Merchandise Leads to Sovereignty
The last Great Mogul died, the usual civil war followed. Unimportant emperors succeeded to a power yearly waxing more shadowy; Sikhs and Mohammadans slew each other, and the Marathas became the first power in Hindustan. This power passed into the hands of the Peshwa, theoretically only a minister of the king; and officers in the Maratha army founded kingdoms of their own, which loosely held together. It was in this period that the three great Maratha chieftaincies of modern India – Gwalior, Indore, and Gujarat – began. The two former are often spoken of by their dynastic names, Sindhia and Holkar.
In 1736, Nadir Shah of Persia sacked Delhi and annexed Afghanistan which ceased to have any political connection with India. In 1761, Ahmed Shah Durrani, an Afghan invader, fought with the Marathas, at the third battle of Panipat, for the sovereignty slipping from the Mogul’s enfeebled grip. The Marathas’ defeat was complete, their losses terrible; yet in a few years they had recovered, while the victor was compelled by his soldiers to return to his own country. In 1764, Shah Alam, the titular Emperor of Delhi, was invading Bengal, and was defeated, in company with his Nawab, at the battle of Buxar, by the East India Company. He appointed the victors his “Dewan” or Financial Representative, in Bengal. In 1788 an Afghan chief defeated Sindhia, Shah Alam’s “proctector”, and blinded the Emperor. The latter passed under Sindhia’s proctection again, and then, an old, miserable man, into that of the British on their defeat of the Maratha’s at Delhi in 1803.
To us, watching from the quiet of the twentieth century, it is very clear that India’s destiny was being decided in some hundreds of petty combats between the servants of two rival trading companies. These battles were usually on an almost trivial scale. A small body of sepoys, stiffened by a handful of Europeans, are repulsed from a rude fort held by another tiny army. Or a young English officer, Robert Clive, accidentally runs into a merchant body of the French and their allies; his men take refuge in a deep watercourse and fight by moonlight, disheartened until he finds he can spring a surprise on his foes in their rear; he does so, and wins the battle of Kaveripak. French and English manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre about the wooded island of Sriringam studded with famous temples; they meet in absurdly small – but fierce and sufficiently bloody – engagements on plains fretted with thorn and huge boulders, or by fords of a crocodile-haunted river. And presently France has lost an empire, and England has gained one.
Merchandise passed into struggle for empire in two ways. Native States drew Europeans into their quarrels as allies; soon the puny “principals” became shadows in the background, as the Mogul was in the wars of Marathas and Afghans, and the allies were at desperate grip. Then traders demanded the right to fortify their factories against attacks, such as those which Sivaji twice made on the East India Company’s settlement at Surat. The French and English companies almost sensibly slipped into a state of war. Before 1750, the French, on the whole, had the advantage. They captured Madras in 1746, and held it until peace in Europe restored it in 1749. In 1748 the British failed to take Pondichery, losing over a thousand men by battle and disease, against the French loss of’ perhaps, two hundred. Now – and later – there was sea fighting, often harder and bloodier than that on land. Sometimes the directors of the rival companies got worried, and sent out orders that war must cease; sometimes the traders on the spot tried to agree to keep the peace, even when their countries were at war. But fighting became usual, and continued even when there was peace in Europe.
Clive lost his civil employment when Madras fell and took a fighting commission. The British efforts were being badly handled; he changed all this. In 1751 the French and English were supporting rival Nawabs of Arcot, and the former were besieging Trichinopoli. Clive made a diversion by occupying Arcot – a daring action. He stood a siege of fifty-three days, and then won a number of small but important fights. The French were finally defeated at Wandiwash by Coote in 1760, and surrendered Pondichery in January, 1761. The struggle with them was over, though they still held a few places, as they do today. Many of their troops deserted to the British service, where they played a part in the frequent mutinies; others skulked about the native courts.
We must turn to Bengal. In 1756 the Newab of Bengal attacked Calcutta, took it, and pushed his prisoners, 146 in number, into their own military prison for the night, where all but twenty-three died of suffocation. Many Indians now assert this story of “thee Black Hole” to be an invention; but the evidence suffices. The deed was not deliberately atrocious, but was the same kind of stupid brutality that our own record contains, in the asphyxiation of over eighty Moplah prisoners in railway vans in 1921.
Clive was sent to Bengal, marched up country, and captured the Nawab’s whole camp at Plassey, with seventy casualties. The British had arranged to supplant Suraj-ud-daula, the Nawab, by Mir Jafir. Jafir put his predecessor to death, and gave his benefactors enormous presents; Clive took £234,000 and (two years later) an estate worth £30,000 a year; he had previously taken large gifts in South India. The Nawab made the East India Company landlords over a tract of country which served to train the administrators they presently needed. He was amazed when he found that his gifts to servants of the Company were not held to excuse hid from paying the Company itself, as distinct from its servants, and intrigued with the Dutch at Chinsura. England and Holland were at peace, but the East India Company smashed the Dutch both on the river and on land; one body of Dutch troops lost all but fourteen men out of 800.
The situation must now be disentangled. The Nawab, theoretically the Emperor’s representative, was really independent. The English were traders, and previous to 1757 had no clear status even in Calcutta. It was governed by a Mayor’s Court, which could not execute an Englishmen without a royal warrant from England; and Indian offenders were tried by an English official called the Zeminder (Landlord). If he passed sentence of capital punishment, the Mayor had to sanction it; then, since the whole position was too irregular for use of gallows, the offender was whipped to death. After Plassey, the Company obtained zemindari rights over a large tract, but no sovereign powers. But since the Nawab was now their nominee, they were the real rulers of Bengal.
Before Plassey, the East India Company paid its servants miserably, except the few at the top. Afterwards salaries were still poor, though not as poor as if often alleged. The army seems to have been worst treated. Sir Thomas Munro wrote to his sister in 1789: “You may not believe me when I tell you, that I never experienced hunger or thirst, fatigue or poverty, till I came to India – that since then, I have frequently met with the first three, and that the last has been my constant companion.” Since salaries were so poor, the Company’s servants were allowed to engage in private trade, which had to be between their own factories, and not to Europe or inland. But after Plassey they interfered in the inland trade, and by an unjust interpretation of their legal position refused to pay dues. When they sold permits to Indians who claimed to be acting for the Company, the Nawab’s administration became impossible. His revenue went, and his people were terribly oppressed. Many of them had made their living by the inland trade, which now passed to foreigners and to natives alleging, rightly or wrongly, to be those foreigners’ servants. It was said that even the lowest official in the Company’s service could make large sums by selling these passes, and in the dreadful famine of 1769-70 many of the company’s servants profiteered shamefully in the necessaries of life. In 1765 the directors ordered Clive to put down their servants’ inland trade, and arranged to pay as compensation a commission on the revenue. But Clive, supported by the Company’s servants, was unwilling to obey, and this evil continued for a long time.
Clive were in England between 1760 and 1765; the Company’s representatives became a band of brigands. They organized three revolutions, each time making their nominee pay handsomely. A House of Commons Committee later learnt that between 1757 and 1766 the Company’s servants in Bengal alone received over £2,500,000 as privates presents, and another £3,770,833 as “compensation” for losses incurred Madras was equally dishonest. A keeper of the Madras Records has said: It would be difficult to name a Governor who was neither bribed nor hated by [their particular Nawab] Nawab Muhammad Ali.” The scandalous corruption of Madras continued until 1801, but the Bengal civilians had to put up with interference that became increasingly effective. They drove Mir Kassim, whom they had made Nawab, so frantic that he tried to escape by moving his capital to a town far up the Ganges. Then he blazed out and massacred the British at Patna. There was a mutiny of some of the Company’s sepoys, savagely quelled; and then the Nawab an able man who had copied British discipline carefully, was defeated at Buxar, in a fight that cost the victors nearly nine hundred casualties. Clive was sent out next year with wide powers and orders to clear matters up. He earned lasting hatred by his reforms. It was considered particularly unjust that he should stop the taking of gifts after he had accumulated a fortune by them. But Clive regarded his own presents as legitimate prize-money, whereas his successors had looked on the Nawab as simply a purse to be dipped into as often and deeply as they wished, and to the deposed if he objected. Clive, by way of compensation, gave them a monopoly in the inland trade in things that the natives bought largely – salt, opium, betel-leaf. When the directors forbade this, he resisted them, especially over the salt trade. He left India in 1767, pursued by accusations; was questioned by Parliament, and some of his actions censured, but his services highly praised.
As we have seen, no nation can be expected to judge severely the actions of men by whom it has greatly profited. But the bad temper some writers show when admitting Clive’s faults is unjustifiable. His moral sense was not fine; he made no bones about the forgery and gross deception be practiced on one notorious occasion, and said that under the same circumstances he would do it again. He was greedy for money, but so were his colleagues, so had the French been in South India. The moral standard of the century was very low among public men, both in England and India. The most humiliating part of the Indian story took place when Clive was away. His courage was tremendous, and on the field of battle his reputation for luck demoralized his foes. But it was “luck” only in the sense that it is luck that makes a bowler send half-volleys to a daring batsman with a wonderful eye. Also, “in a life spent amid scenes of blood and suffering, he was never been accused of a single act of cruelty” (Mountstuart Elphinstone).
After Buxar, the Emperor appointed the Company Dewan of Bengal and Bihar. But they did not take up the post until 1772, when Warren Hastings was appointed Governor. Indian Governments were now full of humbug everywhere. The Mogul was his Vizier’s puppet, and himself an “embarrassed phantom”; the Marathas’ nominal head was a subordinate, while the Peshwa and Sindhia and Holkar ruled; the East India Company as Dewan was in theory the inferior colleague of the Nawab, the Emperor’s military representative in Bengal. Clive had valued this “diarchy,” and thought the Emperor’s appointment useful, both in case other European Powers challenged our right and as a cover to the process by which the British were surely moving to the mastery of all India. But Hastings stripped away all the sham he could, among others things abolishing the tribute to the Emperor.
The Company “stood forth as Dewan” in 1772. Since the dewani was a civil post, the Mohammadan penal code was kept, although the European “collector” – i.e., of revenue (an English magistrate is still called a collector) – attended the local criminal courts. Mutilation remained a common punishment, and impalement was practised for some year longer. Hastings, who had to administer a province swarming with robbers and wretched after the horrible famine of 1769-70, put down brigandage by hanging offenders in their own villages. It must be remembered that the penal codes of Europe were ferocious at this time. Military law remained terribly severe. Blowing from guns was a frequent method of execution for another hundred years. To what lengths the Company’s officers were prepared to go it shown by a document dated January 15, 1773; “Capt, Camac called a Council of Officers on the spot, and had the ruffian [a native officer who had shot his commander dead] dragged to death by horse in the front of the line. So exemplary a punishment, although perhaps attended with some irregularity, we deemed highly necessary on so extraordinary an occasion and approved of Capt. Camac’s conduct accordingly.” “Although perhaps attended with some irregularity” became a cliche’ in Indian official documents.
The duality that marked the Company’s administration should now be clear. Primarily it was a trading concern, and rags of its ignoble self-fluttered about it for many a day. Sometimes, especially after they knew of their servants’ colossal profits, its shareholders grew rapacious, and from 1767 Parliament made the Company pay £400,000 a year into the Exchequer. So, then, the first British administrations in India were tugged between East and West. A dual and hybrid affair, the Company operated through Asiatic forms and laws and traditions, with European personnel. Its officers, bailiffs with despotic powers, absorbed the autocratic air of the country, where they rules a subservient population; Clive’s indignant amazement that he should be held to account in England excited the contemptuous amusement of Horace Walpole.
What sort of men too many of these early Civil Servants were is sufficiently shows by English literature; a great deal of our refusal to take Indian affairs seriously can be traced back to the scorn these “nabobs” aroused when they returned with their plunder. In 1773, Parliament passed a Regulating Act for India; the Company appointed Hastings as Governor-General in Bengal, with the Bombay and Madras Governors vaguely subordinate to him, and sent out a Supreme Court of Judicature, staffed by judges from England. Officials were forbidden to trade or take gifts, and high salaries were provided. The administration continued a mass of corruption, but Hastings effected a great improvement. He ruled Bengal from 1772 to 1774, and British India from 1774 to 1785. No man ever had a harder task, or did it better. He was in a minority in his own Council, three of whom confronted him with implacable enmity and assumed him to be a rogue; it was not until 1776, when one of them died and left him master by his casting vote, that he was free. Yet “by unsparing labour, coupled with imaginative insight into native needs, he converted the presence of the English from a bane into a source of healing and strength” (Miss Monckton Jones).
Everyone has heard ho he was impeached by the House of Commons. He bore himself superbly through his long trial, from 1788 to 1795, when he was acquitted. He was guilty of high-handed conduct, in some instances amounting to tyranny, and he was cynical as to details when he had a great political end in view. But his faults were political, whereas Clive’s were personal. His were due to his Government’s financial straits, in a time of rapid expansion and war with powerful foes. He had been in the land all through the period of worst corruption, and had kept his hands clean; he was a proud, lonely man, with a knowledge of the people of India that none of his colleagues approached, and he became over-reliant on himself. The nastiest business during his administration was the execution of Nandakumar, a Brahmin who had been deep in our counsels and high in our employment; he was hanged for forgery while investigation was pending of charges he had brought – encouraged by Hastings’ enemies in the Council – against the Governor-General. The execution was a scandalous thing on many grounds, and of doubtful legality as well as extreme indecency. But though it was naturally thought that Nandakumar’s real offence was his daring to attack the Governor-General, and Hasting’s position was enormously strengthened, Hastings has never been proved to have had anything to do with the affair.
Hasting’s record is astounding, even if, in this anxiety to base the new Government on the land’s own laws and customs, he tolerated much that we find shocking today. Especially admirable was his interest in India’s civilization; if one per cent. of those who have governed India since had shown his interest, a great deal of the present estrangement from England would never have arisen. He resembled Lord Curzon in this, and in his ability to get up any case put before him. It was unfortunate that the vexation that continual word of disorders and injustice in India had kept simmering in England should have struck at the noblest of the Company’s servants.
He had difficulties besides those of administration. England was at war with her American colonies and their allies. A French fleet, under de Suffrein, perhaps the ablest naval commanders his country ever produced, appeared off South India, and for a time things went hard with the British. France found an ally in Haidar Ali of Mysore, an adventurer who had built up a powerful kingdom out of the ruin of the south Indian states. The Madras government drifted into war with him; in 1780 he ravaged up to the walls of Madras and inflicted severe defeats and worse disgrace. The Bombay Government, not to be outdone, went to war with the Marathas and established its own equal incompetence by disasters, sufficiently though less serious. The British position in India was never in greater danger. Fortunately, 1781 bought victories in South India, and 2,000 French troops landed next year by de Suffrein did little for Haidar Ali. Hastings restored our prestige by sending adventurous expeditions into central India, and across hostile territory both to Bombay and Madras; some great feats of arms were achieved in Central India especially, and in 1782 peace was made with the Marathas, the two belligerents having learnt enough mutual respect to keep from war for the next twenty years. Haidar Ali died the same year, and his son Tipu made peace in 1784.