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Asian Despotism? Mughal Government as Seen From the Dutch East India Company Factory in Surat

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In the current debate about early modern European perceptions of Asia, the rich documentation produced by the Dutch East India Company has been largely overlooked. The Surat factory, whose correspondence is extant from 1636, was in close connection with the centers of Mughal authority, and the factory here, unlike in some other Dutch outposts, was never allowed to be transformed into a fortified enclosure from which the "hatmen" could challenge the agents of the state with impunity. In published accounts of Asian government, including those written in Dutch, "despots" held sway over lands whose only law was the ruler's whim. But Company documents from Surat (and elsewhere in India) consistently depict local officials as manipulating for their own profit their control over European trade, often in flagrant disregard of trading privileges carefully negotiated with the Mughal court. The image of an all-powerful sovereign, though not altogether absent, is sometimes evoked as a way of explaining to Company superiors in Batavia (Djakarta) or Amsterdam why their servants in Surat could not do as they were bidden. But if Company men developed over time a credible local knowledge of Mughal government, they were no different from stay-at-home European Christians in their view of the Mughal realm's Muslim elites: in this age of continuing warfare between Christendom and Islamdom, a "faithless Moor" was always and everywhere the same.

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Affiliations: 1: University of Minnesota


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