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A Great War in South India Review

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Perhaps the longest and most hard-fought of all of the British wars in India were the four Anglo-Mysorean wars, a succession of bitterly fought conflicts between the Kingdom of Mysore and Britain/The East India Company. This half-century of war completed a long period of instability and conflict in the south of India, which can in many ways be compared to the Thirty Years’ War in Europe for the devastation, damage, and suffering inflicted on the Carnatic population. A Great War in South India: German Accounts of the Mysore Wars, 1766-1799, which is edited by Ravi Ahuja and Martin Christof-Füschle as a collection of various authors, gives a look at the social dynamics of the conflict but also expands it with a list of German military men and Danish missionary observers. This helps to internationalize and broaden perspectives on the war, making for a good addition to understanding of the war.

There is a mixture of primary and secondary sources. The secondary sources list is extremely long, and in of itself makes for a useful component of the book, since it is a good reference to other works on the subject. This secondary introduction and other chapters throughout give useful context, describing the contours and effects of the war, such as how it impacted urban dynamics - where an intriguing comparison is the creation of the massive baggage trains associated with company armies, where multiple camp followers were there for every British soldiers. This war economy, of roving bands of mercenary troops and raids on agriculture and plunder is similar in many regards to the Thirty Years’ War.

The primary source documents are somewhat harder to treat, but also reveal fascinating things, such as British-German relations beyond Europe and non-British attitudes towards Indians, which seemed to be notably less condescending than the average British perspective. The documents themselves however, are not translated from German, so are inaccessible to those who don’t read the language. Judging from one of the texts which is in English however, a picture on the military geography geography of the Carnatics, the sylistic differences would make these just as much of a slog to get through barring some very extensive reworking and rewriting of the text, translation aside. Thus the general summaries that are provided are mostly sufficient. That much of the text is effectively locked away renders the book much shorter than its ostensible length appears.

There’s some excellent general overviews of broad developments in South India’s precolonial socio-military history, and the Carnatic’s role in the Anglo-Mysore Wars. The German component shines additional light on mentalities, attitudes, and European perspectives of Mysore. But its a shame that additional letters, such as a comparative look at an English primary source document, aren’t provided to give additional fruit for analysis. Despite its length, the book feels less full and revelatory than it could have been. The primary sources from missionaries and German military officers show that it was an international war and that the Germans had different views on it than the British, but they're just a refinement of our perspectives on the conflict rather than dramatically expanding it. It's still a useful book, especially given the excellent overall history and social perspectives, and one which shows that there are still new sources to discover, but sometimes it is underwhelming.

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