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Gunpowder empires

  • Published at 06:30 pm December 11th, 2015
Gunpowder empires
Academics have made much of the three great Muslim-ruled empires of the period between  14th and the early 20th century. But perhaps, the precursors, the Mamluks of India, and the afterguards, the British Empire, are all worth considering in the light of the three, often, today referred to together, as the “gunpowder empires.”

The first, and most enduring of the three was the Ottoman Empire, which lasted until the early 20th century.

Founded in the closing years of the 13th century by the Seljuk Turkish, Osman Bey,  it expanded, rapidly, into the Byzantine Empire in its dying years. The Byzantine Empire, of course, was the Christian, eastern remnant of the great Roman Empire.

The Safavid Empire, one that grew out of Caliphate traditions in the Middle East, reached its greatest “flowering” early in the 16th century, and finally disintegrated in the early decades of the 18th century.

The last of these, so called, “gunpowder empires,” that of the Mughals, and also with Turkish origin, one that grew in India from the middle of the 16th century, was also the first to crumble, declining from the death of Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal Emperor, in 1707, until its eventual complete demise in 1857.

But it was, perhaps, not only the faith they shared. Originating, as a linguistically united people, but with an evident diversity of objectives, from across the sprawling mass of Central Asia, they appear, first, to have been mentioned in history in the first century CE, by the, Spanish born, Roman historian, Pomponius Mela.It may be considered yet another of the charming traces of history that these are believed to be the people, identified as Huns, who brought down the Empire of Rome. That their successors, nearly a thousand years later should have, finally, ended the Roman’s “eastern empire,” may well be no coincidence.

From the beginning, they  shared the emerging use of gunpowder and gunnery in their warfare, and also  an unusual combination of a highly trained, dedicated army, of slave warriors.

Most famous of these, perhaps, were the Ottoman Janissaries, a dedicated force, taken as slave boys of Christian origin, mostly from the Balkan fringes of the Empire, and converted to Islam; prohibited from growing beards, learning any skills other than soldiering, or marrying, they existed as a distinct, tightly disciplined force of unquestionable loyalty to the ruler. The Safavid’s, too, created such forces.

Northern India, including the lands that are now Bangladesh, had already experienced some such forces, with the arrival of the Mamluk Dynasty, often known as the “slave dynasty.”

The first of the Turkic regimes beyond Central Asia, built mostly upon their slave soldiers, the Mamluks proved unstable administrators, providing, perhaps, an object lesson to Ottoman and Safavid, of the need for better educated administrators. A lesson the Mughal’s took to its highest level. Perhaps the Mughals learnt, from  earliest days, informed by that history; indeed, it was almost certainly in search of a more settled administration, backed by force, that lay behind the invitation to Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, to invade and displace the weak Lodi regime in Delhi.

Whilst Ottoman and Safavid Empires wrestled with a balance between military rule, and, “rule by the pen,” from Babur onwards, at least until Aurangzeb, to have a balance in Mughal administration, that rather favoured the pen. Nonetheless, modern historians appear to relish this description of the three Empires as, “gunpowder empires.”

There are, however, two elephants in the room of their contemplation;  first, the source of this gunpowder, and, by any reasonable standards, the potential to include in their consideration the greatest “gunpowder empire” of all time -- the British Empire.

In whatever work is published on these three empires, the use of guns, including an evident obsession, in India, with big guns, appears to avoid the big question; what was the source of that indispensible fuel of gunpowder warfare, the gunpowder itself?

There are a number of sources who identify the Ganges basin as holding, in the 16th century, some 75% of the world supply of saltpetre, the main ingredient of gunpowder.

There does not appear to be a great deal of published work in this, vitally important aspect.More relevant, perhaps, is that when, in 1608, the Zaminder of Jessore, Pradapaditya, ceased his resistance to the Mughals, and surrendered, the record of  surrendered items includes over 40 tonnes of gunpowder.

Reading the journals of mid-17th century East India Company employees in Balasore, shipments of gunpowder, and saltpetre are  mentioned regularly; and the contracts awarded to East India Company in the 1670s, for the importation of 750 tonnes of gunpowder begin, perhaps to strengthen any suspicion of, at the least, a major source.

By 1773, we also know that the revenues from saltpetre accruing to the East India Company, was Rs 10 lakh.

Gunpowder is credited to the Chinese for its “discovery.” However, there is evidence, even from records published by Chinese sources, that some of the unusual properties of saltpetre, a naturally occurring residue of, especially, human and animal waste, were first discovered, in north-east India, by Buddhist monks. Their discovery was shared with the Chinese. However, even those early records suggest that China, itself, was deficient in supplies of saltpetre.

Research into the source of the vast quantity of gunpowder used to build, maintain, and protect the British Empire, right up until the latter part of the 19th century. The rapid development of both other large sources of saltpetre, such as the guano supplies in Chile,  and the chemical alternatives from Nobel and DuPont, seem pretty sparse. There seems to be even less about sources for the Ottoman and Safavid Empires.

No doubt, such sources would have been long protected as state secrets, which may explain some of the lack of information. However, the empirical, documentary, and circumstantial evidence may well explain the sudden, compelling interest in Bengal and surrounding territories by the Europeans in the late 16th century, and throughout the 17th. One wonders, indeed, if the considerably developing contemporary warfare within Europe owed something to a growing supply through the Ganges delta.

All of which reflects upon the development of Dhaka dominated north east Indian states throughout the 17th century. Indeed, until the British took control of all trade in the mid-18th century, already firmly established in Calcutta, saw the reduction and decline of Dhaka as a centre of operations, there is little doubt about the vital importance of Dhaka overseeing the burgeoning trade in saltpetre.

However, there is also little doubt that the gunpowder trade had its effect even in laying the foundations for Janissaries, the East India Company, and their acquisition of control of the lands in India that produced the most vital ingredient of gunpowder.

 The intermediary between the English, the Nawab, Siraj-ud-Dowla, and Mir Jafar, the Nawab’s “rehabilitated” commander, in 1757, was an Armenian merchant named Khwaji Wajid. He was, certainly, one of the primary traders working with the British, and, no doubt, other Europeans, in supplying the saltpetre, and finished gunpowder.

It was Mir Jafar’s desertion of the Nawab, almost certainly arranged by Khwaji Wajid, that opened the gates to the English victory at Plassey.

“Gunpowder empires” they may well have been, but the foundation stone of all was, probably, the wealth generated by trade. All dominated major international and regional sources of trade. It may well take gunpowder to build empires, but it also takes finance. All three of the “gunpowder empires” were founded, straddling international trade routes, as were the largely, gunpowder free predecessors, and the successor.

That appears to be another of the common threads between them. And, indeed, common ground with the foundation, around the Ganges delta, of the last, truly, “gunpowder empire” -- the British Empire.