- Can One Write About the Eighteenth Century Without Empire?
To address with requisite brevity the question of whether one can write about the eighteenth century "without empire," this short essay reconstitutes the perspectives of a single "participant-observer" from the immediately ensuing decades. The figure in question is Mirza Salih Shirazi, one of a group of six young Iranians who came to study in London in 1815. During his four years away from home, Mirza Salih maintained a diary-cum-notebook in which he recorded both his quotidian affairs and his unfolding understanding of the novel environment he was exploring.1 The verb "exploring" is justified insofar as Mirza Salih and his companions—being the first group of Muslims sent to study in Europe—were not only moving through what were unfamiliar geographical spaces for Middle Easterners, but were also investigating the new intellectual disciplines, largely the fruit of the scientific revolution, which their contemporaries termed the 'ulum-i farangi ("European sciences") or 'ulum-i jadid ("new sciences").2 Since Mirza Salih was charged by his Iranian royal sponsors with acquiring skills suited for service as a diplomat, his studies largely focused on Britain's history, political system, and economy. As such, his curriculum involved looking back over the previous, eighteenth century. It is this, the self-conscious temporality of his studious notetaking, that allows his diary-notebook to serve as an emic test case of how central empire was then (as distinct from is now) to understanding the eighteenth century.
Before turning to the details of Mirza Salih's reflections on Britain's "imperial" moment, it is important to situate him in his political context. While this contextualization will show how fundamental empire was to his arrival in London, we should be wary of making the interpretive assumption that the historical forces [End Page 33] (or more precisely, the trans-imperial networks) that brought him to Britain were what he himself considered to be the most noteworthy features of his time.
Like his five companions, four of whom shared his court title of mirza (or 'secretary'), Mirza Salih was escorted to London from Tabriz by Joseph D'Arcy (1780–1848) of the Royal Artillery. Despite never having served in India or anywhere east of Sicily, D'Arcy had been dispatched to Iran in 1811 in the company of the former Bengal jute trader turned diplomat, Sir Gore Ouseley (1770–1844).3 Arriving in the midst of the First Russo-Persian War of 1804–13, D'Arcy and his comrades-in-arms were tasked with reforming the frontier forces under the command of the Crown Prince 'Abbas Mirza (1789–1833).4 The latter's policy of military reorganization—known as the nizam-i jadid or "new order"—was an intrinsically inter-imperial development, having been adopted from the eponymous policy of the Ottomans as a means of resisting the aggressive expansionism of the Russian Empire that was affecting the Qajars and Ottomans alike.5 The shifting alliances of the Napoleonic Wars brought to Tehran several embassies—Russian, French, then British (including separate Crown and East India Company delegations)—who competed for local influence, with the British offering military assistance. When political alliances changed again, leaving the discharged D'Arcy departing for England in the early summer of 1815, Prince 'Abbas Mirza seized the opportunity to make a new move in his "new order" policy: he requested that D'Arcy escort to London a group of young men, mostly the sons of court officials, and oversee their education in subjects of practical strategic value. Assenting under official duress, D'Arcy led the young men to Britain via the overland route through Russia, enabling Mirza Salih to inspect the provinces and capital of the neighboring imperial power that was inflicting such defeats on Iran.6 From the ravaged borderlands of the Caucasus to the resplendent palaces of Saint Petersburg, the young Iranian learned firsthand about European empires through both their violent peripheries and tranquil centers.
When Mirza Salih and his fellow students were installed in D'Arcy's London apartment, they were still unable to speak English. After their chaperone's resources ran thin as one of thousands of...