Historiography of the 18th century in India: Transitions, Change, and Continuity

Clay Hallee
8 min readApr 12, 2021


Most would agree that as in any other century, the eighteenth century saw quite a bit of change and historical development. In the Indian subcontinent, disagreements center around the extent to which change and a break from the past occurred. The powerful Mughal state collapsed, but how much change really occurred for the Indian individual, social class, or region? Historians continue to hold viewpoints of various degrees of difference regarding this, with predominant viewpoints in conflict and evolving over time. In particular, modern scholars Seema Alavi, P.J. Marshall, and Thomas Metcalf present comprehensive views of the transition from Mughal to British rule and the different perspectives on what exactly occurred and what was significant. Material surrounding the Mughal collapse, regional states, and British administration is often analyzed and scrutinized to make conclusions about to what extent India was fundamentally changed in this period. The Indian eighteenth-century debate is a debate over the character of India, whether its precolonial institutions were enduring in times of transition, and whether they were incorporated into the administration of a new colonial India. Historians tend to sponsor either the viewpoint of drastic, turbulent change across India, or a subtle, enduring continuity in many areas and structures.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire remained powerful and territorially vast. The power of the centralized Mughal state declined precipitously in a short amount of time, and the reality that the “great imperial system had collapsed by the mid-eighteenth century is irrefutable.”[1] However, there was not an immediate transfer to British rule, nor only one successor state which spanned the gap between Mughal and British domination. Nor was the Indian subcontinent a monolith of chaos and a lack of leadership at this time. Alavi presents the two main hypotheses regarding the first half of the eighteenth century as the “Dark Ages” and “Regional Prosperity” camps.[2] The “Dark Ages” camp championed to the idea that the Mughal decline defined the period and led to worse conditions for most if not all involved, while the “Regional Prosperity” camp focused on the successes of various regions in India despite the Mughal collapse.[3]

The second half of the century would be defined by the transition to colonialism, in which historians debate how much precolonial India’s economic and social institutions survived and defined governance by the British East India company. These historical ideas fall into a spectrum of “change” and “continuity”. The answers are not black and white. Historians involve perspectives on agrarian life, revenue collection, the relationship of the state to the people, social stratification, economic systems and more. While many originally thought that the overhaul of political authority must have created revolutionary change at the ground level, that thesis is becoming increasingly precarious and challenged as scholars put forward new ideas.

The difference in views of historians of India is wide-ranging and complex. In focusing on the first half of the eighteenth century, historians must put together holistic views based on sometimes dramatized and contradictory material. Historians of the Mughal Empire have often characterized this period as near-Armageddon, a time chaos, suffering, and steep decline. While the tide has turned against this view recently, there are certainly renowned historians and detailed theses that support a darker view of the early to mid 1700s in India. Sir Jadunath Sarkar presented the view of chaos caused by imperial mismanagement and overexpansion by Emperor Aurangzeb. His religious policy was said to be oppressive and to have provoked widespread peasant rebellion as a “Hindu reaction” to it.[4] Irfan Habib agreed with the point of Mughal policy causing peasant discontent but focused on economic history. He asserted that the central Mughal government demanded too much tax on the revenue produced by the land, leading to poverty and a damaging agrarian crisis. Habib’s view of the Mughal state emphasized the fiscal centralization of the state and the power it had over the economic fortunes of its people.[5] “Dark Ages” historians tended to conceive of a very centralized state, which took its domains down with it as it collapsed.

Historians emphasizing the “Regional Prosperity” viewpoint both argue that the Mughal state was already less centralized than it was at its height, and that some of these regions were still prosperous despite the lack of centralized Mughal power. B.R. Grover paints a picture of an economy which shifted to regional centers as Delhi declined, with rural production thriving regionally and crucial industries like banking relocating to regional centers. This provided regional states with the base and personnel necessary for revenue collection and economic prosperity.[6] Muzaffar Alam provides the example of Awadh, a state in which unrest by zamindars was leveraged by the state’s governor into political autonomy, and eventually de facto independence. The zamindars had only become so bold due to the region’s economic prosperity and the weakness of the central government.[7] This viewpoint has become far more in vogue recently, as more material is revealed and studied, and more effort is put into regional studies. It more succinctly considers economic and social history in making the conditions of eighteenth-century India.

Historians who emphasized the changes the British brought to Indian society tended to have a motive behind it. This ranged from the British campaign to paint their colonial rule as a positive change from despotism to hardline Indian nationalists disgusted with the rhetoric and horrors of colonialism. Changes in the eighteenth century under British rule seemed to be felt most in the economy, as it was technically a company that held power. Irfan Habib held a strong position that the economy the East India Company created was exploitative, extractive, and disruptive to the Indian provinces it held sway over. He stresses that the Company was “external to society” and sought to extract instead of participate.[8] In terms of administration, “change” historians often point to the Permanent Settlement of 1793 as a marker of change with non-indigenous roots or influence. Guha and Stokes disagree on the exact origins of the ideas behind the Permanent Settlement (citing English ideas of private property, French physiocratism, and more), but agree that these were foreign ideas and reforms being introduced to and imposed on India with major social and economic ramifications.[9]

Historians have also recently been able to weave together continuities between precolonial India and early British administration. These take the form of either Indian ideas providing the inspiration or ideological backbone for British administration, or the changes imposed by the British simply not having a huge impact. Many suggest that the East India company was “sucked into” political administration and eventual colonization by the realities and pressures of Indian economic systems and state involvement in the economy. This implies that the British were working within already established Indian systems, with continuity largely maintained until the early nineteenth century.[10] Marshall and Bayly argue that despite the changing fortunes of certain Indian producers and increasing British control, the ”structure of commerce and agricultural and manufacturing production in the region… continued to deliver even after the Company had acquired political power.”[11] This coincided with the general assertion that the British were appropriating and asserting themselves within preexisting economic and political structures.

Seema Alavi seems to lean towards the “Regional Prosperity” camp in the debate on the first half, as she presents regional hypotheses as a contrast to simplistic or incomplete arguments. She also includes examples of various studies of Indian regions, which emphasize the difference in the fortunes of each region and how their courses diverted from the fate of the Mughals in Delhi. PJ Marshall straddles more of a middle ground on this period. He touches on the negative effects of the Mughal collapse and takes care to show how much systemic changes and shifts in power balances impacted all of India. Still, he also points out that many regions were economically productive in the first half of the century, with these social shifts like the increased power of regional “intermediaries” between peasantry and the state helping to grow regional economies.[12] The reverse is true when discussing the transition of power to the British, with Alavi having a less clear position while Marshall seems to take a clear stand with the “continuity” position. Alavi includes works that provide convincing arguments for both strong British colonial change in economic, legal, and administrative systems, and works that assert that much of these changes had roots in precolonial Indian systems or did not have a huge impact on Indians’ daily lives. Alavi seems to espouse the compromise position, where she recognizes that the British implemented many policies that they took or continued from precolonial India, but that life for Indians noticeably changed due to their rule. Marshall cites the British dependence on Indians in their administration and governance, and their need to work through and gain favor with Indian elites. He clearly states: “Assessments of the early British period, even in Bengal, tend to support interpretations of eighteenth-century Indian history in terms of continuity.”[13]

Thomas Metcalf focuses on the foundations of the British rule in India and their ideological justifications for colonialism, which often contradicted the growing political acceptance of liberalism, and later on democracy.[14] The main foundation for British rule was presenting themselves as different from the Indians they were ruling over, and presenting precolonial India as stagnant and despotic. They defined themselves as modern and civilized, in contrast to a barbaric and backward India. This points towards change, as opposed to continuity, in the way that the British built up their power in India. However, Metcalf does display some ambiguity in characterizing early British rule, showing some examples of continuity in their means of ruling India with precolonial Indian methods, such as trying to use Hindu and Muslim law in company courts.[15] Metcalf’s conclusions do not entirely line up with Alavi and Marshall’s, but they do fit into the ”change” and ”continuity” dichotomy established by both authors and provide reasoning for both positions. Metcalf emphasizes the change in governing philosophy and aesthetics while showing some of the continuity in policies and religion. Alavi and Marshall present the transition in terms of Indian and British similarities and differences in economic and administrative policy, and Metcalf provides the context and motives behind their decisions.

Eighteenth-century Indian historiography is a dynamic field of changing perceptions and hypotheses. Traditional assertions are constantly being challenged, with new models of viewing historical change and events rising and falling constantly. These views foster an ever-progressing debate that unveils new ways to understand eighteenth-century India, the effects of colonialism, and the endurance of precolonial Indian structures.

[1] PJ Marshall, “Introduction,” in The Eighteenth Century in Indian History: Evolution or Revolution? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3.

[2] Seema Alavi, “Introduction,” in The Eighteenth Century in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007), 3.

[3] Alavi, “Introduction,” 3–21.

[4] Alavi, “Introduction,” 3–4.

[5] Alavi, “Introduction,” 4.

[6] Alavi, “Introduction”, 8.

[7] Alavi, “Introduction,” 9–10.

[8] Alavi, “Introduction,” 25.

[9] Alavi, “Introduction,” 31.

[10] Alavi, ”Introduction,” 25.

[11] Alavi, ”Introduction,” 29.

[12] Marshall, “Introduction,” 18.

[13] Marshall, “Introduction,” 34.

[14] Thomas R. Metcalf, ”Preface,” in The New Cambridge History of India: Ideologies of the Raj ,(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), ix-x.

[15] Thomas R. Metcalf, ”Chapter 1,” in The New Cambridge History of India: Ideologies of the Raj ,(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 12–13.



Clay Hallee

A place for my best work regarding history, international affairs, and more. All written since early 2019.