In Unwanted Neighbours: The Mughals, the Portuguese and their Frontier ZonesJorge Flores explores the ways in which the Portuguese Estado da India—situated on the coastal peripheries of the Mughal empire—dealt with their Timurid neighbours from c. 1570 to c. 1640. Unwanted Neighbours is a book that is extremely rich in thematic concerns, empirical details and includes a varied cast of characters. It also provides ways to consider the empire’s rise as seen through the eyes of contemporaries situated outside it, paving the way for similar approaches to interrogating the hegemonic nature of other imperial structures, writes Aparna Kapadia.

This review was originally published on the South Asia @ LSE blog. 

Unwanted Neighbours: The Mughals, the Portuguese and their Frontier Zones. Jorge Flores. Oxford University Press. 2018.

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In the past three decades, scholarship on the Mughal empire has shifted the conversation away from the conventional dynastic approach to a focus on diverse themes including the intricacies of the Mughal court, patronage and literary cultures, individual and social lives, as well as the clashes and interactions of an expansionist empire. Yet, while the Mughal empire is no longer viewed as a stable, monolithic entity but as one shaped by local tensions and negotiations, research on the idea of frontiers of the empire—a concept that has gained considerable significance for early modern American as well as Asian history—remains scant.

This lacuna is the primary historiographic impulse behind Jorge Flores’s Unwanted Neighbours. This book is an exploration of the ways in which the Portuguese Estado da India—situated on the coastal peripheries of the Mughal empire—dealt with their Timurid neighbours from c. 1570 to c. 1640. It focuses on the western coastline from Sindh and Konkan to Gujarat, western Deccan and littoral Bengal. How did Estado da India—a commercial enterprise strongly backed by the Portuguese state and one that had come to control parts of the Indian Ocean by the mid-sixteenth century—regard the rise of the new power in north India and how did they negotiate Mughal expansion into the coastal regions in which they were already well-ensconced?

Flores approaches these questions in terms of ‘the interplay of tension and accommodation between political empires’ (xv) rather than as a straightforward history of rivalries and clashes between the Portuguese and the Mughals. Unwanted Neighbours makes a significant contribution to the narrative of early modern South Asian history in two ways: first, it shifts the gaze away from the Mughal empire’s north Indian centres to the ‘peripheries’; and second, it locates the two protagonists and their internal complexities in a multifaceted historical context including various Western and Central Asian powers, local sultanates, other Europeans entities, primarily the English and the Dutch, as well as a wide range of individuals, European and non-European, who lived and travelled between Portuguese and Mughal India.

The sources for the intricate web of the contested relations between the two powers are primarily but not exclusively Portuguese and include a wide range of documents: letters, reports, memorials and chronicles, Jesuit accounts, as well as Mughal and other European primary materials. Five chapters follow the book’s brief prologue and an opening chapter in which the author builds up the intellectual and historical background. Each chapter focuses on an individual frontier context—Hormuz and the Red Sea (Chapter Two), Gujarat (Chapters Three and Four), Deccan (Chapter Five), and Bengal (Chapter Six) respectively—where specific incidents and individuals shape the account of the encounters between the Portuguese and the Mughals in which geographical, social and religious borders are constantly being crossed.

The Portuguese had settled on the South Asian coast for two decades before the central Asian prince Babur established Timurid rule in Delhi in 1526. The arrival and expansion of the new power, especially as Akbar set about consolidating Mughal rule, became a matter of great concern for the Portuguese. In Chapter Two, Flores discusses these concerns in terms of Mughal interests, beginning in the 1590s, in Central Asia as well as Hormuz and the Red Sea. While the key players in this landscape of ‘chessboard politics’ were the Mughals, Safavids, Ottomans and Uzbegs, Flores shows how stories and information about them, particularly the Mughals, circulated in Portuguese India and were of interest to the authorities in Lisbon. The Portuguese were deeply invested in controlling the maritime routes between India and Iran and quashing the competing land routes via Qandahar (68). Information provided by people who traversed multiple social and geographical borders as they moved around Mughal, Safavid, Ottoman, Uzbeg and Portuguese territories at this time became important for the Estado da India. As this chapter highlights through compelling detail from Jesuit accounts with some corroboration from Mughal sources, the Portuguese therefore welcomed reports on and from an assortment of mavericks who moved around these different regions. The Portuguese interest in these men reflect the Estado officials’ anxieties about a rising Mughal state and the ways in which they tried to adapt to it on the ground.

Image Credit: Basilica of Bom Jesus., Goa, India (Ramesh Lalwani CC BY 2.0)

With Mughal interest in Gujarat, particularly with Akbar’s determined campaign to conquer this lucrative kingdom in 1572-73, the Empire came even closer to the Portuguese territories of the Northern Province—Chaul, Bassein, Daman and Diu—than ever before. Flores dedicates two chapters to this region, which was unquestionably the most significant for the rise of Portuguese and Mughal fortunes in the early modern era. The borderland is viewed here in terms of experiments—a testing ground in changing circumstances—not just for those in power but also for those negotiating frontiers on the ground. In Chapter Three, the first of two on Gujarat, we get a vivid picture of the diverse populations that inhabited Portuguese and Mughal territories but who also often took advantage of the proximity and fluidity of the borders in times of need (101-10). Both parties, particularly the Portuguese, were often at pains to define and control these lines, an aspect of border experiments articulated through mapping, and land and revenue registers known as tombos. Despite these attempts to prevent inhabitants from crossing physical and socio-religious boundaries, Flores’s emphasis on individuals and specific events reveals that these boundaries remained fluid at least through Akbar and Jahangir’s reigns.

By the early decades of the seventeenth century, Gujarat was well-established as a Mughal province. Surat, its primary port, came to be a full-fledged Mughal-controlled city. Surat also came to be home to the commercial interests of other European powers, particularly the English and the Dutch. In these changed circumstances, the Mughal officials on the ground had to deal with even more complex political and social negotiations than just a few decades earlier. In Chapter Four, the most animated of the book’s chapters in this reviewer’s opinion, Flores traces the careers of two Mughal port officials, as the basis for the reflection on the positon of the mutasaddi ‘who could be at once merchant and political entrepreneur, diplomat and collector of rarities, ‘‘Christian’’ and Muslim, patron of churches and mosques’ (129). Together, the chapters on Gujarat provide a long view on the ways in which Portuguese-Mughal relations changed from the 1570s to the early decades of the seventeenth century and cast light on the varieties of ‘border crossings’—social, religious and physical—that were possible in frontier zones.

If ‘borderland experiments’ shaped Portuguese-Mughal relations in Gujarat, the Deccan sultanates—Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golonda—were viewed as a ‘wall’ or buffer zone in the Portuguese imagination. In Chapter Five, Flores unpacks this idea against the turbulent background of the eventual incorporation of these kingdoms into the Mughal empire. The chapter hones in on the ‘Mughal-Portuguese construction of the western Deccan frontier in the period to Aurangzeb’s arrival in 1636 and before the Marathas rose as players in the region that could not be ignored’ (157). Here, Flores focuses on the intricacies of sultanate politics and two key figures, Chand Bibi, the regent of Ahmadnagar, ‘who maintained extensive dealings with the Portuguese’ (158), and Mustafa Khan, a Mughal official and ‘artful political landscaper’ (158). Through these figures and key local events surrounding Mughal incursions into the region, Flores shows how the Portuguese correspondence and reports reveal their insecurities and desire to shape the outcome. The ‘Deccan Wall’ eventually crumbled, settling the Mughal-Portuguese border right at the gates of Goa, but, as Flores points out, ‘the Mughals did not knock down the door’ (203).

Unwanted Neighbours’ exploration into Mughal-Portuguese relations ends with Bengal, an important maritime region like Gujarat but one that was challenging for both the contending parties due to its environment. Shah Jahan’s 1632 attack on Hughli, the principal Portuguese settlement, is the main focus here as we move from the destruction of this port-city to the gradual restitution of the Portuguese in the area in the seventeenth century. Once again, Flores situates this event within the historical context of the frontier through close details from Mughal and Portuguese sources that depict how the inhabitants dealt with a changing political landscape.

Unwanted Neighbours is a methodologically innovative book. Flores has chosen to focus on events and individuals rather than providing a ‘comprehensive’ and evolutionary account of the relations between the two rivals. The telescoping on these ‘flashpoints’ allows him to reconstruct a vivid picture of the places and people that form the array of characters. Unwanted Neighbours is also based on meticulous research culled from an array of Portuguese sources as well as Mughal accounts; substantive quotations from the Portuguese materials provide a glimpse into the world of those who wrote them and a sense of the texts’ texture. Moreover, individual chapters not only consider different ideas of borders and border-making but also the construction of frontier societies through those who inhabited them.

Some of the limitations of the book then also lie in these very strengths. Unwanted Neighbors is packed with detail and so the author’s analytic implications are not always readily apparent. It is easy to lose track of the particular events, the wide range of characters and the multiple ways in which they represent the ideas of border-crossing and border-making over five different regions. At the start of the book, Flores acknowledges this approach has limitations but he does not flesh out what he considers the pitfalls of focusing on the partial careers of individuals or on specific incidents might be. Also, the book ends somewhat abruptly without a conclusion or epilogue, which would have helped in tying up these multiple strands into a coherent whole.

Further, Flores regards the Portuguese as frontier people in the same way as the other South Asian sultanates, kingdoms and communities at the time (13). However, this comparison relegates to the background the reality of the Estado being backed by the resources and ambitions of the Portuguese state, which in turn was also drawing from a wider, global base compared with the local entities in Gujarat, Bengal or the Deccan. Flores’s suggestion may have gained stronger foundations with a more in-depth exploration of this difference in the nature of their powers.

These quibbles, however, should not be deterrents to reading Unwanted Neighbours. This is a book that is extremely rich in thematic concerns and empirical details and it includes a varied cast of characters: we meet a number of intriguing figures who are less-known in standard histories of the Mughal empire. Moreover, Unwanted Neighbours provides ways to consider the empire’s rise as seen through the eyes of contemporaries situated outside it, paving the way for similar approaches to interrogating the hegemonic nature of other imperial structures.

Aparna Kapadia is Associate Professor of History at  Williams College, USA, and the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat (Cambridge University Press, 2018). She writes about the history of Gujarat and western India, and the cultural and intellectual histories of early modern and modern South Asia.

This article gives the views of the author and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

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