The 18th Century has been the subject of intellectual debate among scholars. It represents a
period of transition between medieval and modern period. The decline of Mughal power in the
18th century was accompanied by the rise of autonomous states.
The debate becomes more intense and pertinent for the second half of the 18th century, which saw the beginnings of British colonial expansion in northern India and its impact on the local society and economy. Continuity and change in the field of music, architecture, economic systems and culture is also debatable.
Earlier the historians regarded this period as a period of crisis. But recent research has projected it as a period possessingelements of dynamism and growth.
The earliest interpretation of the 18th century was provided by Sir Jadunath Sarkar in his ‘The Fall of Mughal Empire’ Volume IV in which 18th century has been shown as a period of crisis extending into a dark age. He attributed the Mughal decline to a crisis of personalities and rulers.
The early British writers of the period painted the 18th Century in dismal colours since
they wished to demonstrate that their predecessors were incompetent. The contemporary Persian
works also portrayed it as a period of anarchy, particularly Ghulam Hussain Tabatabay who
wrote Seir-ul-Mutakherin and Ghulam Hussain Selim who wrote Riyaz-us-Salatin projected
erosion in traditional power and a period of adversity and reversal. The view of Mughal
maladministration was carried further by British officials of the mid-18th Century.
Elliot and Dowson in their ‘History of India as told by its own Historians’ analysed the destruction of
Delhi and Agra, the misrule and anarchy of the 18th Century and the degeneration of ethics and
principles in the changed social milieu.
Sir Jadunath Sarkar’s postulate of the Dark Age and the role of personalities has been
refuted and challenged by scholars like Athar Ali, Satish Chandra and Muzaffar Alam. In
their studies, the focal point shifted from the study of personalities held responsible for the
catastrophe of the 18th Century to the analysis and evaluation of the administrative structures of
Mughal Empire. Satish Chandra produced his magnum opus ‘Parties and Politics at the
Mughal Court (1707-39)’ in 1959. According to him the end of Aurangzeb’s reign in 1707
represented the beginning of the 18th century and this period was marked by a breakdown of
Mughal imperial system. He analysed the disruption in the following terms, “problems of 18th
Century which no personality could solve…..what was really required was the rapid expansion of
industry and trade based on the introduction of new technology and the removal of old barriers hindering expansion. Hence a basic improvement in the situation was beyond the competence of
any one king.”
Irfan Habib in his ‘Agrarian System in Mughal India’ observes, “The Mughal Empire
had been its own grave digger.” The Mughal states’ appropriation of agricultural surplus was
based on oppressive practices, those who subsisted on peasant produce continued to increase the
demand and a large part of the surplus was utilised by the parasitic ruling class in urban areas for
extravagant purposes with no corresponding increase in agrarian production. This resulted in
agrarian distress reflected in peasant rebellion which in turn led to the collapse of the imperial
system. ”Athar Ali in his work ‘Nobility under Aurangzeb’ like Irfan Habib and Satish
Chandra earlier laid emphasis on economic factors which caused the weakening of the Mughal
state edifice and paved the way for the establishment of Colonial rule. The arguments offered by
these historians were in contrast to the account of Sir Jadunath Sarkar who tried to explain it in
terms of the personalities of rulers characterising it as a period of crisis. Moreover, the 20th
Century ideology of polity influenced the perception of the above mentioned writers as they
regarded the centralist system imparting stability as opposed to the regional assertion of authority
which according to them led destabilization.
In contrast to the projection of 18th Century as a period of crisis and destabilization a new
group of scholars analysed the 18th Century as a period replete with opportunities of growth and
a period of cultural achievement. In 1983, Satish Chandra in his ‘Deuskar Lectures’ pointed to
the possibilities of economic growth in the 18th century. He refers to the growth of cloth
production, long distance trade, dadni, cash crops and the emergence of a Sahukar class to a
position of social and economic prominence. He observes that, “the 18th Century was pregnant
with possibilities…..the old mould was cracking and there was possibility of growth in various
areas. ”Bernard S. Cohn attempted a micro study of the state of Benaras as an autonomous
domain. His originality lay in his attempt to find resilience in the political system of the 18th
century. In fact, the successor states which emerged as a consequence of Mughal decline showed
possibilities of economic growth centring on cotton trade and the presence of European
merchants. Muzaffar Alam emphasises that in most areas agricultural production did not fall,
agricultural distress was much less as compared to British rule.
In fact, Hermann Goetz in his The Crisis of Indian Civilization in the 18th and Early 19th
Centuries: The Genesis of Indo-Muslim Civilization, deduced certain positive features in the
18th century and felt that it ought to be studied as a separate entity. It was period marked by
aesthetic sensitivity and contributed to the growth of cultural development in India. Recently
scholars like C.A. Bailey, Frank Perlin and Andre Wink have tried to study the various regions
of Mughal Empire and point out that new political power like Awadh, Bengal and Hyderabad
developed as a result of Mughal decline it did not necessarily imply regional chaos.
People also ask :
Q. Why is there a debate on the nature of 18th century ?
A. the essential issues relating to eighteenth century are two-whether the fall of Mughal Empire started the fall of financial structure also and besides, regardless of whether the appearance of imperialism was a central break or not.
Q. Why is the 18th century called the Dark Ages ?
A. The eighteenth century has been conventionally viewed as a period of decline, anarchy, and economic decay or simply put as the Dark Age. It was held that the decline of the Mughal state corresponded with an overall decline.
Q. How was India in 18th century ?
A. India in the 18th century had to endure one of the most chaotic periods in its entire history. The Mughal Empire, which had dominated the Indian subcontinent for two centuries, began to decline with internal and external pressures.
Q. Who ruled India in the 18th century ?
A. At the start of the 18th century, the East India Company’s presence in India was one of trade outposts. But by the end of the century, the Company was militarily dominant over South India and rapidly extending northward.
Q. What was the 18th century known as ?
A. European politics, philosophy, science and communications were radically reoriented during the course of the “long 18th century” (1685-1815) as part of a movement referred to by its participants as the Age of Reason, or simply the Enlightenment.
Q. What was the political situation of India during 18th century ?
A. The old Mughal provinces. The rulers of these states maintained their ties with the Mughal emperor. Several Rajput principalities which had enjoyed independence under the Mughals in their Watan Jagirs.
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