Category Archives: South Asia

World War I Spreads, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 297-298:

By the end of 1917 most of the world’s population had entered a state of belligerency. Even during the Napoleonic Wars this situation had no precedent. Two impetuses to the process came from the unrestricted submarine campaign and from American entry. The first threatened death and destruction to almost every country; the second made neutrality less attractive and joining the Allies more so. Yet the new belligerents made their own decisions, which were frequently contested. In China intervention led to civil war, and in Greece to something close to it; in Brazil it prompted civil disorder and repression of the German-Brazilians. In China, the issue became embroiled with the contests between Duan and Li and between the northern Chinese warlords and the Guomindang. Intervention became a gambit in a domestic struggle, with Duan holding the advantage. Brazilian public opinion was always pro-Allied in tendency, but it took the submarine sinkings to create a Congress majority for belligerency. Finally, in Siam the government had no legislature to contend with, and once the king insisted on intervention his foreign minister assented.

None of the four countries envisaged an all-out struggle, which makes their interventions easier to comprehend. So does US entry, which made the Allies more likely to win. Indeed, America also initially envisaged a limited commitment, but unlike the other new arrivals it subsequently expanded it. China, Brazil, and Siam were remote from the Central Powers and therefore ran little risk. Greece ran a bigger one, as a fighting front ran through its northern territory, and of the four it made the biggest military contribution. But the costs and risks should be set against the prospective gains. For Brazil these were primarily economic. For Siam and China the additional incentive was gaining traction against the unequal treaties, the Chinese being particularly focused on the Shandong lease. In Greece Venizelos wanted Bulgarian and Turkish territories that might support a glittering future in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. The prize all sought was a voice in the peace settlement.

These objectives would be satisfied unequally and tardily; and in Greece’s case scarcely at all. But the widening of the war through new interventions weakened European pre-eminence. Siam and China challenged the unequal treaties in a manner impossible before 1914; Chinese nationalism strengthened and became more anti-Western; Brazil and other South American countries turned away from Europe. China’s intervention was determined more by Japan than by the European Allies or the United States. Moreover, the war’s prolongation undermined not only informal European dominance in East Asia but also formal control elsewhere. This was most evident in the August 1917 Montagu Declaration, promising ‘responsible government’ in India, the grandest empire’s biggest possession. But if European control was under challenge in Asia, it was still expanding in the Middle East, and 1917 was the decisive year for establishing British authority over Palestine and Iraq. These developments too would figure among the lasting consequences of these crowded months.

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Foreign Volunteers in the Boer War

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 433-435:

Stung by accusations that the war had been mismanaged, the British government ordered a change of command and appointed as commander-in-chief Field Marshal Frederick Roberts – ‘Lord Bobs’ – a diminutive, 67-year-old war hero, blind in one eye; but it was decided to leave Buller in charge of the Natal army. Two more divisions – the last readily available – were despatched from England. The government also realised that it had been trying to fight the wrong kind of war, relying too much on slow-moving infantry battalions to deal with mounted Boer riflemen using highly mobile tactics; British mobility needed to match Boer mobility. Britain called for civilian volunteers to join a new ‘Imperial Yeomanry’. Some 20,000 men from the ‘hunting and shooting’ fraternity signed up, including thirty-four members of parliament and peers. The City of London paid for one thousand volunteers. Further reinforcements came from other parts of the empire – from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. By January 1900, the total number of troops Britain had shipped to South Africa had reached 110,000. Additional support was provided by uitlander refugees and colonial volunteers formed into two mounted corps of their own – the Imperial Light Horse and the South African Light Horse – financed in part by Wernher, Beit & Co.

Even members of the Indian community in Natal – originally immigrants employed as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations – volunteered to serve as stretcher-bearers. Their organiser was a 28-year-old lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, who had arrived from India in 1893, spending a year in Pretoria before settling in Durban. Gandhi expressed sympathy for the Boer cause but considered he was bound by loyalty to Britain. ‘I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire.’ The Natal authorities at first turned down Gandhi’s offer. But after Black Week, their attitude changed. Gandhi’s ambulance corps of ‘free’ Indians and indentured labourers recruited 1,100 volunteers.

Just as the British won support from the empire, so Boer ranks were bolstered by foreign volunteers. Some 2,000 uitlanders – Germans, French, Dutch, Irish, Irish-Americans, Russians, Scandinavians, even some English – joined the Boer cause. Another 2,000 foreign volunteers arrived from abroad. A retired French army colonel, Count de Villebois-Mareuil, enlisted, hoping to capture Cecil Rhodes. ‘History will add a fresh flower to the glory of France,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘To take Kimberley and see the face of the Napoleon of the Cape.’ He rose to the rank of Vecht-generaal – combat general – but was killed in action in April 1900. In all, the Boer allies were able to raise armed forces totalling more than 70,000 men. In addition, about 10,000 Africans served as auxiliaries to Boer commandos – retainers, porters, gun-bearers and labourers – many of them conscripted under duress.

Yet early Boer advantages were soon frittered away by poor strategy. By committing such a large proportion of their forces to the siege of three towns, Boer generals lost the opportunity to drive deeper into Natal and the Cape Colony when both areas were highly vulnerable to mobile attack. As their forward thrusts began to ebb, they turned to a more defensive stance, preparing for a much tougher British assault. By December, the Boer offensive had reached its limits. Unlike 1881, there had been no crushing blow to induce the British to negotiate.

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A Tottering British Empire, 1780

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 303-304:

Elsewhere in the world, 1780 saw the British suffering other major reverses – and these were indeed followed through to their logical conclusion. In America, the Patriots had turned on the King, partly as a result of government’s attempts to sell the stockpiles of East India Company tea, onto which was slapped British taxes: the Boston Tea Party, an event that built support for what would become the American War of Independence by dumping 90,000 pounds of EIC tea, worth £9,659 (over £1 million today), in Boston harbour, was in part provoked by fears that the Company might now be let loose on the thirteen colonies, much as it had been in Bengal.

One Patriot writer, John Dickinson, feared that the EIC, having plundered India, was now ‘casting their eyes on America as a new theatre whereon to exercise their talents of rapine, oppression and cruelty …’ Dickinson described the tea as ‘accursed Trash’, and compared the prospect of oppression by the corrupt East India Company in America to being ‘devoured by Rats’. This ‘almost bankrupt Company’, he said, having been occupied in ‘corrupting their Country’, and wreaking ‘the most unparalleled Barbarities, Extortions and Monopolies’ in Bengal, now wished to do the same in America. ‘But thank GOD, we are not Sea Poys, nor Marattas.’ The American watchmen on their rounds, he said, should be instructed to ‘call out every night, past Twelve o’Clock, “Beware of the East India Company.”’

After a horrendous war, the Patriots managed to see off the government troops sent to impose the tea tax. Even as Haidar was pursuing a terrified Munro back to Madras, British forces in America were already on their way to the final defeat by Washington at Yorktown, and the subsequent final surrender of British forces in America in October the following year. There was a growing sensation that everywhere the British Empire was in the process of falling apart. In Parliament, a year later, one MP noted that ‘in Europe we have lost Minorca, in America 13 provinces, and the two Pensacolas; in the West Indies, Tobago; and some settlements in Africa’. ‘The British Empire,’ wrote Edmund Burke, ‘is tottering to its foundation.’

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The Francis v. Hastings Duel, 1780

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 293-296:

On 14 August, Hastings wrote a public minute in which he denounced Francis as a liar and braggard: … The following day, on 15 August 1780, Philip Francis challenged Warren Hastings to a duel.

The two duellists, accompanied by their seconds, met at 5.30 on the morning of 17 August at a clump of trees on the western edge of Belvedere, a former summer house of Mir Jafar, which had since been bought by Warren Hastings.

Hastings had hardly slept. He spent much of the night composing a farewell letter to his beloved wife Marian, to be delivered in the event of his death. … Hastings then slept fitfully on a couch until 4 a.m. when his second, Colonel Thomas Deane Pearse, came to collect him in his carriage. ‘We arrived at Belvedere exactly at the time proposed, at 5.30,’ wrote Hastings afterwards, ‘and found Mr F[rancis] and Col Watson walking in the road. Some time was consumed looking for a private place. Our seconds proposed we should stand at a measured distance which both (taking a recent example in England) fixed at 14 paces, and Col Watson paced and marked 7. I stood to the southwards. There was, as I recollect, no wind. Our seconds (Col Watson I think) proposed that no advantage should be taken, but each choose his own time to fire.’

It was at this point that it became clear, as Pearse noted, ‘that both gentlemen were unacquainted with the modes usually observed on these occasions’; indeed, neither of the two most powerful British intellectuals in Bengal seemed entirely clear how to operate their pistols. Francis said he had never fired one in his life, and Hastings said he could only remember doing so once. So both had to have their weapons loaded for them by their seconds who, being military men, knew how to operate firearms.

Hastings, ever the gentleman, decided to let Francis fire first. Francis took aim and squeezed the trigger. The hammer snapped, but the pistol misfired. Again, Francis’s second had to intervene, putting fresh priming in the pistol and chapping the flints. ‘We returned to our stations,’ wrote Hastings. ‘I still proposed to receive the first fire, but Mr F twice aimed, and twice withdrew his pistol.’ Finally, Francis again ‘drew his trigger,’ wrote Pearse, ‘but his powder being damp, the pistol again did not fire. Mr Hastings came down from his present, to give Mr Francis time to rectify his priming, and this was done out of a cartridge with which I supplied him finding they had no spare powder. Again the gentlemen took their stands and both presented together.’

‘I now judged that I might seriously take my aim at him,’ wrote Hastings. ‘I did so and when I thought I had fixed the true direction, I fired.’ His pistol went off at the same time, and so near the same instant that I am not certain which was first, but believe mine was, and that his followed in the instant. He staggered immediately, his face expressed a sensation of being struck, and his limbs shortly but gradually went under him, and he fell saying, but not loudly, ‘I am dead.’

I ran to him, shocked at the information, and I can safely say without any immediate sensation of joy for my own success. The Seconds also ran to his assistance. I saw his coat pierced on the right side, and feared the ball had passed through him; but he sat up without much difficulty several times and once attempted with our help to stand, but his limbs failed him, and he sank to the ground. …

But there was no need for Hastings to be arrested. The doctor later reported that Hastings’ musket ball ‘pierced the right side of Mr Francis, but was prevented by a rib, which turned the ball, from entering the thorax. It went obliquely upwards, passed the backbone without injuring it, and was extracted about an inch to the left side of it. The wound is of no consequence and he is in no danger.’

Francis later instigated the impeachment of Warren Hastings in the British Parliament, a huge media event with many false charges between 1788 and 1795. Hastings was eventually acquitted overwhelmingly.

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Black Hole of Calcutta Revisited

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 144-145:

That evening [20 June 1756], having ‘swept the town of Calcutta with the broom of plunder’, Siraj ud-Daula was brought in his litter to visit his new possession. He held a durbar in the centre of the Fort where he announced that Calcutta was to be renamed Alinagar, after Imam Ali – appropriately for a prominent city in a Shia-ruled province.

So far, the surrendered garrison had been treated unusually well by Mughal standards: there had been no immediate enslavement, no summary executions, no impaling, no beheading and no torture, all of which would have been, in the Mughal scheme of things, quite routine punishments for rebellious subjects. It was only after Siraj had left that things began to fall apart.

Many in the Company’s garrison were still blind drunk, and in the early evening one intoxicated soldier who was being stripped of his goods became incensed and promptly pulled out a pistol and shot his Mughal plunderer dead. Immediately the tone changed. All the survivors were herded into a tiny punishment cell, eighteen feet long by fourteen feet ten inches wide, with only one small window, little air and less water. The cell was known as the Black Hole. There, according to the Mughal chronicler Yusuf Ali Khan, the officers ‘confined nearly 100 Firangis who fell victim to the claws of fate on that day in a small room. As luck would have it, in the room where the Firangis were kept confined, all of them got suffocated and died.’

The numbers are unclear, and much debated: Holwell, who wrote a highly coloured account of the Black Hole in 1758, and began the mythologising of the event, wrote that one woman and 145 Company men were shoved inside, of whom 123 died. This was clearly an exaggeration. The most painstaking recent survey of the evidence concludes 64 people entered the Black Hole and that 21 survived. Among the young men who did not come out was the nineteen-year-old Stair Dalrymple from North Berwick, who only two years earlier had been complaining of Calcutta’s cost of living and dreaming of becoming Governor.

Whatever the accurate figures, the event generated howls of righteous indignation for several generations among the British in India and 150 years later was still being taught in British schools as demonstrative of the essential barbarity of Indians and illustrative of why British rule was supposedly both necessary and justified. But at the time, the Black Hole was barely remarked upon in contemporary sources, and several detailed accounts, including that of Ghulam Hussain Khan, do not mention it at all. The Company had just lost its most lucrative trading station, and that, rather than the fate of its feckless garrison, was what really worried the Company authorities.

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Bengalis Recruit the East India Company, 1757

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 161-162:

The bankers and merchants of Bengal who sustained Siraj ud-Daula’s regime had finally turned against him and united with the disaffected parts of his own military; now they sought to bring in the mercenary troops of the East India Company to help depose him. This was something quite new in Indian history: a group of Indian financiers plotting with an international trading corporation to use its own private security force to overthrow a regime they saw threatening the income they earned from trade. This was not part of any imperial masterplan. In fact, the EIC men on the ground were ignoring their strict instructions from London, which were only to repulse French attacks and avoid potentially ruinous wars with their Mughal hosts. But seeing opportunities for personal enrichment as well as political and economic gain for the Company, they dressed up the conspiracy in colours that they knew would appeal to their masters and presented the coup as if it were primarily aimed at excluding the French from Bengal for ever.

By 1 May, a Secret Committee made up of senior Company officials in Bengal formally resolved to join the conspiracy: ‘The Committee were unanimously of the opinion that there could be no dependence on this Nabob’s word, honour and friendship, and that a revolution in the Government would be extremely for the advantage of the Company’s affairs.’

The Secret Committee then began to haggle over their terms of service, again using Khwaja Petrus as the intermediary for their coded correspondence. Before long, Mir Jafar and the Jagat Seths had significantly raised their offer, and were now promising the participants Rs28 million, or £3 million sterling – the entire annual revenue of Bengal – for their help overthrowing Siraj, and a further Rs110,000 a month to pay for Company troops. In addition, the EIC was to get zamindari – landholding – rights near Calcutta, a mint in the town and confirmation of duty-free trade. By 19 May, in addition to this offer, Mir Jafar conceded to pay the EIC a further enormous sum – £1 million – as compensation for the loss of Calcutta and another half a million as compensation to its European inhabitants.

On 4 June a final deal was agreed. That evening, Khwaja Petrus obtained for Watts a covered harem palanquin ‘such as the Moor women are carryed in, which is inviolable, for without previous knowledge of the deceit no one dare look into it’. Within this, the Englishman was carried into Mir Jafar’s house to get the signatures of the old general and his son Miran, and to take their formal oath on the Quran to fulfil their part of the treaty obligations. On 11 June, the signed document was back in Calcutta with the Select Committee, who then countersigned it. The next evening, pretending to set off on a hunting expedition, Watts and his men decamped from Kasimbazar and made their escape through the night, down the road to Chandernagar.

On 13 June 1757, a year to the day since Siraj had begun his attack on Calcutta, Clive sent an ultimatum to Siraj ud-Daula accusing him of breaking the terms of the Treaty of Alinagar. That same day, with a small army of 800 Europeans, 2,200 south Indian sepoys and only eight cannon, he began the historic march towards Plassey.

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From Merchants to Mercenaries in Mughal India

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 90-91:

Soon both the British and the French were intriguing with the different states in the south, covertly offering to sell their military assistance in return for influence, payments or land grants. In 1749, in return for a small trading port, the EIC became involved in its first attempt at what today would be called regime change, taking sides in a succession dispute in the Maratha kingdom of Tanjore. The attempted coup was a miserable failure.

Dupleix, however, had much more success as a military entrepreneur. His clients had to pay for their European weapons and troops in land grants and land revenue collection rights that would enable the French Compagnie to maintain its sepoys and finance its trade from Indian revenues rather than importing bullion from Europe. Dupleix sold his services as a mercenary first to one of the claimants to the throne of the Carnatic, and then, in a much more ambitious move, despatched the Marquis de Bussy to Hyderabad to take sides in the succession crisis that had followed the death of the region’s most powerful Mughal overlord, Nizam ul-Mulk, as his sons fought for control of the Nizam’s semi-detached fragment of the Mughal Empire. Dupleix was handsomely rewarded for his assistance with a present of £77,500, the high Mughal rank of Mansab of 7,000 horse – the equivalent of a Dukedom in Europe – the rich port of Masulipatnam and a jagir (a landed estate) worth £20,000. Selling the services of his trained and disciplined troops, he soon realised, was an infinitely more profitable business than dealing in cotton textiles.

Dupleix’s generalissimo, the Marquis de Bussy, who also made a fortune, could hardly believe the dramatic results his tiny mercenary force achieved as he marched through the Deccan: ‘Kings have been placed on the throne with my hands,’ he wrote to Dupleix in 1752, ‘sustained by my forces, armies have been put to flight, towns taken by assault by a mere handful of my men, peace treaties concluded by my own mediation … The honour of my nation has been taken to a pinnacle of glory, so that it has been preferred to all the others in Europe, and the interests of the Compagnie taken beyond its hopes and even its desires.’

In reality, however, these were all two-way transactions: weak Indian rulers of fragmented post-Mughal states offered large blocks of territory, or land revenue, to the different European Companies in return for military support. The warfare that followed, which usually involved very small Company armies, was often incoherent and inconclusive, but it confirmed that the Europeans now had a clear and consistent military edge over Indian cavalry, and that small numbers of them were capable of altering the balance of power in the newly fractured political landscape that had followed the fall of the Mughal Empire. The Carnatic Wars that rumbled on over the next decade might have had few conclusive or permanent strategic results, but they witnessed the transformation of the character of the two Companies from trading concerns to increasingly belligerent and militarised entities, part-textile exporters, part-pepper traders, part-revenue-collecting land-holding businesses, and now, most profitably of all, state-of-the-art mercenary outfits.

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Nader Shah Robs the Mughal Empire, 1739

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 76-80:

On 21 May, Nader Shah with a force of 80,000 fighting men crossed the border into the Mughal Empire, heading for the summer capital of Kabul, so beginning the first invasion of India for two centuries. The great Bala Hisar of Kabul surrendered at the end of June. Nader Shah then descended the Khyber. Less than three months later, at Karnal, one hundred miles north of Delhi, he defeated three merged Mughal armies – around a million men, some half of whom were fighters – with a relatively small but strictly disciplined force of 150,000 musketeers and Qizilbash horsemen armed with the latest military technology of the day: armour-penetrating, horse-mounted jazair, or swivel guns.

Nader Shah’s job was certainly made much easier by the increasingly bitter divisions between Muhammad Shah’s two principal generals, Sa’adat Khan and Nizam ul-Mulk. Sa’adat Khan arrived late at the Mughal camp, marching in from Avadh long after the Nizam had encamped, but, keen to show off his superior military abilities, decided to ride straight into battle without waiting for his exhausted soldiers to rest. Around noon on 13 February, he marched out of the earthwork defences erected by the Nizam to protect his troops, ‘with headlong impetuosity misplaced in a commander’, and against the advice of the Nizam, who remained behind, declaring that ‘haste is of the devil’. He was right to be cautious: Sa’adat Khan was walking straight into a carefully laid trap.

Nader Shah lured Sa’adat Khan’s old-fashioned heavy Mughal cavalry – armoured cuirassiers fighting with long swords – into making a massed frontal charge. As they neared the Persian lines, Nader’s light cavalry parted like a curtain, leaving the Mughals facing a long line of mounted musketeers, each of whom was armed with swivel guns. They fired at point-blank range. Within a few minutes, the flower of Mughal chivalry lay dead on the ground. As a Kashmiri observer, Abdul Karim Sharistani, put it, ‘the army of Hindustan fought with bravery. But one cannot fight musket balls with arrows.’

Having defeated the Mughals in an initial engagement, Nader Shah then managed to capture the Emperor himself by the simple ruse of inviting him to dinner, then refusing to let him leave. ‘Here was an army of a million bold and well-equipped horsemen, held as it were in captivity, and all the resources of the Emperor and his grandees at the disposal of the Persians,’ wrote Anand Ram Mukhlis. ‘The Mughal monarchy appeared to be at an end.’ …

On 29 March, a week after Nader Shah’s forces had entered the Mughal capital, a newswriter for the Dutch VOC sent a report in which he described Nader Shah’s bloody massacre of the people of Delhi: ‘the Iranians have behaved like animals,’ he wrote. ‘At least 100,000 people were killed. Nader Shah gave orders to kill anyone who defended himself. As a result it seemed as if it were raining blood, for the drains were streaming with it.’ Ghulam Hussain Khan recorded how, ‘In an instant the soldiers getting on the tops of the houses commenced killing, slaughtering and plundering people’s property, and carrying away their wives and daughters. Numbers of houses were set on fire and ruined.’ …

The massacre continued until the Nizam went bareheaded, his hands tied with his turban, and begged Nader on his knees to spare the inhabitants and instead to take revenge on him. Nader Shah ordered his troops to stop the killing; they obeyed immediately. He did so, however, on the condition that the Nizam would give him 100 crore (1 billion) rupees* before he would agree to leave Delhi. ‘The robbing, torture and plundering still continues,’ noted a Dutch observer, ‘but not, thankfully, the killing.’

In the days that followed, the Nizam found himself in the unhappy position of having to loot his own city to pay the promised indemnity. The city was divided into five blocks and vast sums were demanded of each: ‘Now commenced the work of spoliation,’ remarked Anand Ram Mukhlis, ‘watered by the tears of the people … Not only was their money taken, but whole families were ruined. Many swallowed poison, and others ended their days with the stab of a knife … In short the accumulated wealth of 348 years changed masters in a moment.’

Nader never wished to rule India, just to plunder it for resources to fight his real enemies, the Russians and the Ottomans. Fifty-seven days later, he returned to Persia carrying the pick of the treasures the Mughal Empire had amassed over its 200 years of sovereignty and conquest: a caravan of riches that included Jahangir’s magnificent Peacock Throne, embedded in which was both the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the great Timur ruby. Nader Shah also took with him the Great Mughal Diamond, reputedly the largest in the world, along with the Koh-i-Noor’s slightly larger, pinker ‘sister’, the Daria-i-Noor, and ‘700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses carrying wagons all laden with gold, silver and precious stones’, worth in total an estimated £87.5 million in the currency of the time. In a single swift blow, Nader Shah had broken the Mughal spell. Muhammad Shah Rangila remained on the throne, but, with little remaining credibility or real power, he withdrew from public life, hardly leaving Delhi.

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Aurangzeb’s Mughal Legacy, 1707

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 62-63, 82-83:

It was the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 that changed everything for the Company.

The Emperor, unloved by his father, grew up into a bitter and bigoted Islamic puritan, as intolerant as he was grimly dogmatic. He was a ruthlessly talented general and a brilliantly calculating strategist, but entirely lacked the winning charm of his predecessors. His rule became increasingly harsh, repressive and unpopular as he grew older. He made a clean break with the liberal and inclusive policies towards the Hindu majority of his subjects pioneered by his great-grandfather Akbar, and instead allowed the ulama to impose far stricter interpretations of Sharia law. Wine was banned, as was hashish, and the Emperor ended his personal patronage of musicians. He also ended Hindu customs adopted by the Mughals such as appearing daily to his subjects at the jharoka palace window in the centre of the royal apartments in the Red Fort. Around a dozen Hindu temples across the country were destroyed, and in 1672 he issued an order recalling all endowed land given to Hindus and reserved all future land grants for Muslims. In 1679 the Emperor reimposed the jizya tax on all non-Muslims that had been abolished by Akbar; he also executed Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the gurus of the Sikhs.

While it is true that Aurangzeb is a more complex and pragmatic figure than some of his critics allow, the religious wounds Aurangzeb opened in India have never entirely healed, and at the time they tore the country in two. Unable to trust anyone, Aurangzeb marched to and fro across the Empire, viciously putting down successive rebellions by his subjects. The Empire had been built on a pragmatic tolerance and an alliance with the Hindus, especially with the warrior Rajputs, who formed the core of the Mughal war machine. The pressure put on that alliance and the Emperor’s retreat into bigotry helped to shatter the Mughal state and, on Aurangzeb’s death, it finally lost them the backbone of their army.

But it was Aurangzeb’s reckless expansion of the Empire into the Deccan, largely fought against the Shia Muslim states of Bijapur and Golconda, that did most to exhaust and overstretch the resources of the Empire. It also unleashed against the Mughals a new enemy that was as formidable as it was unexpected. Maratha peasants and landholders had once served in the armies of the Bijapur and Golconda. In the 1680s, after the Mughals conquered these two states, Maratha guerrilla raiders under the leadership of Shivaji Bhonsle, a charismatic Maratha Hindu warlord, began launching attacks against the Mughal armies occupying the Deccan. As one disapproving Mughal chronicler noted, ‘most of the men in the Maratha army are unendowed with illustrious birth, and husbandmen, carpenters and shopkeepers abound among their soldiery’. They were largely armed peasants; but they knew the country and they knew how to fight.

From the sparse uplands of the western Deccan, Shivaji led a prolonged and increasingly widespread peasant rebellion against the Mughals and their tax collectors. The Maratha light cavalry, armed with spears, were remarkable for their extreme mobility and the ability to make sorties far behind Mughal lines. They could cover fifty miles in a day because the cavalrymen carried neither baggage nor provisions and instead lived off the country: Shivaji’s maxim was ‘no plunder, no pay’.

But what appeared to be the end of an era in Delhi looked quite different in other parts of India, as a century of imperial centralisation gave way to a revival of regional identities and regional governance. Decline and disruption in the heartlands of Hindustan after 1707 was matched by growth and relative prosperity in the Mughal peripheries. Pune and the Maratha hills, flush with loot and overflowing tax revenues, entered their golden age. The Rohilla Afghans, the Sikhs of the Punjab and the Jats of Deeg and Bharatpur all began to carve independent states out of the cadaver of the Mughal Empire, and to assume the mantle of kingship and governance.

For Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and the other Rajput courts, this was also an age of empowerment and resurgence as they resumed their independence and, free from the tax burdens inherent in bowing to Mughal overlordship, began using their spare revenues to add opulent new palaces to their magnificent forts. In Avadh, the baroque palaces of Faizabad rose to rival those built by the Nizam in Hyderabad to the south. All these cities emerged as centres of literary, artistic and cultural patronage, so blossoming into places of remarkable cultural efflorescence.

Meanwhile, Benares emerged as a major centre of finance and commerce as well as a unique centre of religion, education and pilgrimage. In Bengal, Nadia was the centre of Sanskrit learning and a sophisticated centre for regional architectural and Hindustani musical excellence.

To the south, in Tanjore, a little later, Carnatic music would begin to receive enlightened patronage from the Maratha court that had seized control of that ancient centre of Tamil culture. At the other end of the subcontinent, the Punjab hill states of the Himalayan foothills entered a period of astonishing creativity as small remote mountain kingdoms suddenly blossomed with artists, many of whom had been trained with metropolitan skills in the now-diminished Mughal ateliers, each family of painters competing with and inspiring each other in a manner comparable to the rival city states of Renaissance Italy.

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The EIC Meets the Mughals, 1608

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 49-50:

On 28 August 1608, Captain William Hawkins, a bluff sea captain with the Third Voyage, anchored his ship, the Hector, off Surat, and so became the first commander of an EIC vessel to set foot on Indian soil.

India then had a population of 150 million – about a fifth of the world’s total – and was producing about a quarter of global manufacturing; indeed, in many ways it was the world’s industrial powerhouse and the world’s leader in manufactured textiles. Not for nothing are so many English words connected with weaving – chintz, calico, shawl, pyjamas, khaki, dungarees, cummerbund, taffetas – of Indian origin. It was certainly responsible for a much larger share of world trade than any comparable zone and the weight of its economic power even reached Mexico, whose textile manufacture suffered a crisis of ‘de-industrialisation’ due to Indian cloth imports. In comparison, England then had just 5 per cent of India’s population and was producing just under 3 per cent of the world’s manufactured goods. A good proportion of the profits on this found its way to the Mughal exchequer in Agra, making the Mughal Emperor, with an income of around £100 million [over £10,000 million today], by far the richest monarch in the world.

The Mughal capitals were the megacities of their day: ‘They are second to none either in Asia or in Europe,’ thought the Jesuit Fr Antonio Monserrate, ‘with regards either to size, population, or wealth. Their cities are crowded with merchants, who gather from all over Asia. There is no art or craft which is not practised there.’ Between 1586 and 1605, European silver flowed into the Mughal heartland at the astonishing rate of 18 metric tons a year, for as William Hawkins observed, ‘all nations bring coyne and carry away commodities for the same’. For their grubby contemporaries in the West, stumbling around in their codpieces, the silk-clad Mughals, dripping in jewels, were the living embodiment of wealth and power – a meaning that has remained impregnated in the word ‘mogul’ ever since.

By the early seventeenth century, Europeans had become used to easy military victories over the other peoples of the world. In the 1520s the Spanish had swept away the vast armies of the mighty Aztec Empire in a matter of months. In the Spice Islands of the Moluccas, the Dutch had recently begun to turn their cannons on the same rulers they had earlier traded with, slaughtering those islanders who rode out in canoes to greet them, burning down their cities and seizing their ports. On one island alone, Lontor, 800 inhabitants were enslaved and forcibly deported to work on new Dutch spice plantations in Java; forty-seven chiefs were tortured and executed.

But as Captain Hawkins soon realised, there was no question of any European nation attempting to do this with the Great Mughals, not least because the Mughals kept a staggering 4 million men under arms.

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