Obituary: Professor Holden Furber

Holden Furber, historian, born Boston Massachusetts 13 March 1903, Professor of History University of Pennsylvania 1948-73, married Elizabeth Chapin (died 1972), secondly Lucy Richardson, died Concord Massachusetts 19 January 1993.

HOLDEN FURBER was an American historian whose writings brought to life the world of Asian seaborne trade in the era before the creation of the European empires, when European participation in Asian commerce was vigorous but not yet wholly dominant. He was above all the historian of 'country' trade, that is of European trade from one part of Asia to another, during the 18th century.

Furber was born in Boston in 1903 and studied history at Harvard and at Queen's College, Oxford. At Harvard he began his lifelong involvement with the Europeans in Asia in the 18th century. His first book, a study of Henry Dundas, the first British minister to make responsibility for India a principal political commitment, appeared in 1931. Furber then widened the scope of his work to place British activities into the context of those of other Europeans. The result was his most creative and influential book, John Company at Work (1948), based on massive research in the Dutch, French and Danish archives, as well as British sources. It established that private British interests in the pursuit of their own objectives were a crucial element in the dynamic of British expansion in the late 18th century and that these interests dragged other Europeans in their wake. In 1976 Furber published his longest and most ambitious work, Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient 1600- 1800. The most important contribution of this wide-ranging survey was to extend the themes of John Company back into the earlier 18th century and to demonstrate the importance of British private trade in laying the foundations for empire and the eclipsing of European rivals.

From graduate studies at Harvard, Furber was appointed to the University of Texas, where he taught from 1940 to 1948, being seconded to the US government for the period of the war. From 1943 to 1945 he served in the State Department, specialising in the affairs of the British Commonwealth. In 1948 he moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained until his retirement in 1973, teaching British and Indian history. He retired to Massachusetts, where he had been brought up and where he kept a home at Marblehead.

Furber felt very much at home in many parts of Europe, especially, through the historical interests of his first wife, Elizabeth Chapin, in France, but he retained a particular affection for Britain, where much of his early graduate work had been done and where he frequently returned to visit a wide circle of friends. To these friends he seemed to be the embodiment of the highest qualities of American academics of his generation: modest, self-effacing and unfailingly courteous, he was warm and generous in friendship.

Furber was deeply committed to liberal values in his work. In his formative years he tried to retain the vantage-point of a neutral observer of the controversies over the record of the British Empire in India. 'Though fully aware of a European heritage from which I cannot divest myself. I have done my best to present a narrative which is unaffected by any sort of bias,' he wrote in John Company. In the age of the Vietnam war it became more difficult for American scholars to distance themselves from issues of imperialism in Asia. Furber's response was to invoke a pre-imperial past and to place ever greater stress on the Asian role in the commercial world. As President of the Association for Asian Studies he delivered an address in 1969 on the interdependence of Asian and European merchants and on the advantages that trade bestowed on both Europe and Asia before the distorting effects of empire set in. This theme was taken up in a collection of essays in his honour by friends and ex-pupils, The Age of Partnership (1979).

In a lifetime's work Furber helped to take the study of the history of modern India in the West away from the Eurocentric and heavily political and administrative emphasis of so much that was published early in the 20th century, via the study of economic relations between Europeans and Indians, towards an approach to history that is much more concerned with the peoples of India. This was increasingly the approach of the generation that succeeded Furber. Many of them owe a very great debt to him.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game