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Nature of Gunpowder Artillery in India during the Sixteenth Century – a Reappraisal of the Impact of European Gunnery

  • Iqtidar Alam Khan


The opening line of Abu'l Faẓl's notice in Ā'īn-i Akbarī on “top” (gunpowder artillery) describes it as “a wonderful lock (qufl-i shiqarf) for securing the august edifice of royalty (iqbāl sarā-i jahānbānī) and a key (kulīd-i dilkushā) to the door of conquest (darwāza-i kishwarsitānī)” He then proceeds to claim that except for the Mediterranean/Ottoman territories (Rūmistān), in no other place was gunpowder artillery available in such abundance as in the Mughal Empire. These statements cannot be brushed aside as simple rhetoric. On the contrary, they may well be perceived as reflecting the significance gunpowder artillery had come to acquire with regard to two important matters, namely, (a) strengthening of central authority and (b) rapid military conquests leading to the annexation of vast territories.



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1 Ā'in-i Akbari, i (Lucknow, 1893), p. 82.

2 For a detailed discussion of this evidence see my articles, Early use of cannon and musket in India: A.D. 1442–1526”, Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, XXIV, Part II (1980), pp. 158–64 and “Firearms in Central Asia and Iran during the fifteenth century, and the origin and nature of firearms brought by Babur”, Proceedings of Indian History Congress,56th session,Calcutta,1995, pp. 435–8.

3 Rauẓat al-ṣafā, vi (Lucknow, 1891), p. 242.

4 For references to the use of ra'd/kamān-i ra'd in the Persian texts written in India during fifteenth century see, Ḥakīm, Shihāb, Ma'āsir-i Maḥmūd Shāhī, edited by Ansari, Nurul Hasan (Delhi, 1968), pp. 38, 87 and Gāwān, Maḥmūd, Riyāẓul-Inshā', edited by Chand, Shaikh (Hyderabad, 1948), p. 72. My comments on this evidence may be seen in “Early use of Cannons and Musket in India, A.D. 1442–1526”, cited in n. 2, pp. 162–4.

5 Manucci, Nicolas, Storia do Mogor, tr. Irvine, W., i (London, 19071908), pp. 150–1. For the use of the term “metal” in the contemporary European records to denote “hardened copper or brass” see Tout, T.F. in English Historical Review, XXVI (1911), p. 682.

6 Fitzclarence, , Journal of a Route Across India, 1817–18, cited by Irvine, William, The Army of the Indian Moghuls (reprint, Delhi, 1962), p. 115.

7 Ā'in-i Akbarī, i, p. 83. For a more accurate translation of the relevant passage see Habib, Irfan, “Akbar and technology” in Akbar And His India, ed. Habib, Irfan (Delhi, 1997), p. 142. Cf. Khan, Iqbal Ghani, “Metallurgy in medieval India – the case of the iron cannons”, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress(45th Session at Annamalainagar)(Delhi,1985), pp. 488–9. In his view, one way of forging barrels described by Abu'l Faẓl was also applicable to wrought-iron cannons.

8 Cf. Lal, Hira, Descriptive List of Inscriptions in the Central Provinces and Berar (Nagpur, 1916), p. 73.

9 Cipolla, Carlo M., Guns And Sails in the Early Phase of European Expansion, 1400–1700 (London, 1965), pp. 23–4. In the beginning, iron guns in Europe were mainly made by smiths “from bars of wrought-iron welded into crude tubes which were further strengthened by thick iron hoops shrunk over the tubes”. See also Tout, T.F., op. cit., p. 682.

10 The Travels ofLudovico di Varthema 1503–1508, tr. Jones, J.W. and Badger, G.P. (London, 1863), pp. 50–1.

11 Cf. Cipolla, Carlo M., Guns and Sails, pp. 22–3 and Tout, T.F., op. cit., p. 682.

12 According to Djurdjice Petrovic (”Firearms in the Balkans on the eve of and after the Ottoman conquests of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries” in War Technology and Society in the Middle East, ed. Parry, V.J. and Yapp, M.E., London, 1975, pp. 175–6), artillery in the Balkans during the fifteenth century consisted of cannons that were larger than those of the preceding century. That subsequently this tendency to make large cannons spread to the Ottoman Empire is indicated by the presence of mortars, including wrought-iron ones, in the Ottoman artillery during the first quarter of the sixteenth century. For references to one such gun, a wrought-iron muzzle loading cannon made in 1516 and to an inventory of Ottoman cannons including wrought-iron mortars present at Jedda in 1525, see Guilmartin, J.F. Jr, Gunpowder And Galleys: Changing Technology And Mediterranean Warfare at Sea In The Sixteenth Century (London, 1974), p. 11, n. 5.

13 Rauẓat al-ṣafā, vi, p. 242.

14 Cf. Bābur-Nāma, (Vaqāyi'), ed. Mano, Eiji (Kyoto, 1995), pp. 487–8, and Beveridge, A.S., The Bābur-nāma in English (reprint, London, 1969), pp. 536, 588.

15 See Guilmartin, , Gunpowder and Galleys, p. 11 for reference to a Portuguese account commenting that Salman Reis's artillery in the Red Sea which included wrought-iron mortars was of Ottoman origin. His own assessment is that from sixteenth century standards these were “first-class guns fired by first-class gunners”.

16 The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema, 1503–1508, p. 262.

17 Cipolla, Carlo M., Guns and Sails, p. 28. According to a contemporary Italian text cited by the author, already by 1494, French armies invading Italy were carrying light guns, all cast in bronze which “were drawn by horses with such dexterity that they could keep up with the marching speed of army”. These guns were “shot at very short intervals”.

18 On ẓarbozans, compare Bābur-nāma in English, pp. 569, 656. A.S. Beveridge has translated the term ẓarbozan as “culverine”. For William Irvine's brief notice, see The Army of the Indian Moghuls, p. 113.

19 Habib, Irfan, “The technology and economy of Mughal India”, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, XVII, No. 1, p. 19. Compare also Khan, Iqbal Ghani, “Metallurgy in medieval India” in The Technology in Ancient and Medieval India, ed. Roy, Aniruddha and Bagchi, S.K. (Delhi, 1986), p. 74 where, in addition to the primitive nature of bellows, the inefficiency of “Indian furnaces” is also ascribed to the “refractory nature” of clay as well as continued reliance on wood charcoal.

20 Parker, Geoffrey, The Military Revolution (Cambridge, 1988), p. 128.

21 Travels of Thevenot and Careri, tr. and ed. Sinha, S.N. (New Delhi, 1949), p. 62.

22 ‘Abbās Khān Sarwāni mentions Sher Shāh's requisitioning of all the copper available in the market as well as in the households of troopers in the form of utensils for making cannons (deg-hā) during the siege of Raisen in 1543 (Tārikh-i Sher Shāhī MS., India Office, Ethe 219, f. 95a). Again during the siege ofKalinjarin 1545, according to 'Abdullāh, Sher Shāh made four thousand cannons (deg-hā-i ātishbāzī) each one of which weighed four mann, one Akbarī mann being equal to 5.32 lbs. (Tārikh-i Dāwūdī, ed. by Rashīd, Shaikh 'Abdur, Alilgarh, 1954, p. 158).

23 The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema, 1503–1508, p. 262.

24 Bābur-Nāma (Vaqāyi'), ed. Mano, Eiji, p. 488;Beveridge, A.S., Bābur-nāma in English, p. 536.

25 Compare Qaisar, Ahsan Jan, The Indian Response to European Technology and Culture (A.D. 1498–1707) (New Delhi, 1982), p. 47. While reproducing Varthema's passage containing this statement, Qaisar fails to grasp its real import.

26 An anonymous account by “a Florentine nobleman” of Vasco da Gama's landing at Calicut was printed by Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485–1557). It speaks of an Indian pilot who accompanied Vasco da Gama to Lisbon in 1499. This Indian pilot is reported to have told the author of the account that “foreign” ships had landed in Calicut eighty years before (i.e. in 1419). These ships carried “bombards” which were much shorter than “the modern one”. Twenty or twenty-five of these ships returned every two or three years. Cf. Partington, , History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 222–5. Compare, Digby, Simon in The Cambridge Economic History of India, i, c. 1200–c. 1750, ed. Raychaudhuri, Tapan and Habib, Irfan (Cambridge, 1982), p. 150: “ In the decades immediately before the arrival of Vasco da Gama knowledge of firearms was spreading around the Indian Ocean and in the isles of Indonesia”.

27 Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. V, Part 7 (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 290–2.

28 Habib, Irfan, “Technology and barrier to technological change in Mughal India”, (presented at Symposium on “Problems of Acclimatization of Foreign Technology”,Tokyo,25–8 February 1980),Indian Historical Review, V, Numbers 1–2, p. 166.

29 Cipolla, Carlo M., Guns and Sails, p. 27: “By the middle of the fifteenth century the core of the European artillery was represented by huge bombards of wrought-iron”.

30 For a detailed notice on Malik Maidan, see Cousins, Henry, Bijapur and Its Architectural Remains (Bombay, 1916), pp. 2931. Compare Irvine, William, The Army of the Indian Moghuls, p. 124.

31 'Abdu'l Qādir Badāūni, Muntakhab ut Tāwārīkh, i, ed. by Ali, Ahmad, Ahmad, Kabir al-din and Lees, W.N., Bib. Ind., p. 412. Some of Islam Shāh's guns were so large that each one of them was dragged by one to two thousand men. Cf. Akbar's letter to Mun'im Khan entitled Fatḥ Namā-i Gujarāt, MS., Maulana Azad Library, AMU Aligarh, University Collection, Persian, Akhbār, No. 171, where Akbar mentions fifty large Islam Shāhi cannons (top-i kalān-i Islām Shāhī) still present at Agra around 1572. For an English translation of the document see my book, Political Biography of a Mughal Noble: Mun'im Khān Khān-i Khānān, 1497–1575 (New Delhi, 1973), pp. 125–30.

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