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.

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