Eliot and Dowson’s History of India

by Naveen Kanalu Ramamurthy


Henry Miers Elliot and John Dowson, The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians. The Muhammadan Period. Edited from the posthumous papers of the late Sir H. M. Elliot, K.C.B., East India Company’s Bengal Civil Service, by John Dowson, M.R.A.S. Volumes I-VIII, London: Trübner & Co., 1867–1877.


The History of India, as told by its own Historians. The Muhammadan Period is an eight-volume compendium of English translations of tarikhs or tawarikhs, (historical accounts or chronicles composed in Arabic and Persian during the rule of Islamicate empires in parts of present-day South Asia from the eighth to the nineteenth centuries) compiled by the mid-nineteenth century British colonial officer, Sir Henry Miers Elliot (1808–1853 CE). Elliot, a civil servant with the English East India Company, began his career as assistant to the magistrate and collector of Bareilly and was appointed Foreign secretary to the Government of India in 1847. Elliot compiled these translations, which were left in manuscript form due to his untimely death. On Elliot’s death, his papers were revised and published by John Dowson (1820–1881 CE), an English orientalist, professor at the University College, London and later at the Staff College, Sandhurst. Elliot produced several translations included in the compendium; a few were made by other English officers. However, most of the texts were rendered into English by “native” munshis or scribes and commissioned by Elliot. John Dowson states in his preface, “the majority of them seem to have been the work of munshís”. Ironically though, he does not mention even a single name. Given the hybrid nature of its production, we could argue that the authorship of this compendium, though initated by an English officer and edited by an English orientalist, was in reality a project whose realization was possible only through “native” participation. Furthermore, as the English had limited access to sources in Indian languages, be they Persian, Arabic or Sanskrit as well as the regional languages, the compendium clearly reflects the collaborative nature of the enterprise.

Volume I of The History of India furnishes a geographical and historical background to the Muslim chronicles from the pre-Islamicate period in South Asian history. The remaining seven volumes of the collection fall into three distinct categories:  a. pre-Mughal Persian chronicles and masnavis or “historical poems” (Volumes II-IV); b. Mughal Imperial chronicles (Volumes IV-VII); c. late eighteenth and early nineteenth century chronicles (Volume VIII). The introductory volume provides excerpts from the early geographical compositions by Arab savants such as Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (973–1048 CE), Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100–1165 CE), historical accounts from the early Islamicate kingdom in Sindh, and the geographical evidence for kingdoms, ethnic groups, cities, and towns as known and understood by the Arab literati. The three succeeding volumes (Volumes II-IV) include the historical accounts up to the Mughal conquest of North India. Volume II contains excerpts from Arabic sources from the period prior to 1260 CE. Most of the chroniclers included in this volume are from the Ghaznavide period. Ironically, it includes al-Biruni’s Kitab fi tahqiq ma li al-hind, popularly known as his “History of India”, despite his not being of “Indian” origin. Volume III is focused on the period ending in 1398 CE and contains texts primarily from the reign of the Firuzshahi Sultans, including Firuz Shah’s autobiographical writings known as the Futuhat-i firuzshahi or the “Victories of Firuz Shah” It is interesting to note that the appendix contains translations from the historical masnavis of the Indo-Persian poet, Amir Khusrau Dihlavi (1253–1325 CE). Volume IV, which is supposed to include chronicles until 1450, also contains the autobiographical work of the first Mughal emperor, Zahir al-din Muhammad Babur (r. 1526–1530 CE), Tuzak-i babari or the “Memoires of Babur”. In Volume V, the works of Mughal imperial elite such as Abd al-Qadir Badauni are included. Volume VI is devoted to the historical chronicles composed during the reigns of the Mughal emperors, Jalal al-din Muhammad Akbar (r. 1556–1605) and Nur al-din Muhammad Jahangir (r. 1605–1627). For the first time, substantial portions of Akbar nama or the “Account of Akbar” by Abu al-Fazl (1551–1602) were made available in English translation. Volume VII contains the Persian chronicles from the reigns of the next two Mughal emperors, Shahab al-din Muhammad Shahjahan (r. 1628–1658) and Abu al-Muzaffar Muhi al-din Muhammad Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707). They include well-known works such as Abd al-Hamid Lahori’s Padshah nama or the “Account of the Padshah”, Bakhtawar Khan’s Mir’at al-‘alam or the “Mirror to the World”, and Muhammad Qasim’s ‘Alamgir nama or the “Account of the World-Seizer”. Volume VIII contains several miscellaneous Persian texts by literati from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It includes an early work of the founder of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s (1817–1898) Jam-i jam and a text by Thomas William Beale, clerk at the Board of Revenue at Agra. The final volume also contains bibliographical, geographical, and general indices.

The History of India organizes each text in the following sequence: a brief introduction to the author and his works, the context of their production, circulation and patronage, and translations from select excerpts of the historical accounts. In its contents, The History of India continues to represent the trend in the translations by English administrators, scholars, and civil servants in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most of them present translations of excerpts (this pattern, it may be noted, was also common to other European compilations such as the French morceaux choisis) rather than render stand-alone volumes of full translations, which only became prevalent in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The History of India is a representative example to understand the structure, the construction and the diffusion of “oriental” knowledge in mid-nineteenth century colonial rule in India. It is revealing of the differentiated relation between “natives” and English officials as “subjects” of knowledge production and in its use of religious categories to distinguish between various knowledge systems and textual material from the precolonial period. More prominently, the compilation is an instantiation of the epistemological foundations for the historical periodization of the precolonial past in the era of the consolidation of British dominance over large parts of the sub-continent. The central axis along which all these categories of knowledge-formation and their historical mapping were rendered possible is the alleged division of the history of precolonial India between the “Hindu period” and the “Mohammedan invasion”. “Hindu” past was deemed a-historical: it underwent little change in reality and had left no chronicles conceivable as belonging to “secular” time and geography; they were mythical at best. However, Mahommedan culture – as much as it was considered alien and remained so in British perceptions –, introduced the historical at least in the practice of chronicling and recording past events. However, it was supposed to have had little impact on Hindu society, which was essentially static in nature. In this radical disjuncture and rupture between a static past and a violence-ridden “intrusive” past, the chronicles presented in this compendium are signified as “Mahommedan”. However, some of the texts included by Elliot were authored by Arabs, who were not “natives” of India; others by “Hindus”. Further, Persian was, – unlike Arabic –, a lingua franca for textual production among the elite irrespective of such religious and ethnic distinctions. Nor are texts belonging to the literary traditions in regional Indian languages or Sanskrit under the period of Islamicate empires represented in the compendium. Thus, Elliot’s work erases the existence of a large corpus of texts considered “Hindu” and a-historical in nature and privileges the Arabo-Persian style chronicles to portray the domination of texts allegedly “Mahommedan” in “character” for almost a millennium. Also, it is worth noting that such enterprises as Elliot’s compilation introduced new perceptions about precolonial knowledge. For instance, al-Biruni’s “History of India”, which had little circulation in South Asia prior to British colonial rule, became a an ur-text to understand early Arab-Muslim attitudes on “Hindu” cosmological and anthropological Weltanschauung. Its impact has been so deep that much of contemporary scholarship continues to deploy these categories without recognizing the fact that the historical memory and knowledge of these texts are themselves embedded in modern European categories of thinking as transposed to non-European texts. Under the conditions of colonial rule, Elliot’s compendium generated a corpus, which effectively provided the grounds for the creation of canonical texts of the “historical” and the “Mohammedan” in South Asian past.

The underlying sub-text for the interpretative schema of Elliot’s compendium is that the historical was in essence alien to the “natives”. Instead, true historical consciousness was being co-constituted with and through the “British conquest” of India. It is noteworthy that the compendium, despite its avowed neutrality and strict demarcation in form through the category of the “Mohammedan” that it deploys, gives away in its contents, which do not fit this rigid schema. Further, little is indicated as to what constitutes the distinction between the “historical” and the “literary”, where does one end and the other begin in the consideration of the knowledge of the past as recollected in the past. All these difficulties adduce to the fact that such deployment is rendered possible by a colonial epistemological framework, which introduced a hierarchy in the status of different knowledge-systems and ruptured the “hybridity” internal to their composition and the radically different set of historical conditions of their possibility.