A new trend in historiography

print   ·   T  T  


First volume of a set of interlinked studies that deploys the concept of 'connected histories' to shed important light on aspects of the history of early modern Eurasia based on a variety of materials

EXPLORATIONS IN CONNECTED HISTORY - From the Tagus to the Ganges: Sanjay Subrahmanyam; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 575.Sanjay Subrahmanyam is one of those rare historians who has consistently maintained that an "openness to other histories and other societal trajectories" than the conventional ones enriches historical writing and contributes to historiographical advance.The present collection of his 16 essays in two companion volumes has a strong thematic unity and provides ample proof of how new vistas of analysis can reveal different trajectories of history.

'Connected history'

He introduces the concept of "connected histories" in preference to "integrated" or "comparative" history. Connected history is to him a way of bringing together historical phenomena that have all too often been artificially separated by historiographical convention. Reconfiguring the history of South Asia within the landscape of early modern connected histories, he tries to show the interconnectedness of multiple causal and interactive events within a vast geographical canvas through a very close examination of the rich variety of archival sources in various European and Asian languages, which have been hitherto been less easily accessible. The sources are too complex "to be credibly mastered by a single individual." Yet Subrahmanyam's familiarity with these languages and archives is amazing. His Explorations in Connected History goes beyond the recent attempts to shake off the conventional and often literal interpretations of the medieval and early modern chronicles and adopts a very high level of methodological sophistication and nuanced analysis. They mark a significant advance in the historiography of the intellectual history of the early modern period.

Spans two continents

He traverses with ease two continents, from the Iberian peninsula (Tagus) to the South Asian regions (Ganges) and beyond into the Southeast Asian archipelago, striving to place a different conception of South Asian history with reference to the "Early Modern" period - the three or four centuries preceding British colonial rule. Without using "area studies" in their narrow regional sense and turning away from the dominant European mode of micro-history, he situates micro-level developments in the larger context, that of the political aspirations and commercial interests of the 'empire-building' Portuguese, Spanish Habsburgs, the Ottomans and the Mughals which impinge on South Asian history in many unexpected ways, with their interactive impact on the neighbouring Arabian, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal states (Arakan, Aceh and other regions). Parallels are also drawn from the Spanish American regions thus bringing in yet another continent into the comparative study.Notions of periodisation are redefined by distinguishing colonial modernity with all its "elements of a wrenching transformation" from an early modernity, which preceded it from the 15th to 17th centuries and in which a whole range of people and countries were involved, especially different parts of South Asia. The period covered is one of encounters between India and Europe. Frontiers and circuits, it is argued are more strongly expressed as external definitions than as internal claims as for example notions of al-Hind and the limits of India, which vary in the Arabic, Persian and Portuguese sources. Trade and artisanal movement were not subject to frontiers despite the fact that they passed through custom-houses at various points, which later came to be defined as "areas" to be studied.

Binary models rejected

Binary models such as the Occident and the Orient, and Eurocentric conceptions such as the World Systems theory of the West as the core i.e., of European expansion and the East (India) as the fractious periphery are rejected, while the European experience in the East is shown to have influenced the developments (Renaissance and post-Renaissance) in the West. The centrality that Fernand Braudel gave to the Mediterranean Sea can, it is argued, be legitimately assigned also to the Indian Ocean in these centuries. Thus yet another role is assigned to the East, namely that of crossroads. South Asia assumes such a role in the large-scale movements of people, trade, culture, political ideology and traditions, Persianisation being one of the most significant.Stereotypes, such as oriental despotism, 'traditional' and changeless India (Louis Dumont), village republics, 'homo hierarchicus' and modernity as a gift from the West, being the dominant ones in imagining India's past, have no place in this search for different trajectories. The neo-Weberian, structural-functional approach of 1970s in the study of Portuguese Estado and Indian Ocean trade is hardly satisfactory to this new approach, which emphasises the need for examining the motives of all agents and actors in this world of trade and politics. The need to rescue history from recent nationalisms and communalisms is constantly emphasised with the caution that one needs to stop blaming history for what is wrong with our relationship with the past. For example, the myth of a "Hindu" Vijayanagara is attributed to latter day ideologues and Portuguese invention.

European expansion

The historiography of European expansion, relying mainly on European testimonies, lacks a critical approach, neglecting Asian sources, which Sanjay Subrahmanyam is able to rectify through a comparative analysis of European sources, Portuguese sources in particular, with the Persian chronicles, which follow different narrative methods. The chronicles of the Portuguese Diogo da Couto (the elaborate Estado da Asia), Joao de Barros and others, and the French Francois Bernier and Tavernier, the Venetian Niccolo Manuzzi are both official and ethnographic and cultural (on Muslim elite or the gentiles of India, religion and caste), emphasising cultural difference, Mughals being often an ethnographic object. This cross-cultural chronicling is more a cultural translation than mere knowledge production. Powerful images and contrasts between the East and the West are provided. It is a form of political ethnography, in which political systems are compared and ranked by the standard ambassadorial account. Both missionaries (Jesuit production of knowledge on Asia) and laity contributed to it based on the notion of identifying and enumerating, and later theorising about difference-implicit superiority of the observer over the object in terms of social and political constitution. Various voices can be heard within the stream of Portuguese ethnographic discourse, a tradition which the Dutch developed later. Different points of view even within two chronicles of the same period and levels of theoretical sophistication exist, as a comparison between Arabian Hadrami chronicles and Ma'bari's Tuhfat al-Mujahidin at Bijapur (on the Mappila Portuguese conflict in Kerala) shows. The complex inter-relationships can thus be understood only by closely listening to the many voices reflected in these diverse archival sources and folk-texts. The narrative sections of the Dutch sources of the United East India Company are said to have been suppressed by modern historians, who paid greater attention to the account books and order lists and bills of exchange. The image of the European in Indo-Persian literature of the 16th-17th century reflects a hierarchisation due to Persianisation compared to European materials. The link between the idea of politics and the practice of ethnography in the 16th-17th century came to be more clearly understood in 18th century British Empire in India.

Important departure

Using different analytical levels, the author is as much at home with the Mughal as the Safavid (Iran) and Ottoman (Turkish) chronicles. Thus the major chronicling tradition under the Mughals, Deccan sultanates and European chronicles are shown to be often not unproblematic representations of historical reality. Hence we encounter a whole range of fascinating characters (individuals) in this work throwing a welcome light on the nature of cultural and commercial interaction of the period. The extensive use of travel literature, memoirs, routine administrative papers, letters (Jesuits and other individuals) and diplomatic correspondence and elite ambassadorial accounts of royal courts and their ritual practices is an important departure from the usual typology of major chronicles and biographies or more correctly secular hagiographies of royal families or families of European elite or of big men like Vasco da Gama, which tend to be partisan. If one adds oral tradition to this rich repertoire, the task of the historian is rendered even more difficult. But to Sanjay Subrahmanyam this is a boon, as he has developed an analytical craftsmanship, which is indeed enviable. One is as much impressed by this historian's craftsmanship as by the kind of interpretations that he is able to offer to explain the complex historical processes, which ushered in the early modern period. (The second part of the review will be published in the next edition.)



Recent Article in BOOK REVIEW

DALITS AND ADIVASIS IN INDIA’S BUSINESS ECONOMY — Three Essays and An Atlas: Barbara Harriss-White with Elisabetta Basile, Anita Dixit, Pinaki Joddar, Aseem Prakash and Kaushal Vidyarthee; Three Essays Collective, B-957, Palam Vihar, Gurgaon-122017. Rs. 2000.

Caste and its triple role in the political economy

Mujibur Rehman For long, I have realised India’s political economy cannot be explained in conventional... »