Van Leur and the Indian Eighteenth Century C.A. BAYLY
J.C. van Leur’s brilliant review article on the eighteenth century as a category in Asian history anticipated many of the themes and debates which have enlivened the early colonial history of India, and Asia more broadly, over the last two generations. He argues not so much that the history of Asia in the eighteenth century is a false category, but that a construction of Asia’s past dominated by the Eurocentric historiography of the maturing political and economic structure of VOC and its growing ‘sense of responsibility’ for colonial welfare is a false perspective. Rather than portraying the rise of rational European agency against the background of ‘decaying Oriental states and lawless despotisms’ historians should see the eighteenth century as a last great age of Asian states and Asian culture. The defeat of the Bengal nawab at Plassey in 1757, or the Dutch occupation of the north coast of Java ‘held no preponderant significance’ at the time. The European bridgehead was tenuous; and for all the talk of an Oriental Age of Reason, the savants of Batavia or of the Asiatic Society of Bengal were little representative of their own expatriate societies and had less influence on the Asian hinterland. He approvingly quotes Raffles to the effect that the sultanates of the Malay and Indonesian world should be seen as a ‘system of states’ operating according to its own dynamics, rather than as a congeries of pirates and slave-traders frustrating the moral imperatives of the West. In the economic sphere, the Dutch did not ‘empty the seas of shipping’ through their use of monopoly power. This perspective is distorted by an excessive reliance on European records. The seaborne and inland trade of Asian continued buoyant in many regions only with a ‘slow infusion of stronger European trade’. If the collapse of the Asian trading world ever came, it must have come much later, with the decline of Indian handloom
production and the disturbances in China in the second third of the nineteenth century.