Posted on 14-11-2009
Filed Under (Accident of History, History, India) by Rashtrakut

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The next rumination in this series focuses on what I term as an accidental empire – Mughal Empire.  For the descendants of a bunch of Central Asian marauders, the Mughals have been indelibly entwined with the image of India.  From the Taj Mahal, to the Mughlai cuisine that is the staple of Indian restaurants across the world, to the loan word Mogul that has been incorporated into the English language the cultural influence of the Mughals survives to this day.

Yet the Mughals were in many ways an accident.  The survival of their Empires territorial integrity for so long is in marked contrast to their Timurid cousins.  The prevalence of polygamy and concubinage caused recurrent succession problems across most Islamic dynasties.  The Ottomans would solve this by a mass slaughter of the siblings of the new monarch (Mehmed III would notoriously commence his reign by executing 19 of his siblings).  After this blood letting almost brought the dynasty to an end following the death of Murad IV (his only surviving heir was his insane brother Ibrahim), the Ottomans would formalize the policy started by their father Ahmed I.  Henceforth princes would be locked in the Kafes (literally the Cage), a section of the harem where they were under surveillance and often with concubines too old to get pregnant, and the succession to the throne rotated through seniority.  While this stopped the blood letting, it eventually resulted in the succession of emasculated, unprepared and often psychologically disturbed men who oversaw the Ottoman Empire’s long decline.

The Timurids did things differently.  Traditionally each prince received an appanage to rule.  The obvious result was a fragmentation of authority and near constant fratricidal strife following the death of the founder of the house Timur-e-lang (Tamerlane).  Weakened by civil war, the fragmented Timurid states would be mopped up by the emerging Safavid Empire of Persia in the west and the Shaybanid Uzbeks from the east.  This pressure from both ends ultimately forced the founder of the Mughal dynasty Zahir ud din Muhammad Babur to abandon his dream of restoring Timur’s empire from Samarkand and head east where the disorder in the Delhi Sultanate under the incompetent Ibrahim Lodi opened up new venues of action.  Accidental opportunity #1 Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted on 22-10-2009
Filed Under (Accident of History, History) by Rashtrakut

It is a debate academics often engage in. Do individuals shape history or do they flow with the tide of events. As a true middle of the road moderate, I vote for both. Individuals often shape the contours of history and the pace at which things happen. Russia without Peter the Great was already slowly westernizing.  But he significantly accelerated the process and the nature of the transformation.

But every once in a while an isolated event can set off a chain reaction that alters the ebbs and flows of history.  One of the most famous such events was triggered by the death of a middle aged woman in St. Petersburg – the so called “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.”  In 1762 towards the end of the Seven Years War, Prussia was on the verge of collapse.  Having lost his last Baltic port and with his army almost annihilated, Frederick the Great seriously contemplated suicide.  The consequences for Prussia were dire.  Starting with the Great Elector, over the previous 100 years the Electors of Brandenburg had established one of the finest armies in Europe, acquired the royal crown in Prussia and seized the rich province of Silesia from the Hapsburgs.  Now the Ferederick’s implacable foe the Tsarina Elizabeth (daughter of Peter the Great) was on the verge of humbling the Prussian upstart.  In addition to the loss of Silesia, Frederick also faced the prospect of the loss of his royal title and the prestige his house had accumulated.  And then the miracle occurred.   The Tsarina died unexpectedly.  Her notoriously pro-Prussian successor Peter III promptly removed Russia from the war giving a gasping Prussia time to catch its breath and drive the Austrians from Silesia.  Even though Peter III was deposed by his wife Catherine II a few months later and Russia reentered the war, the interval had changed the strategic position on the ground.

In the resulting peace treaty Prussia retained Silesia and gained the prestige of having fought off the far larger states of France, Austria and Russia.  Prussia had forced itself into the ranks of the major powers of Europe and would expand further during the partitions of Poland.  The Congress of Vienna would lead to further expansion by giving it a slice of Saxony, the Rhineland and Westphalia.  This enhanced Prussian state would be the focus of nationalistic German aspirations.  The unification of Germany under the militaristic Prussian state would have additional consequences in the 20th century. Read the rest of this entry »

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