The British Plunder of Bengal

Clive meets Mir Jafar after The Battle of Plassey, 1757

The plundering invasions of the Indian Subcontinent from west and northwest had lasted for limited time periods: from one raid, as in the case of Emir Timur and Nader Shah, to a string of raids over one to two score of years, as in the case of Mahmud of Ghazni and Ahmed Shah Abdali. However, the articles that I have written in this series about the looting of the Subcontinent wouldn’t be complete unless I described the plunder of Bengal carried out by the British East India Company (BEIC) between the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to the great Bengal famine of 1769-1773.

After the Battle of Plassey, the BEIC stripped the treasury by removing the entire accumulated treasure, devastated the agriculture by altering crop patterns, shattered the trading community by monopolising trade, altered the nature of land holdings by creating a feudal class and enhanced the land taxes unrealistically.

This plunder of Bengal is well documented in the British records as Lord Clive and Warren Hastings, the first two governors of Bengal, were both tried in the British Parliament for corruption, though they were exonerated – due largely to wealth induced influence peddling by the rich BEIC. Churchill, too, has described this plunder in charitable words in the third volume of his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He wrote, “The ill-paid servants of the Company were both forced and encouraged to take bribes, presents, and every kind of shameful perquisite from the inhabitants. Tales of corruption and the gaining of vast and illicit private fortunes crept back to England.”

The conditions that led to conquest of Bengal by the BEIC are beyond the scope of this article. Clive, just 32 years old, defeated Siraj-ud-Daula at Plassey on 23 June 1757. Churchill wrote, “For the loss of thirty-six men Clive had become the master of Bengal and the victor of Plassey” – words that sink a hole a in my heart on every read.

As per the agreement with the turncoats, Clive installed Mir Jafar as Nawab. Over the next decade, the Company would change the ruler four times, practically auctioning the office to the highest bidder.

The first gain to the BEIC was that it immediately acquired all the land within the Maratha Ditch and 600 yards beyond. The ditch was a 3 mile long moat excavated around Calcutta as a protection against Maratha attacks that were ravaging the Central India. The Company also acquired zamindari – read ownership – of all the land between Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal, a length of 80 kilometres along the Hoogly River, effectively taking over the most productive part of the province. This was to have murderous effect on local Bengalis two decades later.

The treaty with the new rulers that it installed required the BEIC to be paid a sum of 22 million rupees, roughly equivalent to 35 billion rupees in current value. This was a cunning condition inserted in the agreement by the BEIC because Bengal’s treasury didn’t have this amount. Clive accepted that half of this amount be paid immediately – two-thirds in gold and silver coins and the rest in jewels – and the balance in instalments. Clive himself pocketed what would be 3 billion rupees in current value. He not only cleaned out the entire accumulated wealth of Bengal but also ensured extortion on future earnings as well, imitating the combined acts of Nader Shah who had plundered Delhi 18 years earlier and Ahmed Shah who was ravaging Punjab at that time. The death toll caused by the Persian-Afghan duo in North India in the three decades between 1739-69 pales before the one induced by the strangling policies of the British in Bengal in the two decades between 1757-77.

The history that has been taught to us in schools looks at these intrusions in isolation: from the East, from the North West and the Maratha fight for domination in the Centre. Reading the above paragraph brings forth the full import of the triple calamity that had simultaneously befallen the people of the Subcontinent in the 18th century.

Historian Nick Robbins states that in the eight years following Plassey, considered by him to be the BEIC’s most successful business deal, each replacement of the Nawab by the Company was accompanied by the transfer of more land along with reparations and lavish presents for the Company’s executives. By the end of the century, 90% of Bengal’s external trade was in British hands. Bengal had weavers who produced the finest of the world’s muslin and had a very high standard of living. In a further blow to the Bengali textile industry, the regulations also included a 78% tax on Indian cotton imported into Britain to protect the incipient British textile industry. The British reduced Bengal weavers to near slavery and their vocation was terminated to promote British textile imports.

Visiting Powis Castle of the Clive estate recently, author William Dalrymple was astonished at the Indian-origin articles stored there. He states that there are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display at any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi. The riches include hookahs of burnished gold inlaid with empurpled ebony; superbly inscribed spinels and jewelled daggers; gleaming rubies the colour of pigeon’s blood and scatterings of lizard-green emeralds. There are talwars set with yellow topaz, ornaments of jade and ivory; silken hangings, statues of Hindu gods and coats of elephant armour. The displayed items include Tipu Sultan’s magnificent state tent, made of painted chintz; golden and bejewelled tiger’s-head finials from Tipu’s throne; and two cannons, collected by Clive’s son who was governor of Madras at the time of the Battle of Seringapatam. One jewelled jade flask, taken from the Bengal treasury, was put on sale in 2004 for one million pounds sterling. Beset by personal and political issues, the looter Clive himself committed suicide in 1774.

After the Battle of Plassey, Clive walked into the Bengal treasury at Murshidabad, loaded the entire content in about 200 boats and sailed them to Fort William, the Company head office. While defending against himself charges of embezzling large amounts of money, he stated he was ‘astonished’ at his moderation for not taking more. There were others, too, who by the 1780s held about one-tenth of the seats in Parliament.

After the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the Company further acquired the right to collect revenue from the whole of Bengal and Bihar, raising its appetite and capacity for further wealth.

The second governor and the first Governor-General of Bengal Warren Hastings stayed in Bengal – except for a brief interruption – for 35 years from 1750 to 1785, rising from a clerk to the highest administrative position. He was impeached by Parliament for charges including corruption and amassing wealth beyond means. The great debater Burke accused Hastings of being ‘a ravenous vulture devouring the carcases of the dead.’ Hastings was, however, acquitted following favourable testimony from those who had enriched themselves in India. For his role in enriching the mother country, he was honoured by Britain by naming a town in New Zealand and a suburb in Melbourne after him.

From 1768 to 1773, there was a great famine in Bengal. Noble laureate Amartya Sen describes it as a manmade famine, noting that no previous famine had occurred in Bengal that century. Though failed monsoons are partially blamed for the loss of crops, the British paid no heed to the grave signs of famine and were intent on enhancing taxes, crippling the economic resources of the rural population. By 1770, the British newspapers were reporting the deaths of 2 million people and stating that not enough persons were left living to bury the dead. Large tracts were depopulated and people went into jungles to survive – for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, as the famine raged, the Company raised taxes on the land and its produce manifold, some sources quantifying the rise as being from 10% to 50%. In the first years of Company rule, the land tax had been doubled, with most of the income shifted to Britain, which was starting to become a sinkhole of Indian wealth. The Company had also started forcing large food-producing areas to grow indigo and poppy instead, thereby reducing food reserves. The Company had prohibited the ‘hoarding’ of rice that the farmers used to keep in store to cater for the lean periods. Even Warren Hastings admitted to the practices of what he called, ‘violent tax collection’.

In spite of the famine, the revenues collected by the Company were higher in 1771 than in 1768. As the famine increased in severity, the Company levied a tax called najaywhich was enhanced taxation on the living to compensate for the loss of revenue due to death or desertion of people in the neighbourhood. This was, as is evident, cruelty in the most extreme form. The worldwide profits of the Company increased from 15 million pounds in 1765 to 30 million in 1777. All these factors added to the longevity and intensity of the famine that claimed 10 million lives – one third of the population – during its duration. In the meanwhile, Warren Hastings was relentlessly enriching himself and the Company shareholders.

It is of interest that while there were many famines in Bengal during the colonial period, there was none before or has been any after this period.

The new rulers plundered Bengal systematically. They were not onetime looters but leeches that bled the local economy for the enrichment of Company stockholders and administrators. Their concern was not the welfare of the people or any such matter – but the collection of revenue. Violent plundering by foreign hordes had given way to scientific, calculated extraction.

Within the Mughal Empire, Bengal had been the richest province, described by Aurangzeb as the ‘Paradise of Nations’. It was reduced to be the most impoverished.

What could be a more apt depiction of the effects of British rule in the Indian Subcontinent?

About Author: Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on historical and social issues. 

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