Sunday, August 24, 2014

Steppe Warriors

I had never fully appreciated the role of the warriors of the steppe in Eurasian history. While they were a recurring bad dream for the cultures they ravaged, they also created or destroyed many of the great empires of history. In the Sixteenth Century, for example, they ruled China (the Manchus), India (the Mughal empire), and the Ottoman empire. The founders of the Persian (Safanid) empire also seem to have some elements of Turkic roots. The Russian empire grew out of a vassal state of the Golden Horde.

These frequently loose confederations of pastoral nomads were exceptionally capable at warfare, and vulnerable civilizations, Ming, Roman and other collapsed before them.

The empires they built were not without their merits. Under the Mughals, Indian culture and economy flourished - at the cost of frequently brutal taxation. When their empire disintegrated, claims John Darwin:

...Humiliated by the Marathas, unable to staunch the haemorrhage of power to their provincial governors or subahdars, and challenged by the rise of Sikhism in the Punjab, Mughal prestige was finally shattered by the invasion of Nadir Shah, the ruler of Iran. Indeed, Nadir’s victory in 1739 was the starting gun for chaos. Maratha, Rohilla (Afghan) and Pindari (mercenary) armies, and those of lesser warlords, ravaged North India. In this predatory climate, trade and agriculture declined together. Economic failure echoed political disintegration. Small wonder, then, that Mughal India was the first of the great Eurasian states to fall under European domination after 1750.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 146). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Darwin seems to be of the opinion that stable empires are generally a good deal. Probably not an entirely popular point of view. Somewhat confusingly, he then adds:

In recent years, this simplistic ‘black’ version of India’s pre-colonial history has been largely rewritten. 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 (the opening salvo of Britain’s colonial conquest) would stress the part played by Indians in building new networks of trade and new regional states. It was this that helped to set off the crises that overwhelmed them unexpectedly in the 1750s.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 146). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

His whole book is full of this sort of confusing mix. My guess is that he endorses the first view, but wants to show his open mindedness. Or maybe I have it backwards.