Pirates, Traders, Rulers: From Prince Henry the ‘Navigator’ to British Empire in India

Rajesh Kochhar

“If it be the glory of England that, owing to her maritime exploration, the sun never sets on her dominions, it may be permitted to Englishmen to recall with satisfaction that who opened the way to that glory was the son of a Royal English lady.” This gushing tribute was paid to Prince Henry the “Navigator” (1394-1460) in 1868 by an Englishman, Richard Henry Major, long-time secretary of the Royal Geographical Society.[1] It was enthusiastically recalled 26 years later in 1894 at a well-attended, high-profile meeting held in the University of London to commemorate the 500th birth anniversary of the Prince.[2] At the meeting, Sir George Taubman Goldie (1846 -1925), Vice Governor of Royal Niger Company, which was then engaged in securing for Britain what later became Nigeria, sought to put Prince Henry to contemporary use: “Today there are five or six European nations all engaged in working for posterity in the equatorial region of the same great continent of Africa to which Prince Henry devoted his attentions”. He exhorted “workers of our time” “to look at a promised land which they themselves will never enter” in the spirit of Prince Henry, who “was content to work, not for his own generation, but for posterity”. As the colonial superpower of the day, England considered itself to be the rightful heir to Prince Henry and felt it a historical necessity to bring to completion a task that had been begun by the half-English Prince centuries ago.

Prince Philip was a son of King Joao (John) I of Portugal and Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt and sister of King Henry IV of England. Since Joao was himself an illegitimate son of a previous king, pedigree for his children came from their mother’s side. Philip’s formal name was the Infante Dom Henrique, the title Infante denoting that he was not an heir to the throne.  His work was supported by three successive generations of Portuguese Kings comprising his father (r. 1385-1433), brother, Duarte (r. 1433-1438) and nephew, Afonso V (r. 1438-1481).Over the centuries mythology was built around him which has since been largely deconstructed[3]. It was alleged that the Infante was a great mathematical scholar whose theories were tested by his sailors out in the sea. It was said that he set up an academy at Sagres which sent out suitably and formally trained sailors. The epithet Navigator was bestowed on him as late as 1842 by the German geographer Johann Eduard Wappaus and popularized by English writers even though Henry never ventured into the open seas. All these attempts were aimed at decoupling him from his antecedents and presenting him as a stand-alone figure. European Renaissance does not begin with Prince Henry; the process of closure of the middle ages does. There is however no gainsaying the fact that Prince Henry boldly thought of oceanic voyages of discovery down the African Atlantic coast, and managed and oversaw them through four difficult decades, beginning about 1420. Explorations were  continued after his death and culminated in the Spanish crossing of the Atlantic Ocean and Portuguese arrival in India. These successes gave an initial advantage to the pioneering countries. But more fundamentally they introduced Europe to the entirely new phenomenon of distant trade which in turn paved the way for Western colonialism. 

Portugal was geography’s choice for the task. It has no coast touching the Mediterranean Sea, which has been Europe’s traditional lifeline. It is a headland jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, and almost touching North Africa. Moorish presence in the Iberian peninsula for seven centuries, from Tariq ibn Zeyad’s landing on Gibraltar in 711 till the Christian re-conquest of Granada in 1492,  no doubt produced political and military strife but also made the region a meeting point for different skills, talents and cultures and vested it with intellectual dynamism, just as the expulsion of Jews and Moors in the sixteenth century would rob Iberia of talent. Constrained on the landside by the Spanish, Portugal looked elsewhere for support and expansion. It entered into a long-lasting alliance with other sea-board countries like England. For expansion Portugal turned to North Africa but with limited success. Experiencing “a Catholic rather than a Classical Renaissance”, Portugal, led by King Joao and ably assisted by his sons especially Henry, successfully captured the Moroccan port city of Ceuta in 1415. (It changed hands in 1580 and has been with Spain ever since. Ceuta thus remains the oldest European colony.) Located on the northernmost tip of Africa on the Mediterranean, nearly opposite Gibraltar, Ceuta was one of the terminals of the trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, etc. Ceuta turned out to be good education for Henry. It provided him with valuable intelligence not only on the trade routes that crossed Sahara but also on the source of gold in Guinea beyond the desert.  With the northern terminus in hand, Henry decided to try to reach by sea the other end of the supply line, the very source itself.  In 1437 Prince Henry tried to further expand territorially into Morocco by attacking Tangier but met with a humiliating defeat. Thus chastised, Portugal chose to focus on distant shores at least for the next two decades.

Of  the many titles and positions Henry held, the most important was his 1420 appointment by the Pope as the Grand Master of the well-endowed Order of Christ. The Order was established in 1319 as successor in Portugal to the much feared Order of the Knights Templar that had been set up in 1118 during the first Crusade. The Order “seen as exclusively Portuguese in character”[4], became Prince’s power base, providing him with financial resources as well as disciplined manpower. In his mission of exploration Henry was driven by a number of motives: crusade against the Muslims; conversion of the heathens: making contact with Prester John, the mythical Christian King located somewhere in the East; and of course trade at source in gold and other items.  As the project progressed, the goals also evolved. In course of time spices and destination India became the chief driver.

Europe was a committed and enthusiastic buyer of spices (mostly pepper but also cinnamon, ginger, cloves, saffron, nutmeg, etc.) that grew in an exclusive far-off habitat comprising South India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia (especially Moluccas) and South China. Passing through several hands, spices arrived at Alexandria via Red Sea or at Constantinople via Persian Gulf, at which points they were bought by merchants from the city states of Venice and Genoa for sale within Europe. (Alexandria dealt almost exclusively with the Venetian merchants.) Trade dynamics was complex and transaction costs were high. Transportation expenses, profits at various points of relay trade, custom duties, and finally profiteering by the monopolistic European merchants all combined to make spices some of the most expensive substances in Europe. European fascination for spices went beyond their culinary and medicinal use. Spices were a mascot of European upper class. As the ranks of this class swelled, demand rose. At the same time conditions in the intervening lands became unsettled. In 1430 the Mamluk king of Egypt, al Ashraf Barsbay (r. 1422-38), inheriting a shattered post-Timur economy, brought pepper under state monopoly. A little later, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.  Turkish conquests blocked the old trade routes between Europe and Asia and disrupted the whole system, pushing up the prices Europe had to pay for eastern luxury goods.

Solution to the problem clearer than ever before was to find direct sea route to India that would bypass intermediary traders, lands and  Sultans.  It is a matter of historical curiosity that the idea of reaching India by rounding Africa seems to have been first suggested by the theologian, alchemist and avowed proselytizer of the Moors, Raymond Lully (Ramon Lull) (c.1235-1315) of Majorca[5]. The Venetian and Genoese merchants would have loved to reach India themselves, but did not have the wherewithal to do so. The project promised to be long-drawn, risky and with no prospect of immediate returns. It called for extended planning, organization, sustained support and expenditure of such a high order that spices by themselves could not have driven it. It required a combination of religious fervour and long-term royal commitment.

The fifteenth century Portuguese oceanic exploration can be discussed in terms of three distinct successive phases:  The Church phase (1420 -1443); the merchant phase (1443-1480) and the Crown phase (1481-1500). The pioneering Church or Order-of-Christ phase dealt with the exploration of the Saharan coast. During it the voyages broke old taboos, added to the existing knowledge, gave experience to the sailors and encouraged the sponsors but brought no profit. This is so because the interior was a desert and the nomadic tribes who inhabited the coast had nothing tangible to offer to the visiting Europeans. The voyages had to be entirely financed by the Infante or his Order. At the very outset, in 1818 or 1819, Madeira was reached and colonized beginning c. 1425. It was an important port of call and valuable addition to economy as would be Azores, situated in the midst of the Atlantic some 1100 km distant, which was settled in 1439.

In 1420 the European knowledge of the Africa’s Atlantic coastline ended at Cape Bojador in Morocco. Just for matter of record, it is very likely that the Cape Bojador of those days was not  the one  of modern maps  ( about 26 degrees north) but what is  now known as Cape Juby ( about 28 degrees north) opposite the Canary islands[6]. Its rounding in 1434 was a psychological triumph as superstition had made it “the south most point of Christian knowledge”[7]. The year 1441 was particularly significant. On the technological front a new lighter and swifter sailing ship called caravel was pressed into service which brought Henry’s sailors to  Cape Blanco (White), so named after the Sahara sands. But the desert was coming to an end.  The Cape reached in 1445 would be Verde (Green). The region now had plenty of water and a flourishing agricultural economy built by robust black people. In 1441 itself, a handful of natives were captured and brought to Portugal, giving a hint of the opportunities in that direction.

The merchant phase can be said to have begun in 1443 when the Crown ordered that all ships travelling south of Cape Bojador would need a license from the Infante and in turn pay him one fifth of the profit. The first privately sponsored expedition, led by a member of Henry’s household and carrying the banner of the Order of Christ, sailed off in 1444. It was not on a voyage of discovery. It did not go beyond Cape Blanco. Rather it focused on slave-raiding. It returned with a cargo of 235 slaves. One fifth of these were the Infante’s share who thoughtfully  saved their soul by converting them to Christianity  before selling  them off[8]. The nature of goods  traded can be gauged from the matter-of-fact names given by the sailors  to portions of the  west African coast on Gulf of Guinea: Ivory Coast; Gold Coast; and Slave Coast , corresponding respectively to modern Ivory Coast; Ghana; and  Togo, Republic of Benin and Nigeria. The revenue that accrued to the Order helped finance expeditions of its own. During this phase Cape Verde islands were discovered in 1462 and the equator crossed in 1471. Ancient Greek authorities had presumed that sea would be boiling at the equator. Undaunted the Portuguese sailors pressed ahead. The event thus marked the triumph of actual observation on ancient bookish authority.

New impulse to exploration was given by the new King Joao II (1455-1495, r.1481-1495), with whom began  the Crown phase. In 1481, the Crown officially adopted a policy of absolute secrecy concerning knowledge gained from Portuguese explorations, completely excluding subjects of other powers on pain of death. Indian Ocean was reached in the winter of 1487-1488  by Bartholomeu Dias.  In  May 1487 , three months before  Dias sailed on his historic voyage,  King Joao II dispatched Arabic-knowing Pedro Coviliam by the traditional  land route to collect intelligence about and from India. He in fact is the first recorded Portuguese on Indian soil.  It was he who acquainted Portugal with the traditional maritime knowledge of the African east coast. He informed his King that the African continent would terminate, and when in the eastern sea, the  sailors should ask for Sofala and Madagascar[9]. Dias, aware of the difficulties on the sea , dubbed the southernmost tip of Africa Cabo Tormentos, the  Cape of Storms.  The King who knew more preferred to call it Cape of Good Hope, showing that opening of the sea route to India was now merely a matter of time.

Finally in 1498 a fleet of three Portuguese ships led by Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, a port town on the Malabar coast in southwestern India. The first commercial voyage left for India in 1500, touching by design or accident what later became Brazil .The third voyage was a military voyage. Vasco da Gama was not so much a discoverer as a synthesizer. Arab sailors were familiar with East African coast down to Mozambique. Further southward exploration had been thwarted by strong currents prevalent at Cape Corrientes on the Tropic of Capricorn, just north of Maputo Bay, just as earlier European sailors had been halted by Cape Bojador. Portuguese achievement lay in charting the west African coast and arriving on the east coast. Once there, they could integrate their newly acquired navigational knowledge with the expertise of the traditional Arabian seamen. Indeed, a prudent Vasco da Gama acquired at Malindi (now in Kenya) the services of a pilot, a Gujarati Muslim sailor,  variously named as Malemo Cana or Malemo Canaca who advisedly brought the Portuguese ships to the safety of the Hindu kingdom of  Calicut[10].

Such was the historical significance of European arrival in India by an all-sea route that the event itself was sought to be de-historicized in disparate quarters . A chronicle, written about 1565 by Qutb al Din Muhammad al Nahrawali al Makki (1511-1582)  to celebrate the Ottoman conquest of Hijaz ( in what is now Saudi Arabia), links the celebrated Arab navigator Ahmad ibn Majid (1432-c.1500) with Gama. According to the chronicle, after arriving at the East African coast the Portuguese were experiencing one shipwreck after the other till an inebriated Majid gave them directions for safe navigation. The account was lapped up by European historians who further embellished it. Majid was said to have actually accompanied Gama to Calicut. The al Makki account is obviously false as already noticed[11]. On their part, the English later tried to read a divine signal in Gama’s success. The Cambridge History of India constructed during the peak colonial period wrote in purple prose: “It is not without significance that the first landing of these men, whose main aim was to usurp the spice trade, hitherto a monopoly of the Muhammadans, should have been on Hindu territory. One wonders what might have been the fate of da Gama and his companions, if the landing had been attempted, say, in some part of the powerful Muslim kingdom of Gujarat”[12]. The unhistorical attempt here is to pretend as if destiny had chosen Gama for the task and therefore was duty-bound to guide and protect him. As we have seen, Gama had the services of a local pilot who would have brought him to Hindu territory rather than the Muslim.

Gama did not make any geographical discovery. He however did make a commercial discovery which changed the course of world history. The pepper which sold at about 160 ducats per quintal in Venice could be purchased for as little as about six ducats in Calicut.  To get an idea of the role of traditional intermediaries, it may be noted that the price was 20-27 ducats at Alexandria and 33 ducats at Cairo[13].The Portuguese realized at the very outset that trade must go hand in hand with terror. The Arabian Sea was brought under control with a view to disrupting the traditional trade network. That this trade was in the hands of Muslims added sadistic pleasure to the task.  In 1510 Alfonso de Albuquerque conquered Goa from the King of Bijapur and made it the headquarters of the Portuguese Asian activities. The control was extended further east up to the Spice Islands that is the present-day Malaysia and Indonesia.

Although the Portuguese merchants had reached the Spice Islands for direct trade, on arrival they learnt two new lessons. Spices, though valuable, were not enough to fill the ships on their journey back home. Trade network had to be expanded to include Arabian Sea also. More importantly, spice sellers were not interested in European goods. They did not even want payment in cash. They wanted cotton textiles from the Indian Coromandel coast.  More generally, intra-Asian trade offered the Portuguese possibilities as great as if not greater than intercontinental trade. The trade was good for Indian economy as well. The Portuguese set up factories  on the east coast , at San Thome in  Mylapore  ( future Madras), and Nagapatam further south. They got a foothold in Bengal in 1536-1537 with a factory each at the grand port of Chittagong and the small port of Satgaon   in the Hooghly district. A factory was a building where a group of merchants could live and maintain a warehouse.

In 1579-80, the Portuguese, aided by the Jesuits who enjoyed a good rapport with Emperor Akbar, obtained from him permission to build a city at a site of their choice. That is how Hooghly was placed on the Bengal map. Its importance in years to come can be gauged from the fact that seven European nations, the   Portuguese, English, Dutch, Danes, French, Flemish and Prussians fought for supremacy within a few miles of Hooghly[14].

The results of trade with Europe and within Asia were immediate and spectacular. In the quarter century up to 1500, Portugal’s principle foreign income came from the Guinea gold mines: 38,200 cruzados in 1476; 1, 33,000 in 1486; and 1,81,200 in 1520. Spices took over after that. Income from India was 250,000 cruzados in 1507; 334,000 in 1515; and 703,000 in 1520. The profit to the Crown from the spice monopoly was nearly 90%.  In 1520 the overseas trade represented nearly 70% of Portugal’s total revenues[15]. In the period 1497 to 1612 Portugal sent as many as 806 ships to India, all equipped with cannon and fitted out by the government[16]. The sixteenth century indeed belonged to Portugal, but its glory was short-lived.  It showed Europe the way but could not traverse it. The huge profits that Portugal made went into building palaces and cathedrals. They were not ploughed into advancing science or building naval strength. Portugal was annexed by Spain in 1580, with the result that Portugal’s Asian interests were subordinated to Spain’s American. By the time Portugal regained independence in 1640, Indian Ocean had changed hands.

Portugal’s limited size, small population, religious commitment and centralized administration were a great asset in initiating and sustaining oceanic exploration during difficult times, but these very attributes became a handicap when it came to sustaining the initial advantage. Death rate was very high, due to scurvy on the seas and tropical diseases on the land. The Portuguese tried to solve their population problem by marrying locally, but the results were not as expected. Edward Terry, who visited India, wrote as early as 1616 that “The truth is, that the Portuguese, especially those which are born in those Indian colonies, most of them a mix’d seed begotten upon those natives, are a very low poor spirited people, called therefore Galiinas dell Mar, the hens of the sea”[17]. In the same vein, John  Fryer noted in 1681 that the Portuguese had forgotten “their pristine virtue” and lost their “ ancient worth” , that “their courages”  have become “effeminate”, all because “ they have lived among mean-spirited neighbours”[18]. The English administrators recalled an incident from Hooghly that took place in 1632. The Portuguese in Hooghly sustained themselves against the Mughal army for three  and a half months  displaying “the most heroic bravery, worthy of the days of Albuquerque”, till they were betrayed by a Portuguese half-caste, De Mello by name[19].The English perception of Portuguese miscegenation is significant, because it became an important input for their policy in India by which they kept their own  half-castes out of administration and military service.

In 1494, following Columbus and anticipating Vasco da Gama, Spain and Portugal signed the treaty of Tordesillas  which divided the non-European world between themselves. The treaty was based on an earlier Papal bull and was itself ratified by the Pope in 1506. (It was subsequently made more comprehensive.) At the time America was seen more as an obstacle in the way to  Asia than  a major discovery in itself. The treaty made sure that even if Spain ever found a short cut to Asia, Portugal’s control would not be affected[20]. Since all European kings accepted the Pope’s authority at the time, there were no state-sponsored intrusions into the Iberian duopoly. Since Spain focused on Central and South America, England and others tried to find northwestern or northeastern passage to  the East. The efforts did not succeed, but in the process Europe became familiar with North America. It is only when the Church split that the Protestant states could directly take on Iberia. In the interim they contented themselves with capturing on the high seas Iberian ships laden with material and human cargo.

England’s introduction to commercial wealth came through the African slave trade, which was systematically initiated by Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595) in 1555 and in which Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603; r. from 1558) was a partner. The Queen was making a significant statement when the 1581 ceremony to confer knighthood on the navigator, sea-pirate, slave-runner and patriot, Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596), was held not in her palace but on his ship, The Golden Hind. Emboldened by the riches obtained from across the Atlantic, Spain tried to establish its supremacy in Europe but in vain. The 1588 defeat of the Pope-blessed Spanish Armada in which winds played a major part boosted the English and Dutch morale. Quite obviously, God held no grudge against the Protestants for breaking off from the Church of Rome.

The first challenge to the Portuguese came from the Dutch who were well qualified for the task. Dutch sailors, gunners, merchants and capitalists were already a part of Portuguese maritime enterprise. When a hostile Spain debarred Dutch ships from calling at Lisbon, the Dutch decided to sail to the very source of the spices. Rev. Petrus Plancius (1552-1622)  who was a reputed astronomer, geographer and cartographer of his time with a focus on North America, advocated use of bribery for gathering intelligence in Lisbon .[21] The Dutch task  in the East however  was made easy  by the valuable intelligence brought home from Portuguese India by a countryman, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (c.1563-1611)[22]. He arrived in Goa from Lisbon in September 1583 in the company and employment of the newly appointed Archbishop Vincente de Fonesca.  Linschoten remained in Goa till November 1588.  Fonesca left for Portugal in January 1587, but as he intended to return, he left the young Dutchman in his house. In September 1588 news reached India that the Archbishop had died a short time after his departure for Lisbon. This brought Linschoten’s sojourn in India to an end. He eventually left India in January 1589 from Cochin, reaching home three years later in 1592 after an eventful and interrupted journey including two years’ forced halt in Azores.

Linschoten made full use of the opportunities India offered. Goa was the administrative, commercial and religious centre of Portuguese Asia. His employer, the Archbishop, was an ex-officio member of the powerful Council of State which was chaired by the Viceroy. Linschoten did not travel much. But he made copies of secret Portuguese documents and maps, spoke to and corresponded with a large number of people persuading them to share their experiences and knowledge with him. When he returned to Holland in 1592 he had with him his notes, manuscripts, illustrations, books and objects he had acquired. The Netherlands with its recent hard fought freedom from Spain, new nationhood and reformed religion was all set to dominate the seventeenth century. Linschoten was the man who knew Asia. Netherlands needed him.

Linschoten’s compendium, popularly known as Itenarario, was published in two parts in early 1595 and 1596. It contained information on centres of maritime trade as well as sailing instructions. An English version was brought out in 1598 at the suggestion of “the propagandist for English expansion”, the English writer and compiler, Richard Hakluyt (1552/3-1618),  who referred to it in his recommendations for the establishment of English East India Company. A Latin translation appeared in 1599 and the French one in 1610.  Indeed it “launched a thousand ships”. Expectedly, the first beneficiary of Linschoten’s  labours   was  his own country. In fact the second part of the book containing sailing instructions was published first ( under the name Reysgheschrift), well in time for use by the Dutch fleet that left for East Indies in 1595. Linschoten warned the Dutch to steer clear of the Strait of Malacca which separates Sumatra from the Malay Peninsula and was well defended by the Portuguese. He advised  the  Dutch ships to instead pass the Strait of Sunda, separating Sumatra from Java  and head for the latter. “The choice of this island for their headquarters has been one of the causes of the rapid rise of the Dutch power in the Indies.”[23] Encouraged by the navigational success of the first voyage, a number of small companies sprang up in different parts of  The Netherlands which all sent out their ships to the Spice Islands. Finally to avoid destructive competition among them, a united company, Vereniede Oostindiensche Compagnie (VOC) was set up in 1602 and empowered as state away from state.

Within a few decades, the Dutch destroyed Portuguese power and established their  own supremacy in the East Indies, to the exclusion of the English. By 1640, they were already styling themselves as “Kings of Indian seas”[24]. The Dutch success brought in its wake other European nations into the Indian Ocean, including the English, Danes and French in that order. They all followed a pattern already established by the Portuguese. It was not possible for the Europeans to establish profitable trade with the East Indies without involving India. European goods were not in demand in Asia, but their ships could cater to the intra-Asian, or country, trade, including with China and Japan.  Given the strong Portuguese presence on the Indian west coast,   the other European traders started from the Coromandel Coast and ventured first into coastal Bengal and then the interior. They set up trading centres, or factories, fortifying them wherever possible. The locals were attracted to these European possessions for reasons of commerce, employment and security. As the central political authorities weakened, disputes among claimants to various thrones increased. Individuals who were merely official appointees now sought hereditary titles. This provided European nations with an opportunity to effectively intervene in local affairs, with European forts emerging as “a fixed point in the midst of turmoil”. Intra-European competition for control of India finally ended in favour of the English, but other nations were still left with tiny possessions. These sovereign enclaves outside British India, though politically insignificant, became culturally important, because they served as headquarters for various types of Christian missionaries. We shall briefly notice the Dutch and the Danish presence before taking up a detailed account of the British’

Early Dutch activity in India is historically important because it influenced the English course of action. In 1605, the Dutch lifted their first cargo of cotton goods from Masulipatam in the Sultanate of Golconda for sale in Java and Sumatra. By 1606 they had founded a trading post there as also at the nearby Petapoli ( Nizampatam). Moving out of Golconda and further south, the Dutch  in 1613 completed their  fortress, called Gedria, at Pulicat, which became their operational base in India. In 1689, the Dutch shifted their headquarters further south to Negapatam, which they had taken from the Portuguese in 1659. The idea was to be nearer their stronghold of Ceylon. The Dutch first registered their presence in Bengal in 1627,  but  reorganized their activities in 1656-57 with  Chinsurah on the Hooghly river, 22 miles upstream from Calcutta,  as the main factory. It was taken over by the British in 1781 but returned in 1784.  Again, it was captured by the British in 1795 during the during the Napoleonic wars and returned in 1817.  During this period the Dutch paid a yearly rent for lands left in their possession [25]. Chinsurah along with other Dutch factories was finally ceded to the British with effect from 1 March 1825 in exchange for British possessions in Sumatra.

The Danish East India Company was established in 1616, and in 1620 a settlement was made in Tranquebar. Although the Danes established their trade in Bengal in 1698, settlement was made at Serampore on Hooghly in 1755. On the outbreak of hostilities between Denmark and Britain, Serampore and Tranquebar were captured by the British in 1801 but returned the next year in accordance with the treaty of Amiens. They were again taken and retained till general peace was restored. Finally, in 1845, all the territory in India belonging to the Danes, namely Tranquebar, Serampore and a piece of ground in Balasore was sold to the British. Thanks to their sovereignty, the tiny enclaves of Tranquebar , Chinsurah and Serampore came to play an important role in the missionary  history of British India, with proximity to Calcutta being a major factor in the case of the last two. 

Even when the spice trade was in the hands of the Portuguese, the spice prices in Europe were determined in Amsterdam. The forceful Dutch presence in the East gave Dutch merchants greater power to manipulate European prices. In 1597 Amsterdam raised the London price of pepper from three shilling a pound to eight shillings. This turned out to be the proverbial last straw for the English merchants who now decided to go directly to the source. England had been preparing for this for two decades.

From trader to ruler

The first recorded Englishman in India, Thomas Stephens (1549-1619), though a Jesuit, was English enough to desire that “his countrymen should obtain a share” in the profitable Portuguese trade. Shortly after arrival in Goa, he wrote a letter, dated 4 November 1579, to his father who was a London merchant. Stephens gave “a particular and interesting description” of his own voyage and made “many sage remarks” “in quite a mercantile spirit”. The letter was included in  Hakluyt’s Voyages and provided “the strongest inducement” to London merchants  for embarking “in Indian speculations” [26]. In 1581 English merchants set up the Levant Company, which in 1583 sent an expedition  by land to India to collect commercial intelligence. One of its members, Robert Fitch, returned to England in 1593.

It is a matter of historical curiosity that the first non-Portuguese ships in the Indian Ocean were English rather than the Dutch. In 1591 a squadron of three English ships sailed with permission from the Crown. One of them managed to return with a cargo of pepper obtained not from the sellers but by robbing a Portuguese ship on intra-Asian trade. Far more spectacular was the 1592 capture of a cargo-laden Portuguese carrack, Madre de Deus, on its way back to Lisbon from the East Indies. Three times the size of the biggest English ship, it weighed 1600 tons of which 900 tons was precious cargo. England had never seen such wealth before; it captivated everybody from the Queen down to a petty thief. Among the treasures captured was a book in Latin giving information on the China and Japan trade. The document was promptly translated into English. The waylaid Portuguese ship was seen in England as an instance of “Gods great favour towards our nation”. On 31 December 1600   English merchants set up a chartered company of their own, the [English] East India Company. The first voyage left for the spice lands early 1601. It was a pointer towards the times to come that near Sumatra the English waylaid a Portuguese ship coming from India, appropriated a large quantity of textiles and other merchandise, sold the booty in Java and purchased pepper with the earnings[27].

The first English ship to reach India arrived in 1608. It anchored at the Arabian seaport of Swally at the mouth of river Tapti from where the important trading centre of Surat lay some 20 km upstream. The already well-entrenched Portuguese were able to influence the local administration to the detriment of the new competitors. They also decided to confront the English in the Arabian Sea which they considered to be their property. Exasperated , early 1612, the English ships harassed the Indian Haj ships in the Red Sea , and later that year inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Portuguese warships. The Portuguese had introduced navy as a new parameter in the Indian geopolitical equations, placing the Indian rulers at a disadvantage for all times to come. In retrospect, if the Mughals had anticipated later developments and built a strong naval force, history might have taken a different course. Mughal emperors though powerful like the elephant on land felt helpless on sea which was infested with European crocodiles. Every year defenceless Indian ships carried Muslims on Haj pilgrimage. These ships also served as commercial ships. While returning, they were at the mercy of the Portuguese whose greed for gold was matched by their hatred of the Muslims. The English naval prowess and religious neutrality greatly impressed the Mughals who acknowledged Englishmen’s Swally victory by granting them permission to trade. That is how English factory at Surat came into existence early 1613. A ship was sent back directly from here in 1615. The very first act of the newly stationed English merchants was the establishment in 1613 of East India Company’s Marines to protect their trade from the pirates and the Portuguese. The small naval service consisted of coastal boats, known as grabs and gallivats, on which were mounted two to six guns and which were manned by volunteers from the Company’s ships who fought as well as traded. This service first developed into Bombay Marine and finally into Indian Navy[28]. The chronology is as follows

Table 1. Evolutionary history of Indian Navy (1613-1950)

1613 East India Company’s Marine
1680 Name changed to Bombay Marine
1830 New name : Her Majesty’s Indian Navy
1863-1877  Name changed to Bombay Marine
1877-1892  Her Majesty’s Indian Marine
1892-1950  Royal Indian Navy
1950  Indian Navy

Marriage alliance with England in the wake of its 1640 independence from Spain may have been Portugal’s necessity in the European context, but it irrevocably damaged its presence in India. The English King Charles II married Princess the Infanta Catherine of Braganza in 1662. According to the eleventh article of the marriage treaty signed on 23 June 1661, her dowry included “the Port and Island of Bombay in the East Indies, together with all the rights, profits, territories, and appurtenances thereof whatsoever”. Bombay, no doubt, mattered little to the King of Portugal. Charles’ advisor, Earl of Clarendon, thought that Bombay had town and castles in it and was “within a very little distance from Brazil”[29]. The small island, some eight miles long and three miles wide, enclosed a land-locked bay and its natural harbour could shelter a large fleet. It had the additional advantage of being located outside the territorial domain of the Mughals. When the news of the dowry reached India, the Portuguese circles were dismayed and immediately pointed out to Lisbon the disadvantages of making such a gift. An attempt was made to purchase the island back from England, but Charles II wanted such large sums “that they reach to millions”. The island was finally transferred to England on 8 February 1665, without any trace of grace or pleasantness one normally associates with a bride’s dowry. The King’s governor of Bombay soon discovered that the island cost more to govern than it yielded in revenue. In 1668, it was transferred to East India Company in perpetuity on payment of a fee farm rent of ten pounds a year. While opposing the inclusion of Bombay in the dowry, the Portuguese Viceroy of Goa, Antonio de Mellow de Castro, declared, in a letter dated 5 January 1665 to his King, : “I foresee that India will be lost the same day on which the English nation is settled in Bombay”[30]. These words were prophetic indeed. The British shifted their capital from Surat to Bombay in 1686. The little island, the only British sovereign possession in India, became the naval fortress from where Britain went ahead to build a vast overseas colonial empire.

Even before a factory was established in Surat, English merchants had registered their presence on the east coast. Their task was facilitated by cooperation offered by two Dutch merchants who had earlier worked for the Dutch Company. Accordingly, an English factory was established at Masulipatam in 1611. This voyage, the seventh in the series and the first one to lift merchandise from India, was eventually calculated to have yielded a profit of as much as 218 per cent. By 1621, one out of 2000 of population in England   worked for the East India Company. By November 1621, the Company had exported woollen goods, iron, lead, tin, etc., to the value of 319,211 pound sterling. It had spent 375,288 pound sterling on the cargoes in the East, which were sold in Europe for 2,044,600 pound sterling. The first 12 voyages brought on an average profit of 138 per cent[31].

The Dutch however had violent objections to the English intrusion into their East Indies stronghold. The infamous 1823 Amboyna massacre in which ten Englishmen and ten Asians were beheaded by the Dutch hastened the exit of English merchants from East Indies who now focused on India. Using Surat in the west and Masulipatam in the east as their base, the English merchants rapidly expanded their activities, but it was the eastern developments that bore fruit. From Surat the Company moved northwards as far as Agra. From Masulipatam, the Company expanded its coastal activities both southwards and northwards. The Company set up a factory   in  Armagon (1626) in the Vijayanagar empire.  Since Armagon was uncomfortably close to the Dutch fort at  Pulicat , the British decided to move further south. In 1639, the Company obtained land from a local chieftain with permission to fortify it. That is how the English Company’s first territorial possession came into being at Madras, where Fort St George was built in 1640. The chieftain was a representative of the Raja of Chandragiri who in turn  represented the Vijayanagar empire. In 1646, the Raja of Chandragiri was dethroned by the Sultan of Golconda ,  who in turn lost to the Mughal emperor Aurungzeb in 1687. Madras then came under the  Arcot-based Nawab of Carnatic. In the meantime in  1633, the Company started expanding its activities towards Bengal. it secured permission to settle in Hariharpur and at Balasore  in Orissa, followed by a factory (1651) in the all important Portuguese-dominated  town of Hooghly.

The Mughal administration as well as the peripheral kingdoms was fully aware of the benefits European trade bestowed on the economy in general and on high functionaries in particular. The foreign merchants generally paid in gold and silver for the goods they purchased. The movement of the goods within the country brought additional revenue to the treasury by way of duties. There were two types of duties: transit (rahdari, pronounced raah-daari) and excise. Permission to open factories was given as a matter of course, and the Mughals routinely gave rahdari exemptions to foreign merchants. In reality these exemptions even if sanctioned did not mean much, because in spite of orders from higher authorities, bribes had to be paid at lower levels. Moreover, any concession that was available across the board kept the playing field level for all. What the British were looking for were concessions that would give them an edge over others. They soon got their chance, thanks to the medical facilities at their disposal. “One of the most widely known stories of the early history of the English in India is the legend of Gabriel Boughton”[32]. Boughton, a ship’s surgeon,  arrived in Surat in 1644 and found an attractive appointment waiting for him. Asalat Khan , mir bakshi ( or paymaster general) of the Mughal Empire and a special favourite of Emperor Shah Jahan, had been keen to obtain the services of a European surgeon and had asked the Company at Surat to send him one. Boughton accepted the appointment and came to Agra early 1645.  Next year, he even accompanied his patron to Balkh. On Asalat’s death in 1847, Boughton accepted the patronage of Shah Shuja, the Emperor’s son and the subahadar of Bengal and moved to Rajmahal.

When the truth is stranger than fiction it speaks for itself. When the truth is unsavoury or unspectacular it asks legend to drive home the point. The unsavoury truth about the English Company’s duty exemption was hidden behind a romantic legend which involved Boughton and held sway for 130 years. It was laid to rest in 1910 when no use was left for it. The first ever critical scrutiny came from  Sir William Foster, who was historiographer to the India Office, the repository of the Company’s records and archives. The account first appeared in print in 1778 in the second volume of Robert Orme’s History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Industan, from the year MDCCXLV. Here the description is very brief. A more detailed and picturesque account appeared in 1813 in Major Charles Stewart’s History of Bengal. Stewart’s account mixes up dates and names, but its essence is as follows.

Emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter was “dreadfully burnt” in an accident. He desired “the assistance of an European Surgeon”. Mr Gabriel Boughton from Surat ‘immediately proceeded to the Emperor’s camp” and “had the good fortune to cure the young Princess of the effects of her accident”. Asked to “name his reward”,  Mr Broughton, “ with that liberality which characterizes Britons, sought not for any private emolument; but solicited that his nation might have liberty to trade, free of all duties, to Bengal, and to establish factories in that country. His request was complied with, and he was furnished with the means of travelling across the country to Bengal. Upon his arrival in the province, he proceeded to Pipley, and in the year 1048 [AD 1638] English ship happening to arrive in that port, he, in virtue of the Emperor’s firman and the privileges granted to him, negociated the whole of the concerns of that vessel without the payment of any duties.”

While referring to the Emperor’s  firman  in the above, Stewart added a footnote : “I was not able to find a copy of this firman among the Indian records, but Mr Bruce mentions that it is in the State paper office and is dated Feb. 2nd 1634”.( John Bruce wrote in 1810 a work called Annals of the East India Company. ) Foster remarks that “ No such document appears to be in existence”. This is significant, because the Emperor’s firman seems to have been a myth created to derive commercial benefit. Stewart’s account continues: “In the following year the Prince Shuja having taken possession of the Government, Mr. Boughton proceeded to Rajmahal, to pay his respect to his Royal Highness; he was most graciously received; and one of the ladies of the harem being then indisposed with a complaint in her side, the English Surgeon was again employed, and had the good fortune to accelerate her recovery. Owing to this event, Mr Boughton was held in high estimation at the court  of Rajmahal; and by his influence with the Prince, was enabled to carrying into effect the orders of the Emperor, which might otherwise have been cavilled at, or, by some underhand method, have been rendered nugatory”.  For the next hundred years, this legend, with various modifications, was repeated in many publications some of which were quite influential in their day.

What is the primary source material on which this legend was based? Was the material  intrinsically defective or was it deliberately distorted? Fortunately, it is now possible to answer these questions. There are extant two manuscripts written in the seventeenth century itself which give some details. The oldest record is a manuscript prepared by a ship’s captain Thomas Bowery who was in India during 1670-1680. His work, titled A Geographical Account of Countries round the Bay of Bengal, 1669-1670, was edited and published in 1905. The second source is a document prepared in February 1685 by John Beard who became Agent in Bengal in October 1684 and died in Hooghly in August 1685. The document is called A Brief Account of the Rice [sic, should be rise] and Tenor of the Honourable East India Companies priviledges together [with] their losses of them and their present Case as to the Customs. Beard seems to have been the source for both Orme and Stewart, but they have followed him selectively. Bowrey’s and Beard’s accounts are in agreement on some points but diverge on others. They need to be examined in the light of other available evidence. Following Foster, the sequence of events can now be constructed with reasonable confidence .

In 1643 (or 1644), Princess Jahanara at Agra was involved in a fire accident.  “Anitulla, the most famous physician of the age, was brought express from Lahore”, and the Princess was cured. No European surgeon was involved in this and there was no question of rewarding the Company by issuance of a duty-exemption firman. Emperor Shah Jahan indeed issued a firman granting exemption from rahdari, for goods purchased for export out of Surat, but that was much later, in 1650. In 1647 Boughton accepted the patronage of Shah Shuja, Shah Jahan’s son and the subahdar of Bengal, and moved to Rajmahal. Boughton cured the Governor’s favourite concubine and was rewarded by a nishan, granting duty exemption in lieu of a lump sum annual payment of 3000 rupees. This exemption however was for Boughton’s personal trade and not the Company’s. Two years later (that would be in 1649) a ship was outfitted in Madras and sent to Balasore , under Captain John Brookhaven   “upon the account of Mr. Boughton’s nishauns”. In 1651 the English merchants set up a factory in Hughli. They now obtained a duty-exemption nishan in the name of the Company. It appears that to obtain it, the English traders told Shah Shuja a lie about the nature of firman issued by Shah Jahan   the previous year. The lie consisted in claiming that the firman had already granted exemption from custom duty whereas it had done nothing more than grant exemption from payment of transit duty.

It is likely that the elaborate myth-making about Boughton’s self-negation and Shah Jahan’s path-breaking firman was a defensive exercise meant to hide the misuse of Boughton’s personal privilege and misrepresentation about the firman. The fact however remains that the British commercial foothold in Bengal came about as a result of a capable English surgeon’s good equation with a Mughal subahdar.

Following up on Hooghly, the English set up factories  at Kasimbazar (Cossimbazar) (before 1658) and Patna (1659), for buying large quantities of raw silk, sugar, and especially saltpeter, because of high demand for it in Europe for making gunpowder. In 1680 the Company obtained a firman from Emperor Aurungzeb, which unfortunately admitted of two different interpretations. It was relatively an easy matter to obtain an official order granting concessions. To get such an order implemented, even if it had emanated from the highest quarters, one had to negotiate at each intervening level down the line. The Company was not prepared for this. It believed that the official orders bestowed on it legal rights, which   it had a right to defend. Indeed, the transformation of the Company from a vaishya (trading) outfit into a kshatriya (territorial) organization was brought about by its desire to enforce its own version of the official charters issued in its favour and to continue their brazen misuse. It must be said however that on their part the Mughal functionaries, from the head of the province downwards, tended to treat the European traders as cash cows. Increased power and aggressiveness of the English Company should have been matched by improved governance. What happened was the reverse.  The succession war that had installed Aurungzeb removed much talent from the scene and his prolonged fruitless post-1680 military campaigns in the Deccan weakened the administration still further, especially in Bengal, the farthest Mughal province.

“[T]he moral as well as the physical weakness of the Indian nations first suggested to the Company their ideas of conquests”[33]. It is noteworthy that the 1661 Charter had empowered the Company to “erect fortifications, to raise troops, and make war with non-Christians”[34]. In 1686, the Company with the permission of King James II waged an unsuccessful war against the Mughals in Bengal and Western India, but got off lightly. In 1686, the English ransacked Hooghly. On the west coast they shifted their headquarters  from Surat to Bombay in 1687 and demanded from the Mughal governor “compensation for past injuries”. Aurungzeb responded by  ordering arrest of all Englishmen, seizure of their factories and prohibition of trade with them. All the factors in Surat were put in jail where they remained  for 16 months that is till April 1690. In  the meantime, in May 1689, the Siddis of Janjira, allies of the Mughals, attacked Bombay and confined the English in their fort.

The setback to the Company however was temporary. The British presence on land was good for the Mughal economy, and in the waters a check against the bigger evil of the Portuguese and the pirates. The Company was charged a nominal fine of one- and -a- half lakh of rupees, forgiven and invited in. The apology on the part of the Company did not mean change of heart. In fact it was clearer than ever before about its goals. Approvingly noting in 1689 that  “the wise  Dutch, in all their general advices which we have seen, write ten paragraphs concerning their government, their civil and  military policy, warfare, and the increase of their revenue,  for one paragraph they write concerning trade”, the Court of directors went on to declare that  “The increase in our revenue is the subject of our care, as much as our trade…’tis that must make us a nation in India”[35].

To the Company’s good luck, the Bengal governorship during 1689-1697 was held by Ibrahim Khan with whom it had dealt during his earlier appointment in Patna. To the British, he was “the most famously just and good Nawab”. A Muslim historian, using irony, said of him that “he did not allow even an ant to be oppressed”. It was Ibrahim Khan who invited his old acquaintance Job Charnock back into Bengal. Charnock refused to return to Hooghly and instead set up in 1690 a new settlement at a small fishing village Sutanati, further down the river. This was the beginning of Calcutta. With poetic excess, Rudyard Kipling declared Calcutta to be “Chance-directed, chance-erected”. It was nothing of the sort. Calcuttan villages were  already known to sailors and merchants. The bigger Portuguese ships could not be brought to Hooghly itself, because the river was not navigable. They anchored at Howrah. The off-loaded goods were stored in thatched houses in the nearby villages for transportation or outright sale[36]. The presence of Armenian traders in what became Calcutta is attested by a  tomb inscription, in the old graveyard in the compound of Church of Nazareth, dated 1630[37].

With Calcutta, the Company entered the Indian political mainstream and worked its way upwards.  Unable to provide protection against lawless elements, Ibrahim Khan gave a vague permission in 1696 to European merchants to defend themselves. This resulted in the erection of the (old) Fort William. Even more importantly, during the tenure of his successor, the Emperor’s own grandson, Azim-us-shan, the Company obtained in 1698 the zamindari rights (that is the revenue and tax collection rights ) of the three underlying villages Sutanati, Govindpur and Dihi-Kalkatta  (distinct from Kalighat).The term Dihi denotes high land near the river, in contradistinction to Baharsi, the low-lying land at a distance from the bank[38].The Company agreed to deposit annually an amount of about Rs 1195 in the Imperial treasury. In return, the Company could keep its share of the land revenue and  levy a cess on the resident artisans. In addition, it had complete control over uncultivated lands, tanks and gardens as also rights over fishing and jungle produce[39]. The Company now was zamindar under the Mughal administration. As the political situation in the country deteriorated with the decline of the Mughal empire, the Company became more and more assertive. Calcutta became an increasingly more attractive destination for the natives because of the business opportunities and the security it offered.  Although the new settlement originally came up at Sutanati, it was named after the neighbouring village of Kalikata. The idea probably was to cash on the similarity with Calicut already well-known in Europe from Portuguese trade .   The Armenian traders, it seems, first labeled Calcutta exports as Calicut products[40]. As the prosperity in the region increased because of purchases by the European traders, so did political corruption. Azim-us-Shan was removed from office by the Emperor for his excessive indulgence in private trade which he brazenly dubbed sauda-e-khas ( special or privileged  business transactions).

Madras became a part of the Mughal empire with the fall of Golkonda to Aurungzeb in 1687. In 1701, soon after his appointment as Nawab of Carnatac, Daud Khan “appeared at San Thome with 10,000 troops, horse and foot”, but developed cold feet seeing that Madras was prepared to fight. In 1706, Daud Khan threatened Pondicherry but retreated after receiving a personal present of Rs 10,000. At this juncture, just prior to Aurungzeb’s long awaited death, the fuazdar was not  prepared to launch a costly and difficult assault.[41]  How the eighteenth century would shape up can be gauged from the fact that in 1706, Daud Khan wrote to the British in Madras desiring a 1000 bottles of liquor. They decided to send him   250 bottles, which gift he gratefully acknowledged.[42]

All European nations were keen to pull strings in the Mughal court. In 1711, a Dutch embassy arrived from Surat to the court of Aurungzeb’s successor, Bahadur Shah. Their helper in the court was a Portuguese lady, Donna Juliana Dias da Costa, whose late husband had been a doctor in the service of  both, Aurungzeb and Bahadur Shah. She herself held the well-paid job of the “governess of the harem and commanded influence both over the Emperor and his Court”. Her efforts however were nullified by the fast-changing political scene. She helped the Dutch get a favourable  firman from Bahadur Shah, who unfortunately died soon thereafter of old age. She next managed to get a new firman from his successor, Jahandar Shah; but he lost his throne and life within a year, making way for Farrukhsiyar, the benefactor of the British. In 1715, a Company embassy came to Farrukhsiyar’s court from Calcutta. The embassy included a surgeon, William Hamilton. Within three weeks of arrival in Delhi, Hamilton was “called in to treat Taqarab Khan (the khansama or lord steward), but found his case hopeless. In August 1715 he was required to treat the King for swellings in the groin, and did so with success. Two months later, in October, the King was again attacked by violent pain, and it was feared that he would develop fistula. Hamilton’s treatment was again successful, and on 7 December 1715 the King’s marriage to the daughter of Raja Ajit Singh of Jodhpur, which had long been delayed by his illness, was celebrated. Hamilton was richly rewarded, receiving an elephant, a horse, five thousand rupees in money, two diamond rings, a jewelled aigrette, a set of gold buttons, and models of all his instruments in gold”. Interestingly, reward was also given to the King’s French physician, Martin. Martin had joined service with Farrukhsiyar’s predecessor and later continued with his successor also. More important than the personal enrichment of Hamilton was the fact that his professional success placed the Company’s embassy in high regard in the Emperor’s court. In April 1717, the Imperial  firman was issued, meeting all the demands that the Company had made in its petitions. It is interesting that after issuing the firman, and not before it, Farrukhsiyar expressed a wish to retain Hamilton in Delhi as his personal surgeon. “As Hamilton was unwilling to stay, much further trouble and delay were caused; but finally Farakh Siyar consented to let him go, on his promising to return to Delhi, after a visit to Europe”. This was not to be, because Hamilton died the same year, in December 1717, at Calcutta. A British medical historian commenting on the above in 1914 wrote patronizingly “the King’s consent to his (Hamilton’s) departure shows a more reasonable and more kindly disposition than might have been expected in an Oriental potentate”.[43] 

Given the chaotic condition of the Mughal empire, Farrukhsiyar’s  firman giving concessions to the Company was unenforceable, at least in Bengal. Still, it was an important milestone in the Company’s quest for the ever-needed legitimacy to support its actions and plans. These exemptions gave the English traders commercial advantages not only over other European companies but also over Indian traders. More importantly, the various official orders granting trade concessions gave the British a cause to defend, with military strength if needed.” What had been begun by the ambassador would be completed, and more than completed, by the soldier.[44] The first half of the eighteenth century saw the restoration of firm rule in Bengal under the Nawabs, from Murshid Quli Khan to Alivardi Khan. During this period the British remained under check. After Alivardi’s death, his young and rash successor, his grandson Siraj-ud-Dowla, captured Calcutta in 1756. The English, under Robert Clive, retaliated by defeating the Nawab in a minor skirmish at Plassey in 1757. The Company would not have to worry about petty duty exemptions now. It could have the whole revenue of the state and then the state itself. Clive left for England in February 1759, only to return in May 1765, for a second stint. He finally left India  in January 1767. Clive must be the only war hero in the world history who was honoured by both the sides. In 1758 the Nawab of Murshidabad, Meer Jafar, calling himself  Mohabbat Jung, “beloved in war”, titled Clive  Sabat Jung, “proven in war”.[45] The first honour that came to the founder of British Empire in India back home was , curiously, an academic one. On 2 September 1760, the University of Oxford conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law. He was presented for the degree by Sir Robert Vansittart (1728-1789), Regius Professor of Civil Law at All Souls College. Obviously, this honour was made possible by a fortuitous Oxford -Bengal connection that prevailed at the time. Dr Vansittart was the elder brother  of Henry Vansittart (1732-1770) who  was  a Company official in India and a personal friend of Clive on whose recommendation he became the Governor of Bengal in 1760 . The text of the honorary degree’s oration or any other detail is not on record. A year later, 1761 end, the King of England created Clive a Baron.[46] The title however was Irish so that he would not sit in the House of Lords.

Plassey saw the spectacle of the Governor of a Mughal province being defeated by a zamindar of merely three villages. The victory gave the Company high officials a new commodity for private trade, namely, the Nawabdom. The Murshidabad masnad stabilized only when the Nawab ( February 1765) signed away most of his sovereignty  to the Company. The new Nawab in 1757 ceded the 24-Parganas to the Company which became its first possession outside the narrow lands of Calcutta. His successor  handed over Chittagong, Burdwan and Midnapur in 1760, so that now the Company owned  practically the whole of lower Bengal. In October 1764, in a significant battle fought at Buxar the Company forces defeated the joint forces of the fugitive Mughal Emperor Shah Alam and of the Vazir of Oudh in October 1764. The Company now decided to  accept greater responsibility. Acutely conscious of the need for political legitimacy, and cunningly advised by its native collaborators, Lord Clive and General Carmac submitted two formal petitions, which the titular Emperor accepted through a treaty signed in  1765. The  Nizamat of the Bengal subah Bengal, comprising Bengal proper, Biihar and (parts of ) Orissa was bestowed  on the Company’s protégé Mir Jafar’s son , Najm-ud-dowla. At the same time , the Diwani ( right to collect revenue and dispense civil justice) was granted to the Company. As a Muslim eye witness  noted bitterly, “this important business was settled without hesitation or argument, as easily as the purchase of an ass or any other animal, without Envoys or reference either to the King of England or to the Company” .[47]

The eye witness was the Persian moonshee, Sheikh Itesamuddin (c. 1730-c. 1800), who came from a learned Muslim family of Nadia district, and leant Persian from the head munshi of  the Murshidabad Nawab Mir Jafar (r. 1757-1760). After the accession of Mir Qasim , he entered the  services of  Major Park (Should be York, also spelt Yorke).  He was present during Park’s  campaign against Raja Asad Zaman Khan of Birbhum, and was with him when he visited Shah Alam in Azimabad (Patna). He then came to Calcutta where he joined the seven other munshis  in the Company’s  service When  York left for England,  the Sheikh was sent to a Major Tom in Patna,  with a letter of recommendation , a map of the route from Birbhum to Azimabad, and a greyhound mastiff, but was unable to get employment owing to the “machinations” of Nubkissen.[48] Subsequently he served under a Captain Mackinon ( could be Mackinnon) as paymaster of an orphanage, where he remained for two years. He next  worked  for a year as a tahsildar at Kutubpur under a Mr Bardette. He entered the service of General John Carnac in 1765. When he met Emperor Shah Alam at Kora-Manikpur, Itesamuddin was offered a position as munshi in the imperial court with the title of Mirza. It was in this capacity that he was present  at the signing of  the Diwani. The Mirza was appointed the Emperor’s personal envoy and asked to accompany Major Archibald  Swinton  to Britain for delivering the Emperor’s letter to King George III. Itesamuddin was on sea and in Europe during 1765-1769. He rejoined Company service on return and wrote his  memoir, titled Shigrufnamah-e-Vilayat, in about 1784. A copy of the manuscript was with Swinton’s son from whose head servant it was purchased by the moonshee of  Lieutenant James Edward Alexander who in turn published an English translation from London in 1827.[49]  Translation of Hijri dates into the Gregorian in this translation is defective.  A short essay on Itesamuddin appeared in 1935, based on a different copy of  the Shigruf manuscript.[50] This essay  reported that a manuscript of the Shigrufnama was in the possession of Maulana Hakim Habibur Rahman Akhundzadah of Dacca while another one was in Delhi with Mr Raguunath Singh of 299 Panhari Gali. A Bengali translation was published by A. B. M. Habibullah in 1981. This was based on two manuscripts of Shigruf, located in the British Museum and Khudabaksh Library in Bankipur, Bihar. Recently, an English version of the Bengali translation has been published by Kaiser Haq.[51] . The 1827 memoir was noticed in passing in Britain for its curiosity value. A London magazine published an excerpt from it where the Mirza describes his visit to the theater, but carelessly called the author a Persian.[52]

Itesamuddin’s account of the momentous event of the Diwani is the only one from the Indian side. Regrettably, it has remained largely untapped as a historical source. Itesamuddin’s eye-witness account reads as follows. After signing the Diwani papers, Shah Alam, “with tears in his eyes”, said to Lord Clive and General Carnac: “you are going away, leaving me in the midst of enemies”. Hearing this, they were “much distressed and somewhat ashamed”, and replied: “To retain an English army near you, without the orders of the King of England, and without first inquiring the pleasure of the Company, is impossible.” The Mughal Emperor then wrote a letter to the King of England.  Noting that “we…have caused the Commission of Dewany of Bengal, &c. to be made out in the name of the Company, and the officers of your Government have arranged this with me in a satisfactory manner”, Shah Alam announced  that   “I am desirous of having the aid and assistance of an English army, officered by Englishmen”. It was decided to send the letter along with presents worth a hundred thousand rupees. Captain Archibald Swinton, a Company officer , was deputed to carry the letter to the English King with Itesamuddin accompanying him as the Emperor’s moonshee. The two sailed for England in January 1766. After a week’s voyage Swinton told the Mirza , much to the latter’s shock,  that the letter and the gifts were not with him and that they would be brought by Clive himself. Clive arrived in England in July 1767, called on the King and presented the gifts to the Queen, “in his own name”. ”He made no mention whatever either of Shah Alum’s letter or message, neither did Captain S. make any disclosure”, even though Swinton did say to Itesamuddin that “Lord Clive has completely deceived me”[53].Itesamuddin was perceptive enough to guess the reason for Clive’s deception. “At the time I am treating of”, Itesamuddin rationalized, “ there was a dispute between the Ministers and the Company regarding the possession of Bengal and other countries…In this state of things, Lord Clive being a well-wisher of the Company, after having consulted with the Directors, it was thought expedient to keep from the knowledge of his Brittanic majesty the letter of Shah Alum; because if it were to appear at this juncture, it would greatly assist the Ministers in establishing their pretensions”[54]. The course of world history might have been different if the Emperor of India and the King of England had entered into a military treaty in late eighteenth century as requested by the former. But that was not to be.

Could the British rule over India have been avoided? One asks this question not with a sense of regret, which history does not permit, but with a view to understanding the dynamics of history better. Aurungzeb brought an end to  the Mughal power by needlessly trying to subdue the south , while the Mahrattas ruined themselves by trying to extend their hold right up to Delhi. Suppose  Aurungzeb had died  in say 1680, or, had not stretched himself in the Deccan. Or, the Mughals and the Mahrattas had divided the country between themselves rather than trying to annihilate each other. Or, Nadir Shah or Ahmed Shah Abdali had decided to stay back. Or, Delhi had jettisoned the worthless post-Aurungzeb house of Taimur and offered the throne to a capable person. (This would have continued and revitalized the administrative structure. In any of these eventualities, post-Aurungzeb political vacuum would have been avoided or filled from the northwest as had happened previously. The influential Cambridge professor John Robert Seeley pointed out  very pertinently in 1891: “ India can hardly be said to have been conquered at all by foreigners; she has rather conquered herself…India has been conquered by an army of which four-fifths were natives and only one-fifth English”[55]. As we shall discuss later, this fact was later used as a justification for the British project to improve the natives in the cultural sphere as well.

India was the best thing that could have happened to Britain and the British. In 1764-65, the last year of native rule, revenue realized from Bengal was 817,000 pound sterling. As soon as the company acquired the Diwani, the amount was raise to 1,47,000 pound. It was doubled within ten years; the figure for 1771-72 was 2,818,000. In 1793, the land revenue stood at 3,400,000 pound sterling when it was frozen by Lord Cornwallis’ permanent settlement[56]. No concession was ever given to the tillers even when they faced natural or man-made disasters. The Bengal riches gave the Company a decided edge over its European competitors and facilitated further conquests in India. The Company was able to overrun North India with ease, while resistance came from south of the Vindhyas. Tipu Sultan of Mysore was finally annihilated in 1799.The Mughal Empire had decayed to such an extent that in 1788, the Rohilla chieftain Ghulam  Qadir Khan forced his entrance into the imperial palace and  blinded Emperor Shah Alam. As a Muslim historian, Syed Mahmood[57], lamented  in 1895, “such was the influence of the British name, that had the detachment stationed at Anopshire, only marched out of their cantonments, the brutal tyrant would have desisted, and the  King’s misfortune been averted”[58]. One cannot help thinking that if the English had shown some consideration for the Mughal  prestige at the time, the Muslim alienation could have been averted or contained. Delhi was brought into submission in 1802 where a Resident was appointed. The Company forces reached  the Satluj river in 1809 and wisely stopped there, leaving the  Punjab territory further west to Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) as an effective buffer against powers further west. He was free to advance westwards into Afghanistan but not southwards into Sind. The Mahrattas were  finally crushed in 1818. This was an important achievement , because  now the British  grip on India became unassailable  and attention could be paid to matters of administration, with native involvement.  Sind, though insignificant from the point of view of traditional economy, became important for steam navigation on the Indus river. It was taken over in 1843. Ten years after Ranjit Singh’s death, Punjab was taken over in 1849.  In 1856 what remained of Oudh was annexed. This was the Company’s last territorial acquisition. Thereafter the British India lived in harmony with the princely India on terms dictated by the former.

The 1857 armed revolt, referred to as the Sepoy Mutiny in colonial accounts, brought the titular Mughal Empire to a close. Acting with cruel far sight, the  British brought the famed  Mughal  patrilineal bloodline to an end by killing all the male descendents, except for the old Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775-1862)  who was exiled to Rangoon where he died. India was taken over by the British Crown in 1858, bringing to an end the most bizarre experiment in governance the world had ever seen. The  British desire to control, in the style of the Delhi Emperors, Khyber Pass, the land gate of India, could never be fulfilled, but the British  exercise in succeeding to the Mughal Empire was completed in 1911 by shifting the imperial capital from Calcutta to New Delhi, even if more years were spent building it than ruling from it.


[1]Major 1868, p. 3

[2]Geographical Journal, 1894, Vol. 3. No.5  (May), pp. 388-403

[3]Russell 2000.

[4]Subramanyam 1997, p. 38.

[5]Beazley 1894, p. 122.

[6]Russell 2000,   p. 111.

[7]Beazley 1894, p. 171.

[8]Cheyney 1904, p.40.

[9] Birdwood1879, p.208.

[10]Subramanyam 1997, p.127.

[11] Subramaniam 1997, p. 127.

[12]Dodwell 1922, p.4.

[13]Jones 1978, p. 136.

[14]Campos 1979, p. 43.

[15]Jones 1978, p. 141.

[16]Cheyney 1904, p. 74.

[17]Terry 1777, p. 153.

[18]Rawlinson 1920, p.16.

[19]Toynbee 1888, p.3.

[20] Rawlinson 1900,  p. 11.

[21] Koeman 1984, p. 27.

[22]Boogaart2003.

[23] Burnell 1885, p. xxviii.

[24] Rawlinson 1920, p. 17.

[25] Toynbee 1888, p. 12.

[26] Cunha 1900, p. 165.

[27]Foster 1933, pp. 155-156.

[28]Kochhar 1994, p.965.

[29] Cunha 1900, p.241.

[30]Cunha 1900, p.258.

[31]Gardner 1971, p.120

[32]The following account is taken from Kochhar 1999.

[33] Anderson 1856, p. 239.

[34]Firminger 1917, p. lix.

[35]Bruce 1810, p.78.

[36]Campos 1979, p. 114

[37] Seth1937, p. 419.

[38] Martin 1838, p.325.

[39]Hasan 1992.

[40]Ray 1986,  p. 15.

[41] Prakash 1998, p. 146.

[42] Love 1913, Vol. 2, p.18.

[43] Crawford 1914, Vol.1, p. 120

[44] Firminger 1917, p. lxxvii.

[45]  Chaudhury 1978, p. 505.

[46] Chaudhuri 1978, pp. 325-326.

[47]Alexander 1827, p. viii.

[48] Taifoor 1935,  pp.  117-118.

[49] Alexander 1827.

[50] Taifoor 1935.

[51]  Haq 2008.

[52] Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, Vol. 10, No. 265, 1827, pp. 63-64.

[53]Alexander 1827, p.217.

[54]Alexander 1827, pp.218-220.

[55]Seeley 1891, pp. 202-203.

[56] Dutt 1940, [p.212]

[57] son of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

[58]Mahmood 1895, p. 9n.

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