I have usually found it a useful rule to trace concepts back to where they came from. Thus, for example, my continuing quest for the caracole in history: where and when was it actually used in action, and by whom. As some of you might know I have not found an answer to that one.
Often concepts are a bit easier to trace back in historiography. That is, a historian has a bright idea, writes it down and publishes it. Then someone else can come along and use that idea, and it grows and is developed as criticism mounts and evidence is searched out. One such concept is the military revolution, which has occasionally graced the pages of this blog. Whether the concept is still a useful one or not is, perhaps, a bit moot, but it is still a model for how history happened, albeit in an increasingly restricted part of time and geography.
Another concept which has emerged is that of a ‘gunpowder empire’. The term is usually taken to apply to the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empire of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with sometimes a side order of the Manchu state thrown in. The basic idea of the gunpowder revolution is that the coming of gunpowder to Muslim Asia blew away the ‘feudal’ systems that had been there before and enabled the founding of these longer-lasting major empires which monopolised gunpowder violence and hence the means to conquer territory.
Gommons comments that the ideas of gunpowder empires and military revolution are rather at variance. The military revolution argues that only the west properly adopted to gunpowder weapons and hence came to conquer the world by blowing the opposition, including the Muslim empires, away. On the other hand, the gunpowder empire idea suggests that these states only came into existence through adopting gunpowder and using it, integrated into their armed forces, to blow other people away. Clearly one or both ideas at least need nuancing (Gommans, J., Mughal Warfare (London: Routledge, 2002) p 133-4).
Tracing the idea back leads us to two historians who came up or popularised (so far as anything gets popular in historiography) the idea: Marshall Hodgson and William McNeill. I have not seen Hodgson’s work, but I have just finished McNeill’s book where the idea of gunpowder empires is at least noted:
McNeill, W. H., The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society since 1000 AD (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983).
A few comments more generally about McNeill’s work are probably in order. The book is a work of world history, a twin to another book I have not read titled Plagues and People. It starts with the ancient world, in spite of the title and is, as I mentioned, about world history. Thus is does not go into huge amounts of detail about campaigns, wars, strategies and tactics. McNeill’s view seems to be more along the lines that technology was important, perhaps more important in warfare than is usually thought.
The real point of contact for me, however, is the concept of the gunpowder empire. McNeill (p. 95) actually defines the Portuguese and Spanish overseas empires, along with the Mughal, Muscovite and Ottoman Empires as gunpowder empires, with perhaps the Safavid and Japanese states as contenders. The Ming Empire, McNeill contends, did not rely that heavily on gunpowder weapons.
McNeill argues that the Ottoman, Muscovite and Mughal Empires were defined by the extent to which they could haul (or construct in situ) their heavy guns. The Muscovites, he says, prevailed wherever they could use river transport to bring their siege guns against fortifications. In India, the Mughals did the same, although transport was a lot more problematic. He also notes that once the rulers had exclusive use of these heavy weapons, development ceased and the gunpowder empires were overtaken by their European rivals, at least eventually.
The next step in McNeill’s argument is that the possession of heavy gunpowder weapons enabled foreign elites (the Mughals and Manchu) to dominate ethnically diverse subject peoples. This led to distrust between rulers and ruled and meant that they could not respond to European threats easily. The exception was Japan, which managed to exclude the outside world until the nineteenth century.
As I mentioned, McNeill writes in broad brush strokes and I would imagine that since the book was published few of the points above have been unchallenged. It is also noteworthy that the actual definition of a ‘gunpowder empire’ is rather vague. It seems to be one of those models that rather dissolve under scrutiny. I am unsure if anyone today would define the Portuguese and Spanish Empires as gunpowder; naval, perhaps, especially the Portuguese, but it is not terribly clear to me at least that gunpowder defined them, or was the key factor in creating them. Metal weapons, certainly in Central and South America, seem to have been more important and, as I noted the other week, in some parts of Africa muskets had little effect on the local warriors.
A second point might be that the reality of the Mughal Empire had collapsed well before the Europeans had much influence on the subcontinent. The things I have read recently suggests that any political authority in India had become at best regional by 1710, and the vacuum awaited the arrival of another outside force, in this case, historically, it was the British, but it did not have to be. A further point is that Indian fortresses, according to Gommons, simply became bigger and more difficult to approach as a result of the arrival of gunpowder weapons. The absence of the trace italienne outside European enclaves should probably make us suspicious that the issue, in India at least, was not siege guns but political will.
Overall, however, I think McNeill’s book stands up fairly well to the test of time. No work of synthesis is ever going to cope with over thirty years of work in the areas it covers. It has to be said as well that the last chapters, covering the Twentieth Century have rather been overtaken by events. It would be unfair to judge the book by that: how many people, really, predicted the fall of Communism from the vantage point of 1983?