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

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. After a Ghilzai Afghan army under Mahmud Hotak (d. 1725) defeated the Safavids and ousted them from power in 1722, it fell to the Safavids’ Qizilbash army to restore order. It was Nader Khan, leader of the Turkic Afshar tribe, who overthrew the Afghans and restored nominal Safavid rule in 1729. I say “nominal” because from that point forward Nader was the real power in Iran.

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7 thoughts on “Today in South Asian history: the Battle of Karnal (1739)

  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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