Marathas, Marauders, and State Formation in Eighteenth-Century India.

Marathas, Marauders, and State Formation in Eighteenth-Century India. – book reviews

Roger D. Long

By. Stewart Gordon. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp.223. $23.00.)

This book, consisting of nine articles, is a companion piece to the author’s work in The New Cambridge History of India, The Marathas and presents highlights of his disparate research in one useful source. The Marathas provided a crucial link between the decline of the Mughals and the rise of British power. In fact, when the British assumed power in India in the middle of the eighteenth century, they took it from the seven or so “successor states” to the Mughals, one of which was that of the powerful Marathas. Through their power base in Maharashtra, the Marathas helped to emasculate the Mughals, but ultimately they could not resist the power and size of British force.

Gordon is not only strong on political history, but he also has important things to say about social and military topics as well as economic matters. In his first essay, “Scarf and Sword: Thugs, Marauders, State-formation in Eighteenth-Century Malwa,” as well as in “Bhils and the Idea of a Criminal Tribe in Nineteenth-Century India,” Gordon presents an analysis of the whole culture of criminality. “Thugs” for example, had a special relationship with local landowners, and these criminal families went back generations. Dozens of different castes were involved in criminal activity, and some were Hindu, while others were Muslim. Marauding also continued over time and was practiced by a variety of peoples. Gordon argues that one cannot understand the criminal classes without understanding their historical and geographical setting and without looking at them in the context of the on-going processes of changes in social structure.

In “The Slow Conquest” he presents a case study of how the Marathas integrated states into their polity through guerrilla warfare and conquest. He does so by highlighting the administrative measures by which the Marathas involved themselves in many facets of the life of the people they conquered as well as the development of that special position, the peshwa (prime minister).

The Marathas were renowned for military prowess, especially for their light cavalry (“lance-wielders”). In his last and useful essay, “Zones of Military Entrepreneurship, 1500-1700,” Gordon reminds us how military cultures perpetuate fighting and wars. This study has special relevance for understanding the contemporary outbreak, and continuance, of “small wars” among “micro states” in various parts of the world. Far from being inexplicable, this phenomenon may be seen as the result of”military cultures” of which the author has a great deal to say in this and several of his other essays. Throughout his work, Gordon stresses the continuity and complexity of Maratha history.

Gordon, through this important collection and his “New Cambridge” volume, has established himself as the authority on the Marathas, and a worthy successor both to G. S. Sardesai and the father of Maratha Studies, James Grant Duff.

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