Today, the late Mughal period no longer makes sense as the chaotic prologue to colonial rule. India 's conquest was a more complex affair than the foredoomed collapse of an overstretched empire and the pacification of its warring fragments by European rulers with superior political skill. A realistic account of the half-century that ended at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 would thus stress the part played by Indians in building new networks of trade and new regional states. And it was rather this that helped to set off the crises that overwhelmed them unexpectedly in the 1750’s.
Indeed, behind many of the changes of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be seen the effects of expanding trade, rising population and growing rural economy. Urban prosperity and the rising wealth of the rural elite made provincial interests less willing to put up with central direction from Delhi.
The Maratha confederacy has long been portrayed, as a predatory horde that reduced northern India to anarchy. But behind its rise can be seen something more interesting than an alliance of freebooters. The Marathas' territorial conquests were marked not by scorched earth but by their elaborate revenue system, whose voluminous records are preserved at Poona --modern Pune. (For an example see S. Gordon, Marathas, Marauders and State Formation in 18th Century India, New Delhi, 1994, ch. 2.)
Maratha leaders aimed not at a general devastation but a gradual absorption of the Mughal domain into the sphere of their svarajya or 'sovereignty'.Their object as it appears now, was not so much the absolute overthrow of Mughal power as its enforced devolution: hence the eagerness with which they sought to cloak their rule with the authority of Mughal grants and decrees. (A. Wink, Land and Sovereignty in India: Agrarian Society and Politics under the Eighteenth-Century Maratha Svarajya, Cambridge, 1986), p. 40.)
The Maratha enterprise, from today’s point of view is best seen as the struggle of an emerging Hindu gentry, under their sardars or chiefs, to share Mughal sovereignty and revenues in ways that reflected the rising importance of new landholding group. In other parts of the Mughal dominions a similar pattern can be seen as the subahdars tried to slacken Delhi 's grip as part of their effort to manage the demands of local magnates. In Bengal, Awadh (Oudh), Hyderabad and the Punjab (where declining trade was strengthening Sikhism), weakening Delhi's grip meant not so much a slide into anarchy as a new phase of state-building by local rulers who were anxious to pose as the legitimate representatives of the old imperial regime. (Alam, The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and the Punjab I707-1748 (Delhi, 1986), p. 241.)
Conceivably this trend might have led to a more decentralized Mughal 'commonwealth' as Mughal institutions were adapted to the need of different regional powers. Maratha influence, based on formidable military power, might have become as widespread as that of the Mughals had been. Instead, two great destabilizing forces interacted to make Mughal 'decadence' the prelude to a revolution. The first was the impact of a new round of invasions from Central Asia, the traditional source of new hegemonies in India. In 1739 a huge Mughal army surrendered at Kamal in the approaches to Delhi. 'The Chagati” (i.e. Mughal) empire is gone,' groaned the Maratha ambassador, who fled from the scene, 'the Irani Empire has commenced.’ (W.Irvine, The Later Mughals, vol. 2: 1719-1739 ( Calcutta , 1922), p. 360.) For the 'nuclear zones' of the Mughal Empire see, Gommans, Mughal Warfare: Indian Frontiers and the Highroads to Empire 150O-1700London, 2002), p.18.) The subsequent capture of Delhi by the Iranian ruler Nadir Shah (he entered the city on a magnificent charger, with the humiliated emperor in a closed palanquin), followed by the Afghan incursions in the '750s, wrecked Mughal prestige and devastated the old trade routes between Bengal and Upper India . A vital part of the Mughal heartland west of the Indus and around Kabul was wrenched away by defeat. (W. Irvine, The Later Mughals, vol. 2: 1719-1739 (Calcutta, 1922), p. 360. 155.) In a further battle at Panipat, in 1761, the Afghans crushed the" Maratha army and killed the peshwa, chief minister of the confederacy.
The second source of sub continental change was the rapid integration of maritime India into international trade. In Bengal, the breakneck conversion of marsh and forest into rice lands and the huge workforce of cotton weavers and spinners (perhaps r million or more) created an exceptionally dynamic economy, whose growth was fertilized by the inflow of silver with which Europeans paid for their purchases of cotton and silk. Along the Coromandel coast south of Madras, in modern Tamil Nadu, a similar pattern of agrarian success and textile production created a flourishing mercantile economy in a region that was also the crossroads for trade in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Here, as elsewhere in coastal India, a distinctive type of mercantile capitalism had grown up to finance and manage the production, sale and distribution of textiles and other commodities.
From the late 1500s onward many Europeans as we have seen with the example of Francis Drake, came to India to try their luck in its courts and commerce. However, it was maritime India 's trade that was the main attraction. By the eighteenth century, European warehouses (or 'godowns') and 'factories' dotted the peninsular coast from Surat to Calcutta. Some Europeans, like 'Diamond' (Thomas) Pitt, came to India as 'interlopers', defying the monopoly claimed by the chartered companies. Some, like 'Siamese' (Samuel) White, turned into freelances. White arrived in Madras in 1676. But he soon crossed the Bay of Bengal and made his way to Ayudhya, then the Siamese (Thai) capital. He made his name first in the elephant trade - the dangerous business of bringing elephants by sea across the bay to India - before becoming the king's chief commercial agent. But most European traders were company men. The high costs of long-distance trade, as well as large armed ships (the 'East Indiamen'), shore establishments' (with their garrisons to guard against attack by other Europeans or disorderly locals) and the diplomatic apparatus required for dealings with regional rulers and the Mughal court, had long made it necessary for European traders to be organized as joint-stock companies. These were forerunners of the modern corporation (with shareholders, a board and a management structure), and enjoyed a monopoly in the direct trade between their country and India. Their commercial policy was to drive down the price and increase the quantity of the Indian textiles for which an insatiable demand existed in Europe. Hence the rival European companies (mainly after 1720 the English and French East India companies) were engaged in a constant effort to entice Indian weavers into their trading towns (like Madras or Pondicherry), where they had been allowed to build their 'factories' and exert their control over weavers and merchants in order to regulate the price, type and quality of the cloth produced. This led them into close but often quarrel some relations with local rulers, whose wealth and power also de pended upon the profits of trade and the shuffling of tax revenues between commerce and credit. By the early eighteenth century, the threat of a boycott or a blockade of a port had become a powerful counter in the companies' diplomacy. Yet they still found it wise to show studious deference to the Mughal emissaries who arrived periodically, taking care to dress up in their Mughal robes - for wearing the robes that the ruler had granted was the symbolic affirmation of obedience and loyalty.(For the above see G. R. G. Hambly, 'The Emperor's Clothes', in S. Gordon (ed.), Robes of Honour (New Delhi, 2003), pp. 31-49, esp. p. 43.). The Mughal defeat in 1739 sent a shock wave across South Asia. But at the moment when the young Robert Clive landed at Madras, in 1744, the idea that any of the European companies, let alone the English, with their dilapidated fort at Madras , could become a territorial Rower in India, let alone ruler of the whole subcontinent, was almost absurdly improbable.
South Asia in the first half of the eighteenth century should not be seen as a region that was drifting from stagnation to anarchy. In the northern interior the triangular conflict between Marathas, Mughals and the transmontane invaders was also a struggle between 'gentry' groups, who were striving to build a stable and sedentary order of lowns, markets and settled agriculture, and 'warrior' groups who were part of the old tradition of nomadic pastoralism on the upland plains connecting northern India and Central Asia. (See the remarkable study by J. J. L. Gommans, The Rise of the Indo-Afghan Empire, c. 1710- 1780 (Leiden, 1995).
The economic and social change of the long Mughal peace brought that conflict to a head. Similarly, in maritime India, commercial expansion was rapidly transforming the economic and social order and relations with both the Indian interior and the outside world. The invasions of North India in 1739 by the armies of Nadir Shah and in the 1750’s by his former henchman Ahmad Shah Durrani (Nadir had been murdered in 1747) were something more than random tribal incursions of the kind that had disturbed the Indian plains for centuries past. Together they formed an effort at empire-building, tearing down in the process the Mughal and Safavid states. The Safavids were the first victim. Squeezed between Ottoman-dominated Mesopotamia and Anatolia in the west and a vast tribal hinterland stretching east and south to Herat and Kandahar in modern Afghanistan, Safavid Iran had always represented an uphill struggle to impose the authority of the city and the sedentary world on the steppe and the desert. Georgia, the main recruiting ground of its slave army and bureaucracy, was especially vulnerable to Ottoman and Russian pressure. For a fascinating insight into Georgian politics, W. E. D. Allen, Russian Embassies to the Georgian Kings (1589-1605), Hakluyt Society, 2nd Series, 138 (2 vols., Cambridge, 1970), vol. l, 'Introduction'.
Politically, the Safavid system had been a precarious amalgam of a Turkic tribal alliance with the Iranian literati: but no real fusion had taken place. By 1700 this unstable coalition was coming under increasing external and internal strain. Safavid rulers based in Isfahan had been no more successful than the Mughals in achieving an empire of fixed territorial boundaries. They had won and lost Baghdad. Their grip on Khorasan, Herat and the city and region of Kandahar had never been secure. Kandahar had heen conquered by Uzbeks in 1629, captured by the Mughals in 1634, Oud recovered by Shah Abbas II in 1650. In 1709-II the Safavids Il)sl: control of it to the Ghilzais, the dominant tribe in the southern Afghan lands. Herat and Khorasan had slipped from their grasp by 1718- 19. In 1722 the Ghilzai leader Mahmud shattered the Safavid army at Gunabad, captured Isfahan, and seized the throne. Both Russia and the Ottomans, perhaps mutually fearful, rushed to exploit the Safavid collapse. Peter the Great took Derbent, Resht and Balku along the Caspian Sea. The Ottomans grabbed Tiflis (1723) and, with Hamadan, Eri van and Tabriz, much of western Iran. In a chaotic decade, the imperial legacy of Abbas I had been summarily dissolved.
But, at the moment of dissolution, a new political force appeared to drive off the Ottomans, Russians and Ghilzais. The Safavid claimant Tahmasp recruited Nadir Kuli (1688-1747), a Khorasan warlord of humble origin (a former shepherd), to his cause. Nadir was a general of Napoleonic talents and aspirations.' (L. Lockhart, Nadir Shah (London, 1938), p. 268.) He was a careful strategist, but skilled in the use of shock tactics and light cavalry, and alert to the value of light artillery, drill and musketry. By I730 he had reconquered the cities of Meshed and Herat, smashed the Afghan tribes at Mehmandost, reoccupied Isfahan and Shiraz, and inflicted a devastating defeat on the once-triumphant Ghilzais. By 1735 he had recovered Tiflis and Erivan from the Ottomans, and forced the Russians to disgorge Mazanderan, Astrabad, Gilan, Derbent and Baku. In 1736 he declared himself shah. In I737-8 he captured Kandahar, and in the following year Mughal Delhi. Kabul and the right bank of the Indus were annexed to his new Iranian empire, and in 1740 Nadir turned his attention to the Uzbeks in Bukhara and Khiva. This astonishing career was prematurely terminated by the madness and irrational cruelty (perhaps exacerbated by the effects of disease) that provoked his assassination in 1747. But a new imperialist appeared.Ahmad Shah Durrani, one of his Afghan lieutenants, carved out an inheritance from Nadir's Indian and Afghan conquests. at its height his Durrani empire stretched from Khorasan to the Canges and from the Amu-Darya to the Sea of Oman.Not until the loss of Multan (1818), Kashmir (1819) .and Peshawar (1834) to the British was it pressed back into the Afghan highlands. What lay behind these two great ventures in empire-building that dominated the vast Indo-Iranian borderlands for half a century and had such a seismic impact on the politics of the whole subcontinent:
One explanation might be that they were symptoms of a 'tribal revolt' against the encroachment of the bureaucratic sedentary states: Russian, Safavid and Mughal. But the persistence of the enterprise an the imperial aspirations of its leaders suggest that some deeper force was at work. It has been argued that the careers of Nadir and of Ahmad Shah coincided with the dramatic rise in the economic impor tance of the commercial corridor that stretched between North India and Russia and far away westward towards Meshed and Iran. North India, as far south as modern Karachi, was part of a trading system newly invigorated by the buying power of Russian silver. If this was the case, then this new round of empire-building was aimed at controlling the commercial wealth of the region and was fuelled by the hope of exploiting it further. It may have been primed by the social tensions of the nomad economy, with its secular tendency towards overpopulation. Militarily, it made use of the old nomadic advantage of tactical speed and strategic mobility, adapting handguns to cavalry warfare and, under Nadir Shah, also using artillery and even sea powe). (R. L. Canfield, Turko-Persia in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, 1991), p. 22. On this view, neither Nadir nor Ahmad Shah could be described as a throwback to a barbaric era. Instead, they were state-builders in search of a new formula. They combined an imperial style with the brutal discipline of tribal politics. It is even possible to imagine the scenario of which they may have dreamed: a Greater Iranian Empire along Manchu lines, in which a nomadic warrior elite was transmuted into the hereditary administrative class of an agrarian state.
It was not to be however. The imperial project failed - perhaps because its agrarian base was much too narrow to sustain its scale; perhaps because of the inherent instability of the tribal confederations on which it still depended; perhaps because external pressure (not least the advance of British power in India).