Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe / Himal Southasian
Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe / Himal Southasian

A life in argument

Remembering historian David Washbrook.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam is Distinguished Professor of History at UCLA, and has earlier taught in Delhi, Paris and Oxford.

Modern Southasian history lost one of its stalwarts on 24 January 2021 with the passing of David Anthony Washbrook in Oxford, a few months before he reached the age of 73. I knew him for just under 36 years, about half his life, and our relationship constantly evolved and transformed over the decades. A number of rich tributes have already appeared from friends, colleagues and former students (including Joya Chatterji and Samita Sen in Cambridge), which have traced the broad lines of his career and his influence on several generations of scholars working on Indian history. Others will surely follow. My last exchanges with him before he was diagnosed with his terminal illness were, alas, on boring professional subjects such as referees' reports, and the academic politics of Oxbridge. In one of them, some months ago, he did slip in a more personal note: "We are all fine but looking forward to what is now promised as a steady 'unlockdown' in UK. Twelve weeks is a long time to be marooned even in Oxford! Let's try and meet up whenever we are allowed — preferably in Paris". That was surely a reference to a happy month some two decades or so ago that we had spent together in the City of Light, when he had been invited to the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris and taken an apartment on Rue de la Convention. His presentation of four quite polemical talks on the current state of modern Indian history left his Parisian audience – unused to such verbal fireworks, delivered moreover at machine-gun velocity – a little bit bewildered. The American historian John Richards, also present on some of those occasions, for his part found them very amusing indeed. But he did remark in passing that he could think of no American historian of India who would present historiographical questions in quite such a manner.
By the time I first met him, on a cold February day at the old India Office Library on Blackfriars Road in London in 1985, David Washbrook was already a rather well-known figure among historians of India. I had read several essays by him in the course of my education in the University of Delhi, and had also dipped episodically into his more substantial works. His essays usually appeared on the reading lists of my teacher and doctoral advisor, the economic historian Dharma Kumar, though she was actually no great admirer of Washbrook (a sentiment that was broadly reciprocated). In her courses on the economic history of colonial India, we read the writings of not only Washbrook but several others of the same milieu and generation: Christopher Baker, Christopher Bayly, Neil Charlesworth, Clive Dewey, Peter Musgrave, Tom Tomlinson, and so on. We set aside those writings that were largely or exclusively focused on issues of politics, in favour of those with an economic content. Dharma's notion of a proper education, no doubt as unfashionable then as it is now, was that one not only read those whom one agreed with, but those with whom one profoundly disagreed. There was quite a long list of those who fell into the latter category, but the fact is we read them all so long as their arguments passed a minimal test of intelligence and literacy. It was only later, when I was visiting other Indian universities in the early 1990s, that I realised that not everyone was quite so generous about intellectual disagreements.

David Washbrook studied southern India, a region to which he remained loyal for over half a century.

On that February day in 1985, my real intention was in fact not to meet Washbrook, but another of Dharma's friendly 'enemies', the American historian of south India, Burton Stein. Burt and Dharma had a pugilistic relationship, and she had written a few sharp critiques of his work but had also published him several times in the Indian Economic and Social History Review, which she edited. Given my dissertation topic, on the commercial economy of southern India in the 16th and 17th centuries, she felt it was absolutely necessary that I should make contact with him, because Stein was at that time one of a handful of authorities on the history of south India before 1700. Not long after I arrived in London, on a short archival visit, I telephoned him, and he immediately suggested we meet at the India Office. He added, however, that he would be accompanied by a friend, namely David Washbrook. I will confess that this was rather intimidating in theory, but less so in practice. Burt and David made a boisterous pair, one a working-class Jew from Chicago with a colourful vocabulary, the other a voluble Londoner of partly Irish descent. Over a couple of hours spent at a pub, they closely cross-examined me on my work, while simultaneously trading friendly insults between themselves. I found myself treated not as the raw student I was, but as a participant in a vigorous three-way argument. Some great names in Indian history were reduced to rubble before my very eyes. I learnt a new word of dismissal from Burt, the term 'cockamamie'. Over the course of the next month while I was in London, we repeated the experience a couple of times. By the time I left in March for Lisbon, David and Burt had assured me that if I wanted to send them a draft of my dissertation for comments, they would be more than happy to provide them.
I never took up David on this offer. But I did re-establish contact with him not long after in 1987, when he was visiting Harvard, and I was visiting the University of Pennsylvania to teach for a year after finishing my PhD in Delhi. It turned out that we had another friend in common, namely the specialist of the agrarian history of south India, David Ludden. The next year, 1988, I was in England, and Washbrook had returned by then to his home institution in Warwick. He invited me to his home for a weekend, which we spent mostly arguing over all manner of subjects. It was then, for the first time, that I heard David Washbrook define himself as a "classical Marxist". I will admit that this came as a surprise to me because in India, he was usually identified as part of the 'Cambridge school' of Indian history, which was considered to be a group of conservative apologists for the empire. In the simplistic representation that was usually laid out for students, historians of the colonial period were composed of two ideological camps: 'nationalists' and 'apologists'. The former included Congress-friendly historians, as well as the card-carrying members of the Left, while the latter was thought to include most British historians, as well as some Indians such as Dharma Kumar (who had been accused recently of denying the impact of colonialism by iconic Left figures like Irfan Habib). If one accepted the terms of this 'Manichaean' conception (the term is Dharma's), not only was it necessary to slot everyone into one or the other side, but all subtlety and nuance disappeared. How, for example, did one classify American historians such as Bernard Cohn, who had by then written a handful of ground-breaking essays? Were left-leaning Japanese historians such as Toru Matsui and Hiroshi Fukuzawa to be placed in the camp of the 'nationalists'? The potential hilarity resulting from this reductio ad absurdum was quite considerable. A further complication was that a number of even the self-avowed nationalists (such as the influential but astonishingly unproductive Barun De) had done their doctorates in Oxbridge and were inordinately proud of their degrees. Some, like Tapan Raychaudhuri, were apparently in such awe of the Oxbridge stamp that they did a second doctorate there, after having done a first one in Kolkata. One reads Raychaudhuri's autobiography with the sense of a man pathetically torn between opposing sentiments for the former coloniser: while constantly insisting on his sense of being disdained by Oxbridge, it was nevertheless there that he spent the twenty final years of his active professional career, teaching Southasian history at St Antony's College.
Raychaudhuri was a vocal and sarcastic, yet intelligent, critic of the 'Cambridge school'. In an extended review-essay he published of recent work on nationalism and politics in India in 1979, he began by noting that "this description [as a school] is not accepted by the historians in question, who rightly emphasise individuality and distinctiveness of their several approaches to the subject". He then added: "Yet in their analysis and substantive conclusions probably they have enough in common to justify their being treated as a 'school'." Focusing in particular on the works of Washbrook, Baker and Tomlinson, and contrasting their production to that of a somewhat varied set of Indian historians, Raychaudhuri emphasised that the Cambridge historians were primarily concerned to bring out the venality and calculation of the chief Indian political actors. Politics thus consisted of the building of "networks of alliances" based on a "hard logic of self-interest". However, Raychaudhuri was also careful to point out that few or no noble motives were attributed to the British either, so that any claims that these writings were "neo-colonial" in nature were to his mind "grossly unfair". What troubled him was the disappearance of both idealism and ideology from the spectrum of human motives in the conduct of politics. Thus, he writes: "Man in society is seen as being, above everything else, a creature in relentless pursuit of rationally calculated clearly defined specific material ends in the short term. In explaining human behaviour this quest for immediate gains is conceded the place of honour without any qualifications. Differences in personality, culture, social expectations, historical circumstances and the like apparently leave no marks on this granite bedrock of man's aspirations". Since Raychaudhuri had spent a number of years teaching at the Delhi School of Economics, he may even have sniffed an advance odour here of what would come to be called the "rational choice" approach to the social sciences.

In the simplistic representation that was usually laid out for students, historians of the colonial period were composed of two ideological camps: 'nationalists' and 'apologists'.

Raychaudhuri's critique had been preceded by another one a couple of years earlier, which he cited with broad approval, authored by his own predecessor at St Antony's, Sarvepalli Gopal. Gopal was a formidable establishment figure in India, son of a former president, an Anglophile and also a Nehruvian, who comfortably navigated many worlds with none of the angst that one sees in Raychaudhuri's autobiographical writings. In the 1950s, he had been closely associated in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs with Nehru's China policy; and later, while at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, he wrote a polished and fluent but rather uncritical multi-volume biography of India's first prime minister (which infamously ends by calling him, in the treacly vocabulary of Camelot, "India's once and – we may hope – future king"). Gopal excoriated Washbrook and Baker's approach to Indian political history; as successors of the infamous Lewis Namier, they had begun by taking "the mind out of politics", but then "taken not only the mind but decency, character, integrity and selfless commitment out of the Indian national movement". While acknowledging "the thoroughness with which detail has been collected from the most varied official sources", he accused them of suppressing many inconvenient implications of their own data, which he stated often did not fit their own theses.
Raychaudhuri's and Gopal's critiques were joined by those of a number of American scholars, who had in fact been the first targets of Washbrook's polemics, in the form of extended book reviews published from the early 1970s onwards in the young Cambridge-based journal Modern Asian Studies (founded in 1967). Perhaps the most interesting of these was a review-essay penned in 1979 (the same year as Raychaudhuri's critique) by Howard Spodek, a Chicago-trained specialist of western India. Spodek noted that the Cambridge "group" or "cluster" had already "fissioned" by the end of the 1970s, and that its polemical force had in fact papered over a significant set of technical weaknesses; these variously included a "lack of rigor in testing the social science models that implicitly underlie their research; a failure to exploit materials in Indian languages; a degree of isolation from research taking place in other universities". On the last point, Dharma Kumar was less kind when she pointed (in a review of an edited volume from the 'Cambridge school' published in 1978), to "the quaint Cambridge belief that practically all the light (and none of the heat) on Indian history emanates from that beautiful town".

Washbrook's 1990 essay, 'South Asia, the World System and World Capitalism' is a systematic and highly efficient demolition of the Wallersteinian project, its Eurocentrism, and shallow understanding of the complex histories of regions like Southasia.

After these vigorous exchanges, it is no surprise that the 1980s (the decade when I met David Washbrook) was a time of stocktaking and reorientation in this group of historians. Chris Bayly was the first to produce a second statement reflecting his revised thinking, in the form of his impressive 1983 monograph Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars, which took him back into the late 18th century and the emergence of East India Company dominance in the Gangetic plain. Engaging variously with the writings of Max Weber, Werner Sombart and other theorists of mercantile activity, Bayly thus emerged as the leading voice among British historians of India in his generation, a position he broadly retained until his death in 2015, in the face of sustained and often unintelligent hostility from historians at Aligarh and a few other centres in India (who felt he was encroaching on their terrain). Washbrook's close early collaborator Chris Baker for his part produced a very substantial tome in 1984 on the agrarian history of the Tamil country between 1880 and 1955; but despite some positive reviews it was rather unfortunately neglected, and Baker then later moved on to a successful career as an historian of Thailand (in collaboration with his spouse, Pasuk Phongpaichit).
It was in these circumstances, I think, that Washbrook – now quite influenced by Burton Stein, who had recently moved to London from Honolulu – began to reconceive his work in a Marxist mould. In view of the rugged materialism of many aspects of his earlier work, the move was not all that startling (at least in hindsight). In point of fact, when one looks back at some of his work from the late 1970s, on the economy of the "dry regions" of the Madras Presidency, one already finds versions of Marxist theses regarding the "forced commercialization" of agriculture there. But what kind of Marxism would it be? Some hints can certainly be found in his complex and extended 70-page essay 'Law, State and Agrarian Society in Colonial India', published in 1981, which also engages with other Marxist scholarship at some length. Washbrook was obviously influenced not only by Burt Stein, and E P Thompson, his colleague at Warwick, but by his younger colleague at Cambridge, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, who wrote on the industrial working class in Mumbai. But he also had little patience with the 'world-systems theory' of Immanuel Wallerstein, which in the 1980s was beginning to make inroads into Southasian studies. Washbrook's 1990 essay, 'South Asia, the World System and World Capitalism' is a systematic and highly efficient demolition of the Wallersteinian project, its Eurocentrism, and shallow understanding of the complex histories of regions like Southasia, and still has a place of honour on my own reading lists.
Interestingly, Washbrook also began from the late 1980s to collaborate with Polly O'Hanlon, who had written extensively on lower-caste movements in colonial Maharashtra, in a series of historiographical essays and comments. These included a celebrated and extended exchange with Gyan Prakash, on the subject of Subaltern Studies, as well as postcolonial studies more generally, which is today regularly taught as a part of historiographical surveys on Southasian history. As I have mentioned above, David Washbrook had taught in Harvard in the late 1980s, besides spending an earlier stint in Philadelphia. What may not be as well-known was that he was in fact offered a permanent position in Harvard, as the first holder of a chair in South Asian History in the early 1990s. After much agonising, he refused (largely for family reasons), and returned to the United Kingdom where he was rewarded with the same position in Oxford that had earlier been held, ironically enough, by Sarvepalli Gopal and Tapan Raychaudhuri. From this Harvard stint however, Washbrook retained a healthy suspicion of the American academy, about which he had an endless fund of devastating anecdotes. These included stories of American scholars who described cricket in colonial India as if it was baseball, with bowlers standing on a mound in the middle of the pitch; or the case of a visiting American historian at Oxbridge, who whipped out a video camera, and began filming colleagues eating at high table. In the O'Hanlon-Washbrook responses to Gyan Prakash, there is a certain element of such disdain for American or Americanised academics, who appear by turns to be dupes and villains. But the most important thread is the British Marxist suspicion of certain forms of "theory", which certainly goes back to Thompson and his writings. It is a stance that one can also find in Chandavarkar's critical remarks about Subaltern Studies. One also encounters echoes of it in the now-forgotten polemical exchange in the late 1990s between Washbrook and the anthropologist Peter van der Veer, who had spent time in the US academy before returning to Europe, which ended with Washbrook delivering a predictable broadside on "the symmetries between the ontology of much post-colonial theory, especially of the variety which van der Veer affects, and that of hegemonic American liberalism in its late twentieth-century context: of an uncomfortable 'alliance between cultural studies, liberal multiculturalism and transnational capitalism', as Terry Eagleton has appositely put it". Similar sarcastic remarks can be found in another of the polemically charged pieces Washbrook wrote, a dismissive review in 2008 of a notoriously shrill and moralising work by one of his bêtes noires, the American academic mandarin Nicholas Dirks. The review concludes en boutade: "Doubtless, the view from the Manhattan high-rise, where Columbia University houses its professors, encourages a sense of occupying the moral high-ground".
The David Washbrook of the 1980s and 1990s thus rediscovered his taste for polemical exchanges, or perhaps he had never lost it, and the essay thus became his preferred form of expression. On the other hand, when the list of titles for the 'New Cambridge History of India' was first announced in the late 1980s, they included a work by Washbrook on 'South India, 1750-1850'. He initially planned this to be a sort of south Indian counterpart to Bayly's celebrated 1983 volume, but with a decidedly Marxist slant to it. But the project never seems to have advanced beyond some rather schematic considerations, which can eventually be found in his 2004 essay 'South India 1770 –1840: The Colonial Transition'. The conclusion of this essay returns more or less to the 1981 essay on law and colonialism: "In effect, Southern [Indian] society became frozen into a series neo-traditional forms—which were maintained across the nineteenth century largely by reducing labour's share in the social product and transferring it to groups elsewhere, both in Britain and in India". The reader of this essay is struck, at the same time, by the broad brushstrokes that are used, and the almost exclusive employment of secondary literature, not only to frame but build the argument. This suggests that the actual construction of the larger monographic work never proceeded very far.

Washbrook retained a healthy suspicion of the American academy, about which he had an endless fund of devastating anecdotes.

The extended period of Washbrook's career, from the time of his taking up the position at St Antony's in Oxford in 1993, and culminating with the last years at Trinity College, Cambridge, always appeared from the outside to be one of frenetic activity. Besides constantly delivering lectures in many institutions, he also threw himself into research supervision on a large scale and advised an astonishingly large number of doctorates after 1993. I was his colleague in Oxford for two years, between 2002 and 2004, and he always seemed to be in the process of juggling any number of commitments from one week to another, including writing for a consultancy on contemporary Indian affairs. He jointly edited several collections of essays and handbooks, delivered a substantial number of chapters for edited volumes, served on the editorial boards of journals, and liked to travel, often to visit adventurous members of his immediate family who lived in exotic places. But over time, the ambition to produce the second substantial monograph faded, and in the last years he spoke instead of writing a general work on modern Indian history. Had he ever completed this work, it is likely that its emphasis would have been on political, social and economic questions. In contrast to his regular collaborator Polly O'Hanlon, it should be said that David always demonstrated a certain discomfort with cultural history. In our last argumentative conversations, after his retirement conference at Trinity in 2014, and the following year again at Cambridge, these questions were brought up (as they had been many times before, when I brought Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman to Oxford), and we finally agreed to disagree.
David Washbrook was a very unusual personality in many respects, especially in Oxbridge academic circles. He and his wife Angela warmly welcomed friends and colleagues to their house, whether in Coventry, or later on Old High Street in Headington, and they had no exaggerated sense of 'British privacy' in this respect. I find it interesting to contrast him in this respect to Chris Bayly, whom one felt always kept an arm's length, and maintained a certain formality and aloofness. But there were also certain things David was uncomfortable about. At his daughter's wedding lunch in July 2002, I remember having an extended conversation with the older Mrs Washbrook, David's mother, while he hovered around anxiously. A charming lady, she told me of having grown up in southern India, and how she went to school in the Nilgiris (where her friends included members of Chennai's well-known Buhari family). Her father, it turned out, had served for an extensive time in the 1930s or 1940s as an engineer in the Southern Railways, in postings such as Perambur and Arakkonam. It was apparently on account of the influence of his maternal grandfather (who played a substantial role in his upbringing) that David made his first visit to southern India, and he made it a point to visit all the old friends and acquaintances of the elderly and ailing Jack Ryan. Some sentiment thus obviously lingered behind the sharp, even cutting, intelligence with which David Washbrook studied southern India, a region to which he remained loyal for over half a century. But on this matter at least, he played his cards close to his chest.
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