That Britain was the first of all the European powers to alight firmly upon the shores of Bengal
was fortuitous for it.
The Dutch had already occupied most of the prolific Indonesian Islands. A British attempt to found
a settlement there was effectively repelled in 1623. They then began to concentrate on the Indian
coastline. Yet the founding of factories by them in Surat (1612) and Madras (1640) was of no
consequence as compared to their setting up a small settlement in Bengal. Bengal was then to
become the launching pad of the British into India, and in many ways it was well suited and
equipped for this role. Bengal was on the route to the rich coastal shipping trade to the far-east. It
offered the British a vast network of a commercial-cum-merchant class, and a river system that
was a vehicle into northern India.
We have noticed earlier how the twin-menace of the introverted village and the caste-order rang
the death-knells of the Indian merchant, the guild and the town in the period preceding, and
including, the Delhi Sultanat. Nor had the village-and-caste system benefitted the lot of the
Indian peasant, impoverished by over-expropriation of a forever-warring class of feudal
overlords. Even in this period of the decadence of the Indian country-side, both urban and rural,
Bengal had been a world apart. Trade with south-east Asia had guaranteed the prosperity of its
towns and an early development towards a money economy in the twelvfth and thirteenth
centuries, contemporaneous with the similar developments in Europe which we have noted earlier.
There is little doubt that Bengal was well ahead of the rest.
Bengal had resources. It had a large urban trading class and on account of its trade with the east,
it was already a money-economy before the British came upon it. Land ownership was in Muslim
hands while merchant trading, from the time of the Mauryan state, with Hindu traders, mostly
belonging to the VAISH caste.
Until the time that the British became its masters, Bengal had indeed been a land of plenty. The
alluvial soil was rich, and its plentiful rainfall was ideal for the cultivation of rice and jute. The
humidity that seemed oppressive was only too well suited to the spinning of the hair-thin thread
which was used in the weaving of the finest, lightest cloth in the world, the renowned Bengal
muslin. Legends abound even today of its fineness and smooth finish: of the entire length of 40
yards squeezing inside your palm and in a ball that passed through the ring on your finger. The
climate favoured the culture of the silkworm and the manufacture of silk. In a world of conflict, in
India (the Mughal wars of expansion and succession, the Persian, Aghan, and Marhatta cavalries)
and Europe (the Wars of Austrian Succession, the Seven Year's War), Bengali reserves of
saltpetre, so necessary to the manufacture of gunpowder, were heavy revenue earners. The
British would, of course, add tea to the great export-earners of Bengal.
The Bengali Hindu trader was a somewhat natural ally of the new fairskinned traders. By the time,
in 1690, that the East India company shifted from Hooglie to Calcutta it already had a substantial
staff of Hindus. There were also a large number of Vaish middlemen and intermediaries assisting,
as also profiting, by the Company's trade. This partnership was to last well into the nineteenth
While the British gains were phenomenal, in themselves, and were consciously pursued the
Bengali Vaish, too, profited by a combination of circumstance, commercial instinct and
opportunism. To the British he was a godsend, and soon a vast number of subordinate jobs of
clerks, accountants, store-keepers, were made available, to Vaish youngmen.
With a predominently Muslim feudal aristocacy, and Indian system of caste pervading both Hindu
and Muslim communities, there was no diversity of prospects for the Hindu except the 'trade of
his caste and his forefathers. The British provided him opportunities in his own occupational group
and he, in turn, with his knowledge of the land and its trade practices, opened up the province, and
ultimately India, to the British.
Yet another vital and crucial aspect of Bengal was its location. Unlike Surat and Madras (the
other two locations at which the British by now had established interests) Bengal provided a
direct and convenient riveraine route to the seat of the Mughal empire's capital. Delhi, as a city
or a capital, was to lose much of its pre-eminence in the eighteenth century, yet it was to remain,
until 1857, at least notionally, the seat of the Indian Empire. The feeble, at times even captive,
descendant of Babar continued to be attributed at least titular sovereignty.
Madras was too far south, and Surat, even though it lay between the mouths of the Narbada and
the Tapti Rivers, offered no equal advantage. Neither of these strreams penetrated upstream, so
to say, in the right direction and area as did the Ganges. This river was a ready vehicle to the
heart of north India. It was the highway to Delhi. The Bengal-Ganges advantage was thus denied
to the French and the Portuguese as they remained confined to the coasts of peninsular India in
such southern points as Pondicherry and Calicut.
The Gangetic course provided a series of rich trading centres where agriculture was not the only
occupation. Dacca and Murshedabad led on to Patna (the age-old Pataliputra), and to Agra,
finally to Delhi. All these were ports along the busy inland waterway. Factories and trading
houses, credit groups and port facilities, all were available. A rich community of merchants spread
all along the Ganges right upto the borderland with the Indus, 'the Gurdaspur-Kathiawar
salient', and then beyond into the Indus region itself. Britain did not have to break any new
ground. Bengal was vital. Plassey (1757) had put Bengal under the restless feet, and
expansionist designs, of the East India Company and the Calcutta Council. Though it fought and
won several crucial battles after Bengal, the Company was seldom called upon to break
new ground. Its economic ambassadors seemed always to precede its armies. Consolidation
in the south (Tippu's defeat at Seringapatam, 1799), and in the West (the final defeat of the
Marhattas 1818) would follow as natural and irresistable events.
A very substantial trading class, and the Ganges. These were the two special gifts of Bengal.
Until now, Bengal had nearly always been a rich, though a peripheral, state. Only in the time of the
Mauryan Empire and the Magadh kingdom of the Guptas was the province anywhere close to the
capital city of India, (Pataliputra, now Patna). It was only in these eras that Bengal enjoyed the
benefit, and suffered the disadvantage of being proximate to the central authority. It was only then
that it was an integral and primary province of prosperous empires. At other times its sheer
distance from Taxila or Delhi ensured its substantial autonomy. From this distance from the
central suthority its character also imbibed an inherent, and everlasting, centri-fugal impulse. It
was this impulse that became its hallmark, and many an emperor and king was compelled to travel
to Bengal personally to suppress centrifugal uprisings. Of the Delhi Sultans alone Altimush
(1225), Balban (1280), Muhammad Tughlaq (1333), and Feroze Tughlaq (1358), had to undertake
such compaigns themselves.
These centrifugal tendencies were themselves, however, the surest evidence of Bengal's
abundance. Its resource base was fecund enough to support its own independent ruling dynasties
and their armies. It had adquate earnings for the purchase of arms and to afford campaigns.
It is little wonder, therefore, that of the Bengal Governors of the Delhi Sultanat and the Mughal
empire several rebelled and attempted to shake off Delhi's yoke. Balban's Governor, Sultan
Tughral is in fact said to have decided to raise his standard upon seeing the riches of Bengal and
particularly its army of elephants. This course was to prove fatal to him and his entire army. An
aging Balban took to the saddle himself after two attempts by his Generals had failed. And while
appointing son Governor of Bengal vice the ill-fated Sultan Tughral, Balban demonstrated to the
new Governor, the heavy price of revolt. He took particular care to ensure that the son saw the
executions and got the message. This was an example that many a king and emperor would later
emulate. Jahangir's own account, that we have adverted to earlier, wa therefore not the first
demonstration of its kind.
Sultan Tughral's revolt was aborted by the intervention of the Sultan himself, but three other
Bengal governors succeeded in a actually humiliating the central authority. One of these, Sher
Shah of Sur, not only defeated Babar's son and Akbar's father, Humayun, at the field of Kanauj,
but also drove him right out of India. He thereupon installed himself upon the throne of Delhi.
Sher Shah proved to be one of the ablest administrators India has known. The endless highway
from Sonar Gaon (in Bengal) to the Khyber region (in the north-west) is a befitting monument to
his great capabilities. Punctuated with wells and rest houses, inns and fruit trees, the road
traversed unending plains and the rugged, inhospitable Himalayan foothills. He re-assessed land
revenue and stream-lined the administration before dying prematurely in battle at Kalanjar. Sher
Shah was only one of a rich tradition of able administrators that preceded and followed him. The
'syncretist' Hussain Shah, and the younger brother of that beautiful empress, Noor Jehan Ibrahim
Shah, as also Shah Jehan's son, Shuja, were men of peerless qualities of head and heart. And
perhaps the best in this tradition of the governors and rulers of Bengal was the much-maligned
but the last Indian ruler of Bengal prior to the British conquest of the province, Siraj-ud-Daula.
Siraj had been a youth of only 20 when, in 1756 he had succeeded his grandfather, the astute
Aliwardi Khan to the 'Subedari' of Bengal. By this time the Company's interests in the province
were already substantial. The prosperous port of Hooghlie and the other concessions that had
been granted by the emperor Aurangzeb to it had been bettered many times over by his
successors. Despite initial resistance by Bengal's erstwhile Governor, Shaista Khan, the emperor
Farrukhsiyar had, in 1717, granted several unimaginable concessions to the Company. The
transport of its goods was exempted from octroi duties and local fees. The Company was allowed
to purchase 48 villages near Calcutta. The Murshidabad Mint was directed to allocate at least
three days in every week minting the Company's coins. In an incipient money-economy this was
of the most vital significance economically as well as politically as it partook of the sovereign's
own exclusive power to circulate a legal tender. And, as if to spite Shaista Khan, the Governor
was directed by the emperor to apprehend all the debtors of the Company and to hand them over to
Company's own Officers! These privileges and the enhanced coercive authority of its employees,
multiplied the turn-over of the Company's trade by many times. Such rapid generation of wealth
could support more than one capital city. By 1757 Calcutta, the successor of Hooghlie, had itself
become a prosperous urban centre.
By that year the Company had also begun to entertain more manifest political designs. As its
trade and economic interests expanded, its Governors began to strive for territorial gains and
dominion to enable the Company to protect these interests. At this time an energetic Englishman
from Shropshire, who had done nothing worthwhile in his youth, Robert Clive held the office of
Governor of Fort St. David and Madras. When Siraj took Calcutta over a dispute with the
Company over fortifying it, Clive was sent to recover the city. Clive came by sea to Bengal
alongwith 900 Europeans and 1,500 Indians.
1757. The year in which Clive entered into a treacherous alliance with Mir Jaffar, a general of the
young Nawab Siraj. This alliance sealed the fate of Bengal. Siraj was defeated in the field of
Plassey upon Jaffer's betrayal after the battle lines had been drawn. Siraj lost his life. And thus
began the rape of Bengal.
Within 13 years, Bengal was plundered with such thoroughness that the lush green and fertile
land of plenty came, in 1769, in the fierce grip of the most devastating famine.Read more...
The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan