Eighteenth Century, Asia and the Pacific


Many of the premodern state systems of Asia attained their peaks of power and development during the 18th century.

Some states underwent political revivification, but a greater number entered into a slow but steady decline because of internal problems of a largely traditional nature. Although some Western nations had long-established relations with Asian states, European power and influence, both political and military, were confined mainly to the Indian subcontinent and insular Southeast Asia.

Eighteenth Century : Asia and the Pacific

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The Ottoman Empire

The decline that had begun in the Ottoman Turkish Empire during the 17th century continued throughout the 18th. The sultans were men of mediocre ability. The high officials at the capital, Constantinople, were too often inefficient and corrupt, while the interests of the imperial government were commonly neglected on the local level. The reforms so urgently needed were constantly put off.

After their unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683, the Turks retreated in Europe, losing to the Habsburgs Hungary, including Croatia and Transylvania, but retaining control of the Balkans. Simultaneously, they began to encounter increasing pressure from Russia. Starting with Peter the Great, Russian czars began to press against the border areas of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, the Crimea, and the Caucasus. The high point of the Russian drive in the 18th century was marked by the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji (1774), provisions of which were to be exploited by Russia in the 19th century.

The Turks fared somewhat better in Anatolia. The decline and fail of the Safavid dynasty in Iran brought to the throne a line of shahs whose expansionist efforts were directed primarily toward the east and north, rather than westward against Turkey. In the more outlying areas of the Ottoman Empire—in the Arab and North African lands—Turkish authority had never been deeply implanted, even when the imperial power was at its peak. In these regions Ottoman authority began to crumble during the 18th century, and in most of North Africa from Egypt to Morocco it became merely nominal. The Mamluks (Mamelukes) in Egypt, although long past their prime, took increasing control of the government at Cairo in the name of their Turkish overlords. An invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 resulted in French occupation and administration of the country for three years. With the defeated Mamluks discredited and Egypt thrust into the maelstrom of European politics, modernization was promoted. Sueh regions as the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, and Iraq continued to be subject to Turkish overlordship, but, increasingly, local Arab potentates exercised actual political power.


The Arabs and Wahhabism

During the latter half of the 18th century the states of the Arabian Peninsula were swept by the Islamic reform movement known as Wahhabism. its followers, intent on purifying their faith by purging it of immorality and of accretions sueh as saint worship and the veneration of tombs, carried their crusade into the many lands to the south and east of Ottoman Turkey. By the close of the century Wahhabism was curbed, although its influence was stili felt in many parts of islam.

Iran (Persia)

The Safavid dynasty in Iran was nearing its end as the 18th century began. The coup de grace was delivered in 1722 by the Afghans, whose incursions left the country in turmoil for over a decade. The empire was finally welded together again by Nadir Shah (reigned 1736-1747). He not only brought the Afghans under Iranian hegemony but also invaded India and in 1739 sacked Delhi, capital of the Mughul Empire. After his death Iran enjoyed domestic peace once Karim Shah had made himself undisputed ruler in 1757. His reign (1750-1779) was followed by a power struggle from which Aga Muhammad Shah, founder of the Kajar dynasty, emerged victorious. Although Muhammad’s reign (1796-1797) was brief, his dynasty ruled until 1925.


In the opening years of the 18th century the Mughul (Mogul) Empire in India, built by Müslim conquerors in the 16th century, began to crack. Emperor Aurangzeb’s long and fanatical struggle to extend Mughul power farther into south India had provoked stubborn resistance by local Hindu peoples. When Aurangzeb died in 1707 after almost a half century of rule, defiance of Mughul authority became increasingly common. Not only did independent or autonomous states begin to spring from the imperial realm, but ambitious leaders displayed their hopes of succeeding to the mantle of empire. The most noteworthy of the non-Muslim opponents of Mughul ascendancy were the Sikhs of the northwest and the Hindu Marathas and Rajputs of the west. In the south, the states of Hyderabad and Mysore broke away from Mughul control, though each continued under Müslim rule. Thus Mughul power during the 18th century was gradually reduced to the general region of the Ganges River plain.

By the beginning of the 18th century, the British and French had outstripped the Portuguese and Dutch as the foremost European traders in India. The Anglo-French rivalry for commercial advantage became increasingly bitter, and in 1744-1748, during the War of the Austrian Succession, the British and French fought each other in India as well as in Europe. The hostilities were resumed in India during the following decade when the British, led by Robert Clive, put an end to French dreams of empire in the Indian subcontinent. From the achievement and momentum furnished by Clive, the British were to lay the foundations of their Indian empire.

The successes of the English East India Company had slowly transformed it into a political and military entity in India. For that reason Parliament undertook to control the trading company’s powers, first, by passing the regulating act of 1773. Warren Hastings, the first governor general appointed under the act, held authority over the British possessions in India until 1785. An administrative and military genius, he both strengthened and extended the British domain. The powers of the East India Company were further reduced in 1784 when Parliament passed the India Act, for ali practical purposes restricting the company’s purview of action to commerce. In 1786 a new governor general was appointed, Lord Cornwallis ..of American Revolution fame. His most lasting achievements during his seven years in the post were the organization of what was to become the Indian civil service and the inauguration of the permanent revenue settlement, regulating land ownership and tax matters.


At the turn of the 18th century the Chinese Empire, ruled by the Ch’ing dynasty established by the Manchus in 1644, was one of the strongest and best-ordered states in the world. This fact reflects the skill with which the numerically inferior Manchu conquerors of China exploited the traditional administrative practices of the Chinese to uphold their own rule. Much of the credit for this achievement is due to the second emperor of the dynasty, K’ang Hsi (reigned 1661-1722). He was succeeded by the able Yung Cheng (reigned 1723-1735), who in turn was followed by Ch’ien Lung (reigned 1736-1796). The fact that only four men held the imperial title during the first 150 years of the Ch’ing dynasty contributed greatly to the empire’s political stability.

During the greater part of the 18th century, China enjoyed widespread domestic peace. Doubtless reflecting this situation was the steady increase in population, which rose from an estimated 200 million in 1700 to 300 million in 1800. For the larger part of the century the Chinese succeeded in raising agricultural productivity, so that for many years the buildup of population pressure did not stimulate peasant disorders. But evidence that agrarian problems would become increasingly acute was forthcoming in the uprisings of peasants and secret societies toward the end of the period. Many historians have viewed these rebellions as the beginning of the decline of the Ch’ing dynasty, although it continued to rule until 1912.


The foreign relations and trade of the 18th century Chinese Empire were organized and conducted through the tributary system. Almost 200 foreign “states,” large and small, were embraced in the system, and ali acknowledged the supremacy or overlordship of the emperor. With few exeeptions in tlıis period, the system operated smoothly and thus promoted China’s need for security and foreign trade.

Special problems for the Ch’ing dynasty were raised by Westerners who were engaged in both missionary enterprise and commerce. The Jesuits, who had long enjoyed a place at the imperial court, became enmeshed in the early 18th century in a controversy with the imperial government, with the result that Christianity was proscribed in 1724. Moreover, about 1757, Westerners in general, who long had enjoyed considerable freedom in the conduct of trade, were restricted to the single port of Canton and subjected to increasingly complex controls and regulations. During the 18th century foreign traders, notably British, began to import a new commodity, opium, into China. By the end of, the period the opium problem had begun to arouse the concern of the imperial government. The growing importance of Western trade with China finally induced the English and Dutch East India companies to dispatch missions to the imperial court to secure additional tradiug privileges. But both the Macartney mission in 1793 and a Dutch one in 1795 were abortive.

The most acute problem faced by the Chinese Empire in its westem border regions during the 18th century concerned Tibet. Chinese armies were sent into the area on several occasions, and the government of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa was brought under effective Chinese control.


In the 18th century, Korea continued to uphold the primary policy of national seclusion that it had adopted during the preceding century. The second pillar of Korean foreign policy was the nıaintenance of the tributary relationship with China, as a prop for national security. To this end, tribute missions were regularly dispatched to Peking. Partly because of this connection with China, Catholic teachings implanted by Jesuit missionaries in Peking entered Korea.

Isolated Korea continued to stagnate and decline during the century. Despite the enlightened rule of such monarchs of the Yi dynasty as Yongjo (reigned 1724-1776) and Chongjo (reigned 1776-1800 )y political and economic corruption continued to be widespread.


In 1700, Japan entered its second century of rule by the shoguns, or military governors, of the Tokugawa family. By this time the system of centralized feudalism erected by the fîrst four shoguns had produced an unusually strong and stable pplitical and social order. The domestic peace that had been established was to prevail with only minor interruptions during the remaining years of the 18th century. As for the correlated policy of national seclusion, it continued to serve the purposes of the shogunate well. No attempts were made to alter the basic policy during the 18th century, nor were any foreign powers, including Western ones, willing or able to challenge the shogunate’s determination to keep Japan isolated. Within the islands, however, some scholars began to question this policy late in the century.

Domestic peace and flrm rule during the 17th century had brought Japan an economic prosperity that carried over into the early 18th century. The social and cultural implications of the long economic boonı were underscored by the ebullience of the Genroku era (1688—1703). During these years a new pattern of culture, generated by the new class of townspeople, began to crystallize. These cultural forms and activities —kabuki theater, puppet theater, woodblock printing, geisha houses—persisted into the 20th century, declining only after World War II. In Tokugawa Japan they started to flourish in the repidly expanding cities, especially Edo (now Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto. The urbanization trend also brought with it numerous social and economic problems that increasingly vexed the shogunate. Feudal lords and particularly their samurai, or retainers, spent much of their time in the cities, notably Edo, the seat of the shogunate. Their heavy demand for goods and services eventually produced an inflationary spiral. Because of their fixed incomes, samurai especially suffered from the constant rise in costs. The widening impoverishment and economic distress of this key social class compelled the shoguns, from mid-century on, to resort frequently to emergency fiscal and economic measures, though in vain.Samurai discontent and dissatisfaction would ultimately come to a head in the overthrow of the shogunate in the mid-19th century.

The 18th century was also significant in Japan for the emergence of new ideological currents and the peaking of others that had formed during the preceding century. Neo-Confucianism, which had been imported from China by scholars, penetrated deeply and lastingly into the fabric of Japanese social and philosophical values. In ad-dition, the 18th century saw the emergence of nationalist philosophers whose teachings were later to furnish the ideological rationale for the restoration of imperial rule.

Southeast Asia

For much of the 18th century most of Southeast Asia was in political disarray. In the mainland regions of the area, once-strong kingdoms had long since declined or disinte-grated, and the rulers of numerous petty states vied with one another in wars of conquest. In the insular part of Southeast Asia the Dutch East India Company, having acquired secure footholds in Java during the preceding century, extended its domain and organized the territories under its sway for economic exploitation. In the Philippines the Spanish had long since spread tlıeir political and military power through the islands, and Spanish friars labored zealously to Hispanicize the local peoples.

Shortly after midcentury, strong monarchies arose again in several Southeast Asian lands. Burma was reunited under the Konbaung, a dynasty founded by Alaungpaya (reigned 1752-1760). His armies overran Manipur in India, and further foreign concjuests were made by King Bodawpaya (reigned 1782-1819). In Siam (now Thailand) the great state of Ayuthia (Ayutthaya), which had flourished since 1350, had begun to decline steadily at the turn of the 18th century. It received its death blow from the invading Burmese in 1767. The Siamese soon recovered tlıeir strength, however, and in 1782 the Chakri dynasty, which continued to reign in the second half of the 20th century, was founded by Rama I. Because it built Bangkok as its capital, this ruling line is sometimes referred to as the Bangkok dynasty.

From the beginning of the 17th century until the opening of the 19th, the kingdom of Vietnam, nominally under the rule of the Le dynasty, was divided into a northern and a southern realm. Often during these 200 years, the two states were at war with each other. The southern state, ruled by the Nguyen family, extended its power south-ward, absorbing the fertile lands of the Mekong River delta. The struggle between north and south flared up again in the late 18th century and after many years terminated with the victory of Nguyen Anh, who in 1802 became Emperor Gia Long of united Vietnam. The old kingdom of Cambodia, and the kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Vientiane—into which Laos was divided in 1707—preserved their statehood during the century, d’espite encroachments by the Siamese and Vietnam ese.


The Malay Peninsula for centuries had been dominated politically and economically by the port city of Malacca. From 1641 to 1824, Ma-lacca was controlled by the Dutch, except for two periods (the first 1795-1802) when it was held by the British. A rival base was set up by the British on the island of Penang in 1786. Both Malacca and Penang would be superseded by Singapore in the 19th century.

The Pacific

The 18th century has been called the golden age of exploration and discovery in the Pacific. Though many of the Pacific islands had either been sighted or settled by Asian peoples or the islanders themselves in prior centuries, European explorers in the 18th century began a scientific charting of the region. The voyages of these navigators ranged from the waters of Antarctica to Bering Strait, separating Siberia and Alaska, and from the western coasts of the Americas to the eastern shores of Asia. Mariners of many European nations engaged in these voyages, but the British played the leading role. Preeminent among the great Pacific ex-plorers is Capt. James Cook, who made three voyages between 1768 and 1779. In 1788 the British made their first lasting settlement in the Pacific, at Port Jackson (now Sydney), Australia.

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