Michael Fisher

Michael H. Fisher is Danforth Professor of History at Oberlin College.

What initially sparked your interest in the Mughal Empire?

Rich and complex in culture, society and politics, the Mughal Empire remains endlessly fascinating for all people who read or write about its history.  Four decades ago, while I was an undergraduate, I discovered by reading original diaries and other accounts written by Asians and Europeans alike how vast and multifaceted this empire quickly became after its foundation by the central Asian invader Babur in 1526.  Over the next three centuries, immigrants from Iran, Afghanistan, and Europe interacted with diverse Indians as the Mughal Empire rose, expanded over most of South Asia, and then fragmented.  I have been repeatedly intrigued by newly found evidence and also by novel interpretations that continually challenge our current understanding of the peoples and cultures that comprised the Mughal Empire.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?

The extensive evidence available about the Mughal Empire—including architecture, other works of art, imperial records, personal narratives, and descriptive and analytic histories all created by diverse people at that time—means we can really get to know and appreciate the lives of men and women at many levels of its complex society. Mughal emperors, at their peak, ruled an area comparable to the European Union in size and population, with at least as much internal diversity of peoples and cultures. Further, since the Mughal Empire had vital and fascinating connections with surrounding and distant lands, it also needs to be understood in its global context. Immigrants from most of Asia, east Africa, and Europe brought with them their own cultures and values to India. For example, Portuguese colonists imported new crops from the Americas—including tomatoes, chili peppers, tobacco and maize/corn—that reshaped Indian cuisine. They and other Europeans also imported vast amounts of silver, taken from the Americas, that affected the entire Mughal revenue system. Thus, the Mughals ruled not only a great variety of competing and often conflicting groups within India, they also struggled to manage relationships with foreign powers and people who came to partake of its wealth: material and cultural.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?

People who read, think, and write about the Mughal Empire have come to appreciate the often contentious relationships between the developing imperial court and the many peoples and cultures of India and of near and distant lands beyond India.  During the centuries of Mughal imperial expansion, the emperor and his inner circle of high officials, wives, and courtiers convinced (or compelled) ever larger numbers and types of people to respect Mughal legitimate sovereignty. Even throughout the centuries of the decline and fragmentation of Mughal military power, many contending people continued to recognize Mughal sovereignty (often only nominally). We historians still struggle to comprehend the power and extent of the charisma and prestige that the Mughal emperors created and exerted over such a vast area and so many diverse peoples. As I have tried to show in my several published works on individuals and groups of emigrants from the Mughal Empire to Europe, we also need to appreciate the global movement of diverse people who entered or left the Mughal Empire.

Which figure in history would you like to go back in time to meet and why?

My special interest in migration and world history makes Mariam, who travelled from the Mughal imperial harem to London and back, stand out among the many fascinating people who lived during that time. Her Armenian Christian family had immigrated to India and then risen high in service to Mughal emperors. After her father, Mubarak Khan, died, Mariam entered the imperial harem as a ward.  In 1609, while only a teenager, she was offered by Emperor Jahangir to the first English ambassador to the Mughal court, William Hawkins. Two years later, after Hawkins lost Jahangir’s favour, they fled together back to England.  Unfortunately, Hawkins died aboard ship, so Mariam arrived a widow in London in 1614. She soon remarried, however, to Gabriel Towerson, a merchant and ship captain of the East India Company.  After two years living in London, Mariam returned with him and an entourage of British servants to Mughal India—her new husband intending to profit from her connections there. Unfortunately, her husband proved abrasive to everyone he encountered.  Two years later, Towerson abandoned her and ventured to Indonesia, where he was tortured and executed by the Dutch. Mariam remained in the Mughal capital, repeatedly petitioning the East India Company for even modest financial support.  To learn first-hand from Mariam herself about her life and the people in India and England with whom she interacted would prove matchlessly illuminating.

What is your favourite book?

Many Mughal emperors and courtiers, as well as Asian and European visitors to India and their court, kept personal diaries that have survived. Among these, the most personally revealing and compelling is that of the first Mughal Emperor, Babur (1483-1530). His autobiographical Babur Nama recounts his years as an exiled refugee, driven by his relatives and rivals from city to city in central Asia, his period of rule over Kabul, and also his dramatic military conquest of north India. Throughout his narrative, he candidly recorded his disappointments, infatuations, drug-inspired poetry, and promises to reform his life should he attain victory in upcoming battles. One of the Muslim world’s earliest humanistic texts and almost unprecedented in its style and rich content, this book rewards repeated rereading. ■

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Publications

The Inordinately Strange Life of Dyce Sombre: Victorian Anglo Indian M.P. and Chancery 'Lunatic' (co-published, London: Hurst; New York: Columbia University Press; Delhi: Cambridge University Press/Foundation Books, 2010)

Visions of Mughal India: An Anthology of European Travel Writing (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007)

A South Asian History of Britain: Four Centuries of Peoples from the Indian Subcontinent (co-authored with Shompa Lahiri and Shinder Thandi; London: Greenwood Press, 2007)

Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain, 1600-1857 (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004; Paperback edition, 2006).