Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Eighteenth Century in Indian History

Book Cover

Book Title

The Eighteenth Century in Indian History: Evolution or Revolution? New Delhi; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003


Marshall, P.J. (ed.)


The structure of the book is very revealing. One begins with general assessments of the eighteenth century, followed by the post-Mughal order, the European intrusion and the new British order. This book is important for the students of empire for two things: Firstly, the different essays provide a different perspective for the arrival of the British in India. Particularly, one is able to view the progressive changes occurring to India in terms of its economic, social and political developments. Secondly, one sees the arrival of the Europeans and their establishment of dominance in India from the internal perspective of the latter, thus giving a more wholesome view of the events that were to unfold until the establishment of British governance in India, the latter becoming the jewel colony of Britain.

If the exercise of Mughal authority had never constituted a uniform system even in the seventeenth century, the breaking of the links between Delhi and the provinces in the eighteenth century need not necessarily be seen as a political revolution the scale that it is often assumed to have been. Most importantly, it may not actually have been the end of either the ideals or the practice of Mughal governance and that both survived into the nineteenth century to influence even the British. Thus, it could be seen that at least until the 1780s, the British were trying to inform themselves about what they called the 'original constitution of the Mogul empire', thought by them to have been established by Akbar, and to model their government on that.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

This volume explores the debate about the nature and pace of change affecting India roughly between 1700 and 1800. It is involved largely with the internal perspective of the Indians when the British increased its claim to rule in India on the basis that India was facing a decline after the fall of the Mughal dynasty.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

To many British writers during the age of empires, there was undeniably a decline from order into 'the great anarchy', another name for the history of the Mughal empire in its last days before the foundations were laid for a new British order. The eighteenth century was thus depicted as marking a drastic change in the course of Indian history. However, the overall consensus of the book remains that of an evolutionary pattern of change.

The editors stress that despite the general acceptance of centralized rule of the Mughal state, it remains debatable about how far a system of centralized imperial administration had ever operated effectively, even in the heyday of Mughal rule. Hence, the image of a 'patchwork quilt' was evoked to indicate that imperial control was uneven in different areas, rather than a 'wall-to-wall carpet' of uniform rule. In addition, there were resistance factions even during the time of Aurangzeb, and what mattered was the military strength and will of the rulers to maintain their hold over their territories. Finally, the growing strength and desire of governors of old imperial provinces to turn their province into a new state under their rule highlighted the nature of decline of the Mughal empire as being a largely internal development.

The author also argues that since large areas remained either outside Mughal rule altogether or on the fringes of its effective administrative reach, these large areas found that they could have their own political states. Finally, eighteenth-century Indian economy was predominantly built upon an agricultural society, though with a very wide assortment of manufacturing and service occupations. A smaller proportion of the population was however directly dependent on the land than would have been the case in the later nineteenth century under British rule. In this way, Marshall argues that the British had used their powers and their strengthened claims to sovereignty in a way that was far more absolute than that of Mughal provincial governors. However, this was done through the structure of offices that they had inherited from the nawabs and with the mediation of local elites who had served them.

Annotated by Michelle Djong