I work on early modern global history (1500-1800), with a special interest in those parts of the world that came into contact with Portuguese imperialism and the theme of religious encounters. Most of my published work has focused on Sri Lankan history. This includes a book, Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth Century Sri Lanka: Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land (Cambridge 2007), and articles on such themes as origin myths, source criticism, and the development of ethnic consciousness. In the past seven or eight years, my research has increasingly taken a comparative, inter-disciplinary and global approach. One project will result in a book, Sacred Kingship and Religious Change in the Early Modern World (Cambridge, forthcoming) looking at why the rulers of some societies – ranging from Kongo to Japan – converted to monotheism and others did not. And a second project considers the global relationship between religion and state as a product of 'early modernity'. I teach both European and world history as a Fellow and Tutor at Brasenose College, and a Lecturer at St. John's College. I was on leave 2011-13 following the award of a Philip Leverhulme Prize for History in 2010. I'm happy to consider DPhil supervision across a wide range of areas in the early modern world.
Sacred kingship and the relationship between religion and politics more broadly
Ethnic identity and origin myths
Otherworldly Power: Sacred Kingship and Religious Conversion in Global History. Why does the religious map of the world today look the way it does? The voluntary conversion of kings has played a very important part in shaping this map, and this book sets out to explore how and why this happened. It is particularly concerned with why the rulers of some societies converted to monotheism and others did not? Why did large stretches of Asia remain immune to its allure? The main case studies are 16th to 17th century Central Africa, Japan, Thailand, island Southeast Asia, and early 19th century Hawaii, but I also draw on material across global history. While the core cases concern conversion to Christianity, in recent publications I also have begun to extend my work to Islam. My thinking and methodology are heavily influenced by anthropological scholarship and by the long-term historical sociology of religion reaching back to the first millennium BCE. The book therefore sets out to make a contribution to more theoretical questions regarding the nature of the relationship between religion and political legitimacy. The Early Modern World: Religion and State 1450-1750. This provisional title may sound similar to the one above, but the content will be quite different, both in geographical coverage and in its analytical objectives. The book is a response to the growing feeling among scholars that the whole world (and not just Europe) participated in an 'early modern period'. I am interested in pursuing the implications that this may have for the relationship between religion and state across Eurasia in particular.
Lastly, I am in the final stages of putting together an edited book with Zoltán Biedermann (UCL) on cosmopolitanism in Sri Lankan History over the long term: Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History (UCL Press, forthcoming)
Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History
This interdisciplinary volume sets out to draw Sri Lanka into the field of Asian and Global History by showing how the latest wave of scholarship has explored the island as a ‘crossroads’, a place defined by its openness to movement ...
Global Patterns of Ruler Conversion to Islam and the Logic of Empirical Religiosity
'Thailand’s first revolution? The Ayutthaya rebellion of 1688 and global patterns of ruler conversion to monotheism'
Introduction: Querying the cosmopolitan in Sri Lankan and
Indian Ocean history
The digestion of the foreign in Lankan history, c. 500– 1818
Sri Lanka, Ethnicity, cosmopolitanism, religion
Religion and Empire
Political elites have always looked to religion in order to access ideological, social, magical, or administrative power. But imperial expansion often generates acute dilemmas regarding the management of this relationship. Religion can be used to preserve important distinctions between the ruling group and their various subject populations (differentiation), or to unite them as a shared moral community (integration). Each strategy presents both opportunities and risks, and imperial elites such as the Mexica, Ottomans, Mughals, Ming and Qing dynasties, Portuguese, Spanish, and British have deployed variants of them both. Meanwhile emperors such as Ashoka, Alexander, or Akbar have sought spectacular ways of establishing sacred authority among diverse religious groups at the same time. While religion was the most powerful means of acquiring legitimacy in the premodern world, the “world religions” in particular also presented norms by which imperial powers could be judged and found wanting. Empires were therefore vulnerable to the sting of righteous rebuke and the threat of religious rebellion.
Vijaya and Romulus: Interpreting the Origin Myths of Sri Lanka and Rome
The story of Vijaya, has long been central to the Sinhalese idea of themselves as a distinct ethnic group of Aryan origin with ancient roots in the island of Lanka. The ‘national’ chronicle of the Sinhalese, the Mahāvaṃsa (circa fifth century ce) presents Vijaya, an exiled prince from India descended from a lion, as the founder hero of Sinhala civilisation. In a companion article to this, I argued that the narrative of Vijaya and other founder-heroes in the Mahāvaṃsa revolves around the theme of transgression, and that this puzzling fact can only be explained by a consideration of the symbolic logic of the ‘stranger-king’ in origin stories and kingship rituals worldwide. In the present article, I look at other ways of explaining the narrative of Sīhabāhu, Vijaya, and Paṇḍukābhaya. First I break down the narrative into four different origin stories and consider their distribution in a range of texts from South Asia in order to reflect on possible textual inspirations for them (and even consider parallels with the Greek tale of Odysseus and Circe). Second, I consider the possibility that the narrative concerning relations with Pāṇḍu royalty reflects immediate political imperatives of the fifth century ce. Do such interpretations negate the assumption that an organic communal process of mythogenesis has been at work? In the final section this methodological dilemma is approached through comparisons with the way in which scholars have looked at the origin myths of ancient Greek and particularly Roman society. Lastly, these reflections add further weight to the global comparative model of the stranger king, for the stories of Romulus and Vijaya share an emphasis on alien and transgressive beginnings.
In 2009 the Sri Lankan government finally destroyed the conventional forces of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) as the civil war that had afflicted the island since 1983 was brought to a violent denouement in the north-east of the Vanni region. From some of the subsequent celebrations by the Sinhalese majority, it seemed that the President Mahinda Rajapaksa was hailed not only for having rid Sri Lanka of a violent menace, but for having, in one sense, re-created the island. The country could now attain the kind of genuine independence and wholeness that had been lacking for much of the period following decolonisation in 1948. After the victory, Rajapaksa was hailed as a ‘great king’ and his admirers were not slow to draw historical analogies with kings and founder-heroes of the past. Such heroes typically have to wade through blood to obtain political mastery; the Lankan chronicles imply that such is the price that must be paid for the re-establishment of society or civilisation itself.
Drawing the veil of sovereignty: early modern Islamic empires and understanding sacred kingship
This article considers A. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam, in the light of theories of sacred kingship and religious change. Although Muslim kingship has tended to be presented as an essentially secular institution, Moin is able to show how deeply divine images and understandings shaped kingship in both the Safavid and Mughal empires, which were bound together by mutual influence and competition. The divine matrix of kingship was facilitated by the influence of preeminent Sufism, Mongol universalism, millenarian technologies and dreams, and Persian tradition. The article suggests that the methodological approach adopted here, resembling l'histoire des mentalités, shows how our analyses of sacred kingship can be obscured by a focus on canonical and prescriptive texts. Taking up the theme of transgression, it compares Moin's work with recent anthropological reflections on the symbolism of the stranger-king. The article also uses Moin's work to indicate the problems with the critical dismissal of “legitimacy” as an indispensable (though insufficient) analytical tool. The subject matter is further placed within an overarching conceptualization of global religious diversity based on the tension between transcendentalist vs. immanentist impulses. In that light the reassertion of “transcendentalist” religiosity in the guise of an orthodox push-back against the enchanted cultural world re-imagined by Moin only appears in greater need of explanation. Avenues of comparative reflection are also opened up with Christian monarchy, which was both less profoundly “immanentized” in the early modern era and less successful at exporting itself in areas outside of imperial influence. The article concludes by considering the implications for theories of a global early modernity, and a comparison with Andre Wink's quite different characterization of Akbar as a secular-minded rationalist.
Sri Lanka in the Missionary Conjuncture of the 1540s
Immanence and Tolerance: Ruler Conversions to Islam and Christianity in Archipelagic Southeast Asia
At the dawn of European colonialism, the Southeast Asian region encompassed some of the most diverse and influential cultures in early modern history. The circulation of people, commodities, ideas and beliefs along the key trading routes, from the Eastern edge of the Mughal empire to the Southern Chinese border, stimulated some of the great cultural and political achievements of the age. Here, Tara Alberts and D.R.M. Irving draw together accounts of early modern religious conversions, diplomatic history and scientific explorations across the regions many societies, along with histories of slavery and urban development. Throughout, the authors engage with some of the neglected subjects of the period - slaves, rebels and women in particular - in order to understand the multiple levels of exchange and interactions which occurred between these disparate ethnic and religious states. This will be essential reading for those interested in the cultural and political origins of modern Asia.