the partition of India when 10 million were displaced, arbitrarily drawn boundaries between "tribes" in Africa resulted in massive displacement and bloodshed. Freedom and fair play? In Kenya, a handful of white settlers appropriated 12,000 square miles and pushed 1.25 million native Kikuyus to 2,000 restricted square miles. Resistance was brutally crushed through internment in detention camps, torture and massacres. Some 50,000 Kikuyus were massacred and 300,000 interned to put down the Mau Mau rebellion by peasants who wanted to farm their own land. A thousand peaceful protesters were killed in the Amritsar massacre of 1919. (link)

One thought I have in response to this is to point out that Empire operated differently from place to place, and any discussion of its possible benefits ought to take that into account. I beleive the British Raj in India did have some benefits along with its many negatives, but it's hard to say that the British presence in Africa, from the Slave trade up through formal colonization in the 1870s, had very many positive effects at all. India entered independence in relatively good shape, and largely adopted the British industrial and legal infrastructure when it established a new state; the African states, by contrast, had far less to work with. Also, it's worth noting that most of the bloodier incidents in the history of the British empire actually took place outside of India (the massacre at Amritsar, while bad, is not of the same order as the suppression of the Mau Mau that Gopal mentions).

Secondly, I have my doubts about blaming the British for the Partition of India, though I am not an expert on the nitty-gritties of that process. Third, "Sikanderji" has some interesting comments on the question of famines and the Indian textile industry:

A few other points: 1) The British regime was the first to make some comprehensive attempt at famine prevention in India, by vastly extending irrigation networks and building railways lines to famine-prone areas, as well as introducing famine codes in most provinces (though not, tragically, in Bengal). The historical record is insufficiently complete for any historian to be able to compare the levels of famine under the British with those under preceding regimes, but it is extremely unlikely to have been higher, given that by the latter half of the 19th century it had at least become possible to move grain and rice to areas stricken by shortage from areas of surplus using the railways. 2) India's textile industry would have been destroyed with or without British rule, as it was largely export driven, and could not compete with industrial production in Lancashire, which would have taken over its exports anyway. India did eventually industrialise from the 1880s onwards, and the nationalist grievance is that protection of the industry through tariffs did not happen until the 1890s. (link)

I do not know whether all this is correct, and I'm willing to be educated by readers who know the details about the famines and the Indian textile industry (especially ones who come armed with links to actual facts!).

But since this debate concerns Niall Ferguson, I would encourage people who have been participating in this debate to actually go read his book Empire. It's true that he tells the history of Empire from the British side, but there is really an impressive amount of knowledge on display in the book. Here is a passage from Ferguson's book specifically on the question of the effect of the British presence on India's economy. It addresses some of Gopal's points:

[E]ven Curzon once admitted that British rule 'may be good for us; but it is neither equally, nor altogether, good for them.' Indian nationalist agreed wholeheartedly, complaining that the wealth of India was being drained into the pockets of foreigners. In fact, we now know that this drain -- the colonial burden as measured by the trade surplus of the colony -- amounted to little more than 1 per cent of Indian net domestic product a year between 1868 and 1930. That was a lot less than the Dutch 'drained' from their Indonesian empire, which amounted to between 7 and 10 per cent of Indonesian net domestic produce in the same period.

And on the other side of the balance sheet were the immense British investments in Indian infrastructure, irrigation and industry. By the 1880s the British had invested &270 million in India, not much less than one-fifth of their entire investment overseas. By 1914 the figure had reached &400 million. The British increased the area of irrigated land by a factor of eight, so that by the end of the Raj a quarter of all land was irrigated, compared with just 5 per cent of it under the Mughals. They created an Indian coal industry from scratch which by 1914 produced nearly 16 million tons a year. They increased the number of jute spindles by a factor of ten. There were also marked improvements in public health, which increased the Indian average life expectancy by eleven years. It was the British who introduced quinine as an anti-malarial prophylactic, carried out public programmes of vaccination against smallpox -- often in the face of local resistance -- and laboured to improve the urban water supplies that were so often the bearers of cholera and other diseases. . . .

True, the average Indian had not got much richer under British rule. Between 1757 British per capita gross domestic product increased in real terms by 347 per cent, Indian by a mere 14 per cent. (from Ferguson's Empire, 215-216)

After enumerating these economic benefits of Empire in India, Ferguson does go on acknowledge the role of the indentured laborers, as well as the bad British economic policies that exacerbated the famines of 1876-8 and 1899-1900. All in all, a fairly balanced picture. It's not exactly what Marxists want to hear, and it's not quite as bad as what Gopal describes Ferguson doing ("Colonialism--a tale of slavery, plunder, war, corruption, land-grabbing, famines, exploitation, indentured labour, impoverishment, massacres, genocide and forced resettlement--is rewritten into a benign developmental mission marred by a few unfortunate accidents and excesses.").

I quote Ferguson here not to exonerate him for the kinds of things he said on the radio during the BBC interview (which I haven't heard), nor for other comments he's made along the way. In fact, I agree with many of Gopal's criticisms of the smug, celebratory version of Imperial history that is currently in vogue in some circles. But Ferguson's actual book on the subject of Empire is generally more learned than smug; it's also well-written and decently documented. I'd rather discuss historical facts and maybe learn a thing or two than simply re-declare that Imperialism was bad, or continue on in the endless bloggy "bartering of positions" that the blogger Rage recently lamented. Once we get past blanket generalizations, the history of the British Empire is both fascinating and thoroughly complex.

* * *
A few more links:

--Bengal Famine of 1943
--Ferguson's article in the Chronicle, which is quite similar to the introduction to Empire
--A link-filled post on Ferguson's historiographic methods at Cliopatria


Blogger Chandra said...

The current Indian PM declared that British imperialism was a good thing for India, I think sometime last year at Oxford.

"Between 1757 British per capita gross domestic product increased in real terms by 347 per cent, Indian by a mere 14 per cent."

To me this says it all despite all the back and forth about the effect of British imperialism on India.

Also, does motivation matter?

Yes, coal industry was started from scratch - but it was to keep the imperial navy going until Churchill made the switch to oil-powered naval fleet. The coal was surely wasn't used to improve Indian economy which went from 25% of global economy in 1700 to 4% of global economy by 1950 (it is another matter the Indians themselves continued with British model of chocking the economy for another 30 years eventually bringing it to less than 2% of global economy by the end of 1980s). This when the island (and the rest of the west) was going through industrial revolution. If there was any tiny bit positive impact on Indian economy because of British imperialism, it was surly because of spill over from Britain, and not because of any conscious effort by Britain to improve Indian economy.

I haven’t read Ferguson’s Empire yet. Maybe some day I will.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

Well, one book that I'd like to add to the "reading list" if we are speaking of Niall Ferguson is "Late Victorian Holocausts", which offers a useful corrective, even when it comes to India. And Nicholas Dirks' outstanding "Castes of Mind" is very useful in laying out the complicity of British colonialism in the identity politics by now sadly entrenched among the once-colonized-- and even upheld as "natural" by various disparate groups.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

and btw, I am not sure if Amritsar makes the grade if we must speak of colonial excesses: I refer to your recent post on 1857, and colonial savagery in suppressing the rebellion was extreme enough that it shocked numerous British observers even at the time.

Somewhat tangentially, I recall Dirks I believe noting that during the Anglo-French conflicts in the late 18th century in South India, two MILLION people are estimated to have died. I remember doing a double take when I read this, because no matter how one thinks of imperialism, these sorts of figures are so counter to the ingrained image of the colonial enterprise that they are difficult to register. Certainly, neither the British nor the French had a policy of slaughtering a couple of million Indians, but the costs of the wars, with their attendant famines, dislocations, diseases and, yes, massacres was vast. Doesn't put them in Nazi territory, but lack of direct intent doesn't absolve them either.

Also, even if you don't blame the Raj for partition, surely you must blame them for the manner in which partition was conducted? I mean, whose bright idea was it to have bureaucrat Cyril Radcliffe divvy up Punjab, his utter lack of experience vis-a-vis India being deemed a plus rather than a disqualification? And then to make matters worse, the border awards were kept secret, and mass panic and hysteria resulted, as people just didn't KNOW where the border would fall.

My point is not to engage in polemic, but to point out that colonialism effaces its own complicity. Radcliffe is a good case in point, and entirely in keeping with the self-image of the Empire as impartial, and of colonialism as being a question of technocratic expertise, administration, etc.

I also question the ease with which you attribute India's politicial and (relative) institutional success to its colonial past; yet oddly enough, that doesn't seem to have worked even with other parts of Britain's Indian Empire-- what went wrong with Pakistan, and Bangladesh? i.e. perhaps more credit ought to be given the politics and related ideologies at play in India than you do.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous vk said...

Mr Ferguson's analysis of the investment by the British is somewhat simplistic to me. If his claim that the average life expectancy increased by 11 years is true, then the implication is that the average life expectancy in India before 1868 was between 20-30 years. This is somewhat a low number. Besides, 1868 seems to be a conveniently chosen cut off (why 1868?).

The British fundamentally changed patterns of land and resource ownership. Furthermore, they changed the taxation system in a way that imposed onerous burdens on the average farmer. This change of taxation is remarked upon by Adam Smith in his wealth of nations. Previously, taxes by most kings was in proportion of earnings. The British imposed absolute tax requirements, and given the nature of agriculture, this meant that the tax burden could often not be met.

There is a marxist(?) claim by Mike Davis that the railways aided famines in India. The British used the railways to efficiently drain local granaries to service war efforts elsewhere in the empire. Finally, the statement regarding the death of the textile industry assumes that the Indian textile industry would be unable to adapt to changes in technology. This is a very debatable claim. Before the British gained a hold on India, it was a pretty dynamic and sophisticated economy. There are indications to show that Indian traders and merchants were aware of the changing technology, and there is no reason to believe that they could not adapt.

In my mind two things combined to give the British their opportunity - The first and most important is the loss of Indian control over trading routes (sea lanes of communication). The second is political instability, and an inability to realize the importance of the trading routes.

Finally, if one takes Mr Ferguson's argument to its logical end, the fact that India's economy did not grow enough during British rule can only be attributed to fundamental weaknesses in the Indians themselves.
For, if British rule was really beneficial to India, it means that the problems that were faced by colonial India were inherent to Indian society. This is somewhat far fetched.

I also think not enough attention is paid to the arguments by prominent Indian economists and political leaders from the days of Gokhale. The entire case for Indian independence was based on the argument that the British deliberately paralysed and kept paralysed Indian economy and industry. Even Gandhi's non-violence movements had a large component of economic boycott.

At the end of the day, if economic growth is deliberately kept stifled and the country's industrial base is prevented from being developed, the harm done by such action is surely far worse than any minor "improvements" made. The British did not rule India for charity, and India was the Bank for the rest of the British Empire. Without India, they could not afford one. And the funding of their imperial ambitions was at the cost of the economic futures of Indians. I don't know if Mr Ferguson's 1% figure accounts for these monetary outflows.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Vk, on the life expectancy there's a footnote: "From 21 years to 32. However, in the same period (between 1820 and 1950), British life expectancy increased from 40 to 69 years."

It's hard to imagine that the life expectancy in India was once 21 years! If true, it's pretty horrifying.

On the economics questions, I must defer as I don't know all the ins and outs. The question of how colonialism started is probably less relevant than what happened during the colonial era. I don't know why the slow growth of the Indian economy has to be attributed to weaknesses in the Indians themselves or to deliberate British manipulation. A pro-free marketer could argue that the bulk of the growth that did occur occurred amongst people who had embraced modern business practices. The fact that there wasn't more could be because the vast majority of Indians hadn't done so yet.

And Qalandar, thanks (as always) for your comments. I don't know anything about the Anglo-French war in India, and will look it up. On the question of Cyril Radcliffe, though, I think it's possible to say that by 1947 the law-and-order situation had deteriorated to the point that the British really had no choice but to rush things.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Oh, and Ferguson makes an interesting point on Mountbatten and Radcliffe:

But the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, indulged his lifelong fondness for acceleration by bringin forward the date for independence to 15 August 1947. He sided openly with the Hindu-dominated Congress against the Muslim League, a preference the more surprising (or perhaps not) given Lady Mountbatten's affair with the Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru. In particular, Mountbatten put presure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe . . . to make critical adjustments in India's favour when drawing the frontier through the Punjab. The ensuing wave of bitter inter-communal violence left at least 200,000 and perhaps as many as half a million people dead.

This is the first time I'm seeing someone say that the reason it was done so badly was that Mountbatten actually favoured India too much!

2:11 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

Well, actually Ferguson's comment is frankly mischievous: that is, the way that passage is written suggests that any boundary award in India's favor led to Punjab-wide communal violence. That's a shocking claim.

What IS "received wisdom" in Pakistan is that the boundary awards led to the award of Gurdaspur-- a slightly Muslim-majority district-- to India. This is cited as support for the proposition that Mountbatten favored India because it turned out a few months later that Gurdaspur afforded an important road link to (you guessed it!) Kashmir. Thus once the Kashmir issue blew up many Pakistanis believed that Nehru and Mountbatten had always planned "treachery" on the Kashmir front. [Perhaps fittingly enough, many in India argue that Nehru's affair with Edwina Mountbatten enabled Mountbatten to royally screw India (no pun intended), and that India's national interest was compromise].

But that is a very different thing from arguing that any pro-India boundary award caused province-wide massacres in Punjab. The boundary awards had no bearing on massacres west and east of the border. THAT one I've certainly never heard before. Nor is that the only logical leap: i.e. there is no connection between supporting India and accelerating the deadline, etc.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

PS-- to clarify: when I said "the boundary awards had no bearing on massacres west and east of the border" I meant "the boundary awards as to which Mountbatten is alleged to have favored India".

2:21 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

A brief summary review of the book I had mentioned earlier:

btw, don't get me wrong, I am not saying Ferguson shouldn't be taken seriously or should be dismissed out of hand. I am not even disturbed by a tendency to gloss over colonialism on "the other side" (I guess I'd kinda expect that). What disturbs me is that we are saying agenda-driven historiography in action (i.e. one knows that nothing is agenda-free so to speak, but here we are seeing a particular one take shape before our eyes, in compressed time, almost like a lab experiment).

That is, I do not believe it is coincidental that such revisionist (or, in the case of colonialism, revisionist of revisionist) views on colonialism, in particular of BRITAIN'S colonial enterprise, have gained such currency after 9/11. It seems to me to be a case of legitimating American interventions, and legitimating them by arguing for their NECESSITY ("it's a dirty job, but if we don't do it, who will?"). The notion of the Pax Americana as the natural and rightful successor to the Pax Britannica, goes a long way toward explaining the enormous popularity enjoyed by folks like Ferguson (I'm not blaming him, merely that I am skeptical of the phenomenon that makes of his writing the "truth" of colonialism).

2:30 PM  
Anonymous vk said...

Regarding the boundary award, a counter argument is that if the award had taken into account the combined numbers of hindus and sikhs instead of hindus alone, a much larger portion of Punjab would have gone to India.

The implication that it could be due to inherent weaknesses in Indian society is one that I had (rather unfairly) extended Ferguson's logic to obtain. In reality, the free market argument is somewhat incorrect. Once the British controlled India, the Indian market was no longer free. And before the British asserted political control, Indian trade was already under increasing control by the British due to their naval (read pirates) dominance. As a matter of fact, this argument is central to the thesis of Ferdinand Braudel, who held that control over the boundaries logically lead to full colonization. Of course,one could argue lack of Indian naval capacity to indicate a non acceptance of the free market by the Mughal/Indian states, but I would think that this would require fairly substantial effort to justify fully.

However, to be fair, there are counterarguments which try to make the case that the technology gap between Europe and India/China was centuries in the making and basically unbridgeable, and this gap was due to the economic (i.e europe more "free") structure of their societies. The one source of this counterargument that I know of is from the "Wealth and Poverty of Nations" by David Landis, and it is a somewhat substantial argument.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Kerim Friedman said...

Not all "marxists" run around blaming everything on Imperialism. The subaltern school, for instance, casts a critical eye on the power relations within India that allowed colonialism to operate. A good summary of these arguments can be found in Peter Gran's chapter on India in his book "Beyond Eurocentrism: A new view of world history." He goes to great pains, for instance, to point out how the foreign policy of the colonial government was often at odds with that of England. The implication being that the interests of the colonial administration were not the same as those of England.

Its fine to insist on a complex reading of Niall Ferguson but I would argue that the radical history of India is even better able to handle the complexity of Empire!

6:30 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

Re: "Regarding the boundary award, a counter argument is that if the award had taken into account the combined numbers of hindus and sikhs instead of hindus alone, a much larger portion of Punjab would have gone to India."

Actually when it came to Punjab the calculation precisely Muslim vs. non-Muslim; i.e. Hindus and Sikhs WERE included; the "problem" was that Sikhs were pretty uniformly dispersed throughout Punjab. To put it another way, I am puzzled where you got the idea that only Hindu-majority districts were intended to become part of India. Actually, under the Radcliffe approach, there were two principles to take into account: (1) Districts where Hindus + Sikhs > 50% of the population would be part of India, and districts where Muslims > 50% of the population would be part of Pakistan; (2) the principle of geographic contiguity could modify (1) in certain instances. It just IS NOT true that the Sikh % of the districts were ignored (had they been, Indian Punjab would have been way smaller than it is).

But this touches upon a wider point: the colonial system of separate electorates incentivized the manufacture of colonial sentiment (as seats were reserved, and people voted on the basis of, religious identity); with the (partial) exception of a handful of "scheduled caste" seats, no seats were reserved on any other basis than religion. This also led to perverse results, such as in Punjab, which, per the 1941 census (on the basis of which partition was conducted) was 57% Muslim and 43% all other (in which the demand for Pakistan may safely presumed to be virtually zero). If an outright referendum had been held, a defeat for the idea of Pakistan would be almost a foregone conclusion: as operating on the safe assumption that all Hindus and Sikhs and the small % of Christians would oppose Pakistan, only about 1 in every 8 Muslim voters would have to vote against the notion for it to be defeated. That would almost certainly ahve happened, given that up until early 1947 The Punjab Unionist Party was forming a coalition government in the province (and was vehemently opposed to the idea of Pakistan).

Alas, under the system of separate electorates for separate religious communities instituted in 1906 by the Raj, the same 57/43 breakdown led to a very different reality (more accurately, the COMBINATION of separate electorates with a first-past-the-post system meant that as long as one won an election to (e.g.) a Muslim seat, one could claim to represent Muslims of a particular geographic area-- a disastrous concept when we are speaking of partition. The same story was also the case in Bengal, with a 55/45 populations split.

Amardeep, don't mean to hold forth at length, but this ties into my wider point, that colonialism, by couching its politics and its ideologies, more accurately its ideologies of rule and of politics, as value-neutral policies ("hey no-one can complain as all religious communities are getting their own seats"), effaces its own complicity in the production or at least incentivization of certain phenomena. Incredibly, these phenomena are themselves later presented as innate to the colonized subject (remember the tiresome invocation of "ages old" ethnic feuds the moment the Balkans are discusses in the popular media?), by being accepted as GIVENS (e.g. Hindus and Muslims hate each other...just because they do/they always have etc. etc.). It is this sort of problem that the Niall Fergusons of the world, however learned, cannot address -- because they accept certain manifestations of colonialism as givens, and do not interrogate further.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

Re: "Its fine to insist on a complex reading of Niall Ferguson but I would argue that the radical history of India is even better able to handle the complexity of Empire!"

Well said, Kerim! I would agree, and I think this ties in nicely to my most recent comment above.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

At the risk of sounding like I'm making a shamless plug, for more on colonialism, partition, et al:

9:44 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

Hmmm, my links can't compete with Yuriy's.... :-)

9:26 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I've posted a reply here:

In essence, I think one problem is that Ferguson is not consistent on this point. At another point in Empire, he suggests that less developed countries, such as Britain's African territories, benefited from the Empire in terms of investment and infrastructure while the progress of more sophisticated nations, such as India, was more likely to have been retarded. What I find altogether more interesting is the counter-factual about whether an independent Mughal India could have adapted to economic and technological change - would it have followed the path of Ottoman Turkey or of Meiji Japan?

3:26 PM  
Blogger Mahesh said...

richard, u make an important point that i have been wondering about myself. its hard to imagine the mughals achieving anything of note. they spent most of their time on "conspicuous consumption" as marx and engels would've said.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Panini Pothoharvi said...

The question regarding the continuance of the Moghul Empire and the consequent economic and political development of India is, though hypothetical, an interesting one. It would be interesting to do a film script on the imagined history of India with the Moghul emperors holding forth despite the court intrigues, India's relationship with the oil-rich middle east and Iran; India's truck with an emperorized democracy; India's relationship with the US and China. It would be equally interesting to note how India would have revisited highly complex and at times even intractable notions of plurailty, muticulturalism, secularism, globalisation and free trade; gender equality and caste reservations etc.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Panini Pothoharvi said...

And yes KASHMIR!

11:18 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

RE: "they spent most of their time on "conspicuous consumption" as marx and engels would've said."

Like all counterfactuals this one can have no easy answers. But consider: what is our interpretation of the Mughals as nothing other than conspicuous consumers ITSELF owed something to Orientalist hitoriography (gleefully internalized by "native" historians like Abraham Eraly), under which the "Eastern" or "Oriental" monarchy is characterized by amazing levels of despotism, servility on the part of the peasantry, and bone crushing serfdom? My question isn't rhetorical: i.e. it IS of course entirely possible that the Mughals were nothing other than conspicuous consumers; however, the historical record is complicated as always by the historiography.

For an interesting discussion of how the seeming absolutism of the "high" Mughal state was both a radical departure from Turko-Mongol traditions (in terms of how centralized it was), but was also a far cry from the absolutist self-image of the Akbari order, I recommend Douglas Streusend's "The Formation of the Mughal Empire"; in a nutshell (though the slim book is deceptively rich and suggestive) Streusend posits a polity that was far more de-centralized "in the provinces" than a study of the Mughal court self-image would have one believe (Streusend sees this as representative of a "Hindu model" of kingship, evident in the Chola and Vijaynagar empires, among others), but was centralized enough (especially in its bureaucratic functions) as to constitute a radical departure from relatively egalitarian tribal/clan-based systems of the Turco-Mongol peoples. According to Streusend, Akbar's empire, like the other Islamic "gunpowder" empires (the Safavids, the Ottomans) sought to create a far more centralized polity, but the realities of India, combined with strong resistance among the Turco-Mongol elite, forced him to accept a compromise.* It's a fascinating discussion, far removed from the god-like Akbar whom one sees in the pages of his chief propagandist and political theorist Abul Fazl (an image that despite themselves "mainstream" historians from the colonial era onwards have rather uncritically accepted).

*[By Indian "realities" Streusend refers to: (1) the Akbari ideology of incorporating Rajputs into the political order, as a pillar no less important than the establishment Turco-Mongol one, a radical departure from the history of the Delhi Sultanate, and certainly far different from anything Babur or Humayun were inclined toward; (2) interestingly, Streusend argues that the Indian countryside was characterized by an incredible SURPLUS of armed men (far beyond Safavid Iran or the Ottoman lands), with the result that the coercion required by the state to implement a very centralized vision would have been beyond the resources of the state, forcing a compromise that enabled strong intermediary authorities, at the provincial, district, and village level, to persist and even be created.]

Streusend's view is not received wisdom, and much controversy exists about the precise nature of the Mughal imperium. My point is that the image of a dynasty merely sucking up resources to build itself lavish palaces and mausoleums is simplistic, and ignores a whole range of historical debates and conversations...

2:24 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

"Streusend posits a polity that was far more de-centralized "in the provinces" than a study of the Mughal court self-image would have one believe"

That was rather my impression but I wondered to what extent that was likely to be an advantage. Industrialisation in Japan was after all faciltated through centralisation of power and the imposition of change.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

Re: "That was rather my impression but I wondered to what extent that was likely to be an advantage. Industrialisation in Japan was after all faciltated through centralisation of power and the imposition of change."

I was thinking the same thing; though one advantage might have been a lesser likelihood of the very modern phenomenon of militaristic regimes like the Japanese one of the pre-WWIII era; the combination of a highly centralized polity, including one where industrial development is also centralized, can be politically problematic (I realize that's "off" your point). On the other hand, perhaps with de-centralization an "all-India" development becomes very unlikely, but perhaps the possibility of different regions etc. having different levels of technological development/change etc. would have been more unlikely (whether or not those developments spread would presumably depend on multiple factors, including on the nature of the change, the amount of investment required, etc.)...

To put it another way, the Streusend thesis of necessity entails an image of an empire rather different ("weaker" in some sense, but also "better" in the sense of being "less" oppressive than many of its peers) from the one suggested, not only by Orientalist historians, but also by (at least this) tourist's eye when standing before a Mughal monument...

10:21 AM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

Typo: I meant to write: "On the other hand, perhaps with de-centralization an "all-India" development becomes very unlikely, but perhaps the possibility of different regions etc. having different levels of technological development/change etc. would have been more LIKELY..."

10:22 AM  
Blogger Ruchira Paul said...

Japan is indeed the puzzling piece within heavily colonized Asia. It is tempting to speculate that the push towards industrialization and modernization was just one man's (Emperor Meiji) vision. However, we know that is not true - that there were several among the Japanese ruling class who pushed for westernization.

Is there a logical answer to the question why Japan did not fall prey to European colonial efforts? After all the rapacious Dutch were anchored just off Nagasaki. What kept the Europeans at bay in Japan? Also, it is interesting that the eager and all out modernization of Japan did not come at the cost of a wholesale rejection of its rich traditions as was sadly the case in Attaturk's Turkey. I have heard that the Japanese east-west "balance" may have been achieved partly due to the efforts "foreign" scholars in Japanese universities at that time. I would wait for one of the many history buffs here to shed some light.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Chandra said...

"What I find altogether more interesting is the counter-factual about whether an independent Mughal India could have adapted to economic and technological change - would it have followed the path of Ottoman Turkey or of Meiji Japan?"

I am highly dubious moghul India would have adapted the economic and technological change (most technological innovation seemed to flown west from east with not much flowing the other way). It is interesting to understand Akbar's period, but industrial revolution came post Aurganzab tyranny. And the moghul empire character changed with its ruler - there is no continuity of Akbar's policies just a couple of generations removed.

It is possible the smaller southern costal states would have adopted the western way like Meiji restoration and Ottaman Empire. Although without an imperial force breathing down their necks, I doubt they would have changed – until recently security seems to be key driver for technological change; trade less so.

The Europeans, with their Euro-wars, never did make to Japan beyond trade. US was trading with Japan under Dutch flag and with the arrival of Commodore Perry, Japan effectively was under US influence until it was recognized as major imperial power post-Meiji restoration after it beat China, Russia (first western power defeated by eastern state), and Korea.

4:48 PM  
Anonymous vk said...

Thanks for the information about the Radcliffe award. The counterargument I mentioned, I have seen elsewhere, and did not know whether it was true or not.

With regard to the Mughal empire, I also have the same impression that it was a pretty decentralized entity, with the Mughal emperor not having really absolute power. This is illustrated by the sort of alliances that Akbar had to form to ensure the stability of his empire. One of the consequences of this lack of absolute control was that the taxation and economic setup under the Mughal empire could not have been too onerous. The main reasons for the disintegration of the Mughal empire were also embedded in this decentralization - Aurangzeb probably overestimated his authority when he tried to further centralize imperial rule. And between the many military campaigns that he undertook and the new taxes he imposed on non-muslims, the resulting economic strain made it more profitable for regional satraps to consider setting up independent entities on their own.

I think in India's entire history, empires have been unstable due to this centrifugal tendency in the Indian polity, unlike in China which was and still is a highly centralized society. I wonder what the reasons for this are.

12:48 AM  
Anonymous b shantanu said...


I have not read "EMpire" yet but I hope to, soon.

In the meantime, you may find these two links interesting:


3:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

most modern famines are a result of lack of distribution despite the infastructure to do so.

11:35 AM  

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