First EIC War in India

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The East India Company’s strange tactics meant that Shaista Khan’s court was divided in its opinion as to how to treat the English emissaries. Hedges’ visit to Dhaka brought the debate to a head. Shaista Khan himself was all for being lenient towards this strange and argumentative organization. Global trade boomed during the 1670s, with a 30 per cent increase in ships returning from Asia to Europe compared to the previous decade. Shaista himself had benefited from European commerce, trading horses with western Asia in partnership with English merchants, for example. The governor felt there was room within the open structures of the Mughal polity to accommodate the Company’s demands, but officers on the tax-collecting side of the Bengal administration saw the Company as an organization of tax avoiders trying to flout Mughal power rather than a source of wealth. In the 1680s, money was required to pay for the Mughal wars in Bengal and in the south of India. The Mughal empire’s chief revenue officer in Bengal insisted the Company contribute by paying the fixed rate of 3 per cent customs duty. When Hedges suggested the Company would leave if the tax demand persisted, the Diwan answered simply that ‘they might go if they pleased’. As ever, Shaista Khan tried to broker a compromise, but all he could do was write to the Emperor Alamgir asking if he would grant the Company a firman (or order) giving it the permanent right to tax-free trade, and then giving the Company an eight-month period of remission while they waited for a response from Delhi. The firman never arrived.

It was their need to negotiate continually with Mughal officers at Hughli, not the 3 per cent tax rate, which caused the English so much anxiety. Hedges’ visit to Dhaka did not end the ‘harassment’. While the English chief was away his junior officers were arrested, and were in ‘so great fear the Ships would not go away this year’ that they paid 4000 rupees ‘to let our goods pass to and fro without molestation’. When he got back to Hughli, Hedges complained that Parameshwar, as he put it, ‘began to play his villainous tricks with us again’. With support from elements within the Mughal regime, Thomas Pitt managed to leave Bengal in the early autumn with ships stuffed with goods to sell in England. He reached England in February 1683 where the profits from his trade enabled him to buy a manor in Wiltshire, and then the parliamentary seat of Salisbury. By contrast, the Company’s ships had sailed late in January in 1680 and 1681, and without a full cargo in 1682. Hedges did not manage any better in 1683 but he harried and cajoled, coming down to Baleswar to try to speed the Defence (the same ship in which he had sailed to Bengal) and two other vessels on their way. They left at the beginning of February, too late to get the best prices in Europe for the load of silk, cotton and saltpetre they carried.

William Hedges’ mission in Bengal had been a failure. He had not successfully established a monopoly for the East India Company over England’s trade with Asia; the interlopers were still trading; he had gained no lasting concessions from the Mughal empire. Soon enough, orders came from London for him to be sacked, to be replaced by William Gyfford, a senior official based at Madras. Hedges became a renegade. Going into hiding in the Dutch East India Company’s factory at Hughli, he then escaped back to England via a long overland route through Persia, Syria and the Mediterranean in order to avoid the Company’s ships. He landed at Dover early in the morning of 4 April 1687, four years after the return of his nemesis Thomas Pitt, with no job or family but considerably more wealth than he started with. Hedges’ wife and children had died during his travels (there is no reference as to when or how in his writings), but he returned with bales of cotton and silk to sell in London and the last pages of the diary he had maintained in order to justify his actions to his peers in London. That diary would play a part in turning the mood in London towards war.

The idea that the East India Company should conquer land in India did not begin in England. It started among officers in Bengal itself, frustrated about their fractious relationship with Mughal authorities. Hedges thought that the oscillation between ‘friendship’ and ‘insult’, the toing and froing between officials like Parameshwar Das and Shaista Khan, could not be sustained. The first half of Hedges’ diary had been sent to London in January 1784, and contained a firm message that the Company needed a strong, defensible fort if it was to trade in Bengal. The Company needed to ‘resolve to quarrel with these people’, Hedges wrote. Despite squabbling among themselves, this was becoming the consensual view. William Gyfford, Hedges’ replacement in Bengal, argued that ‘the trade of this place could never be carried on, and managed to the Company’s advantage, till [the Company] fell out with the Government, and could oblige them to grant better terms: which he thought very feasible’. The Company needed to achieve some kind of permanent, tax-free security. ‘No good was to be done with these people without compulsion.’

The notion of war was the response of merchants in Asia to pressures imposed from London. Initially, the Court of Directors was unwilling to follow through the implications of its rigid demands. Josiah Child and his colleagues in London were doubtful to begin with about the conquest plan, worrying that war would cost too much, and that it would antagonize their Dutch rivals. Some thought a strong base at the newly acquired port at Bombay would be a far better ‘check’ on the Mughals. No one doubted the Company needed to stand up to what they saw as humiliation by the Mughals. ‘We are positively resolved’, the Court said, ‘to assert our right due to us. . . . We shall never submit peaceably to the Custom demanded of us.’ But instead of an invasion, London initially suggested that the Company make a scene, landing a band of foot soldiers ‘with officers, drums, and colours’ before marching to Dhaka to demand redress.

The anxious flow of messages between India and London in the second half of 1684 and 1685 changed the minds of the Company’s London governors. Men debating in the Company’s courts and councils started to panic, thinking the Dutch and interlopers were annihilating the East India Company’s share of India’s trade. They imagined that Shaista Khan ‘took advantage of the unnaturall division betwixt the English themselves to oppress us all’. Talk was of frustration, dishonour and the increasing need to act quickly before things suddenly got worse. Increasingly war was proposed as a way to overcome the ‘misery and thralldom’ in which the English in Bengal were imagined to live. The Company asked its captains and officers what they thought and found that they:

all do Concur in this Opinion (and to us seeming impregnant truth) viz/t that since this Gov[ernmen]t have by that unfortunate accident, and audacity of the Interlopers, got the knack of trampling upon us, and extorting what they please of our estates from us by the besieging of our factories, and stopped our Boates upon the Ganges, they will never forbear doing so, till we have made them as sensible of our Power ‘[T]here must’, the Court of Directors wrote, ‘be some hostility used to set our privileges right again.’ The target was the city of Chittagong, a place where there had long been a big Portuguese presence, and the only port the English believed could be defended from Mughal attack. The trouble was the Company in London had not the faintest idea where Chittagong was. The port directly opens onto the Bay of Bengal, but the Court of Directors worried whether a conquest fleet could ‘get up the great Ganges as high as [Chittagong] without the aid of our pilots’.

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Job Charnock

The ‘quarrel’ started in earnest when nineteen warships were hired in London in January 1686 and sent with six companies of soldiers. The first soldiers sent from England landed at Hughli, not Chittagong. Mughal troops were sent to the city in response. By then Job Charnock had taken over as chief of the Company’s operations in Bengal, and complained that the Nawab ‘ordered downe for the guard of this towne two or three hundred horses and three or four thousand Foot’. With Mughal troops flooding into Hughli tensions rose. War began in the middle of October as the result of an ‘unhappy accident’, when a fight broke out between three English soldiers and a larger group of Mughal sepoys in the bazaar and sparked a conflict between already edgy troops. Mughal forces burnt the East India Company’s factory. The English tried to attack Hughli from the river. Their ships captured ‘a Greate Mogull’s ship, and kept firing and battering for most of the night and the next day’. Charnock described these acts of ‘conquest’ as a ‘great victory’, but the English had left 14,000 bags of saltpetre onshore. Commodities mattered more than revenge against the Mughals, so the Nawab’s offer of peace was accepted. Writing home, Charnock’s greatest concern was that the Dutch had managed to use the disturbance ‘to make their markets’ in time.

Charnock then ordered English forces to Sutanati, a village forty-nine miles downriver from Hughli on the spot where the city of Kolkata now lies. He wanted to retreat to an isolated base distant from the Mughal army to load the ships and negotiate a treaty, while the Company had force at their disposal. The Company in London was not happy with this kind of ‘timid’ conduct. The Court of Directors wanted to stick to its guns, and ‘undauntedly pursue the war against the Mogull until they’d conquered a fortified settlement’. Charnock was criticized for putting the Company’s financial interests before the honour of its institutions and the country: the Company was very clear that honour came before profit. ‘We know’, they wrote to Charnock,

your interest leads you to returne as soon as you can to your Trades and getting of Money, and so, it may, our interest prompts us; but when the honour of our King and Country is at Stake we scorn more petty considerations and so should you.

Wishing Charnock ‘were as good as soldier as he is . . . a very honest merchant’, the English King and Company sent a new force of fifteen ships.

Captain Heath, the commander who had first brought William Hedges to Bengal, was sent back to lead the fight against the Mughals from his ship the Defence. But Heath fared no better than Charnock. He sent Shaista Khan a series of threatening letters, to which Shaista responded by arresting the small English contingent in Dhaka and keeping them in chains in the city’s red fort from March 1688. There they complained about being kept in ‘insufferable and tattered conditions’, imprisoned ‘like thiefs and murders’ until the end of June. Heath then bombarded the city of Baleswar, ‘committing various outrages against friends as well as enemies’ as Job Charnock put it. He then sailed to Chittagong, but found the city too heavily defended for his force to capture. The port’s Mughal governor sent a message asking the Company to stay and talk, believing that the Company’s ships might be useful for ferrying their own soldiers to fight the neighbouring state of Arakan, if terms with the English could be agreed. As usual, Indians wanted to prolong negotiation, but the English were impatient, concerned as ever about their markets. Heath fled back to Madras, arriving on 4 March 1689. With his retreat, England’s first war with a state in India came to an end.

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