Biography of John F. Richards

By David Gilmartin, Sumit Guha, and Manu Bhagavan

John F. Richards began his career as an historian of the Mughal Empire and later expanded his interests widely. John developed into a leading world historian of the early modern era. His career was marked by a combination of careful historical research and a concern for broad and innovative new historical approaches. Though South Asia remained the central focus of John’s academic interests throughout his career, he was one of the bridge-builders across academic divides, collaborating on a range of topics that cut across disciplines and across regions of study. His prolific academic output was matched by his leadership in a range of academic projects.

John received his doctoral degree in History from the University of California-Berkeley, in 1970, writing his dissertation on Mughal rule in Golconda in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries under the direction of Professor Thomas Metcalf, later published as Mughal Administration in Golconda in 1975. This established him as one of the leading historians of the Mughal Empire in the United States. He published a survey of Mughal history in the New Cambridge History of India series in 1993, which remains to this day one of the most widely referenced broad accounts of Mughal history. He also edited two critically important collections of articles on the Mughals and their era, The Imperial Monetary System of Mughal India (1987) and Kingship and Authority in South Asia (1998).

Through all of this work, John always insisted that the Mughal Empire should be considered an early modern empire (rather than a “medieval” empire, as it had often been treated previously) as its structure and influence were intimately linked to the world-wide transformations of the early modern era. John’s interests thus broadened to include world trade, which led him to begin a course at Duke on the importance of the traffic in opium and narcotics in world history. He also maintained an interest in the comparative importance of structures of state finance, not only those of the Mughals, but the British colonial state as well. Perhaps most significantly, these interests pushed him into the study of world environmental history during the early modern period, which led first to an innovative course at Duke and ultimately to the publication of the path-breaking book The Unending Frontier: Environmental History of the Early Modern World (2003).

To recount John’s important academic projects is hardly to sum up his career. He was a man of extraordinary energy and played an important role in the institutional structure of the field of South Asian studies. He served for many years as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers. More directly, he played an active role in the reform and reorganization of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies during some of its most difficult years. He was also the driving force behind the establishment of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies and convened the inaugural meeting of the Institute at Duke in 2003. John was the recipient of the Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies Award in Boston in 2007.

John F. Richards was also an unfailingly generous mentor to a large number of students and colleagues in the field. He was a man with strong academic opinions and a love of intellectual argument. He will be greatly missed by all who had the good fortune to know him and his memory deserves to be recognized by the American Historical Association. Professor Richards passed away in Durham, N.C. in 2007 at the age of 68. R