Posts Tagged ‘historiography’

“The most dramatic gestures of cooperation between the Russian Empire and the United States came in the autumn of 1863, as the Laird rams crisis hung in the balance. On September 24, the Russian Baltic fleet began to arrive in New York harbor. On October 12, the Russian Far East fleet began to arrive in San Francisco. The Russians, judging that they were on the verge of war with Britain and France over the British-fomented Polish insurrection of 1863, had taken this measure to prevent their ships from being bottled up in their home ports by the superior British fleet. These ships were also the tokens of the vast Russian land armies that could be thrown in the scales on a number of fronts, including the northwest frontier of India; the British had long been worried about such an eventuality. In mid-July 1863, French Foreign Minister Droun de Lhuys was offering London the joint occupation of Poland by means of invasion. But the experience of the Confederate commerce raiders had graphically illustrated just how effective even a limited number of warships could be when they turned to commerce raiding, which is what the Russian naval commanders had been ordered to do in case of hostilities. The Russian admirals had also been told that, if the US and Russia were to find themselves at war with Britain and France, the Russian ships should place themselves under Lincoln’s command and operate in synergy with the US Navy against the common enemies. It is thus highly significant that the Russian ships were sent to the United States.

US Navy Secretary Gideon Welles: “God Bless the Russians”

Coming on the heels of the bloody Union reverse at Chickamauga, the news of the Russian fleet unleashed an immense wave of euphoria in the North. It was this moment that inspired the later verses of Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the most popular writers in America, for the 1871 friendship visit of the Russian Grand Duke Alexis:

Bleak are our shores with the blasts of December, Fettered and chill is the rivulet’s flow; Thrilling and warm are the hearts that remember Who was our friend when the world was our foe. Fires of the North in eternal communion, Blend your broad flashes with evening’s bright star; God bless the Empire that loves the Great Union Strength to her people! Long life to the Czar!

The Russians, as Clay reported to Seward and Lincoln, were delighted in turn by the celebration of their fleets, which stayed in American waters for over six months as the Polish revolt was quelled. The Russian officers were lionized and feted, and had their pictures taken by the famous New York photographer Matthew Brady. When an attack on San Francisco by the Confederate cruiser Shenandoah seemed to be imminent, the Russian admiral there gave orders to his ships to defend the city if necessary. There were no major Union warships on the scene, so Russia was about to fight for the United States. In the event, the Confederate raider did not attack. Soon after the war, Russia sold Alaska to the United States, in part because they felt that an influx of Americans searching for gold was inevitable, and in part to keep the British from seizing control of this vast region. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in his diary, “The Russian fleet has come out of the Baltic and is now in New York, or a large number of the vessels have arrived…. In sending them to this country at this time there is something significant.” Welles was fully justified in his famous concluding words, “God bless the Russians!”

This exceedingly cordial Russo-American friendship set the tone of much nineteenth-century historiography; Thomas indicates that a darker view of Russian motivation began to be heard around 1915 with the work of Professor Frank A. Golder, who emphasized that the Russians were only following their own national interests. According to Thomas, it was “not until Professor Golder published the result of his researches that the matter was finally cleared up and those who were less gullible were found to be correct.” (Thomas 138) Surely no one needs to be reminded that great nations defend their national interests. Disinterested philanthropists are admittedly rare in foreign ministries. However, when the interests converge, alliance de jure or de facto may result, and these can have far-reaching significance. During the American Civil War, the Russian attitude was the most powerful outside factor deterring Anglo-French interference. The need of Russia to prepare its own defenses during the Polish crisis of 1863 was perfectly legitimate and a secret to no one. Nevertheless, Thomas feels compelled to harp repeatedly on point that “the policy of Russia was dictated solely by self-interest.” (Thomas 127)

For Crook, the visiting squadrons were not a fleet, but a “fleet,” and a “not very seaworthy” one at that. In his view, the entire matter can be written off as “popular hysteria” and “folklore”. (Crook 317) The attempt to play down the Russian angle is evident. When Simon Cameron is sent to St. Petersburg as US Ambassador, Woldman and others can see nothing in this but an “exile in Siberia.” (Woldman 115) Another favorite target is Cassius Clay, the very capable US Ambassador to Russia for most of the Civil War (apart from the brief Simon Cameron interlude). Crook retails Bayard Taylor’s crack to Horace Greeley that Clay was “better suited to the meridian of Kentucky than of St. Petersburg.” (Crook 44) In reality, St. Petersburg was on a par with London as one of the two most sensitive and important diplomatic posts the Union had. Cassius Clay, who called himself a “remote relative” of Lincoln’s great American System mentor Henry Clay, was a distinguished American diplomat who played a critical role in saving the Union. Another important US diplomat of the time was the Bostonian John Lothrop Motley, who became a friend of the future Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck while studying at the University of Goettingen. Motley served in US legation in St. Petersburg and from 1861-1867 as the US minister to the Austrian Empire, and later wrote an important biography of Oldenbarneveld, the father of the Dutch Republic, and other studies of Dutch history.

Woldman, at the height of the Cold War, devoted an entire book to denigrating the importance of the US-Russian entente cordiale and of the Russian fleet in particular. In addition to Golder, he cites Professor E. A. Adamov as a key precursor of his views. For Woldman, the Russia of 1863 was already an international pariah, “the most hated nation in Europe,” whose policy reflected “no concern or friendship for the United States.” At the hands of Woldman, the well-established Russo-American amity of the 1850s, 1860s, and beyond is reduced to a “myth.” (Woldman, 156-7) This is not history, but propaganda laced with bile.

Russian friendship provided an economic as well as a military brake on the Anglo-French. Statistics provided by Crook show that in 1861-64, the US and Russia together provided more half or more of all Britain’s wheat imports (16.3 million cwt out of a total of 30.8 in 1863). In case of war with either the US and Russia (and a fortiori in case of war with both), the British would have faced astronomical bread prices, insufficient supply, and an overall situation of famine which would have been conducive to serious internal revolt against the privileged classes — all in all a situation which aristocrats and oligarchs like Palmerston, Russell and Gladstone had to think twice about courting. King Wheat was therefore more powerful than King Cotton.

Confederate commerce raiders built and fitted out with the help of the British had a devastating and long-lasting effect. As Chester Hearn details, Confederate raiders fitted out in Europe, including the Alabama, Shenandoah, and Florida, destroyed 110,000 tons of US merchant shipping, and were factors in the transfer of 800,000 tons to foreign registry, thus partially crippling the merchant marine of the North over decades. On July 11, 1863 Adams indicted London for “active malevolence” on the question of the Laird rams, which were ironclad battleships capable of breaking the blockade; as noted, on September 5 he told Foreign Secretary John Russell, “It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war.” (Crook 324, 326) Forty years later, Henry Adams remained “disconcerted that Russell should indignantly and with growing energy, to his dying day, deny and resent the axiom of [US Ambassador] Adams’s whole contention, that from the first he meant to break up the Union. 

Any international history must tackle the question of the effectiveness of the Union blockade of Southern ports. Crook does a workmanlike job of refuting the Owsley thesis that the blockade was not effective. He reminds us that the statistics used by Owsley and Marcus W. Price are far from conclusive. Crook suggests that the aggregate tonnages of successful blockade runners need to be examined rather than simply the number of ships getting through, since blockade runners were designed to sacrifice cargo capacity for speed. He notes that many successful runs took place during the first year of the war, “before the cordon tightened.” (Crook 174) Many successful runs counted by Price were actually coastwise traders bound for other parts of the Confederacy. “More realistic,” Crook sums up, “would be an attempt to compare wartime clearances with pre-war figures.” (Crook 174) Using Price’s figures for South Carolina, Crook suggests that the blockade may have cut the number of ships leaving the ports of that state by one half during the first year of the war, and by almost two thirds over 1862-1865. Crook’s finding is that “modern naval opinion is inclined to the broad view that the blockade achieved its major objectives by scaring off a potentially massive trade with the south.” (Crook 174)”

– Webster G. Tarpley, “U.S. Civil War: The US-Russian Alliance that Saved the Union.Voltairenetwork, April 25, 2011.

Photo: Russian sailors from the warship Variag in New York City who were part of a naval expedition sent to the United States in mid-1863. Source.

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“Born in Tennessee in 1928, White moved as a child to Detroit, where his father found work in an automobile factory and became a union organizer. He grew up with intimate knowledge of union struggles and corporate resistance, though he declined to mention his working-class background until the very end of his life, when neoliberalism’s assault on the working class made it too helpful to pass up. But if there is a thread running through all White’s work, it is, as they say, a red thread—the urgency of human emancipation. Emancipation from the burden of history, first of all. That was his Nietzschean message in Metahistory and after: you can tell better stories about yourself and your place in the world, and if you do, you will radically increase your chances of living a fuller life. White did not say that Hegel and Marx, two of the heroes of Metahistory, were closer to the historical facts; he praised them as mythmakers whose visions of history encouraged comedy and courage, as opposed to figures who tried to sound smart by virtue of their tragic pessimism and irony. While writing Metahistory, White was bringing a case against the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department for covert surveillance without reasonable suspicion of a crime. He won in the California Supreme Court. That too was an emancipatory act.

After Metahistory, most of White’s intellectual accomplishments came in essayistic bursts about thinkers, writers, and issues that grabbed him, later collected in volumes like Tropics of Discourse (1978) and The Content of the Form (1987) and circulating freely and widely as pedagogically indispensable PDFs. His most visible achievement as an academic citizen was the program in the History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz, which he ran for many years. Hiring such brilliantly eccentric scholars as James Clifford, Donna Haraway, and Teresa de Lauretis and actively recruiting gay students and students of color—he claimed HistCon had a higher percentage of non-white students than any other humanities doctoral program anywhere—he helped build it (despite a dramatic scarcity of resources) into a unique haven for the study of topics too wacky and wonderful to find a home in conventional disciplines. On campus, he was legendary for nurturing projects he himself did not believe in, which required rigor as well as relativism.

His friend and colleague James Clifford once described White as an “anarcho-formalist.” The formalism was more visible than the anarchism but no less important. White was not naive enough to believe that thinkers were free to imagine any damn thing they liked, thereby recreating the world according to their desires. As he saw it, thinking tended to fall into a narrow range of forms, tropes, narrative structures. As critical as he was of history’s pretensions to be an objective science, there was more than a bit of the scientist, even the mad scientist, in his investigation of thought’s inescapable formality. History was also what produced the forms. In other words, White’s formalism led him back to history as something objectively resistant to human purposes.

If our grounds for preferring one interpretation of history over another can only be moral or aesthetic, as he argued in Metahistory, and if we only recognize narratives, or aesthetic forms, if they correspond to the moral values of our time and place, as he argued in “The Value of Narrativity,” then it is historical context that determines, after all, our moral and aesthetic choices. Freedom is not much use unless it knows what it’s up against.”

– Bryce Robbins, “Emancipation from the Burden of History: On Hayden White, 1928–2018.N+1. March 8, 2018.

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“It would seem therefore more useful to ask ourselves, in conclusion, how History as a ground and as an absent cause can be conceived in such a way as to resist such thematization
or reification, such transformation back into one optional code among others. We may suggest such a possibility obliquely by attention to what the Aristotelians would call the
generic satisfaction specific to the form of the great monuments of historiography, or what the semioticians might call the “history-effect” of such narrative texts. Whatever the raw
material on which historiographic form works (and we will here only touch on that most widespread type of material which is the sheer chronology of fact as it is produced by the
rote-drill of the history manual), the “emotion” of great historiographic form can then always be seen as the radical restructuration of that inert material, in this instance the
powerful reorganization of otherwise inert chronological and “linear” data in the form of Necessity: why what happened (at first received as “empirical” fact) had to happen the way
it did. 

From this perspective, then, causality is only one of the possible tropes by which this formal restructuration can be achieved, although it has obviously been a privileged and
historically significant one. Meanwhile, should it be objected that Marxism is rather a “comic” or “romance” paradigm, one which sees history in the salvational perspective of some
ultimate liberation, we must observe that the most powerful realizations of a Marxist historiography—from Marx’s own narratives of the 1848 revolution through the rich and varied
canonical studies of the dynamics of the Revolution of 1789 all the way to Charles Bettelheim’s study of the Soviet revolutionary experience—remain visions of historical Necessity
in the sense evoked above. But Necessity is here represented in the form of the inexorable logic involved in the determinate failure of all the revolutions that have taken place in human history:
the ultimate Marxian presupposition—that socialist revolution can only be a total and worldwide process (and that this in turn presupposes the completion of the capitalist
“revolution” and of the process of commodification on a global scale)—is the perspective in which the failure or the blockage, the contradictory reversal or functional inversion, of
this or that local revolutionary process is grasped as “inevitable,” and as the operation of objective limits. 

History is therefore the experience of Necessity, and it is this alone which can forestall its thematization or reification as a mere object of representation or as one master code
among many others. Necessity is not in that sense a type of content, but rather the inexorable form of events; it is therefore a narrative category in the enlarged sense of some
properly narrative political unconscious which has been argued here, a retextualization of History which does not propose the latter as some new representation or “vision,” some
new content, but as the formal effects of what Althusser, following Spinoza, calls an “absent cause.” Conceived in this sense, History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets
inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its “ruses” turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention. But this History can be apprehended only
through its effects, and never directly as some reified force. This is indeed the ultimate sense in which History as ground and untranscendable horizon needs no particular theoretical
justification: we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them.”

– Fredric Jamieson, The Political Unconscious. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981. pp. 101-102.

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“Beyond the triumph of the landings accomplished and the enemy
defeated, the D-Day literature has never found complacency easy to come by.
Some of the earliest commentators were scathing. Liddell Hart, J.F.C. Fuller,
Chester Wilmont were all critical of both the generalship and the fighting power
of the Allies. The 1950s and 1960s saw a wave of recrimination amongst the
leading commanders of the invasion forces, divided above all over by the
retrospective posturing of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. At stake was
more than Montie’s status as a great commander, in his disagreements with
Bradley and Eisenhower a more fundamental clash between hidebound British
conservatism and the dash and glamour of American modernity was
encapsulated. In 1983 Carlo D’Este’s Decision in Normandy not only adjudicated

this argument, but provided a compelling narrative of how the postwar myth of
Normandy and the controversy around it had taken shape. By then, however,
the currents in the wider historiography had moved on. The argument between
the Allies was displaced by invidious comparisons drawn between all of them
and their Wehrmacht opponents. Whilst the wider historical literature moved in
the 1980s to an ever more determined “othering” of the Nazi regime on account
of its radical racism, amongst the military intelligentsia the reverse tendency
prevailed. For analysts concerned to hone the “military effectiveness” of NATO’s
armies in Cold War Europe, the Germans were not just different. They were
better. As Colonel Trevor N. Dupuy the leader of the new breed of quantitative
battlefield analysts put it: “On a man for man basis, the German ground soldier
consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50% higher rate than they incurred
from the opposing British and American troops UNDER ALL

Inverting the terms of the earlier debate about generalship, Max Hastings
in 1983 arrived at the cruel conclusion that it was not Montgomery who had
failed his troops, but the other way around. As Hastings put it: “Montgomery’s
massive conceit masked the extent to which his own generalship in Normandy
fell victim to the inability of his army to match the performance of their
opponents on the battlefield.” “There was nothing cowardly about the
performance of the British army in Normandy”, Hastings hastened to add. But it
was simply too much to expect a “citizen army in the fifth year of war, with the
certainty of victory in the distance” to match the skill and ferocity of the
Wehrmacht at bay. It is worth remembering that Hastings concluded his D-Day
book shortly after participating as an embedded reporter in the Falklands
campaign, in which the highly professional British army humbled a much larger
force of Argentinian conscripts. And he did not hesitate to draw conclusions
from D-Day for NATO in the 1980s. Given the overwhelming conventional
superiority of the Warsaw Pact, the “armies of democracy” needed critically to
examine their own history: “If a Soviet invasion force swept across Europe from
the east, it would be unhelpful if contemporary British or American soldiers
were trained and conditioned to believe that the level of endurance and sacrifice
displayed by the Allies in Normandy would suffice to defeat the invaders. For an
example to follow in the event of a future European battle, it will be necessary to
look to the German army; and to the extraordinary defence that its men

conducted in Europe in the face of all the odds against them, and in spite of their
own demented Führer.”

In the 1980s, whilst for liberal intellectuals Holocaust consciousness
served to buttress a complacent identification with the “values of the West”, the
military intelligentsia were both far less sanguine about a dawning end of
history, in which their role seemed far less self-evident, and far more ambiguous
in the use the made of the history of Nazi Germany. The most striking instance of
this kind of militarist cultural critic was the Israeli military historian Martin van
Creveld, who was not then the marginal figure that he was to become in the
2000s. His Fighting Power published in 1982 was at the center of the “military
effectiveness” debates that were convulsing the American army in the wake of
Vietnam.  Why van Creveld asked had the German army not only fought better
but held together in the face of overwhelming odds, why did it not “run”, why
did it not “disintegrate” and why did it not “frag its officers.” Creveld’s answer
was simple. The Germans fought well because they were members of a “well
integrated well led team whose structure administration and functioning were
perceived to be …. Equitable and just.” Their leaders were first rate and despite
the totalitarian regime they served were empowered to employ their freedom
and initiative wherever possible. By contrast the social segregation in America’s
army was extreme. “American democracy” Creveld opined “fought world war II
primarily at the expense of the tired, the poor the huddled masses” “between
America’s second rate junior officers “ and their German opposite numbers there
simply is no comparison possible.” On the battlefield Nazi Volksgemeinschaft
trumped Western class society.

If despite these devastating deficiencies, the allies had nevertheless
prevailed, the reason was not military but economic. Overwhelming material
superiority decided the outcome. Brute Force was the title chosen by John Ellis for
his powerful summation. It was a conclusion backed up by economic histories
that began to be published at the time. The Allies waged a “rich man’s war”
against a vastly inferior enemy. In the mayhem of the Falaise Gap, the Allies
were shocked to find the grisly carcasses of thousands of dead horses mingled
with the Wehrmacht’s abandoned armor and burned-out soft-skinned vehicles.

What hope did the half-starved slave economy of Nazi-occupied Europe have of
competing with the Allies’ oil-fuelled, globe-spanning war machine?

But it was not just the battlefield contest and its material background that
were being reexamined from the 1970s onwards. So too was the methodology of
military history and its mode of story telling. The juxtaposition of Carlo D’Este’s
Decision in Normandy and Max Hasting’s Overlord published within months of
each in 1983-1984 marks a moment of transition. D’Este offers a classic view from
the top, focusing on the high command. Hastings assembles his history from the
bottom up. His was, one is tempted to say, a social history of combat – organized
around the category of experience, intimate, personal and graphically violent. In
this respect Hastings followed in the deep footprints left by John Keegan’s pathbreaking,
The Face of Battle (1976). The image that Hastings painted was savage.
The struggle waged in Normandy was no “clean war”. Appalling death and
destruction scarred the battlefield. Casualty rates in the frontline spearhead units
of the Allied units ran well above 100 percent by the end of 1944. Hastings did
not deny the atrocities committed by the German soldiers he recommended as an
example for NATO. But he leveled the score by pointing out how frequently the
Allies armies shot both prisoners and men trying to surrender. Savagery began
savagery in a loop that was more anthropological than political.

And if violence was no longer taboo then this went for the civilians as
much as the soldiers. Since the early 2000s, a powerful new strand of literature
has sought to address the enormous collateral damaged produced in the course
of the landings and the way in which “liberated” France struggled to come to
terms with its profoundly ambiguous experience. Ground and naval artillery,
but above all air power wrecked French cities and claimed tens of thousands of
lives. Tellingly this research took place in the context of a wider and highly
critical investigation of the Allied strategic air war directed by Richard Overy. It
was flanked by a more wide-ranging inter-disciplinary enquiry into liberal
societies and war. In the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the
legal questions posed by a new era of long-range and remote killing, the question
hung in the air. Was the use of force by the Allied forces in Normandy
proportionate? Did it constitute a crime against the French civilian population?
The ambiguity of liberation is brought home most recently by Mary Louise

Roberts What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II (Chicago, 2014).
She describes how the bodies of French women were made the eroticized booty
of the soldiers of the “Great Crusade.”

In World War II, there was nothing like the conscientious objection
movement on the Allied side that there had been in World War I. But given the
scale of the violence that they were dealing out in the final stages of the war, it is
not surprising that at least some people spoke out in protest. Opposition to the
destruction being wrought ranged from outraged ethical criticism in the House
of Lords to the shock of a corporal in the 4th Dorsets who later recalled the
incongruity of bursting into a French home during house to house fighting:
‘There we were, wrecking this house, and I suddenly thought – “How would I
feel if this was mine?” In 1940 the British Expeditionary Force in France had
been under strict instructions to avoid all damage to French property, including
a prohibition on knocking loopholes in brick walls so as to create firing positions.
Now the Allied forces were reducing entire cities to rubble. But horrific as the
bombardments clearly were, research on the British side does not suggest that
revulsion was the general response. The war had to be won and if firepower kept
Allied soldiers out of harms way, so be it. Few allied soldiers apologize for the
material preponderance they commanded. Many of them clearly relished the
spectacle. For the commanders the war might be an end in itself, an opportunity
to write their names into the annals of military history. For the vast majority of
their troops it was a job to be accomplished. The Germans were to be defeated
with whatever means and manpower was available to crush them. In so doing,
the Allies may not have matched the military skill of the Wehrmacht. But it was
not merely brute force. The Allied war effort had its own logic – political,
strategic, operational, tactical and technical. Rescuing this logic from the
damning but tightly circumscribed judgments of the “military effectiveness”
literature, has been the purpose of two decades of revisionist scholarship.”

– Adam Tooze, “Blitzkrieg manqué or a new kind of war?: Interpreting the Allied Victory in the Normandy campaign.” Working paper, Columia, 2016.  

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Having set out, at some length, the received wisdom on a variety of
issues concerning the study of the Mughal state, let us consider how
recent western writings part company with it. A major issue is clearly
chronology, or proposition no. 1, as we have set it out above. It is
certainly worth considering that the pre-Akbar period may have had a
greater significance than usually given to it. It. could be argued, for

example, following the lead of Iqtidar Husain Siddiqui and more recently
Mohibbul Hasan, that the period of Lodi rule, running into the reign of
Babur, already showed signs of a new dynamic where the state-building
process was concerned; In the case of Douglas Streusand The Formation of the Mughal Empire, the title .. itself gives a clue to his views on the matter. For him the ’formation
of the Mughal empire’ took place under Akbar, and the earlier period can
be dealt with quite summarily (Babur and Humayun merit only a few
paragraphs, pp. 36-37). Again, for Stephen Blake, the pre-Shahjahanabad
history of Delhi (including Humayun’s use of the centre for his court) can
equally be given short shrift, and the significance of the fact that the site
was repeatedly used, with intervals, is thus lost sight of. In so doing, both
writers implicitly suggest that the real history of the Mughal state began
with Akbar.

Why were the reigns of Babur and Humayun, as indeed of the Afghan
Sher Shah (who though not Mughal, dynastically speaking, does form a
part of the epoch considered to be ’Mughal’ in north Indian history) so
unimportant? As articulated by Iqtidar Alam Khan in a brief, but rather
well-known, article, the principal reason for this lay in the realm of state
structure and the internal balance of power. He argued, against an earlier
interpretation by R.P. Tripathi, that just as the Afghan states in northern
India had contained an inbuilt tendency to fragmentation, so too the
Timurid polity discouraged centralisation on account of its ’Mongol characteristics’.
These characteristics manifested themselves above all in terms
of the relations between the Timurid royalty and the nobility, which was
governed by customary laws derived from Chinggis Khan (yasa-yi Chingezi or türa-yi Chingezil. According to these traditions, it is argued, sovereignty was a shared attribute of the lineage, rather than exclusively held by a
single ruler. Succession therefore led inevitably to appanage formation,
which thus prevented the emergence of a strong ruler. Equally, the absence of
a substantive bureaucratic tradition among the Timurids is also seen as
setting sharp limits to the possibilities of centralisation. This, then, is the
background as to why Humayun faced challenges from his nobility and
siblings (especially Mirza Kamran) in 1538-41 and 1545-53. In turn, only
Akbar, rejecting Mongol traditions and embracing more ’the traditions and
practice evolved under Turkish rulers of the thirteenth and fourteenth
century’, managed ’the transformation of the Mughal Empire into a highly
sophisticated despotism’. 

Such an argument, which is accepted in substance (with some minor
modifications) by Streusand, could in fact be reconsidered from various
perspectives. First, even though Timur’s empire fragmented after his
death, there now appears to be a consensus that he did manage a significant
transition from the relatively loose structure of the Chaghatay
Khanate to a far more centralised and autocratic structure. This he did
because in part he claimed to combine Chinggis Khanid tradition with
divine sanction; thus, he declared as early as 1361 that what underpinned
his rule was ’the Celestial Decree and Chinggis Khanid law’ (yarli~h-i
dsamdni wa türa-yi Chingïzkhänï
), and the former could presumably be
used to overrule the latter at times.’ Second, as Streusand too points out,
the bureaucratic tradition was by no means absent among Timur and the
Timurids, who made extensive use of bureaucrats steeped in Persian culture
(including, not least of all, their chroniclers); But most serious of all is the
neglect of a major struggle that was fought out between the 1560s and the
mid-1580s, which could be used to test this theory of a significant transition
between Humayun and Akbar. Here, I refer to Akbar’s relations with his
half-brother Mirza Muhammad Hakim (1554-85), which receive but cursory
attention from Streusand, as they have from earlier writers.

Mirza Hakim was born relatively late in Humayun’s life, his mother
being Mah Chuchak Begam. Through most of his life, he remained associated
with a particular region of what had been Humayun’s domain,
namely the area around Kabul. This fact itself is not devoid of significance;
Mirza Kamran had operated in much the same area, and as such it remained
poorly incorporated into Mughal territories. Now, unfortunately, we have
few sources that portray his struggle with Akbar from his perspective.
From the viewpoint of Akbar’s court, he was an embarrassment that had to
be explained away or glossed over. On two occasions, once in the late
1560s and again in the early 1580s, the latter strategy was not possible:
these were moments when he came to be allied with rebels within Akbar’s
domains, who had the khutba read in Mirza Hakim’s name in the course of

rebellions. On both occasions, Akbar had to move against him, but although
defeated, he was never set aside. Implicitly, then, Mirza Hakim’s hereditary
right to rule over Kabul was not challenged, and he appears to have
had a relatively free hand in organising revenue-assignments in the region, as well as in conducting negotiations with the Abulkhairi Uzbek state of
Mavarannahr, with the Safavids (who treated him as a sovereign ruler) and
with another Timurid potentate, Mirza Sulaiman. The latter, also a neglected
figure of the same epoch, was the ruler of Badakhshan, as well as
Mirza Hakim’s father-in-law; he eventually lost his territories to the
Uzbeks and become a mansabdar with the rank of 5,000 under Akbar,
dying in Lahore in 1589.

Now, even though Akbar’s chroniclers (and especially Abu’l Fazl) go to
some lengths to portray Mirza Hakim as an unruly subordinate of Akbar, it
is evident that his position was more complex. First, we may note that he is
never treated, even retrospectively, as a Mughal amir; his biography is thus
absent from Shahnawaz Khan’s Ma’asir ul-Umard, unlike that of Mirza
Sulaiman. There is also no clear evidence that he ever held a mansab; on
the contrary, several prominent mansabdars are described as men who had
come over to Akbar’s service after his half-brother’s death. In more senses
than one, therefore, Mirza Hakim represented an alternative power centre,
and an alternative focus of authority and patronage to Akbar; and
even if the challenge from him did not wholly mature, we cannot dismiss it
out of hand. The very fact that Abu’l Fazl himself reports a discussion in
Akbar’s court in the early 1580s. of a proposal to assassinate Mirza Hakim,
and thus end the threat from him once and for all, is highly suggestive. It
is therefore rather surprising that while devoting some attention to the
abortive challenge posed to Akbar by the other Mirzas, Streusand wholly ignores the significance of
Mirza Hakim’s challenge. In particular, given his claims to posing Mughal
history in a wider context, it would have been of interest to examine more
closely the perception of Akbar in western and central Asia vis-a-vis his
brother, through an examination of such texts as the celebrated Uzbek
chronicle of Tanish al-Bukhari, ’Abdullah Näma (or Sharaf Ninw-yi Shähl), as well as the diplomatic correspondence with the Safavids.

The issue of appanaging is, of course, only one dimension of the problem
of ’centralisation’. What were the major institutional novelties, which
permit us to assert that the Mughal state of Akbar, unlike that under his
predecessors, showed an ’extreme systematisation of administration’ (as
argued by Athar Ali, for example)? This would require us to consider in
some detail the extent to which the jagir as instituted by Akbar diverged in
reality from the wajh assignment under the Lodi Sultans, or the tuylil as
used by Babur and Humayun. We would also have to re-examine the
significance of the idea of the mansab, which older writers like Moreland
have seen as rooted in the earlier Mongol practice of numerical ranking (an
idea that is currently out of favour). In other words, rather than accept as

a postulate that Akbar’s institutions were created sui generis, we might
speak of an evolving tool-box of contemporary statecraft, from which a set
of institutions were improvised and partly innovated. This would enable
us, to start with, to place less of the burden of historical explanation on the
ruler’s ’genius’.

This, however, is not where Streusand’s interests lie. Rather, having
accepted as a postulate the notion of a sharp discontinuity in the nature of
the state between Akbar and his predecessors, his main thrust is two-fold.
First, he wishes to examine (in Chapter 3 of his book) whether Akbar’s
conquests and successful attempts at centralisation were the result of the
introduction of firearms-that is, the so-called ’Gunpowder Empires’
hypothesis of Marshall Hodgson. Second, having provided us in the
following chapter with a fairly conventional political history, dealing with
the years from 1556 to about 1570, Streusand devotes space to ’the definitive
reforms’ of Akbar, which dated to the years 1572-1580, when ’Akbar’s
empire became recognizably Mughal’ (p. 108). This requires a description
of mansabdari and a discussion of the mahzar of 1579, leading to the
development of the idea of an ’Akbari constitution’, to be inferred largely
from court-ritual, and Abu’l Fazl’s writings on sovereignty. On the basis of
an examination of court-ritual, Streusand attempts to demonstrate a rather
obvious point about the ’syncretic’ nature of the ideololgy under Akbar,
and his use of ’Hindu’ elements derived from earlier polities. All the while,
he stresses that his intention is not to bring to light new documentation, but
rather to read standard primary materials (such as Abu’l Fazl’s Akbar
, ’Abd al-Qadir al-Badaoni’s Muntakhäb ut-Tawdrikh, or Nizam al-Din
Ahmad’s Tabaqdt-i Akbari), as well as the secondary literature afresh.

 Concerning the ’Gunpowder Empires’ question, Streusand’s conclusions
do not wholly support Hodgson; he argues from brief descriptions of
Akbar’s sieges of Chitor, Ranthambor and Kalinjar that artillery played no
great role in his success in siege warfare. However, his later assertion
(p. 67) that ’firearms contributed to centralization, the distinguishing
characteristic of the gunpowder empires, in a more complex way’, winds up
confusing the issue. By his own admission, the Mughals at the second
battle of Panipat in 1556 ’apparently had no guns’ (p. 53); and guns are
seen as irrelevant in one of the only two other battles examined, Tukaroi
(1575), and Haldighati (1576). To argue, as Streusand does at one point,
that the ’narrow margin of victory’ in some of these battles ’shows that the
Mughals needed the combination of artillery and mounted archers to win
easy victories’ (p. 56) is a specious form of reasoning; what he in fact
needed to demonstrate were instances where firearms did indeed make a
great deal of difference. This he does not do, even in the case of Haldighati,
which in his own words ’meant nothing’ as an engagement anyway. At the
end of a thirty-page discussion, we are hence none the wiser on the

On the issue of the reforms of the 1570s and the ’Akbari constitution’,
Streusand concludes that the official ideology under Akbar did include
significant ’Hindu’ elements in it, and that this was because the Mughal state was hybrid-Islamic at the centre, but Hindu at the periphery: thus,
’an Ottoman Sultan would have found the central bureaucracy familiar; a
Chola Rajah would have understood the limited imperial role in the
provinces’. The conclusion therefore is that ’the Mughal government [w]as an imperial centre supported by a shifting structure of segments’.

It is only natural, in view of this, that towards his concluding paragraphs, as well as earlier in his book, Streusand pays obeisance to Burton Stein’s
’segmentary state’ formulation, arguing that it may not be wholly inappropriate
in the Mughal context (albeit with some modifications).  In
effect, the substance of his conclusion appears to be that despite having
undergone a process of centralisation, the Mughal state as a structure
remained, at the time of Akbar’s death, less centralised than say the
Ottoman state. This was, he argues, largely the result of the fact that in the.
years following the ’great revolt’ of 1580-82 in the eastern part of the
realm, ’Akbar compromised the principles of centralized government
which he and his closest advisers shared’ (p. 178). The result, in his view,
was the resort to the jagir system, and Streusand maintains that the failure
of centralising forces is clearly manifested in the execution in 1581 of
Khwaja Shah Mansur Shirazi, who had been appointed wazir in 1578, on
false accusations of rebellion (and loyalty to Mirza Hakim!) (pp. 166-70).


If we compare his monograph to the Aligarh paradigm outlined above,

then, Streusand appears to depart from it in certain respects. The extent of
Mughal power and the extractive nature of the post-Akbar state do not
come through as clearly in his work as in those other writings. Further, an
attempt is made to bring in ideological elements, as well as court-ritual, in
what is clearly the result of the influence of Chicago-based ’anthropological
history’. Again, the zabt
system, which Athar Ali has described as ’the characteristic institution of
Mughal revenue administration’, gets little space in his analysis, as indeed
do matters economic in general. The economic significance of the incorporation
of Gujarat, Bengal and Sind into the Mughal domains between
1570 and 1595, for example, is scarcely touched upon, and the focus
remains very much on imperial court and centre. This disregard for the
relationship between central state and region, and indeed for spatial
analysis in general, .. [other] formulations, discussed at
greater length below.

 –  Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “The Mughal state−−Structure or process? Reflections on recent western historiography.” Indian Economic Social History Review 29(3), 1992. pp. 297-303 

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Let us begin though by sketching very broadly the received wisdom and the
current state of the historiography on the Mughals. It is often stated that
modem studies of the Mughals are dominated by the ’Aligarh school’, a
statement that might itself be open to controversy. Is there an ’Aligarh
school’ in medieval Indian history? If so, what are the main propositions it
has put forward? A consideration of Medieval India-A Miscellany, an
occasional publication from the Centre for Advanced Study, Department
of History, Aligarh Muslim University, may leave the reader in doubt.’’ The Miscellany is precisely that, an eclectic collection of points of view; if

one thing dominates these essays, it is a basic reliance on Persian source
material, although even here there are some exceptions. And reliance on
sources in a particular language is scarcely enough to define a ’school’.

The ’Aligarh school’ may then partially be a misnomer (just like other
similar labels, such as the so-called ’Cambridge school’ of Indian history).
But what is normally meant when the term is used is something quite
precise, denoting an adherence to a particular set of propositions in relation
to the Mughal state and its interaction with the society of the time.
These propositions cannot be associated with all those who have contributed
to the Miscellany or who have been associated with Aligarh;
rather, the key writings are those of Irfan Habib, Athar Ali, Noman
Ahmad Siddiqi, Iqtidar Alam Khan, Shireen Moosvi, and–despite his
lack of formal attachment to Aligarh-Tapan Raychaudhuri. The writings
of K.A. Nizami or S.A.A. Rizvi cannot be seen as belonging to the same
approach as the above writers, nor can those of S. Nurul Hasan. In the
case of Satish Chandra, we must distinguish between his earlier writings
(which are of a piece with the views of Habib, Athar Ali et al.), and more
recent musings by him on the eighteenth century.

Having made this clear, let us examine the core propositions of the so-called
‘Aligarh school’. They, in my understanding, are as follows. 

1) On chronology: The main focus is on the period from Akbar to
Aurangzeb, which is to say 1556 to 1707. This is the period dealt with
for example in the major text produced by the ’school’; Irfan Habib’s
The Agrarian System of Mughal India [1556-1707} (Bombay, 1963). . Even within this period, the main focus is on the reigns of Akbar and
Aurangzeb themselves. This also means giving overwhelming importance to certain texts, of which the ’most favoured status’ is extended to the
A’in-i Akbari, of Abu’l Fazl, produced in the reign of Akbar. It is
argued moreover that the key Mughal institutions were put in place by
Akbar, and remained there under Jahangir and Shahjahan, only to
come under challenge during the reign of Aurangzeb. We note that

both the early period of Mughal rule (including both Babur’s and
Humayun’s reigns), and the post-Aurangzeb era, are given short shrift.’

2) The nature of power: The empire in the years under examination is
portrayed as a highly centralised and bureaucratised ’absolutism’. Such
however was apparently not the case under Babur and Humayun, nor
under Aurangzeb’s successors. Manifestations of this precocious
centralisation are in the Mughal revenue-system, mansabdari, the
coinage system, and the high degree of control exercised over society in
general, on which more below. 

3) Extractive character: The Mughal state is thought to have had a massive
impact on producers, extracting their surplus almost wholly. In
Raychaudhuri’s portrayal in The Cambridge Economic History of India,
the Mughal state was ’an insatiable Leviathan (with) … unlimited
appetite for resources’, which had the peasantry ’reduced to bare subsistence’.

4) Spendthrift elite: This extractive character implied in turn massive
concentration of resources in the hands of the elite. However, the
surplus extracted, it is argued, was used unproductively for conspicuous
consumption, including of imports. One of the reasons why technology
remained static was this elite attitude, which was lacking in scientific
curiosity and technological application.’ 

5) Irrelevance of ideology: ’Ideology’, usually read as ’religion’, may be
seen as largely irrelevant for purposes of historical analysis. The main
contradictions and tensions are to be viewed as structural, and flow
from the clash of interests rather than ideological perspectives. Even the
reasons for the curious elite ideology mentioned above (proposition 4) are not investigated, but treated as given. Part of the reason for this
appears to be the need to use certain selected texts quite literally, rather
than consider the possibility that they might be ideologically motivated.
The notion of the ’normative’ text thus does not feature in these
writings for the most part. 

6) Sterility of trade: This proposition appears to flow largely from (4).
Imports are seen as largely required to service elite consumption. Since
this position bears a close resemblance to the one espoused by eighteenthcentury
physiocratic literature, it is natural that the ’Aligarh school’
opposes its writings to those of ’bullionist’ historians, who it portrays as
praising trade because it brought precious metals into the economy. However, even for the ’Aligarh school’ trade may not be wholly irrelevant
in one specific sense. This is in terms of the potentially destabilising
effects of the bullion inflow through inflation in the seventeenth century,
the so-called ’Price Revolution’. 

7) Eighteenth-century decline: This proposition has, more than any other,
attracted attention, although not even all of the ’Aligarh school’ (as we
have defined it) have the same opinion on the question. Tapan Raychaudhuri,
for example, apparently does not subscribe to the view of
a decline in the economy in the eighteenth century, in his contributions
to the two volumes of the Cambridge Economic History of
.  Most fervently attached to the proposition are Athar Ali and
Irfan Habib, with the latter having first articulated his position in the
closing chapter of his Agrarian System. He argued there that the
system, whose very nature promoted short-term exploitation
of the peasantry, combined with other factors such as inflation to
provoke a ’crisis’, manifested in widespread peasant rebellions against
the Mughal state. This crisis came to a head already in the last years of
Aurangzeb’s reign, and continued through much of the eighteenth
century, leading to the generalised ’subversion of peasant agriculture’.
The eighteenth century was in his view a period when ’the gates were
opened to reckless rapine, anarchy and foreign conquest’.


Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “The Mughal state−−Structure or process? Reflections on recent western historiography.” Indian Economic Social History Review 29(3), 1992. pp. 293-296

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Slavery and Progress: A Self-Reflexive Perspective

“Medieval historiography has inherited a powerful legacy from the abolitionist era that closely associates the societies of Britain with Christian civilisation and anti-slavery sentiments. At the beginning of the twentieth century W.E.H. Lecky argued that England’s crusade against slavery “…may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of the nations.” Similarly, Sir John Harris remarked during the 1930’s that Britain’s struggle against slavery,“…deserves the admiration and thanks of the civilised world.” However, it is extremely important that we do not forget the major role that Britain played in the African slave trade. Indeed, just a few decades before abolition Great Britain had been the world’s greatest slaving nation. British merchants were largely responsible for establishing the
New World slave trade and they greatly profited from it. The irony of
Britain’s subsequent zeal for abolition was not lost upon the African
rulers with whom the British slave traders had previously dealt. The
Asante chief Osei Bonsu is said to have remarked that 

The white men…do not understand my country, or they would not say
that the slave trade was bad. But if they think it bad now, why did they
think it good before?

More recent historical scholarship has highlighted the powerful and
disturbing role that anti-slavery ideology played in the construction
of sentiments regarding the superior character and virtue of British
civilisation. In the decades following abolition the British became
imbued with a proselytising zeal to impose their ‘civilised’ values upon
those whom they now deemed to be ‘savages’ because of their continuing involvement in slaving activity.  This abolitionist zeal provided
the moral ideology that facilitated the nineteenth-century imperial
expansion into Africa. Nineteenth-century British historians played a
significant role in the construction of this superior image. Indeed, the
attitudes of some historians reveal how closely anti-slavery ideology may
be associated with such racist beliefs. In his book Wales, Past and Present
(1870) Charles Wilkins expressed his horror concerning the existence
of the “hideous” condition of slavery, yet, he goes on to remark that 

The African had grown up but a degree above the animal, his lot if
he fell into any hands could not be much worse, and if he became the
property of a kind master, it was even improved in some respects. But
our poor Welshman! With the love of liberty, that was part of their very
being…for these (medieval Welshmen) the transition (into slavery) was
torture most execrable.

E.A. Freeman expressed similar views in his History of the Norman Conquest. Freeman was undoubtedly opposed to slavery. He regarded Bishop
Wulfstan of Worcester to be “an unflinching assertor of the eternal
principles of right” whose efforts had ended the “evil practice” of
slavery in Anglo-Saxon England. Yet, later in the same volume Freeman qualified his arguments concerning Anglo-Saxon slavery under a
sub-heading entitled, “The difference between white and black slavery.”
Within this sub-section he commented that

…there was one great difference between slavery in earlier and in later
times…The great difficulties which have arisen from emancipation of
slaves who are unlike their masters in every respect in which a man can
be unlike a man, is a difficulty with which Wulfstan and William were
not called upon to grapple. 

The prevalence of imperialistic attitudes such as this has undoubtedly
affected the historiography of Britain in general. The nineteenth-century
Irish historian M.F Cusack made no mention at all of the slave holding
nature of medieval Irish society in his Illustrated History of Ireland from
the Earliest Period
. Yet, this omission must be placed within the context
of Cusack’s own social and political milieu and his undoubted outrage
at the impoverished state of his contemporary countrymen. This is
revealed at the beginning of his book when he remarked:

I shall state very briefly the position of the Irish tenant at this present
day…the position of the Irish tenant is simply this: he is rather worse
off than a slave.

The residual influence of nineteenth-century attitudes such as Freeman’s
have ensured the continuing sensitivity of historical analysis concerning slavery. In the 1980’s Elizabeth Curtis drew strong comparisons between
the English involvement in the African slave trade and the indentured
servitude imposed upon the Irish during the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries in her study Nothing but the same old Story; The Roots of Anti-Irish
. Yet, like her predecessor Cusack, Curtis failed to acknowl-
edge the slave owning nature of pre-Norman Irish society, which she
regarded to be “relatively egalitarian.” This is an example that has
been followed by other Irish historians who have sought to distance
their medieval forebears from such unsavoury practices. Indeed, Ó
Croínín has more recently asserted that “The institution of slavery, and
its concomitant, a slave economy, remained alien to the Irish way.” Such attitudes are understandable given the disparaging and condemnatory nature of pre-twentieth-century English historiography toward
medieval Irish society. Furthermore, whilst post-abolitionist sentiments
that associate slavery with only backward, barbarous and intensely
conservative societies persist, such misleading views will continue to
be perpetuated.

Despite the very genuine motivations of many abolitionist activists,
when anti-slavery was taken up by the British government the full
potential of this powerful civilising ideology became a justification for
pragmatic political expansionism. More subtly it became a subconscious
psychological aid endorsing world-wide British hegemony. In short,
slavery helped to provide the cash for the technological advances which
made Britain great. Conversely, anti-slavery provided an ideology,
which facilitated the continuing British cultural and political dominance of global affairs during the nineteenth century. This ideology
was extremely powerful and it has deeply affected historiographical
views concerning medieval slavery. Slavery has continued to be almost
as emotive an historical subject in Britain as it is in the United States.

This may be because it lies at the root of British industrial power.
Furthermore, whilst abolitionism constituted one of the first expressions of popular democracy and lies at the very heart of our civilised
self-image of compromise, decency and fair play, it also justified the
colonial expansionism into Africa and the epoch of the British Empire.
The civilising veneer of British anti-slavery is actually very thin yet
very few nationalist historians have been willing to scratch too deeply
beneath it.

Historians must be extremely self-reflexive if they are to transcend
the, still powerful nineteenth-century abolitionist ideology. No historian
would want to condone slavery yet, it is important that we understand
the reasons for our antipathy towards the institution before we begin to
study it. Indeed, historians have frequently failed to recognise the factors
that act upon their perceptions of this medieval institution and this has
resulted in anachronistic and inaccurate interpretations. Such interpretations have allowed slavery to be compartmentalised in order to reinforce
modern ideologies and sensibilities. Modern economic rationales, which
seek to uphold capitalist values or emphasise the progressive civilisation
of the West, have permeated the historical discourse on slavery. As a
result historians have, all too often, focussed their efforts upon explaining the disappearance of this medieval institution rather than seeking
to understand it. Moreover, when historians attempt to explain away
slavery in this manner they fail to realise the vital importance of the
institution for the societies of medieval Britain.”

– David Wyatt, Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800 -1200 (The Northern World). Brill: Leiden & Boston, 2009. pp. 54-58.

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