- Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals
Douglas Streusand has produced a work that is carefully researched and well-written. He charts the intricate history of the three Islamic empires—the Ottoman of the Near East, the Safavid of Iran, and the Mughal of India—in chiefly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The determined general reader and the advanced student will find this thoughtful account very rewarding, for it offers a fair synthesis of much scholarship, albeit mostly that published before 2006. Each empire is allocated a chapter in which similar sections on history, sovereignty, religion and law, expansion and military organization, and central and provincial administration allow comparisons to be made. [End Page 923]
The book benefits from an extensive bibliography, a glossary of terms, a set of dynastic tables, and a bibliographic essay. It has several maps, but these are disappointing. The geography of empire is an important factor in showing the connections within the Islamic world and with the West, but here boundaries, both physical and political, and their changes over time are marked by barely distinguishable shades of gray and imperfectly dotted lines. The cover illustration seems more promising, for this watercolor of the late sixteenth century, laced with gold, depicts in lively fashion the Mughal success of 1577 in capturing the Fort at Bundi in Rajasthan. Here are fierce warriors with bows and arrows, spears, and scimitars, riding horses urged on by the beat of the camel-back drums. But where, either here or in the text, is the gunpowder firepower promised by the title, which would make the book of particular interest and relevance to the readers of this journal? It is surely time to unpack this useful concept of “gunpowder empires” and put it to work.
Since the term was introduced nearly forty years ago by Chicago historians Marshall G. S. Hodgson and William H. McNeill, it has become a useful shibboleth, a password requiring little or no explanation. Streusand declares in the preface that one of his main aims will be to “reevaluate the concept of the gunpowder empire,” but the book reveals that the emphasis is much more on empire than on gunpowder. Perhaps the term “military patronage state” as discussed by Streusand (p. 22) would be a more appropriate component of the title, were it not for the fact that there is now a growing body of work on the science and technology of gunpowder-making which should make possible a more informed use of the term “gunpowder empires.” But although Streusand refers to Gábor Ágoston’s magisterial work Guns for the Sultan (2005), he mentions only (p. 89) his general remarks on the flexibility of Ottoman society with regard to firearms, and makes no use of Ágostan’s detailed study of the production of guns and powder. Similarly, Streusand refers to Jos Gommans’s splendid work Mughal Warfare (2002), but notes (p. 204) his account of Mughal political and military geography, rather than armament production.
There is other new work too, for example that published in ICON, journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology (ICOHTEC), and in the two volumes supported by that organization: Gunpowder: The History of an International Technology (1996; repr. 2006) and Gunpowder, Explosives and the State: A Technological History (2006). The former has chapters by Jixing Pan on rockets in China and by Iqtidar Alam Khan on the Mongols and gunpowder and firearms in South Asia. The latter includes chapters by Walter Panciera on the production of gunpowder in Venice in the sixteenth century, and José Manuel de Mascarenhas pursues the evidence for this subject in Goa on the southwest coast of India, neatly linking two extremes of the trading interests of the Islamic empires. The contribution by this reviewer on “Saltpetre: A Commodity of Empire” [End Page 924] describes saltpeter production in India and the shipment from the early seventeenth century of this product to Britain, a “gunpowder empire” in the making. These examples suggest that the term is too useful to be abandoned...