15 minutes of fame | Margaret MacMillan chooses Babur
As part of our series exploring lost or lesser-known figures from history who deserve their 15 minutes of fame, historian Margaret MacMillan explains why she chose Babur
Who was Babur?
Babur, a descendant of two great conquerors Genghis Khan and Timur (also known as Tamerlane), was the founder of the Mughal empire in the 16th century, which would control large swathes of South Asia until the 19th century. “He was, and I think remains, a very interesting person indeed,” says Professor Margaret MacMillan. “And what’s so interesting about him, amongst other things, is that he kept a diary.”
Born in 1483, Babur became the ruler of the small principality of Fergana (modern-day Uzbekistan) at just 12 years old, after his father died when his weight caused the dovecote that he was standing in to collapse and tumble into a ravine below his palace. Babur’s inheritance was not accepted willingly by his uncles, who relentlessly sought to take the position from him, and “he spent a great deal of his early life fighting.”
These details are known from the “extraordinary” record of his life that Babur kept, Babur-nameh. Such a record is rare, as rulers were not often literate. “I cannot think of another powerful ruler, emperor, or monarch before the last couple of centuries who wrote a diary,” explains MacMillan.
For the first decade of his rule, Babur was in near-constant conflict to seize lands in Asia, particularly the city of Samarkand. He failed many times, and ended up losing Fergana too, so that he considered giving up and residing in China. Instead, he headed south into present-day Afghanistan.
In 1504, he captured the strategically important city of Kabul, before eventually taking Kandahar too. Now in control of a substantial kingdom, Babur looked to the east to expand. In the 1520s, he launched his conquest of north India and, with his modernised and trained armies, was able to achieve significant victories and make consecutive gains.
“By the grace of the Almighty God, this difficult task was made easy to me and that mighty army, in the space of a half a day was laid in dust,” he wrote in his diary after one battle in 1526.
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Despite being surrounded by hostile regions, regular Afghan attacks on Kabul for him to contend with, and the threat of rebellion among his own followers, Babur came to secure his lands and control much of north and central India. His Mughal empire was the largest until the arrival of the British; a multi-ethnic, multi-religious dominion.
Whilst MacMillan wishes to avoid the idealisation of Babur, she explains that he was also “a very great fighter”. He not only had a capacity for combat, but for keeping people by his side due to his skills as a diplomat. He could learn from his mistakes and – allowing for the fact that his own memoirs are the primary source for this – he seems to have encouraged people to critique him.
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However, MacMillan notes that Babur could be “pretty ruthless”. He was a man who knew what he wanted; he would make alliances, then abandon them when they no longer proved useful.
Someone who did not experience this ruthlessness was Babur’s son, Humayun. He became emperor following his father’s death, in 1530, and there are records of the “rather touching letters” Babur sent him. Within these, he provided advice and requested that he keep in touch. “You get a sense that he’s a bit worried Humayun is not up to the job,” MacMillan explains. “I think he did worry, as people in powerful positions often do, about his legacy.”
Regarding Babur’s legacy, Macmillan says, “He’s not as well-known as he should be.” She believes this could be because his memoirs were not, for a long time, translated into English, but since a newer translation there has been more interest in him. “I think more is being written about the Mughal empire, so perhaps Babur should be better known.”
Why does Babur deserve his 15 minutes of fame?
“He deserves his 15 minutes of fame partly because he made a difference in history,” says MacMillan. “He created the Mughal empire and has left his mark on India.
“But I think we should remember him,” she adds, “because he is one of those voices who does provide a connection with the past.”
Margaret MacMillan is emeritus professor of history at the University of Toronto and of international history at the University of Oxford, specialising in British imperial history and the international history of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her latest book is War: how conflict shaped us (Random House, 2020)
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