Documents and diplomacy: a conversation




Nandini Chatterjee, University of Exeter

Guido van Meersbergen, University of Warwick

Leonard Hodges, King’s College London

Callie Wilkinson, University of Warwick

Dominic Vendell, University of Exeter

This past Thursday, 25 March, as we await better opportunities to resume crossing borders – physical, disciplinary and otherwise – a group of scholars working on issues related to diplomacy in South Asia gathered to discuss the current and future state of diplomatic history. More than twenty years on from the earliest statements on New Diplomatic History, the field has expanded well beyond its post-Westphalian European statist limits to encompass new questions, frameworks and methodologies. Indeed, an indication of the changing valences of the category of diplomacy is its intersection with our different areas of thematic interest, ranging from Dutch and English India Company gift exchange to Mughal law to Maratha state-formation to French imperial sovereignty to the making of Company paramountcy.

Among the most influential paradigms for new diplomatic histories has been Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s framework of a connected history of early modern Eurasia. Diplomacy, after all, was not just a means of connecting different polities and political communities, but also a site for myriad forms of social, cultural, and economic exchange.  Yet the group recognized the continuing need for accounts of encounter and exchange that de-centre elite agents, sources, and narratives: the residential ambassador successfully settling a treaty of “permanent peace,” if you will. By adopting a more practice-oriented perspective, diplomatic history might shed light on the local networks of power and influence that embraced a plurality of go-betweens who navigated court, camp, and household.

Alongside the question of the sociology of diplomacy, the group considered how the field might push towards a more complex conception of diplomatic culture. If we think about the constellation of practices that figured into interactions for which we have the richest descriptions, we will come across highly elaborate norms and rituals. Among these the group was especially drawn to those related to bodily gesture, expression, and comportment. For example, physical intimacy was integral the kissing of the feet (in Persian, pa-bos) and the donning of the robe of honour (khilat); however, how did individuals strike the right balance between proximity and distance amidst anxieties about pollution, sacrilege, and disrespect? While there is much more research to be done on specific ritual acts, the group agreed that the body may be a fruitful site of inquiry for historians of diplomacy.

Draft farman requested by Nicholas Waite and William Norris

Finally, the group agreed that far more attention needs to be paid to the nitty-gritty of everyday diplomatic work. Gifts held symbolic value, but they were also valuable in monetary terms. Recipients of gifts often mounted took great pains to record the value and cost of gifts, leaving behind stacks of fascinating, but overlooked financial accounts. Likewise, treaties and correspondence were drafted, copied, translated, and registered, and sometimes it is only the draft or the copy that remains for the historian. The Lawforms project is particularly interested in pursuing the question of how diplomatic documentation was generated, managed, and stored, as part of its broader interest in the archival practices undergirding “paper empires.”

How can we make sense of the messiness of diplomatic archives? One potential avenue of inquiry may be to examine diplomatic writing as a reiterative process across languages, scripts, and genres of writing. Delegations of the East India Company to the Mughal court, including that of William Norris in 1699-1702, produced drafts of imperial farmans in the form of articles of agreement (see image above right). For further information about these documents, check out the upcoming critical edition of the Norris embassy diaries currently being prepared for the Hakluyt Society by Adam Clulow, Georgia O’Connor, Archisman Chaudhuri, and Guido van Meersbergen. 

With this exciting range of questions, the group looks forward to future opportunities to continue and expand the dialogue. Fortunately, Guido van Meersbergen, Lisa Hellman and Birgit Tremml-Werner are planning a fantastic venue for such conversations: a Global Diplomacy Network which will be launched at a virtual meeting on 18 May. If you are interested in attending the meeting or learning more about the network, please contact Birgit Tremml-Werner at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.