Today in South Asian history: the Battle of Karnal (1739)

nadershahpainting
Portrait of Nader Shah (Wikimedia)

Nader Shah (d. 1747) is often considered the last of the great (in the sense of “impressive,” not “good”) Central Asian conquerors, after Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane), and (depending on who’s making the list) assorted other figures like the first Mughal Emperor Babur. He also the man who kept Iran more or less intact after the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in the early 18th century. The Safavids were defeated and removed from power in 1722 by a Ghilzai Afghan army under Mahmud Hotak (d. 1725), and it was Nader (Nader Khan at the time), leader of the Afshar tribe that was part of the Safavids’ Turkic Qizilbash military base, who defeated the Afghans and restored nominal Safavid rule in 1729. This mostly fictitious Safavid revival lasted all of seven years before Nader got tired of the charade and assumed the throne himself, now as Nader Shah, in 1736. At a time when Iran was at its most vulnerable, Nader’s commanding reign and considerable military prowess not only defended its territory from outside threats but actually increased its regional power. He had, for example, more military success against the Ottomans than any of his Safavid predecessors–though, to be fair, the Ottomans were a lot weaker in the 1730s than they were in, say, the 1550s.

In addition to formally closing the book on the Safavids, one of the three Islamic “Gunpowder Empires” of the early modern (16th-18th century) period, Nader also helped hasten the downfall of a second: India’s Mughal dynasty, and he did it in one dramatic and brutally violent invasion in the late 1730s. The Shiʿa Safavids and Sunni Mughals had been close allies at one time–here’s something to bring up the next time somebody tells you that Sunnis and Shiʿites have “never gotten along.” Safavid military aid helped Babur found the Mughal dynasty in 1526 and had been instrumental in restoring Babur’s son, Humayun, to the throne in 1555 after he’d been forced out of power several years earlier. But as the Safavids had waned and the Mughals had gotten stronger, the two empires began to feud, albeit with relatively minor levels of violence, over the cities of Kandahar and Kabul. Nader conquered Kandahar in 1738, as he was chasing the remnants of the Ghilzai Afghans out of Iran. When those Afghans sought refuge in Mughal territory, and the Mughals didn’t take any steps to intervene, Nader decided to keep marching his army right on into northern India.

Map - Iran n 18th C
Iran in the 18th century, featuring the campaigns of Nader Shah

By 1738 the Mughals were in steep decline, just as the Safavids had been in 1722. The apex of Mughal power and success had come under Akbar (r. 1556-1605), Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), and Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658), rulers who went to great lengths to treat India’s Hindu majority (“majority” doesn’t really do it justice; the Mughals were always vastly outnumbered from a religious perspective) with respect. Under Awrangzeb (r. 1658-1707), however, that pluralism was replaced by a heavy emphasis on Islam and the exclusion and even persecution of Hindus and Hinduism. Consequently, there was a major increase in Hindu revolts against Mughal rule and an overall weakening of Mughal authority. However, their empire still controlled considerable wealth (India, because it did a lot more selling than buying in the east-west trade network, accumulated wealth for most of its history until modern times). They were definitely ripe for Nader’s invasion.

It took the Mughals, under Emperor Muhammad Shah (d. 1748), a while to get themselves together to meet Nader’s invasion, and in the meantime Nader kept taking cities–Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore. Finally, on February 24 1739, the two armies met at Karnal, just 75 miles north of the Mughal capital, Delhi. The Mughals had left Delhi in December, but their army was so large and immobile that it took two months just to get to Karnal, and once there it could go no further. Sources say the Mughal army was 300,000 men strong, which sounds large, but as a defensive force in a very large and very wealthy empire in 1739 it’s probably not that outrageous. Nader Shah certainly had far fewer men with him, probably 50,000-100,000 real fighting troops (as with any army on campaign, there would have been thousands more support personnel). Still, Nader’s army was better equipped, better trained, and had considerably more experience fighting together than Muhammad Shah’s army did. Muhammad Shah was also out of his depth as a commander–he rarely sent out any reconnaissance, for example, while Nader was constantly sending riders out to bring him new information.

Muhammad Shah had his army build large earthen works and stationed his heavy artillery (the Mughals had to bring big siege guns with them because they lacked nimbler and ultimately more useful field artillery) all around it. This made a formidable target for Nader, but unfortunately for the Mughals it was also an irrelevant target–Nader could simply march around it and continue on to Delhi. He decided to take a course through a plain to the east of the Mughal camp, reasoning that he would either draw Muhammad Shah out to fight him on the plain or, if Muhammad Shah wouldn’t come out, simply keep marching on to the capital, and the vast treasures contained therein.

As luck would have it, a column of maybe 30,000 men was heading to join the Mughals from the east, under a Mughal official named Saʿadat Khan. Nader saw this as a chance to have the battle he wanted on his terms, so after the bulk of Saʿadat Khan’s force had arrived at Karnal, the Iranians attacked his lagging supply train. Saʿadat impetuously turned around and led a few thousand of his men back out of Karnal to drive the Iranians off. Another force of several thousand Mughal cavalry rode out to support him. Nader sent out two units of his own cavalry to attack the two Mughal forces and then immediately retreat, which drew the Mughals toward two different points along the main Iranian line. Both Mughal columns were virtually wiped out by the main Iranian force, though Saʿadat Khan’s men put up quite a fight despite being vastly outnumbered.

That was the battle. Considering that the Mughal army may have been 300,000 strong, Karnal could have been a much bigger fight. As it was the Mughals lost in the neighborhood of 20,000 men (between 10,000 and 30,000 seems to be the range of estimates), compared to around 1000 lost to the Iranians. And while that was less than 10% of the Mughal army, it was enough. Muhammad Shah presented himself before Nader on February 26, and, after what appears to have been a very cordial meeting, surrendered his empire to Nader, who magnanimously settled for being its “master” while leaving Muhammad Shah on the throne as his vassal. Still, Nader refused to allow the Mughal army to leave its encampment, and gradually it ran out of supplies and people began to starve. On March 7, Nader forced Muhammad Shah to pay him a massive tribute, then he disbanded the Mughal army after confiscating its artillery pieces and its officers.

Nader Shah’s India campaign wasn’t over. His army now did march to Delhi, where it perpetrated a massacre that is notorious even by the standards of those Central Asian conquerors I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. But that’s a story for another time.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

9 thoughts

  1. Interesting Historical figure It seems that is a bit neglected in the modern historiography. I’ve read Axworthy’s Biography on him and I’m surprised to know that his was probably the finest military machine in THE WORLD at the time. Also the Ottomans seemed to have been still very powerful given that they not only routed the Austrians decisively TWICE in 1737 and 1739 but also took back azov from russia, which makes me think that the notion that thewest was more powerfl than other areas as of 1500 AD is a complete and utter nonsense.Seems that the islamic world went downhill after 1750.Anyway excellent article.What do you think was the power balance as of early to mid 18th Century?

  2. Interesting Historical figure It seems that is a bit neglected in the modern historiography. I’ve read Axworthy’s Biography on him and I’m surprised to know that his was probably the finest military machine in THE WORLD at the time. Also the Ottomans seemed to have been still very powerful given that they not only routed the Austrians decisively TWICE in 1737 and 1739 but also took back azov from russia, which makes me think that the notion that thewest was more powerfl than other areas as of 1500 AD is a complete and utter nonsense.Seems that the islamic world went downhill after 1750.Anyway excellent article.What do you think was the Global power balance as of early to mid 18th Century?wold love to know your opinion.

    1. The mid 18th century is a transitional period where the rising strength of Europe really began to manifest itself. By the end of the century (1789 per Eric Hobsbawm, 1750 for Peter Stearns), Europe was clearly the global power, and the “long 19th century” that followed (through the start of World War I) was a century marked by European global dominance.

      I think it’s safe to say that the Ottomans were still strong enough, relatively, in the early 1700s that things like better preparation, smarter generalship, etc. could swing things their way. But they lost ground in technology and training very quickly in the 19th century, and of course the rise of nationalism hit the empire very hard. They were eventually able to recover somewhat, though, to the point that the Ottomans put up a strong fight at several points during World War I.

      1. I bet world history would have been VERY changed had nader stayed in India or Pursued the Conquest of The Ottoman Empire,maybe created a united Neo-Persian Achemenid empire.Its a shame there’s so little research on him.

  3. Nader is definitely an unfairly neglected figure! He really killed not one but two major empires — finished off the Safavids, and then gave the Mughals a blow from which they never recovered.

    A thing that’s not widely appreciated: by crippling the Mughals, Nader Shah created a power vacuum that the French and English were able to take advantage of. At the time of the battle, Clive was a teenage boy in Shropshire. He would arrive in India five years later, and the dramatic expansion of the British East India Company would begin shortly thereafter. So Nader Shah was really the godfather of the British Raj.

    Doug M.

      1. It’s a bit like asking who did more to wreck Rome — Commodus and his awful successors in the early 3rd century, or Attila 150 years later. And I hesitate to put everything on one bad ruler. Yes, Aurangzeb was a disaster, but was he really that much worse than some of the Ottoman Sultans?

        The Mughal state was already in deep trouble by the 1730s. But while it had been weakened and partially discredited, it still exercised real power over most of the subcontinent, and the Shah could still enforce his writ against independent-minded local rulers if he really cared to. Nader Shah crushed the main Mughal field army, burned and sacked the capital after a brutal massacre, and marched off with the entire Mughal treasury plus the Peacock Throne. The Mughals never recovered.

        The Ottoman experience showed that a traditional early modern Islamic gunpowder empire could be surprisingly resilient in the face of European commercial and military expansion. The Mughals had problems that the Ottomans didn’t — most notably, they were never more than a small ruling minority — but on the other hand, they were a lot further away from Europe, and so should have been that much less vulnerable.

        Of the major Asian states of the early modern period — the Ottomans, Persia, Mughal India, China and Japan — only one ended up flat-out conquered by Europeans. There are a lot of reasons for that, sure. But the Mughals are the only state whose power got decisively broken just as Europeans were appearing on the scene in force.

        Doug M.

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