Pramod Biligiri (pramodbiligiri) wrote,

The Rediscovery of India by Meghnad Desai - 4

Chapter 2 - The English Turn (contd.)

Battle of Plassey, 1757 (contd.)

I have now jumped off Desai's book itself and spent time reading his references and other books about 18th Century Bengal (btw this term included Bihar, Orissa). At the end of this post I've listed them all.

The lead up to Plassey begins with Siraj-ud-Daulah's grandfather - Alivardi Khan - who ruled from 1740 to '56. (He chose his grandson to succeed him). Though he was formally a subordinate of the Mughal emperor, he asserted a lot of autonomy. He assumed more control over revenue submitted to Delhi. This was a reflection of the overall decline of Mughal power.

Initially he was tolerant of the flourishing business of the Company. The officials of the Company were indulging in private trade also, taking the help of leading merchants from Bengal, with none of the duties going to Delhi. There were 2 main areas for private trade: One was the intra-Asian trade, from which the Company had formally stepped back in 1680, but was continued vigorously by its employees and Indian collaborators. This consisted of sending goods between Indian ports itself, like from Calcutta to Surat and other places en route; from Calcutta to China (tea?, opium), from Calcutta to ports in the Arabian peninsula. I read somewhere that a lot of silver from Persia ended up as payment in Bengal at this time. And much of this silver had been first looted from Delhi itself by the Persian king Nadir Shah!

Each Company employee was given some personal cargo space on ships that plied from India to Europe. This was the other mechanism by which the private trade was carried out. Indeed the lure of this "pocket" money was a big incentive for many Englishmen to join the Company's postings here. In a famous book called "Robert Clive of India" (which I was lucky to find because Anant suggested we meet Sidharth and Haas at Blossom, to which I'd never been!) by historian/author Nirad Chaudhari, he describes how a lower middle class boy became supremely rich due to his Indian adventures. This book is also good for its description of the politico-economic situation at the time.

Here I must mention a great book, by Nirad C's son/historian K N Chaudhari. His book[4] is the go-to guide for economic/statistical studies of this era. He has applied computer based analysis and Systems thinking to great effect. He is also a rock climber, musician, wine-taster and photographer!

Among the native merchants, the most prominent is Jagat Seth (which was in fact a title given to his family) whose financial activities extended from Surat to Delhi and Bengal. He is often described as the Rothschild of India. I shall paste a big excerpt from [2]:

"The great house of Jagat Seth, bankers to the government, was virtually a partner with the Nawabs in the management of the Bengal revenues. When the Jagat Seths fled from the Marathas in 1742, the chief kadi was sent to persuade them to come back to Murshidabad,'their presence being as necessary to the government as to merchants'. The house received a large part of the revenue, made payments on behalf of the government and financed the operations of the major zamindars. Part of the imperial tribute was remitted by the Jagat Seths drawing bills on their Delhi agents. The Jagat Seths were great political figures. In the view of a French observer, they had helped to bring Alivardi Khan to power, had 'conducted almost all his business' and had been 'the main mover in all the revolutions in Bengal'... For such great services there was a price to be paid. A large commission was presumably deducted from the Bengal revenues. They insisted on control over the Nawab's mint and on a monopoly over the coining of bullion, again for a handsome profit"

Around this time, other major centres where similar economic patterns were playing out were Surat, Bombay and Madras (Need to read up on them).

Towards the end of his tenure, Alivardi Khan was attacked repeatedly by Marathas and some other, minor, kingdoms. Again this shows the weakness of the Mughals. Every source I've read describes the Maratha invasions as horrific, brutal, cruel etc etc. Just the rumour of their coming would cause entire villages to flee. Nirad C's book is very explicit. I shall paste another excerpt from [2]:

" The horrors committed by the 'Bargis', as the Maratha raiders were called, left a deep mark on the traditions of the people of Bengal. They were grimly commemorated in poetry. According to the Maharashtra Purana:
'They shouted over and over again, 'Give us money', and when they got no money they filled peoples' nostrils with water, and some they seized and drowned in tanks, and many died of suffocation. In this way they did all man- ner of foul and evil deeds. When they demanded money and it was not given to hem, they would put the man to death. Those who had money gave it, those who had none were killed.'"

Alivardi Khan ceded Orissa, parts of Bihar and had to pay a tribute to the Marathas. So he turned upon the rich Bengali-English businessmen for money. [2] to the rescue:

"For the time being at least, all restraint in making fiscal demands was abandoned. Zamindars, office holders, bankers, merchants and the European Companies were all harried ruthlessly. The head of the Jagat Seths commented in 1744:' "At present there is no government; they fear neither God nor the King but seem determined to force money from everybody; I have suffered greatly by them". The Raja of Burdwan was said to have been forced to yield Rs. 10,000,000. Europeans reported well-authenticated stories of merchants being kidnapped, tortured and robbed by the Nawab's agents. The English East India Company was told to hand over Rs. 2,500,000, which, the Nawab suggested, it might recover from the rich inhabitants of Calcutta. In the end the English escaped with paying only Rs. 350,000.".

This had turned many of Bengal's elite against Alivardi. Matters were compounded when his grandson Siraj ascended. He has been described as a rash ruler who further alienated them and also insulted the Jagat Seth. Upon accession he extracted huge sums from the French and the Dutch. He bristled at the English fortifications in Calcutta and demolished them. Historians are still debating the rationality of his extreme actions. But in any case, his attacks on the English resulted in retaliation under Robert Clive with help from Mir Jaffar, Jagat Seth etc. And he was overthrown in 1757.

Now, that is my highly simplified summary of the battle of Plassey :)

1. The House of Jagat Seth (I couldn't find this anywhere)
2. Bengal: The British Bridgehead, P J Marshall (great book by a top imperial historian, link)
3. Robert Clive of India, by Nirad C Chaudhary (link)
4. The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company: 1660-1760 By K. N. Chaudhuri (link)
5. Cambridge Economic History of India (link)
6. The new Cambridge History of India (link)
7. Colonial cities: essays on urbanism in a colonial context (link)
8. Smuggling as subversion: colonialism, Indian merchants, and the politics of opium (link)
Tags: book, history
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