The Rule of the Road

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

  • After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empire by John Darwin
    Penguin, 592 pp, £10.99, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 14 101022 9

In the year 1283 of the Hegiran era, or 1866 of the Common Era, the Ottoman traveller Abdur Rahman bin Abdullah al-Baghdádi al-Dimashqi arrived in Brazil on the imperial corvette Bursa to begin a three-year visit. He later published an account of his experiences, entitled Maslihat al-gharib bi-kull-i amr ‘ajib (‘The delight of the traveller concerning all that is marvellous’). It is an important text for a number of reasons, including the light it sheds on the status of Islam among slaves of West African origin in 19th-century Brazil; but also because it allows us to reflect on what exactly empires are and were.

Al-Baghdádi, an imam and man of high culture who had been educated in Damascus, was the representative of one empire in another empire. But were these two empires members of a single species or is it just an arbitrary convention of our own that places them under the same rubric? How do we compare the Brazilian ‘empire’ of the long-reigning Dom Pedro II (1831-89) with the Ottoman empire of Sultan Abdülaziz (1861-76)? The two monarchs certainly had something in common. Both were travellers, in the typical later 19th-century mode of diplomatic tourism. The Ottoman sultan was the first of his line to engage in such travels: he paid an official visit to Napoleon III in 1867, and spent time in London, Berlin and Vienna. He had therefore inspected the centres of other empires and would-be empires at close hand, and visited museums full of imperial loot and treasures. In 1876, Pedro II visited the United States for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where an anecdote connects him with Alexander Graham Bell and the early use of the telephone. The emperor, at least in the version retailed by Samuel Eliot Morison, either recited some celebrated lines from Hamlet into the instrument or heard them recited by Bell, and was mightily impressed. Just over a decade later, in 1889, Dom Pedro was deposed by a military coup and replaced by the oligarchic café-com-leite republican regime that endured until the 1930s. The Ottomans’ version of imperial rule ended after the First World War in chaos, massacres and the broken dreams of pan-Islamic revival that accompanied the painful formation of the Turkish republic.

Al-Baghdádi was certainly interested in giving his Ottoman readers some sense of Brazil, even if political economy was not his primary interest. He writes of the Amazon, ‘the largest river in the world’, of Brazil’s population of nine million, and of the fact that its ruler had under his command armed forces comprising some 85 steam-powered vessels and 40,000 men. This description occurs in a section entitled ‘location of the state of Brazil’ (iqlim dawlat Berazilya), in which al-Baghdádi refrains from identifying Brazil as anything like an ‘empire’. For him and his readers the term dawlat would have meant simply a ‘state’, though on one occasion he does bestow on Rio de Janeiro the somewhat grander title of ‘the foot of the throne of the state of Brazil’, which was usually reserved for important capital cities. Yet nowhere does he even imply that Brazil could be placed on a similar footing, politically speaking, to the Ottoman Empire. This was quite different from the manner in which the Ottomans had once spoken of the Habsburgs or even the Mughals.

This is not an arcane debating point, for one of the questions a reader is bound to ask after reading nearly 600 pages on the ‘rise and fall of global empires’ is what exactly the author of such a work means by ‘empire’. John Darwin does not address this question directly. But we can reflect on it by asking two related questions. First, what is not empire, and is hence left out of this book? Second, what are the other terms that ‘empire’ comes paired with, in the usual oppositions that historians and other social scientists are so fond of, such as empire v. nation-state?

Darwin sets out three broad themes and four basic assumptions. The themes are: the move from ‘global connectedness’ to ‘globalisation’; the role of Europe and European empires in these long-term transformations; and the ‘resilience’ of non-European states and other actors in these processes. These themes are linked in turn to Darwin’s ‘four basic assumptions’:

1. That the historical change produced by and through empires after 1400 was conjunctural and reversible, not linear, cumulative and teleological.

2. That Europe in these six centuries should constantly be placed within its larger setting of Eurasia in order to escape the trap of European exceptionalism.

3. That the idea of ‘Europe’ itself should be subject to constant interrogation to separate its distinct uses as ‘a geographical space; a socio-political community; and a cultural programme’.

4. That empire was a widespread practice and not merely a European one, indeed ‘the default mode of political organisation throughout most of history’ rather than ‘the original sin of European peoples’.

Whether the first three of these are in fact ‘assumptions’ as opposed to hypotheses or speculations is not immediately clear. Taken together, however, they help us to place Darwin in a fraught historiographical field: he is clearly neither one of those with a triumphalist view of Europe’s worldwide mission (still dashingly espoused by such historians as John Headley), nor a votary of a certain style of post-colonialism. The book is an attempt to achieve a judicious balance, of the sort that usually wins one enemies all around.

It is more than a quarter of a century since Darwin published Britain, Egypt and the Middle East: Imperial Policy in the Aftermath of War, 1918-22 (1981); since then he has edited or co-edited two other works on the last days of the British Empire. After Tamerlane departs markedly from his earlier books, in its conception as a popular work, in its far larger scope, and in its embrace of both the early modern and the modern periods. In his preface, Darwin suggests that there are sound British – even Oxbridge – precedents for his work, noting that his ‘first introduction to the fascination of viewing world history as a connected whole came as a pupil of the late Jack Gallagher, whose historical imagination was boundless’. He also relates his own work to that of earlier historians on the rise of the West and European expansion, while acknowledging his debt to ‘the huge volume of new writing in the last twenty years . . . on “global” history’. But, he adds, ‘it is not only recently that historians have insisted on a global view of the past: that tradition, after all, goes back to Herodotus.’ Did Herodotus, who was not aware of the earth as a globe, ever speak or even reflect on a ‘global view of the past’? I rather doubt it. As for Gallagher, his vision remained confined to the British Empire of the 19th and 20th centuries.

There is every reason to applaud Darwin’s ambition in this new book, which begins in the early 15th century and then moves, in nine chronologically organised chapters, through five and a half centuries of world history. The breadth of vision is already on display in an opening chapter entitled ‘Orientations’, which begins with the celebrated meeting between Amir Timur and Ibn Khaldun at the walls of Damascus in 1401, although the great Central Asian conqueror is given relatively short shrift as a ‘transitional figure in Eurasian history’. Instead, Darwin points us in the direction of the great interpretative debates of the 19th and 20th centuries regarding the long sweep of history, from Marx and Weber to the more obscure Halford Mackinder and J.C. van Leur, to more culturally oriented recent readings such as those of Edward Said. In a few pages, he efficiently summarises the large and complex debate on the idea of modernity, rejecting the forceful advice of the Africanist Frederick Cooper by concluding that ‘it is too useful an idea to be thrown away,’ but adding that ‘it may be wise to accept it as a fuzzy abstraction.’ Using the idea of ‘three great civilisational zones’ – China, Islamdom and Europe – as his starting point, he sketches a broad comparative framework, drawing on the classic work of Mark Elvin from the early 1970s, among other texts.

The tone is thus set in this first chapter: narrative history is leavened by regular references to social science debates, and the presentation is always argumentative but never contentious. The endnotes to the first chapter are also telling: they reflect recent literature as well as classic references, but are almost all in English, with a sprinkling in French. Here we see a characteristic weakness of ‘“global” history’ in its Anglo-American incarnation: its assumption of a monolingual world of debate and discussion. If you write about empires in Spanish, you are apparently not worthy of notice.

The fourth chapter is crucial: entitled ‘The Eurasian Revolution’, it describes the transition between the early modern equilibrium of older imperial formations and the new balance that emerged in the 19th century. Darwin takes a firm stance here, arguing that the changes in the period between 1750 and 1830 involved three revolutions in one, ‘in geopolitics, in culture and in economics’, and that the geopolitical shift in many ways drove the other two. This is an important argument, and will be harshly received by those who wish to see the changes as driven primarily by European cultural, scientific and technological supremacy. But Darwin still at times relies on blunt-edged culturalist explanations, sometimes quite mistakenly, as when he writes of an ‘Ottoman indifference to the Americas’ as typical of a lack of curiosity in the non-Western world. In fact, as Thomas Goodrich has quite clearly shown, Ottoman concern with America wasn’t at all negligible even in the 16th century – as shown by the Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi, an anonymous Turkish text. Two centuries before al-Baghdádi, we have the account of Ilyas al-Mawsuli’s travels to Spanish America, of which not one but two recent translations into English exist. We ignore these works, and take Bernard Lewis as our guide, at our peril.

Once the 19th century is reached, the narrative takes on the more traditional form of ‘a race against time’ and a modernising push driven largely by Europeans, until the ‘limits of empire’ are reached. This is dealt with largely in the context of the scramble for Africa, but Darwin is careful not to centre the whole story on the European empires, devoting significant attention to the Ottomans, China and Japan. This takes us on to the extended world crisis, which runs in this account from 1914 to 1942 (the year of Midway and Alamein), then in the penultimate chapter to decolonisation, the Cold War and eventually the fall of the Soviet Union. The two main protagonists of the Cold War are both treated explicitly as empires, and Darwin emphatically claims that, after 1990, America became ‘the only world empire’. He also argues that those who compare the present-day US to Victorian Britain ‘betray a staggering ignorance of the history of both’, since Britain never came close to achieving America’s financial and cultural dominance.

There are a number of stimulating claims and hypotheses here, which will no doubt enable After Tamerlane to become a standard point of departure for essays and reflections on global history. However, there are also some troubling conceptual issues, beginning with the book’s use of the term ‘empire’, which Darwin more or less refuses to define, as if it were a matter of common sense or something one could look up in the OED. Clearly empires must be distinguished from other political forms such as city-states, kingdoms, republics and nation-states, some of which have had a relatively short history, even if they cast a long shadow on current discussion. This looks like a matter of scale, but things are not quite so simple. Some of today’s nation-states – India, China and the United States – are as large as many past empires, and Darwin would have us believe that the US is both a nation-state and an empire. So an argument from the idea of exclusion (‘What is not an empire because it is something else?’) is not entirely persuasive.

Darwin’s rather eclectic examples suggest that these questions might not be clear even in his own mind. Take Japan, where he notes that an ‘emperor’ existed from at least the 12th century. What does this really mean? The most commonly used Japanese word in this context is tenno, which simply means ‘heavenly ruler’. The term kotei is a loan-word from the Chinese (the Chinese term is huangdi) used to designate imperial rulers outside Japan: the decision to term the ruler of Japan an emperor is a modern one. There is little reason to see the domains the Japanese ruled from the 12th to the 19th century as constituting an empire, if one sets aside the aberration of Hideyoshi’s brief invasions of Korea in the 1590s, and the complex but limited dealings with the Ryukyu Islands from the 17th century. Japan’s imperial moment didn’t begin until after 1890, and lasted barely half a century.

Empire implies political complexity, and cultural as well as – more often than not – ethnic and linguistic diversity among subject populations. The form this political complexity usually takes is of a variety of heterogeneous political and administrative arrangements, often embodying notions of layered sovereignty. The Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries is an excellent example. Some of its territories were ruled directly and fell into the category of the hass (or khass); in others, existing dynasties were incorporated as tribute-paying entities; in still others, a variety of fiscal and administrative arrangements were in operation. The situations in Wallachia, Anatolia and the Hejaz were remarkably diverse and remained so even as they changed. Furthermore, the three major religions of the book were practised in the Ottoman domains, as well as a variety of other ‘heterodox’ religions that were more or less tolerated (with the exception of certain forms of Shiism). Although Ottoman Turkish was the chief language of the administration, a large number of Semitic, Slavic and other languages were used in the sultan’s territories.

Given this diversity in governance, religion and language, it’s not surprising that empire is increasingly seen not merely as a form of ‘original sin’ (in Darwin’s terms) but as a possible object of nostalgia. Faced with the Balkans wars in the 1990s, one can see why a golden legend of the Ottomans could emerge. While right-wing Hindu nationalists have transformed the Mughals into an object of hatred, many others – including Amartya Sen – view their empire as a near utopian political arrangement. Empire here stands for diversity, tolerance and difference, as distinct from the nation-state with its inherent drive towards homogeneity. On the other hand, to many nationalists, empires stand for archaism and hidebound tradition, witness the Turkish nationalist depiction of the Ottomans as bigoted and backward-looking Sunnis. If this is what Turkish nationalists have to say, one can only imagine what Greek or Bulgarian nationalists have in mind when they evoke the House of Osman.

This takes us to the heart of the problem. Even if it is a single word, with a traceable history taking us back to the Roman imperium, empire is not one thing but many. Darwin’s position radically simplifies issues, as when he compares the empire-building impulse to Adam Smith’s notion of the universal drive to ‘truck, barter and exchange’:

a second propensity in human communities has been the accumulation of power on an extensive scale: the building of empires. Indeed, the difficulty of forming autonomous states on an ethnic basis, against the gravitational pull of cultural or economic attraction (as well as disparities of military force), has been so great that empire (where different ethnic communities fall under a common ruler) has been the default mode of political organisation throughout most of history. Imperial power has usually been the rule of the road.

The problem, however, is that empires could be radically different from one another. We may provisionally set out a loose taxonomy for the post-1400 period:

1. Empires that think they are empires, use explicitly imperial terminology, and link themselves to a recognisable imperial tradition (e.g. Alexander the Great, Rome, the Achaemenids, the Sasanians, the Caliphate) by adopting the logic of translatio imperii. This is the most obvious category that would include the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, the Mughals and so on.

2. States that pretend to be empires, though there are good reasons to doubt their pretensions. The Danes in the 17th century are a suitably obscure example, but 19th-century Brazil may also qualify.

3. Empires that deny that they are empires: the English East India Company, the Dutch East India Company in certain of its incarnations, and, if we accept Darwin’s classification, the United States.

4. Cases where the jury is still out, such as Safavid Iran or (if one credits Darwin’s Oxford colleague Timothy Brook) Ming – as opposed to Qing – China, because they had only weak imperial traits.

5. Contiguous land empires, as distinct from empires whose territories were separated by large stretches of water.

6. Empires made up of tiny territories stretched over a vast expanse, such as the 16th-century Portuguese empire.

This is not a particularly original list. What it suggests is that, like the word ‘market’, ‘empire’ is a useful but loose descriptive category, rather than a tight analytical category. In any history of the world after 1400 that focuses on issues of political economy and state power, the word ‘empire’ will undoubtedly figure as many times as it does in Darwin’s magisterial survey. Whether the term by itself explains anything of what transpired is, to my mind at least, a different matter. At the end of this thought-provoking book, I am uncertain whether John Darwin believes it does either.