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John F Richards: A Brief Memoir

The historian John Richards, who died recently, had a vast range of intellectual interests and published widely on Mughal India, south Asian economic history, comparative world history, ecology and deforestation in south Asia and world environmental history. A personal tribute.

John F Richards: A Brief Memoir

The historian John Richards, who died recently, had a vast range of intellectual interests and published widely on Mughal India, south Asian economic history, comparative world history, ecology and deforestation in south Asia and world environmental history. A

personal tribute.


ust under a year ago, on September 29-30, 2006, a group of scholars gathered in Durham (North Carolina), to celebrate the work of a fellow scholar to whom all present felt a bond of particular attachment. Those who were there included such senior figures amongst historians of India as Tom and Barbara Metcalf, Gordon Johnson, Stewart Gordon and Dick Eaton, as well as a far younger generation which included one of the event’s organisers, Munis Faruqi (other organisers were Eaton, Sunil Kumar, and the very hands-on local presence of Sandy Freitag). But there were also scholars present who had little to do with India, such as Wong Guobin, Carl Trocki,

Peer Vries, Peter Perdue and John McNeill. A good number of graduate students from the current crop at UNC and Duke sat in on the sessions too.

The retirement conference of John Folsom Richards at Duke University was all in all an unusual event, characterised by much good humoured banter as well as lively intellectual exchange. It ended with a dinner at a restaurant in which a good number of John’s colleagues, friends and family gently “roasted” him, while their target sat by with that characteristic beaming smile, occasionally clutching his head in mock embarrassment. Many people simply showed up, not because they were presenting a paper or chairing a session, but for the pleasure of just being there. It was, as it turned out, the last time that some of us would see John Richards, who was already ailing at the time, and a much weaker version of the ebullient figure we had become used to over the years. But half a year later, in March 2007, John Richards was still travelling, and received an award for his contributions from Anand Yang at the Boston meeting of the Association of Asian Studies. He even managed to attend a farewell event for Peer Vries, a colleague from the Global Economic History Network (GEHN) in Leiden on June 22. Now, a bare two months later, he is no longer with us. He came as close as most of us will to dying with his boots on.

I first heard of John Richards when I was still a callow MA student in 1981. My globe-trotting teacher Om Prakash returned to Delhi from a conference on Mughal monetary history at Duke, clutching a fat pile of conference papers which he advised me to read carefully as I sought to define a proper dissertation topic. I read John’s paper for that meeting, and soon began to scour the Ratan Tata Library’s dusty shelves for his other journal articles, in that distant time when neither JSTOR nor Ingenta existed. These included the important symposium on “Mughal decline” to which he, Mike Pearson and Peter Hardy contributed in the Journal of Asian Studies in the mid1970s, and – hot off the press in 1981 – John’s response to Karen Leonard’s essay on banking and Mughal decline, which he had entitled ‘Mughal State Finance and the Premodern World Economy’ (in Comparative Studies in Society and History, 23/2, 1981, pp 285-308). I found her viewpoint the more exciting and congenial to my own fledgling perspective, but his to be more solidly grounded. It is a debate which I still teach my students now, a quarter-century later.

As my research interests began to focus on southern India, Om Prakash naturally pointed me in the direction of John’s major work, his book Mughal Administration in Golconda, which had appeared in 1975. A revised version of his 1970 UC-Berkeley dissertation (Mughal Rule in Golconda, 1687-1724) done under the supervision of Tom Metcalf, this work was very important to the newly forming “revisionist” view of the Mughals at that time, which challenged the orthodox position established by writers such as Irfan Habib and M Athar Ali at Aligarh. John Richards worked largely with the materials of the Inayat Jang collection in

Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

the archives in New Delhi (which contains over 20,000 documents), but also trawled through the published Persian chronicles and dipped into the archives of the Dutch East India Company in the Hague to supplement these. He never frontally challenged the Aligarh bastion, but Muzaffar Alam – whose first major publication from 1974 is also on the Deccan – has frequently told me how important John’s work was to those in India who were seeking fresh avenues in Mughal history in the mid to late 1970s. Later, in 1992, when John Richards came to Delhi to participate in the Indian Council for Historical Research conference on Akbar, it was remarkable how he managed to steer a skilful course in the mine-strewn waters of the occasion. To sup with Irfan Habib, and yet be an open admirer of the technical skills displayed in Jadunath Sarkar’s work on Aurangzeb, as well as a defender of Frank Perlin’s essays on the 18th century, is not a mean feat. It was a measure of John Richards’s eclecticism, I suppose, but also gave his intellectual positions an elusive character sometimes – in contrast with the forthrightness of the man himself.

At much the same time as I was finishing my own reading of Mughal Administration (in about 1983), I found to my surprise that one of John’s first students from Wisconsin-Madison, Jerry Brennig was actually living in New Delhi as a diplomat. Jerry and I quickly became friends, and he gave me much valuable advice on how to frame my own research. He also lent me his unpublished dissertation on the textile trade of 17th century Coromandel, and I persuaded him that he should extract another substantial essay from it for the Indian Economic and Social History Review. I believe that it was from him that I first came to know of John’s reputation for both loyalty and occasional irascibility, a mix that I saw at first hand in later years. Jerry also gave me a copy, which I still treasure, of a rare conference volume edited by John Richards, Precious Metals in the Later Medieval and Early Modern Worlds, from 1983. A very wide-ranging collection, it shows John’s ambition to do “world history” at a time when few south Asianists were venturing in that direction. It is a great pity that this fine volume, with excellent essays on Europe, the Ottomans, and so on, has never received the attention it really deserves.

But I only managed to meet John Richards in person in the latter half of the 1980s (perhaps even 1990), and I will confess I have even forgotten the exact year. It must have been in Sunil Kumar’s house in New Delhi, and we had an uproarious dinner of which I must also admit a slightly hazy recollection where the details go. Sunil was at the time working on his dissertation at Duke with John on the formation of the Delhi Sultanate, and John was very solicitous of the progress of his work. But we also talked of the recent publication of the edited collection on The Imperial Monetary System of Mughal India, the belated product of the 1981 Duke conference, which had appeared in 1987. John’s interests were by then somewhat less focused on the Mughals, though he never entirely moved away from them. A lot of his recent energy had been spent on his land-use and ecology projects, from which a steady stream of papers emerged, often co-authored with Edward Haynes and James Hagen. Since these were farther from my own interests, I somewhat lost track of them, as indeed of the edited books with Richard Tucker such as Global Deforestation and the 19th Century World Economy

(1983). But it turned out that he was also drafting his contribution on the Mughals for the New Cambridge History of India. I think this is what we mostly discussed in that first meeting. I wanted him to come out more strongly in favour of the “revisionists” and he demurred. John’s view was that the Mughal empire was indeed a powerful centralised entity for its time, and that one could not underestimate that fact. The eventual publication of his Cambridge volume The Mughal Empire in 1993 confirmed John’s cautious position. He acknowledged the power of the Aligarh “paradigm” but also tried to accommodate the newer trends in the historiography. The result was broadly deemed a success by most reviewers, including Farhat Hasan from Aligarh in Modern Asian Studies. Others pointed to some errors of fact, but the lesson was probably clear: in a field such as Mughal studies, there is no pleasing everyone.

Wide-ranging Interests

Through the 1990s, I kept in close touch with John. We met in numerous conferences, and I invited him for a month to the EHESS in Paris. In these meetings, we agreed to disagree on a number of key issues, and left it at that. I remember a very animated discussion with John and Burt Stein in Boston in the early 1990s amongst these many exchanges; the two of them – both a clear generation older than me – formed an interesting contrast in terms of style and content. John was by far the more philologically committed of the two, and he always emphasised his immersion in the Persian sources of the Mughal empire. He was particularly proud of one of his more minor publications, Document Forms for Official Orders of Appointment in the Mughal Empire (1986), where he provided a translation, notes and textual edition of a dastūr-ul-‘amal text (or administrative manual) from the early 18th century as part of the prestigious E J W Gibb Memorial Series. By this time, the early 1990s, John was juggling a number of quite distinct intellectual balls. He remained committed to Mughal history, but increasingly saw it as a part of early modern world history. It was in this context that he participated with Geoffrey Parker, Bill Atwell, and a few others in a symposium on the global 17th century crisis, where his own paper appeared as ‘The Seventeenth Century Crisis in South Asia’, Modern Asian Studies, 24/4, 1990, pp 625-38. His work on deforestation and land-use was still appearing in print, and was a line of research he would pursue in the years to come. John was also interested in returning to the idea of the “frontier” in this context, which he had already shown some interest in.

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    Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

    When he visited Paris for a month in the late 1990s, it was a mix of his old and new themes that he dealt with in his talks. It was a month that I greatly enjoyed, and so did John and Ann. The schedule of talks was not too packed, and as it turned out David Washbrook and Shelly Pollock were also in town to give their respective series of talks. So besides hearing about the Mughal empire, and chapters from John’s new work on world ecological history, there was also time to sample a variety of restaurants and stroll about in the Paris spring. John got to meet the south Asianists in the town, and eventually came to be good friends with Claude Markovits, who also attended the September 2006 meeting. Shortly after the visit, he asked me to read extended sections of the book that became The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (2003). It was an unusual book for John, very wide-ranging and in a narrative history form. What surprised me was the relative absence of south Asia from the book; he eventually did add a few bits here and there (especially in the early parts), but had decided for whatever reason that in this instance, it was to be either south Asia or world history, and not both. It was the last major work that John Richards was to produce. But he did plug away at two other projects in the 2000s. One was on opium in colonial India, a theme he had already dealt with on an earlier occasion. In 2002, two papers by him appeared on the subject, one in Modern Asian Studies, and the other in a special number of the Indian Economic and Social History Review I edited in memory of Dharma Kumar. John had become fascinated with spreadsheet technology, and this considerably influenced the latter paper. It also led him to a project on the finances of British India, for which he worked partly within the ambit of the Global Economic History Network, where he was an active participant for several years. John, together with Ken Pomeranz and several others, also put together a set of meetings on India-China comparisons over the last some years.

    When one surveys the range of materials mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, it becomes clear that John Richards was both prolific and very wide-ranging in his interests. His work easily straddled the pre-colonial/colonial divide. While firmly rooted in south Asia, his interests also took him far outside the region. A lot of his work was centred on political, fiscal and economic questions, but he also made important contributions outside those areas. One of these was the edited volume entitled Kingship and Authority in South Asia (1981), rather obscurely published from Madison, and subsequently reissued not long ago from Delhi. This contains a number of classic essays on the theme of kingship, including one of John’s own on Mughal imperial authority under Akbar and Jahangir. Equally pioneering was his joint essay with Velcheru Narayana Rao, entitled ‘Banditry in Mughal India: Historical and Folk Perceptions’, published in the Indian Economic and Social History Review (1980). A sense of the diversity of his interests can also be had from a volume of his collected essays which appeared as Power, Administration, and Finance in Mughal India (1993).

    John had a serious and even entrepreneurial side to him, as was testified to by a number of those present at Duke in September 2006. I imagine he must have been a rather formidable research advisor

    – though he was also extraordinarily supportive of his students (as I know from Sunil Kumar). His administrative skills were excellent, and the last major task he undertook was in setting up the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS). His role in commissioning volumes and seeing them through to completion as one of the three editors of the New Cambridge History of India was another of his major professional contributions. But behind all that organisation and productivity, there was both a mischievous and a tempestuous side. I have seen John lose his temper rarely, but it was quite a sight. Rather like one of those British summer storms, there would be a thunderclap, a sharp shower (of words), and then all of a sudden the clouds would clear and all would be forgiven. As for the mischief, I can remember him shocking a leading historian at a meeting in Boothbay Harbor by holding forth at very great length on the need to legalise drugs. Was he serious, the historian asked me in puzzlement? Well, at least half-serious. The other half was done for effect, for John Richards certainly liked to provoke at times. It is that provocation and humour, as much as the energy and productivity, and the capacity to keep track of everybody with a singular personal touch that we will all miss. The last time I spoke to him was when he called to ask if I could attend the AAS meeting in Boston in spring 2007, and be at the dinner in his honour. Unfortunately, I had a prior commitment elsewhere. I am sorry I missed that dinner and a chance to share some moments with a dear friend, an excellent historian and a truly warm human being.


    Email: subrahma@history.ucla.edu

    Centre for Economic Studies and Planning

    Jawaharlal Nehru University

    UGC-SAP Programme

    Conference on

    Economic Structures, Growth and Development 31 January-2 February, 2008

    The UGC-SAP Programme at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University is organising a conference to discuss new theoretical and empirical research around the broad theme: “Economic Structures, Growth and Development”. An important aim of the conference is to showcase research by younger economists in the early stage of their academic careers. To that end, besides a few invited lectures, the conference would include a number of such papers in different thematic sessions.

    The organising committee invites submissions from young scholars of recently published or new unpublished research. Papers to be presented in different thematic sessions would be selected after review from among those submitted. Interested scholars are invited to submit papers not exceeding 10,000 words in length by 15th November via email to dsaproject1@gmail.com. Travel and accommodation costs of those invited to present papers at or participate in the conference will be borne by the programme.

    Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

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