- The Eighteenth Century in Indian History
In a famous review essay first published in 1940, the Dutch scholar J. C. van Leur challenged the relevance of the eighteenth century in Asian history. The eighteenth century, he wrote, was a "category for the periodization of time borrowed from western European and North American history," which evoked "the world of baroque and old fashioned classicism," on the one hand, and the "new bourgeois civilization," on the other. Reacting against a tendency by Dutch historians to portray eighteenth-century Indonesia through the records of the Dutch East India Company as a distant outpost of the European "age of enlightenment," van Leur urged that Asian history in the eighteenth century was still autonomous and vital. "That century did not know any superior Occident, nor any self-isolating Orient no longer progressing with it," he wrote. "It knew a mighty East, a rich [End Page 492] fabric of a strong, broad weave with a more fragile Western warp thread inserted into it at broad intervals" (van Leur, Indonesian Trade and Society [Dortrect, 1983], 269, 289).
J. C. van Leur may have been surprised by the resilience of the eighteenth century as a category in Indian (more often now styled South Asian) history. In truth, van Leur's strong aversion to the idea of an eighteenth century in Asia, which grew mainly out of his expertise in Indonesian history, always seemed odd from a South Asian perspective. The eighteenth century has long appeared as an obvious historical turning point in India, marked by the dramatic collapse of the Mughal empire at its start, and the equally dramatic expansion of the British empire at its end. Thus, van Leur's assertion that in eighteenth-century India "the establishment of local, even regional power by France and England did not disturb the power of the Mogol Empire more than fleetingly" was somewhat quixotic (van Leur, 273).
Nonetheless, recent writing on eighteenth-century India has often gone with the grain of van Leur's determination to attend to the autonomous dynamics of Asian history, questioning the view that European expansion was necessarily the decisive motor of historical change. Even though the power of the Mughal emperors declined, new regional powers emerged, powers that could be fitted into van Leur's sense of the "rich fabric" of Asian history. If van Leur's notion of an "unbroken history in the state of Asian civilization" from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century now seems excessively monolithic and static, his conception of early modern Asian history as something more than the history of European expansion was ahead of its time.
For much of the 1980s and 1990s, revisionist work about the eighteenth century formed one of the poles around which South Asian history revolved. This work was dominated by social and economic history, strongly inflected by Marxist and "Annaliste" perspectives, which sought to uncover the deep structural transformations of Indian society from the dead weight of the political history of empires. Writers on the eighteenth century tended to focus on processes of regional state...