The Proudest Day: India's Long Road to Independenceby David Fisher, Anthony Read
In 1835, Lord Macaulay, in his Minute on Indian Education, had prophesied that the eventual self-rule of India would be "the proudest day in British history."
And yet when independence came on the stroke of midnight of August 14, 1947, events unfolded with a violence that shocked the world: entire trainloads of Muslim and Hindu refugees were slaughtered on
In 1835, Lord Macaulay, in his Minute on Indian Education, had prophesied that the eventual self-rule of India would be "the proudest day in British history."
And yet when independence came on the stroke of midnight of August 14, 1947, events unfolded with a violence that shocked the world: entire trainloads of Muslim and Hindu refugees were slaughtered on their flight to safety not by the British, but by each other. Macaulay's dream had become a flawed and bloody reality. The Proudest Day is a riveting account of the end of the Raj, the most romantic of all the great empires. Anthony Read and David Fisher tell the whole epic story in compelling and colorful detail from its beginnings more than a century earlier; their powerful narrative takes a fresh look at many of the events and personalities involved, especially the three charismatic giants Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah who dominated the final, increasingly bitter thirty years. Meanwhile, a succession of British politicians and viceroys veered wildly between liberalism and repression until the Raj became a powder keg, wanting only a match.
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The movement towards Indian independence began as soon as the British took power in the middle of the eighteenth century, and it was started not by the Indians, but by the British themselves. They had come to the sub-continent seeking trade not territory, and were, initially at least, reluctant rulers. When Parliament declared in 1783 that 'to pursue schemes of conquest and expansion of dominion in India are measures repugnant to the wish, the honour and policy of this nation' most people in Britain readily agreed. For many years, the British in India had successfully avoided entanglements, because entanglements led to responsibility, and responsibility interfered with profit. The hard-headed London merchants of the East India Company wanted wealth not glory: to them, glory was an expensive luxury that counted for nothing on a balance sheet.
of 1600 by a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I, to capitalize on the lucrative trade in spices from the Molucca islands in what is now Indonesia. Unfortunately, the Dutch East India Company, backed by ten times the English company's 50,000 [pounds sterling] capital, was already there, having displaced the first western traders, the Portuguese. The first cargo of cloves shipped back to Holland had made a profit of some 2,500 per cent, and the Dutch had no intention of sharing such riches with anyone. When English merchants had the temerity to set up a trading post or 'factory' -- junior merchants were known as factors -- the Dutchmen defended their monopoly by massacring them.
adventurers looked around for a safer alternative. They chose India, where they had recently managed to establish a small foothold, as their second-best bet. The pickings would be nowhere near as spectacular, but neither would the risks. It proved to be a wise decision. After a decidedly shaky start, the company settled down to an average annual return of 25 per cent on capital investment, rising at times to as much as 50 per cent in cash plus 100 per cent in bonus shares for every share held; a handsome profit by almost any reckoning, apart from that of the Dutch.
cargoes of textiles, indigo, saltpetre and sugar, plus a little pepper and other spices from India, and carrying back tin, lead, mercury, mechanical novelties, and, most importantly, silver bullion and coins. During that time, Parliament in London gave the company increasing jurisdiction over its British servants until it virtually became an autonomous state, with the right to dispense its own justice, mint its own coins and employ its own soldiers for protection -- a small force that was to grow into a powerful army.
content, apart from one mercifully brief aberration, to remain humble petitioners to the Mughal emperors. The aberration came in the late 1680s, when the company's autocratic chairman, Sir Josiah Child, decided the time had come 'to lay the foundation of a large, well-grounded, sure English dominion in India for all time to come', and sent an expedition to Chittagong in eastern Bengal to do just that. It faded miserably, and the company almost found itself kicked out of India altogether. The lesson was well learned, and the company did nothing to challenge the Mughal empire again until the empire was already in a state of collapse.
The Mughals, nomad warriors from central Asia whose Tartar blood was a mixture of Turk and Mongol, were the latest of the Muslim invaders who for more than half a millennium had swept down through the Khyber Pass to rampage across northern India. The invasions had started at the end of the tenth century with Mahmud, 'the Sword of Islam', who led 17 bloody forays from his Afghan fortress of Ghazni, smashing Hindu temples, looting, pillaging, raping and killing in the name of Islam. Successive waves of raiders continued the process, capturing Peshawar, Lahore and Delhi and establishing a series of Turku-Afghan dynasties. The Rajputs, the indigenous Hindu warrior race of northern India, fought back bravely but adherents of India's other great religion at the time, Buddhism, were driven out, never to return in any significant numbers.
such as Timur, otherwise known as Tamerlane, the Tartar Khan of Samarkand, who occupied Delhi in 1398, slaughtering and plundering on such a scale that he left 'towers built high' of the heads and bodies of Hindus. Timur did not stay, but rode home with his booty, taking with him tens of thousands of slaves, among them the stone-masons of Delhi whom he forced to build the fabulous great mosque of Samarkand.
Babur 'the Tiger'. Descended from Timur on his father's side and Ghengis Khan on his mother's, Babur justified his fearful pedigree on 21 April 1526, when his 10,000 Chagatai Turks and Afghans took just half a clay to destroy the grand army of the Sultanate of Delhi, with its 100,000 men and 1,000 elephants. He then marched on without a pause to conquer the second city of Agra the following day. Over the next three years, he secured his grip over the whole of northern India with victories over Rajputs, Afghans and Bengalis. The Mughals had arrived, with Babur as their first padishah or great emperor.
military genius: he was also a poet and a man of fine sensitivity. One of the first things he did when he settled in Agra was to create a beautiful garden in the Persian style, an earthly vision of paradise. He died soon after the last of his battles, having called on Allah to take his life in exchange for that of his son, Hamayun, who was mortally ill. Allah obliged, but it proved to be a poor bargain for the Mughals: Hamayun was not half the man his father had been, preferring opium and astronomy to fighting battles. It was a fatal combination -- he met his death by falling down the steps of his observatory and cracking his head while high on opium.
Akbar, an illiterate youth with no time for book learning but a natural genius for conquest, conciliation and control. It was Akbar who built on his great-grandfather's foundations to consolidate the Mughal empire, defeating all attempts to unseat him for 49 years, until he was poisoned by his son Salim in 1605. Akbar won over the powerful Rajputs by marrying the daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber and slaughtering all those who refused to join the ensuing alliance. He conquered Gujarat in the west and Bengal in the east, pacified Afghanistan, and added Orissa and Baluchistan to his dominions, to control the whole of northern and central India.
towards reconciling Hindu and Muslim, even banning cow slaughter throughout the empire. Sadly, Akbar's tolerance did not survive his death. But two of his other great achievements were more lasting: the foundations of a superb system of administration and revenue collection which the British, and later the Indian and Pakistani governments, would inherit, and the Mughlai culture with its Persian-influenced works of art and architectural treasures.
'World Seizer', who received the first English emissaries of the East India Company. The first to arrive was Captain William Hawkins, who sailed into the Gujarat port of Surat on 24 August 1608 carrying 25,000 pieces of gold and a personal letter to the emperor from King James I. It was not a happy beginning. Hawkins was humiliated by Mughal officials who stole his gold, and was in constant fear of the Portuguese, who tried to murder him several times and seized his ship and crew while he was ashore. He spent two fruitless and frustrating years trying to negotiate a trade treaty with Jahangir, who had no need of anything the west had to offer and therefore no interest in a treaty. In any case, the very idea of treaties was meaningless in a society where everything, including life and death, depended on the personal whim of the ruler, whose priorities could change from day to day.
empty-handed. The next envoy, Paul Canning, managed only a few months. It was not until 29 November 1612, when Captain Thomas Best sailed the good ship Red Dragon into Surat harbour and used his cannons to rout four Portuguese galleons and 'a whole fleet of frigates', that the Mughal attitude to the English changed. With no sea power of their own, the Mughals had depended on the Portuguese to escort their annual pilgrim voyages across the Arabian Sea to Mecca. After Best's impressive display, they turned to the English for protection at sea, and when the company's next ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, presented himself in 1615, he was well received.
place. 'They have no written law,' he complained. 'The King by his own word ruleth.' Perceiving the dangers in such a regime, he warned: 'Let this be received as a rule, that if you will profit, seek it at sea and in quiet trade.' In spite of his doubts, however, he persevered, and won the emperor's consent to begin trading.
its merchants sensibly dressed and lived like locals, wearing white linen coats and turbans and 'sitting on the ground at our meat or discourse'. It built its first factory and headquarters at Surat, then the principal port on India's west coast. There, its merchants lived in more formal European style, with a growing network of smaller factories and settlements throughout India.
Portuguese, the Mughals and the rebellious Hindu Marathas, who regularly raided and looted the port. The factory itself always held out, but it was an uncomfortable situation, and in 1668 the company was happy to accept an offer from King Charles II of an island about 150 miles down the coast, which had come to him as part of the dowry of Catherine, his Portuguese queen. Always short of money, Charles was eager to off-load it in return for a substantial loan. The island was Bombay, which then had a population of 10,000, and it soon superceded Surat as the company's headquarters. Although it was entirely dependent for supplies on the mainland, which was held by the Marathas, Bombay was much more popular with the traders who flocked to it from Surat, feeling more secure on an English-held island.
1639, it had bought a strip of land six miles long by one mile wide on the Coromandel coast in the south-east of India, on which it built a new factory with a governor's house, accommodation for merchants, factors and writers, and the beginnings of a new town which became Madras. Within the strip, the company claimed full sovereignty. In 1690, it bought a fourth piece of territory from the Marathas to build a new factory, Fort St. David, opposite the town of Cuddalore further down the coast from Madras. The deal included all the land within 'ye randome shott of a piece of ordnance' -- whereupon the company sent to Madras for the cannon with the longest range, and the most expert gunner to fire it. Fort St. David was always subsidiary to Madras, and never a major centre in its own right.
on which the company was to base its activities was completed in the same year, when it was given permission to build a new factory, Fort William, in Bengal. The site, 100 miles up the Hooghly river from the ocean, was in the middle of a malarial swamp, but it had the benefit of a secure, deep-water anchorage. It was centred on a village shrine to the goddess Kali, from which steps, 'ghats', led down to the water: its name, Kali-ghat, was soon Anglicized into Calcutta. By the turn of the century, it already had a European population of 1,200 and had become a honey-pot attracting people and money from all over Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, particularly rich men who could bank there with relative security. Within 50 years, Calcutta had become the chief centre of British power and influence in India, a position it was to hold for more than two centuries. Until 1773, however, the three factories, or presidencies as they came to be known, were independent of each other and answerable only to London.
When one looks at the serenity of Mughal architecture, which produced some of the most beautiful buildings ever seen on the face of the planet, and those exquisite miniature paintings of Mughal court life, one gains the impression of a world of harmony, peace and elegance. It is an illusion; nothing could be further from the truth. During the entire century of the great Mughals, there was constant unrest -- coming not only from palace intrigues and attempted coups d'etat, but also from a deep groundswell of despair and discontent among the population. The Mughals' Hindu subjects bitterly resented the foreign rule which imposed an insupportable burden of taxation on them. Someone had to pay for the elaborate bureaucracy and sublime buildings, and for military follies like the failed expeditions to reclaim the Mughals' ancestral home of Samarkand. Inevitably, the money came from the people of India: as the splendours and excesses of the Mughals increased, so did the poverty of the Hindu masses.
Aurangzeb seized the throne after a family power struggle that was exceptionally bloody, even by Mughal standards. Aurangzeb ended the family tradition of building architectural masterpieces that had reached its apogee when his father, Shah Jahan, built the world's most beautiful tomb, the Taj Mahal. Aurangzeb did not build pleasure gardens, palaces or tombs, only mosques. Yet he still needed money. His wars of succession had drained the treasury, and he needed a bigger and better-paid army than any of his predecessors to keep him in power, which it did for 49 brutal years. To pay for the army, Aurangzeb bled his Hindu subjects dry, reintroducing the poll tax on non-Muslims which had been abolished by Akbar, and charging Hindu merchants more than double the excise duty paid by Muslims on the same goods. His revenue collectors increased taxes on the peasants to insupportable levels, both to pay for the local cavalry that kept them subjugated, and to line their own pockets. The peasants were left with too little to live on and nothing to buy seed for new crops. Millions faced starvation and famine.
Conqueror'. His courtiers and subjects preferred to call him 'the prayer-monger'. A puritanical Muslim, he began his reign by banishing wine, song and dance from the court. He went on to impose strict Muslim laws throughout the empire, on Muslim and non-Muslim alike, appointing censors of public morals in every large city to enforce his decrees. These included bans not only on gambling and illicit sex, but also on Hindu festivals and the budding and repair of temples, an interference with their religion that stoked the fires of hatred in Hindus.
uncoordinated. In Maharashtra, the region of western India around and below Bombay with Poona as its capital, the warlike Marathas were a continuous source of trouble, harrassing and plundering the empire under their heroic leader Shivaji. Rajputs, too, began attacking the Moghuls in Jodphur and Mewar, and in the central Indian region of the Deccan there was constant warfare.
were blown away by artillery. When Hindu merchants gathered outside the Red Fort in Agra to protest against ruinous new taxes, Aurangzeb sent the imperial war elephants out to trample them to death. The savagery of the Mughal repression left scars that in many cases have not healed to this day, for memories have always been long in India, and the Hindu concept of time, geared as it is to eternity, shrinks years and even centuries to insignificance.
the Sikhs. Aurangzeb's zealotry turned them from being a pacific, liberal sect -- the word Sikh means disciple -- into a militant new order of vengeful warriors. Sikhism had been created in the early sixteenth century as an attempt to bring harmony between Hindu and Muslim by synthesizing the best elements of the two faiths. It attracted recruits from both, though it was generally regarded as a protestant offshoot of Hinduism, 'purified' by the adoption of the Islamic principles of monotheism and anti-idolatry. The Sikhs' holy city, Amritsar, and the Golden Temple at its heart, were built on land given to the faith's fourth guru by Akbar, for services rendered.
by Akbar's son Jahangir, who tortured the fifth guru to death in 1606, and culminated in the beheading of the ninth guru, Tegh Bahadur, by Aurangzeb in 1675 for his refusal to abandon the faith. His son Gobind Rai, the tenth and last guru, vowed to avenge his father's murder, and that of his own two sons who were put to death by the Muslim governor of Sirhind. On Baisakhi Day, 1699, Gobind Rai announced that he was taking the new name Singh, meaning lion. He then baptised his closest followers with the same name, and inaugurated the 'five Ks' which the khalsa, the 'army of the pure', would always carry or wear as the visible symbols of their faith: kes, the unshorn hair and beard; kangha, the comb to keep it tidy, kach, the knee-length shorts worn by soldiers of the time; kara, the steel bracelet worn on the right wrist; and kirpan, the short sword that was to be carried at all times, so that a Sikh would always be ready for battle. There were to be no more gurus: the guru would become immortal by merging with the community, to be represented in future by the will of the majority.
year the English and Scots became the British when their two Parliaments were joined in the Act of Union. True, there was a Mughal emperor in Delhi until 1857, but he was emperor in name only, the shadow of a memory, described by Lord Macaulay as 'a mock sovereign immured in a gorgeous state prison'. During the seventeenth century, the English merchants had continued to prosper, their trade secure under the protection of the Mughals. Now, the Mughals could not even protect themselves, as Aurangzeb's 17 sons and grandsons squabbled and fought over their inheritance.
holding power in central and much of southern India, and the rest becoming fragmented. Kabul, Sind, Gujarat and Surat, Oudh and the Punjab were all lost to former Mughal governors, Hindu princes and soldiers of fortune. The Marathas regained control of Maharashtra, forming themselves into a confederacy headed by a hereditary minister known as the Peshwa, before that too disintegrated as their chiefs began fighting among themselves. Bengal stiff sent tribute to the emperor in Delhi, but was to all intents and purposes an independent state ruled by the nawab, the governor.
intervening in those disputes. The main threat, however, came not from the Indians but from the French, by then the only other European power with a significant presence in India. The French East India Company (Compagnie des Indes Orientales) had been founded in 1664 and had set up its Indian headquarters 10 years later at Pondicherry, 85 miles south of Madras, with subsidiary factories at Surat and on the Hooghly. The two companies competed vigorously but peacefully until 1743, when Britain and France went to war in Europe and the conflict spread to India. The British captured several French ships. The French under the command of the president of the Pondicherry factory, Joseph Francois Dupleix, retaliated, calling their fleet from Mauritius, and taking Madras in 1746. When the Nawab of the Carnatic, the south-east coastal region around Madras and Pondicherry, running down to the southernmost tip of India, Cape Comorin, tried to make the French hand over Madras to him, Dupleix refused. The nawab sent an army of 10,000 of his best cavalry, but Dupleix, with a force of 230 Frenchmen and 700 trained sepoys (Indian foot soldiers), roundly defeated them with disciplined European-style warfare, using muskets and cannons.
Britain in exchange for Cap Breton Island in Nova Scotia, but it was now surrounded by territory under the hostile influence of the French. Dupleix's victory over the forces of the nawab had brought about a sea change in political power in India as decisive as when Babur's warriors smashed the great army of the Delhi Sultanate. Until then the Europeans, conscious of their tiny numbers, had paid court to the Indian rulers. Now, they could dictate to them.
for intrigue. By a judicious mixture of bribery, assassination, and the threat of force, he soon installed not only his own puppet Nawab of the Carnatic, but also a puppet Nizam of Hyderabad, the overall ruler of the southern part of the old Mughal empire. In order to survive in Madras, and ultimately in the whole of India, the British had to start playing Dupleix's game, promoting their own candidate as the rightful Nawab of the Carnatic.
had been the 21-year-old Robert Clive, who had escaped by blacking his face and disguising himself as an Indian interpreter. Clive, described by a fellow writer as 'short, inclined to be corpulent, awkward and unmannerly, his aspect gloomy, his temper morose and untractable', was the problem son of a country lawyer from Market Drayton in Shropshire. It was largely to keep him out of trouble at home that he had been sent to India as a writer, or clerk, at 10[pounds sterling] a year. After only a few weeks, Clive had become so bored by his job in the counting house that he twice tried to blow his brains out with a pistol. Fortunately, it misfired both times. If it had not, India might well have become the jewel in the French crown rather than the British.
besieged by the French-backed nawab and his army in the rock fortress of Trichinopoly, some 175 miles south of Madras. Heavily outnumbered, the British puppet was near surrender. Once he went, it would be the end for the British in south India. It was Clive, the troublesome clerk, who perceived that in taking his army to besiege Trichinopoly, the French-backed nawab had left his capital, Arcot, virtually undefended. Clive came up with an audacious plan to seize Arcot behind the nawab's back, relieving the pressure on Trichinopoly by forcing the French nawab to pull out his troops to recapture his capital. Specially commissioned as a captain, Clive scraped together a scratch force of 200 Englishmen and 300 sepoys, with eight officers -- six of whom had never seen action, four of them newly commissioned clerks. Dragging three small artillery pieces, they marched more than 100 miles in five sweltering days to take Arcot and the nawab's fortress palace without firing a shot: the 1,200 defenders fled at their approach and the citizens simply gaped in wonder as the tiny contingent marched boldly through the streets.
what followed. Four thousand of the nawab's men were withdrawn from Trichinopoly as expected, and supported by French troops from Pondicherry, laid siege to Arcot. Outnumbered by up to 40 to one, Clive and his band of heroes held out for 50 days and nights, until they were relieved by a larger British force. By that time, the tide of the war had been turned by the arrival of a great Maratha army as allies of the British and their nawab, who was duly enthroned.
Clive went back to trade, making his first fortune as supplier of provisions for company troops. With 40,000 [pounds sterling] in his account, and a new wife on his arm, he sailed home to London, where he bought a house and a seat in Parliament. After only 18 months, however, he was on his way back to India to find still greater fame and fortune.
Clive, now second-in-command of the company's troops in the south, was preparing to lead an army to Hyderabad to remove the French-backed nizam. Before he could leave, however, he was ordered to sail north to Bengal, whose new nawab, Siraj-ud-daula, had seized Calcutta, ostensibly in retaliation for British insolence at fortifying their factory without permission.
garrison, an untrained militia, and indecisive leadership. When Siraj swooped, eager to get his hands on Calcutta's immense riches, the governor took to his boat and fled downriver with most of the able-bodied men, leaving many women and children behind. The 170 British soldiers who remained were hampered by worm-eaten ammunition and damp powder. They were overcome by noon. That night, according to their commander, J.Z. Holwell, 146 English prisoners, including one woman and 12 wounded officers, were locked up in Fort William's punishment cell, an airless dungeon measuring 18 feet by 14. It was the hottest and most oppressive night of the year -- the monsoon broke next day. Again according to Holwell, 23 people emerged alive next morning. In fact, there were only 64 prisoners, and although 43 of them died, this was by accident, not design -- Siraj had simply given orders that they be locked up overnight. It was Holwell's account that was heard, however, and the imperial myth of the Black Hole of Calcutta was born. It was the first in a long line of 'native atrocities' that were to strike panic into the hearts of the British in India, justifying all kinds of repressive measures up to and even beyond General Dyer's action at the Jallianwala Bagh.
a fleet of five warships under the command of Admiral Watson, had no difficulty in driving Siraj out of Calcutta. He and Watson then turned on the French, removing them from Bengal by capturing their bases at Chandarnagar and on the Hooghly. When Siraj still proved troublesome, Clive formed an alliance with the fabulously rich Hindu banker, Jagat Seth, to pay Siraj's more pliable uncle, Mir Jafar, to betray his nephew and take his place.
the village of Plassey, between Calcutta and the nawab's capital of Murshidabad. The battle of Plassey has always been regarded as the decisive moment in establishing British hegemony in Bengal, paving the way for the domination of all India. And so it was, but it was hardly a battle at all, more a confused scuffle. It began with a cannonade from the nawab's artillery. Clive prudently withdrew his men behind a hill, at which point a monsoon downpour drenched the nawab's ammunition while Clive's men kept their powder dry under tarpaulins. When the rain stopped, Clive opened fire again, and after a few skirmishes, Siraj and his army turned and ran. It was not Clive's guns, however, that had truly won the day, but Mir Jafar's treachery and Jagat Seth's money. Mir Jafar, the nawab's chief general, had simply held his own men back, and Jagat Seth had laid out a small fortune to pay Siraj's soldiers not to fight. All told, the battle that settled India's future cost the British 63 men killed or wounded, and the nawab about 500.
asked the Mughal emperor in Delhi to confirm him as Nawab of Bengal, noting persuasively. 'I have 25,000 matchless sepoys.' The emperor duly recognized Mir Jafar, and with him the fact that the British had arrived as a major power in India. The company received huge compensation, including the right to collect and keep the revenues from various provinces of Bengal which brought a profit of about half a million pounds a year. Clive's personal share of the official compensation was 234,000 [pounds sterling] and a land grant worth another 300,000 [pounds sterling] a year. He returned home in 1760 with, by his own reckoning, 401,102 [pounds sterling], to buy a controlling interest in the company for 100,000 [pounds sterling], plus enough rotten borough seats in Parliament to give him and the company protection. The peerage he received two years later as Lord Clive of Plassey was an Irish barony, enabling him to continue to sit in the Commons.
scrupulous than most. Other Calcutta traders spread out across the country, plundering its people mercilessly. Their rapacity brought misery to Bengalis of all ranks, provoked attacks from the nawab and the remnants of the Mughal empire, and brought the once-wealthy region dose to bankruptcy. It almost bankrupted the company, too, since the individual merchants kept the spoils for themselves and paid nothing in tax or duty.
the former 'poacher' Clive was forced to turn gamekeeper, returning to Calcutta to sort out the mess. The year before, a small company force under Major Hector Munro had decisively defeated the Mughal army at Buxar, on the Ganges between Benares and Patna. With the French confined to a few unfortified enclaves and the rest of northern and central India in turmoil from repeated Afghan invasions and marauding Marathas, there was nothing to prevent Clive marching on Delhi and seizing the Mughal throne. Nothing, that is, except the fact that the British still had no imperial ambitions. In a letter to his directors, Clive explained:
throne, and to become the emperor's servant, if only in name. It must have been sweet revenge completing his triumph over the French in this way -- Dupleix had held the strings of puppet nawabs and nizams; Clive now controlled a puppet emperor. On 12 August 1765, Shah Alam proclaimed the company his diwan, revenue minister, for the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, with the right to collect their multi-million pound revenue 'from generation to generation, for ever and ever'. In return for being allowed to keep what it collected, and to trade freely and without tax throughout the region, the company was to pay the emperor 260,000 [pounds sterling] a year to support him in reduced circumstances at Allahabad. The triple province was still officially governed by the nawab, but with financial and military power in its hands, the company was ruler in all but name.
traders to heel, forbidding private dealings and limiting presents, Clive's health failed and he returned home again. But he was not to enjoy the fruits of his success. He had made many enemies along the way, and in 1773, he was censured by Parliament for the way he had made his own Indian fortune. The following year, at the age of 49, he finally succeeded in committing suicide by cutting his throat.
In Bengal, the monsoon rains failed in 1769, and famine followed. One third of the peasantry died; many of the survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism, while merchants made fortunes from the grain they had hoarded in their warehouses. The company did nothing, claiming that administrative responsibility lay with the nawab. It was not this catastrophe, however, that roused the government in London, but the fact that the company was unable to pay its annual tax of 400,000 [pounds sterling]. Despite Clive's efforts to curb corruption, the merchants were again diverting most of the profits into their own coffers, and the tax revenues alone were not enough to cover the company's costs.
Lord North's government agreed to provide it, but it came with strings attached: the Regulating Act of 1773 gave the British government a direct involvement in India for the first time. The independent presidencies of Bombay and Madras were to come under the control of a governor-general in Calcutta, paid by the company but appointed by the government, which would also nominate four members of his council. The first governor-general was to be the 40-year-old governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, a weasel of a man, small, thin-faced and balding.
ended. While Clive was an intuitive hot-blooded adventurer, Hastings was all cool calculation. Without the fire of Clive, the British empire in India would never have been born; without the ice of Hastings, it would never have survived. What Clive started, Hastings consolidated, often in the face of obstruction by the government's nominees on his council, men with no knowledge of India who tried to block his every move. The antagonism between them was so strong, indeed, that one of the government directors, Philip Francis, ended up fighting -- and losing -- a pistol duel with Hastings. The wounded Francis returned to London, to continue his fight in the political arena, behind the governor-general's back.
dominion of all India' was possible, but declared that it was 'an event which I may not mention without adding that it is what I never wish to see'. What he did wish to see was a successful company establishing the peaceful conditions needed for trade by ruling India indirectly as the power behind many thrones. He set about achieving this, starting by balancing the books. He stopped payments to the Mughal emperor, halved the amount paid to the Nawab of Bengal, and abolished the passes which allowed British merchants to trade without paying taxes or duties. Then, most importantly, he reorganized the revenue-collecting system. To make sure all the money came to the company, he replaced Indian agents with a British collector in each district, supervising Indian subordinates who gathered the taxes. This was the real beginning of the British system of administration in India.
began by lending a brigade of soldiers to the Nawab-Vizier of Oudh, the state on the north-west of Bengal and Bihar which formed a valuable buffer against both the Marathas to the west and the Afghans to the north, who were then attacking it. Hastings's use of British troops in the service of an Indian ruler was heavily criticized both in London and Calcutta, but it paid off handsomely. The nawab-vizier paid a substantial sum for the military assistance, and the company gained the lasting friendship and support of Oudh, which played a vital part in the intricate mechanism of alliances constructed by Hastings.
resented the appointment of Hastings as their superior -- the British governor and council in Madras even suspended their agent at the nizam's court in Hyderabad for having 'betrayed the secrets of his trust to the governor-general and Council of Bengal'. Both remained jealous and insubordinate, causing Hastings considerable problems at a time when he could expect little help from home, since Britain was preoccupied with the American War of Independence. The French had also reappeared on the scene, and were threatening to re-establish themselves in India.
ruler. However when the governors and councils of Bombay and Madras interfered in local Indian politics, they provoked wars with the Marathas in the west, united again under the Peshwa, and with the powerful ruler of Mysore in the south. To make matters even worse, they almost brought Hyderabad into a triple alliance against the company which could have proved fatal. Only Hastings's foresight and some daring military moves worthy of Clive himself saved the two presidencies. At the same time, he managed through skilful diplomacy to break up the potential triple alliance, thus freeing his own forces to see off the French fleet and the army it landed in the south-east.
the control of the governor-general in Calcutta, to establish a single British government as one of the great powers in India. His reward was impeachment and disgrace. His enemies, led by Philip Francis, had been hard at work in London recruiting the redoubtable Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke, the man who had opposed the use of force in North America, and Charles James Fox, leader of the Whigs.
interference from politicians back home who, in his eyes, knew nothing of India. It was a complaint that was to echo repeatedly down the years until the very end of British rule. Hastings wanted virtual independence. Burke was concerned with the supremacy of Parliament. To him, 'The East India Company did not seem to be merely a Company formed for the extension of British commerce but in reality a delegation of the whole power and sovereignty of this kingdom sent into the east.' It was Parliament that delegated the power, and therefore Parliament should control it.
bills giving the British government direct charge of its property and affairs, and binding it to serve the public interest. But it was his political opponent, William Pitt the Younger, who finally produced an acceptable compromise with his India Act of 1784. This forbade any further territorial expansion, and gave the home government ultimate power through a Board of Control in London consisting of six men: the chancellor of the exchequer, a secretary of state for India, and four privy councillors. For its first 18 years, the board was presided over by Henry Dundas, later Lord Melville, an astute Scottish lawyer and close associate of Pitt. The board -- which meant Dundas -- had a free hand, without consulting anyone either in India or Britain, on anything 'concerning the levying of war or making of peace, or negotiating with any of the native princes or states in India'. It also had the power to recall the governor-general or any other company servant. This was all too much for Hastings, and he resigned before he could be fired. Back in London, Burke joined Fox and the playwright and politician, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, in leading a grand impeachment of him on charges of corruption. The trial in Westminster Hall was marked by coruscating displays of malicious vituperation. It was easily the best show in town, running for 142 days spread over seven years, until a weary and embittered Hastings proved his complete innocence.
Hastings was succeeded as governor-general by Lord Cornwallis, still smarting from his defeat at the hands of George Washington at Yorktown. Having presided over the death of Britain's empire in the west, he was now to be the midwife of its new empire in the east. Hastings had been a company man, governing Bengal on behalf of the company. Cornwallis was the first of the new line of aristocrats who would be sent out one after another until 1947 to rule India on behalf of the British government; men who already had fortunes in England and so would have no need to make more in India.
Clive and Hastings. He began by separating the political functions of the company from its commercial dealings. Its merchants were still allowed to deal on their own account, but its administrators were to be a breed apart. In keeping with the Whig belief in public service for the welfare of the governed, they were expected to perform their duties selflessly, in return for security, prestige and handsome salaries that removed any need for accepting bribes. A new name was invented for them: 'civil servants' -- often shortened to 'civilian', especially in the higher reaches -- to -- to distinguish them from soldiers in the company's military service and from the commercial sector. They were also to be a breed apart from the Indians. Hastings had believed in partnership with the Indians who had been running the day-to-day administration of government since the beginning of Mughal rule. Cornwallis would have none of this. Convinced of the innate superiority of the British, he declared: 'Every native of Hindustan I verily believe is corrupt.'
view, Indians were acceptable only in subservient roles. Higher civil servants, all those earning over 500 [pounds sterling] a year, were to be entirely British. So, too, were the officers of the Bengal army, of which Cornwallis was commander-in-chief. After 1790, no Indian could become a commissioned officer, a situation that would not be changed until the Second World War, and only then because Britain could not provide enough officers for all the Indian regiments fighting for the Allied cause. Those most affected by Cornwallis's measures were the Muslims. Under the Mughals, their co-religionists, they had enjoyed a privileged position: the great majority of army officers had been Muslims, as were at least 85 per cent of higher officials. Now, at a stroke, they were relegated to a lower status; the old Muslim middle class was destroyed. It would take the best part of the following century before a new one began to emerge.
the introduction of the rule of law, separating the judiciary from the executive, with a system of supreme and district courts, all presided over by British judges. His other innovation was a concept that had not previously existed in India: the private ownership of land. In the past, kings and emperors had granted favoured servants the right to administer an area and collect revenue on its crops and harvests for life. The holder of that right, known in Bengal as a zamindar and usually, though by no means always, a Muslim, shared the proceeds with the ruler. The king's share now went to the company as ruler of Bengal, but the amounts it received fluctuated wildly, depending on the harvests and the rigour of the zamindars. With the higher salaries it was now paying its civil servants, this uncertain income was a major disadvantage to the company. Cornwallis resolved it by giving the zamindars title to the land in return for regular payments fixed at the rate prevailing in 1793. The permanent settlement, as it was known, changed Indian society profoundly, though the real effects were not to be seen for some years: while the amount to be paid by the zamindar to the company, and later the government, was fixed, there was no limit on what he was allowed to extract from his tenants.
never reached, there were no zamindars, no intermediaries between the peasant cultivator and collector, so when revenue settlements were agreed, the title went to the peasant himself, the ryotwar, rather than to a landlord.
company because it had a stake in the future prosperity of Bengal, soon backfired. Many zamindars got themselves hopelessly in debt to Hindu bankers in Calcutta who charged tip to 150 per cent interest and then took over their deeds and became absentee landlords, displacing men who, though often Muslim, had been an integral and important part of the local community. However, there was a compensation for the British. Although the local Mughal aristocracy had lost out, they were replaced by prominent Hindu families with names like Roy, Seth and Tagore, who were to become the most fervent supporters of the British for well over a century.
essentially a bureaucrat, content to obey his orders not to extend the company's territory in India. But when Tipu, the Sultan of Mysore whose father had dragged Hastings into war in the Carnatic, attacked the British-protected state of Travancore on the extreme south-western tip of India in 1789, Cornwallis had to act. Tipu was defeated, and forced to cede most of the Malabar coast including the port and city of Calicut to the British, giving them their first firm foothold in the deep south.
Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, and so it remained for five years after Cornwallis departed, handing over to his former revenue commissioner, John Shore. Shore was succeeded in 1798 by Richard Colley Wellesley, a governor-general with a very different view of Britain's role. As the eighteenth century drew to a close, the age of British imperialism was about to begin.
Meet the Author
Anthony Read is the author of many books, most recently The Devil’s Disciples: Hitler’s Inner Circle. He lives in England.
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