The Curious Career of a French Chronicler of the Mughals

Anquetil Duperron condemned myths about the Mughals that justified British colonialism but was also an apologist for Warren Hastings.

A painting of Lord Clive being received by the Nawabs of Bengal, who owed suzerainty to the Mughal ruler in Delhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A painting of Lord Clive being received by the Nawabs of Bengal, who owed suzerainty to the Mughal ruler in Delhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While the legacy of Muslim rule in South Asia remains controversial, historians and journalists have been uncovering many positive aspects of the Mughal Empire in recent years. Articles praising Akbar’s reign as a time of religious tolerance, celebrating Mughal translations of Sanskrit texts into Persian and casting new light on Aurangzeb’s reputation appear in scholarly journals and popular websites. For many, the Mughal era seems to have been a time of relative tolerance, dialogue and civility across sectarian lines. As the 21st century finds nationalism, fundamentalism and violence on the rise across the globe, it seems a welcome relief to find that, not so long ago, a vast empire managed to keep such tensions in check. Stories of Mughal-era figures who passed between Sanskrit and Persian literary cultures appear as “balm to the soul” in our own world of conflict and division.

This perspective may seem like a sharp break from the black legend that had surrounded many aspects of the Mughal era. In fact, it would have been old news to one of the first Western scholars to examine the politics and culture of the Mughal Empire. Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil Duperron (1731-1805), a leading European Indologist of the eighteenth century, anticipated many of the arguments made by those who defend the Mughals today. Scholars are just now catching up with some of his insights into the Mughal economy, public sphere and culture of translation. Anquetil’s work, however, also shows the potential danger of searching for political lessons in the Mughal past. Focusing on the admirable aspects of their rule, Anquetil presented the Mughals as a model for what he believed was an enlightened form of colonialism. He claimed that Warren Hastings, governor of Bengal (1772-1774) and governor-general of British India (1774-1785) embodied the Mughal virtues of tolerance and inter-cultural exchange. Defending the Mughals became a way to defend Hastings’ colonial rule.

When he was not engaged in polemics over British imperialism, Anquetil was opening doors to European knowledge of South Asian languages, religions and cultures. After years of study among the Parsis of Surat, he became the first European to translate the writings of Zoroaster, revealing to Europe the true doctrines of the Zoroastrian religion, which had long been a source of scholarly confusion and controversy. He also played a key role in the introduction of Vedanta to the West, translating many of the Upanishads and inspiring readers like the German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer to integrate South Asian and European philosophical traditions. Anquetil also broke new ground in the study of South Asian political institutions. While many Europeans saw the Subcontinent as a land of ‘Oriental despotism’ in which subjects with no property rights lived under the brutal tyranny of Muslim rulers, Anquetil presented the Mughal Empire as a tolerant constitutional monarchy in the book Oriental Legislation (1778) and in his contributions to Historical and Geographic Description of India (1787).

The arguments that appear in Anquetil’s writings sound strikingly like comments one might hear in present-day debates about Mughal Empire’s legacy. Anquetil demonstrated that subjects of the Mughals did in fact possess property rights, publishing translations of deeds and contracts on the sale of land to prove the point. To Europeans who said that South Asia was a place of ignorance and illiteracy, he pointed to the flourishing culture of manuscript newsletters carrying information across the subcontinent. He challenged the idea that Mughal emperors were autocrats with unlimited power by translating passages from the Ain-i-Akbar, the sixteenth-century guide to Mughal administration composed by Akbar’s vizier Abu’l Fazl.

A miniature painting of Abul Fazl, the author of the Akbarnama presenting his book to Akbar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A miniature painting of Abul Fazl, the author of the Akbarnama presenting his book to Akbar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Anquetil also defended the Mughals from the charge of being Muslim bigots bent on oppressing members of other religions. While reserving some sharp criticisms for Aurangzeb, he defended the rest of the dynasty. He argued that Mughal elites like Abu’l Fazl and Dara Shikoh had proven their respect for South Asian traditions by sponsoring Persian-language translations of such Sanskrit classics as the Mahabharata and Upanishads. Indeed, Anquetil, who could not read Sanskrit but could read Persian, relied on the translation of the Upanishads that Dara Shikoh had sponsored. This Persian translation, along with Dara’s commentary, became the intellectual basis for Anquetil’s own Orientalist research. The French scholar was thus not only the Mughals’ defender, but their debtor.

There was much truth to what Anquetil said, but most Europeans do not seem to have been ready for his message. Oriental Legislation was ignored by the press and was forgotten by scholars for over two centuries. Today, however, many of Anquetil’s claims have been confirmed by modern historians, who have provided a richer and complex portrait of the Mughal era through studies of the same kinds of sources that Anquetil examined: commercial records, gazettes and newsletters, administrative texts, and translations into Persian. Early modern South Asia looks to scholars like the lively, diverse and interesting place Anquetil knew it to be. This reevaluation of the Mughals seems to be helping Anquetil’s own reputation.

Although he was well known in his own day as a trail-blazing Orientalist scholar, Anquetil was largely forgotten for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His British rival William Jones went down in history as the great Indologist of eighteenth-century Europe, while Anquetil was reduced to a mere footnote. The fascinating legacy of France’s presence in South Asia fell into obscurity. The military exploits of Joseph François Dupleix in the Carnatic Wars (1744-1763) and the missionary Gaston-Laurent Coeurdoux’s speculations on the common roots of Latin and Sanskrit were forgotten, while British power appeared as the motor of South Asian history. Modern historians, however, have revived Anquetil’s reputation. Jonathan Israel, perhaps the most visible historian of the European Enlightenment today, sees Anquetil as a radical thinker who challenged Eurocentric biases and boldly condemned the myths that justified British colonialism in South Asia.

It is true that Anquetil’s writings resound with defenses of Mughal governance and condemnations of British rule. He blasted the East India Company as a predatory organisation that had devasted the economy of Bengal, and lamented the countless victims of the wars and destructive economic policies that the company had launched. As a patriotic Frenchman, he was also resentful that Britain’s growing military, political and commercial power in South Asia meant the end of French influence. He also had a personal grudge against the British, whose wars had an annoying habit of coinciding with his research trips.

Anquetil’s tour of India began in 1755, just one year before the outbreak of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), in which Britain, France and their respective allies fought each other across Europe, North America and South Asia. After arriving in Pondicherry, the headquarters of France’s small colonial empire in South Asia, Anquetil traveled to the French trading post of Chandernagore (Chandannagar) in Bengal. He planned to continue on to Banaras, so that he could study with the most learned scholars of Sanskrit. Unfortunately for Anquetil, his arrival in 1756 coincided with the start of a British campaign that would crush both the French and the nawab of Bengal. British forces seized Chandernagore and began a fateful march that would lead to the Battle of Plassey the following summer.

After lingering for a few weeks in the company of a French mercenary serving the Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah, Anquetil abandoned his dream of studying Sanskrit in Banaras. He turned instead to Surat, where he would study with Parsi priests. Soon after his arrival in Surat, however, a British fleet from Bombay descended upon the town. The British captured Surat’s fort and imposed their power on the European merchants and scholars who remained in the city. Anquetil tried to win the favor of Surat’s new masters, convincing the East India Company to grant him safe passage back to Europe. When the ship docked in Britain, however, Anquetil was arrested. While he was released soon after, memories of British violence and dishonesty stayed with him all his life.

A portrait of Warren Hastings. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A portrait of Warren Hastings. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This inveterate hater of the British, however, made an exception for Warren Hastings. Indeed, Anquetil admired Hastings as a ruler, scholar and patron of knowledge. He gave the governor-general of British India the highest praise he could think of, saying that Hastings ruled Bengal in accordance with the principles that Anquetil himself had laid down in his book Oriental Legislation. Such a compliment is all the more astonishing given that Anquetil made it in the late 1780s, as Hastings was facing trial in London on charges of corruption. Why did the French scholar find so much to praise in the British ruler, who seemed to embody the unrestrained power of the East India Company?

Anquetil admired Hastings for the same reasons that he admired the Mughals. Hastings, who believed that South Asia had to be governed in accordance with local norms, promoted the study of Mughal legal traditions. He sponsored compilations and translations of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic documents, intending them to be the basis of a new British style of governance. He promoted the work of British Orientalists like William Jones and Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, founding the influential Asiatic Society of Bengal. He also promoted South Asian scholars and artists. He founded what is now Aliah University, employed dozens of pandits and scribes, patronised painters and poets.

Alongside such promotion of the arts and letters, however, Hastings never forgot to promote British expansion. He initiated the Rohilla War, the First Anglo-Maratha War and the Second Anglo-Maratha War, keeping in step with the aggressive policies of his predecessors that had swept Anquetil out of Chandernagore and Surat. Hastings also oversaw a disastrous revenue policy that damaged the economy of Bengal, already wracked by war and famine. But, eager to promote a regime that seemed to maintain the Mughal traditions of accommodating to local culture and sponsoring inter-cultural exchange, Anquetil ignored the darker facets of Hastings’ rule.

Scholars are recovering truths about the Mughals that Anquetil noticed nearly two and a half centuries ago. Many of them share Anquetil’s esteem for the Mughal elites who promoted dialogue across religious, cultural and linguistic barriers. Many also share his hope that by turning our attention to their accomplishments, we can find inspiration for contemporary politics, a way to escape sectarian conflict and narrow-minded prejudice. But Anquetil’s manipulation of Mughal history to justify Warren Hastings’ colonial administration is a warning about the dangers of such appeals to the past.

Of all the Western scholars of his era, Anquetil stands out as the strongest critic both of Britain’s misdeeds in South Asia and of European stereotypes that ignored the subcontinent’s economic, political and cultural accomplishments. Yet, by focusing on the positive achievements of the Mughals, Anquetil supplied criteria that could also be used to defend the work of the British colonial state. Hastings, like Mughal elites before him, sponsored art and learning, inspired by respect for local traditions and a keen sense of political expediency. Scholars are right to insist on the importance of cultural exchange among the learned, multi-lingual elites of early modern South Asia, but tolerance and dialogue cannot be seen as absolute values in their own right. They are often tools of empire, and they are not substitutes for popular sovereignty and self-determination. The laudable work of combatting stereotypes of Oriental despotism, restoring an accurate picture of over-looked or maligned historical figures, and revealing the brilliant complexity of a bygone era, must continue. Yet we must be careful not to repeat Anquetil’s mistake.

Blake Smith is a doctoral candidate in history at Northwestern University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and current International Fellow at New Europe College.