- The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India: the Struggle for Control of the South Asian Military Economy by Randolf G.S. Cooper
Historians interested in the “hows” as much as the “whys” of British rule in India will be grateful to Randolf Cooper for providing us with such a lucid and culturally-nuanced account of the key battles which comprised the Anglo-Maratha War of 1803–1805. These battles, and particularly the Battle of Assaye, have assumed a dominant position in the Anglo-Indian military canon, in part because of the very active role played in them by Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, and in part because they can be and have been read in ways that lend substance to the prevailing arguments about the innate superiority of western warfare. Narratives of British successes in India (and European victories elsewhere) have provided critical if at times implicit contributions to the development of the theory of the military revolution. The idea of a military revolution has been and continues to be foundational to metanarratives of progress and the rise of the west, for military victories and the technology which apparently enabled them provide some of the most readily visible ‘proofs’ of western power.1 In the words of its best known proponent, Geoffrey Parker, “the absolute or relative superiority of Western weaponry and Western military organization” is largely to account for European conquest.2 Arguments such as these are not new: British military writers and historians made similar claims in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And as Cooper notes, they were just as blinkered for they “failed to see that the impetus for cultural change did not necessarily have to come from one specific geographic direction and that military culture could precipitate social change; not all military progress moved from west to east and not all political power rested in the hands of politicians”(59).
The term “military revolution” as a device for comprehending the transformation unleashed by the adoption of gunpowder weapons has become one of the few standardized concepts in modern history.3 To put it crudely, gunpowder rendered heavy cavalry redundant and advances in military architecture produced fortifications which required massive outlays in resources to mount successful sieges. Gunpowder’s revolutionary potential was not limited to land: heavy cannons at sea revolutionized naval warfare as suitably outfitted vessels preyed with relative impunity on unarmed merchantmen. The idea of a military revolution is appealing, at least superficially, because it places military history at the heart of some of the big questions in world history, for example, state formation, economic development, industrial revolution, and the rise of absolutism. The genesis of the military revolution debate lay in Michael Roberts’ studies of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Swedish state, and particularly the army of Gustavus Adolphus, which according to him had successfully incorporated advances in training and tactics to make it a more efficient fighting machine. Lurking in the background of his assessments were the changes wrought by advances in military technology. These arguments were picked up, refined, and adapted to a global context by Geoffrey Parker who emphasized technology and the infrastructure necessary to support that technology. For Parker, European military superiority can be easily summarized as follows: better weapons, better discipline, a more aggressive military tradition, a readiness to accept military innovation and finally the erection of a financial infrastructure to sustain such a modern weapons system.
The emphasis on technology and the infrastructure needed to sustain it has been challenged, both in Europe and overseas. Geoffrey Scammell has called into question the extent to which conquest in Asia was predicated on military superiority.4 Studies by Peter Marshall and Bruce Lenman have shown that technological advantages were often short-lived and, more importantly, largely confined to maritime warfare.5 The limits to what western technology could achieve were poignantly noted over a century before by Rudyard Kipling in his aptly titled, “Arithmetic on the Frontier”.6
Two thousands pounds of...