Obituary: Professor Holden Furber
Wednesday 27 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.
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