Europeans in India Part 8 The English East India Company Section III: Early Decades – The Steady March

Canberra, 17 March 2023

The East India Company’s beginnings in India were not very promising, mainly because of the concerted Portuguese opposition and the inability of the English to obtain permission from the Mughal Viceroy of Gujarat to erect a factory in Surat. The Portuguese were opposed to any new arrivals in India and made all efforts to thwart the Dutch and English companies from getting a foothold in the coastal regions.

Early Bids to Establish Relations

William Hawkins had captained a ship to Surat—the main and only Mughal port on the West Coast. The Company sent Hawkins to Agra to obtain permission from the Mughal ruler, Jahangir, to open trade in Surat. He started his journey on 1st February 1609 and reached Agra on 16th April, travelling through Burhanpur (called Bramport by the English) with an escort of fifty Pathan horsemen. It took Hawkins three years to persuade the Mughal ruler to grant the necessary permission. During this period, he was in and out of favour with Jahangir, having been made a courtier, commander of four hundred and invited to stay on as the resident ambassador. The king even arranged a marriage for Hawkins with an Armenian Christian lady.

While Hawkins was in the process of entrenching his claims in the Mughal court, the Portuguese were working assiduously to prevent him achieving any success. The Portuguese were already established in the Mughal court with a permanent set of Jesuits in close contact with the king. They succeeded in making Jahangir rescind the permission he had given earlier and then managed to have Hawkins thrown out of the court in 1611. The first bid to establish a cordial relationship with the Mughals was an unqualified failure.

In 1611, Middleton landed at Swally near Surat with a fleet of ships. In 1612, Captain Best defeated a Portuguese squadron outside Surat with only two ships under his command. This action raised the prestige of the English among the local rulers. Taking advantage of the brief glory, in 1613, Captain Best managed to get a firman (royal order) issued that gave the English East India Company permission to trade from Surat, Ahmedabad, Cambay and Goga. This was the first formal relation that the Company established with India and its rulers.

The Company Wants More

The English East India Company had been born off monopolistic concepts and establishing trade monopoly was one of its enshrined guiding principles. Therefore, it was not satisfied with the permission granted to carryout open trade. The Directors in London analysed Hawkins’s failure in the Mughal court and attributed it to the Jesuits in residence there. They decided to counter the Jesuit influence in Agra by sending their own accomplished and clever diplomat to the Mughal court. The person chosen for this delicate mission was Sir Thomas Roe, who arrived in Agra in 1616 with a letter from the king of England, James I, to the Mughal monarch, Jahangir.

In the interim three years, the Portuguese fleet had been on a marauding spree, burning Baruch and Goga. However, in 1614 when they attacked the English near Surat, the Portuguese were soundly beaten. Roe was aware of the Portuguese discomfiture with the defeat and the Dutch opposition to the Portuguese; he had also calculated that the English would win a battle against the Portuguese in Indian waters. However, he decided against war since he was convinced that irrespective of the outcome, battle expenses would be ruinous for the profits of the Company, which would take many years to recuperate. At this juncture, the Company was only making initial inroads into the commerce flowing out of India. Roe was also conscious of the fact that fighting another European power on Indian shores would most definitely annoy the Mughal king and the local rulers.

Roe, being a consummate diplomat, managed to inveigle himself and the English in favour at the Mughal court and gradually came to be in a better position than the Portuguese. He obtained a ‘treaty’ permitting the English East India Company to trade in any part of the Mughal kingdom, specifically naming Surat, Bengal and Sindh in the declaration.

Thomas Roe was an astute observer of the conduct of trade in India, especially pertaining to the commercial activities of the Europeans. He had seen first-hand that the Portuguese had many forts and the expenses of maintaining these forts had beggared them. The Portuguese had stopped making significant profit, since a major part of the profits went towards defending their land holdings. The Dutch had made the same mistake. He drew the following fundamental lessons from his observations that the English acknowledged to their great advantage, for the next few decades of their activities in India. The lessons were:

  • Not to accept the grant, or demand the control, of any forts for themselves, since he believed that they would be of no use in conducting trading activities;
  • Such garrisons, he calculated, would require resources far in excess of the profits that the normal trade was bringing in, if they were to be maintained at a viable level;
  • Similarly, war and trade were not compatible if the object was to make a profit out of the trade;
  • If physical confrontation became unavoidable the English should only engage at sea, where their chances of victory were far higher than on land; and
  • At least for the next few decades, the English should seek to obtain profits through quiet trade, since it would be impossible to conduct profitable land battles without entering into local controversies.

Although he obtained a trade permit for the Company to engage across the entire Mughal kingdom, viewed from a different perspective, Thomas Roe’s embassy could be considered a failure. He was the representative of the king of England and not a Company employ. He had been dispatched specifically to obtain a treaty between England and the Mughal kingdom. He was unable to achieve this strategic aim. The unstated, but ulterior motive of getting a treaty signed was to subsequently ask for Mughal assistance in evicting other European powers from the sub-continent. The English would pursue their own designs only after this objective was achieved with the assistance and approval of the foremost kingdom of the region. The sub-conscious ambition to conquer and colonise was already influencing the thinking and forward planning of the Company. Roe is said to have accepted the outcome of his embassy as a ‘satisfying compromise’.

By late-1616, the English had contrived to establish four factories—at Ahmedabad, Burhanpur, Surat and Agra.  

Factory at Surat

Surat in the 17th Century

Surat traded mainly in muslin and fine cotton fabrics, largely produced inland in North India. It was also an outlet for the trade in indigo, produced in large quantities around Agra. Over the years, Surat had developed into the primary centre of maritime trade through the Straits of Malacca and the Far-East, to the Persian Gulf.

Surat was the receiving port for the caravans coming in from the inland cities of India. By controlling Surat and Ormuz in the Persian Gulf, the English were able to keep the trade route open and safe from pirates. Perhaps more importantly, they were able to protect the Muslim pilgrim route from the Indian sub-continent to Mecca, which was welcomed by the mainly Muslim rulers of the time in India.   

The English factory at Surat became prosperous, becoming the exit point for goods from the inland capitals at Agra, Delhi, Lahore and Golconda. Further, the goods coming through the Straits of Malacca found a staging point in Surat. England then instituted the process of appointing ‘Presidents’ to Surat to oversee Company affairs with several able presidents enabling an increase in Surat’s prosperity. However, it was not all plain sailing for the Company in Gujarat. The great famine of 1631 that severely affected the region forced the English to shut down their factories at Ahmedabad and Baruch, and they came perilously close to shutting down operations in Surat itself. However, with characteristic stubbornness, they persevered and the factory at Surat continued to grow strong. In 1657, Surat was constituted as the sole Presidency of the English East India Company in India.

By controlling Surat, the English established a secure position for themselves within the Mughal economy—first as a source of revenue to the imperial treasury, then by policing the coast and third by patrolling the sea-route to Mecca and keeping it safe from pirates. It was not long before the English started to take on the role of ‘negotiator’ in local skirmishes and disagreements. This was the first step towards entering domestic politics and starting to build their influence and power—initially as reasonably honest brokers and then as influential deciders who would, and did, side with one or the other side of the argument as it suited their interests. The assiduous nature of early interventions gradually gave way to inconsistencies that supported the Company’s interests.  

Establishing Bombay

A chain of events led to the English East India Company gaining possession of the island of Bombay on the west coast of the Indian sub-continent. The island’s geographic situation was such that, if well-manned, it could control the entire West Coast trade and threaten any other power trying to establish footholds in the neighbourhood. As early as 1626, both the English and the Dutch had made attempts, from their respective bases in Surat, to seize Bombay. However, neither of them was able to retain control of the island for long. In 1653, the Surat President urged the Company directors to make Bombay a fortified station and to ‘persuade’ the Portuguese to cede the island, along with Bassein, for a negotiated financial consideration. The Company directors drew the attention of Cromwell to the suggestion.

In 1661, after protracted discussions regarding the marital deal, the Portuguese gave Bombay as part of the dowry of their princes, Catherine of Braganza, on her marriage to King Charles II of England. This was the culmination of a long-expressed wish of the English East India Company. At this juncture neither the Portuguese nor the English realised the full strategic importance of Bombay. In the early 1660s, the Portuguese felt more threatened by the Dutch, who displayed no inclination to end their hostilities. In 1656, the Dutch had captured all Portuguese territorial holdings in Ceylon and evicted them from the island kingdom, even though the territories had been in Portuguese possession for 170 years. Therefore, Portuguese were more worried about the security of Goa. The Company operated on a different calculus—they were acutely aware that even with Mughal licenses, their factories at Surat and the newly established ones in the eastern coast at Balasore and Hooghly were functioning at the whims and fancies of the local rulers. They needed territory of their own to establish a firm base.

In 1662, five English ships arrived at Bombay to take possession of the island. However, the resident Portuguese leadership refused to hand over the island and disputed that Salsette, the neighbouring island, was part of the treaty of cession. Unable to compel the Portuguese to hand over Bombay, the fleet withdrew. They left behind a body of soldiers under the command of General Shipman, most of whom perished in short order for lack of protection and food. This stalemate instigated protracted correspondence between the two monarchs in Europe.

By this time, the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa had appreciated the strategic importance of the location of Bombay and a clear perception of its future significance. He wrote to his king in Lisbon that, ‘… only the obedience I owe your Majesty, as a vassal, could have forced me to this deed [i.e. the cessation of the island] because I foresee the great troubles that from this neighbourhood will result to the Portuguese, and that India will be lost [to the Portuguese] the same day in which the English nation is settled in Bombay’. (As quoted in C. S. Srinivasachari, ‘European Settlements: II. The Dutch and the English’, in R. C. Majumdar (general editor) The History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume 7, The Mughal Empire, p. 519.) This was a succinct evaluation of the value of Bombay as a port-fortress to the sub-continent. The Viceroy went on to suggest that Portugal buy back the island from the English after it was formally handed over to Charles II as his dowry.

Finally, the Portuguese offered to hand over the port and harbour alone to the English government, which was formally accepted by Humphrey Cooke who was commander of the remnants of the first English expedition. The Portuguese continued to be entrenched at Salsette. The English were handicapped by the infighting that carried on between the next two commanders of Bombay who succeeded Cooke and considered themselves servants of the King and the President at Surat, who was the Company head. As a result, there was no improvement in the situation on the ground in Bombay.   

Meanwhile, Surat was also not faring too well. Sir George Oxenden (1620–69), the Company President in Surat 1662–68, defended the factory with considerable effort against Dutch and French rivalry. He also managed to safeguard English interests when the great Maratha king Shivaji plundered Surat in 1664. However, he could not get along with the Englishmen in command of Bombay. In London, the Company maintained a studied attitude of indifference that Bombay was more trouble than it was worth vis-à-vis the effort of taking it over, although internally they coveted control over the island. Seven years after receiving it as his dowry, Charles II transferred Bombay to the Company through a royal charter for the consideration of ten pounds annual rent. Oxenden took possession of the island on behalf of the Company in September 1668.

Increasing Influence

Oxenden gave the first impetus for the growth of Bombay. He clearly saw that Bombay would become the key to maritime power in India, even though the Suez Canal had not even been conceived at that time. His first initiative was to garrison the fort, the model becoming the blueprint for military establishments that the Company would go on to build in India. Oxenden died in Surat in 1669 and was succeeded to the presidency by General Gerald Aungier (1635–77) who was the President of Surat and Governor of Bombay 1669–77.

Aungier can be considered the true funder of Bombay and as laying the foundation for its greatness. He was an industrious person and was instrumental in fortifying the port, constructing a dock, establishing a court of justice and creating a police force and militia. He turned the settlement into an asylum for all merchants, irrespective of nationality and class. Aungier also secured Surat for the English when Shivaji sacked the city for a second time. In 1671, he went on to suggest to the Directors that the seat of the presidency should be shifted from Surat to Bombay. During his tenure, Bombay became a harbour of safe refuge for merchant shipping from Maratha incursions and attacks by Malabar pirates. Aungier died in Surat in 1677.  

Aungier was a far-sighted administrator. Having observed the activities of the Portuguese and the Dutch in the sub-continent he formed the opinion that religion must be separated from commercial activities. For the first time in the history of the Company, he floated the official concept of religious tolerance based on non-interference with the local socio-religious and cultural aspects of life. He always maintained that commerce was more important than conversions, unlike the proselytising Portuguese. Thus, Aungier could be credited with formulating the religious policy of the Company that stood the test of time. An appreciative English historian summed up Aungier’s character: ‘The figure of Aungier stands out in bold relief on the pages of history—the first man in India who taught us the art of self-government and the wisdom of dealing with our neighbours—sage in counsel and bold in action’. (C. S. Srinivasachari, ibid, earlier paragraph) A careful study of the life of this diligent man clearly shows that he and Bombay were both born for each other.

Between 1677–82, the Bombay garrison strength was reduced, and resources allocation curtailed, even though the strategic importance of the harbour was still recognised. Bombay continued to languish and decline under successive and inept governors till the close of the first quarter of the 18th century. In 1682, Sir John Child (1637–90) took over Surat and Bombay. Being inherently incompetent, he was a complete failure as an administrator. During his tenure, the Company faced three serious challenges: one, a military revolt by Captain Richard Keigwin; two, large scale actions by pirates that diminished the trade; and three, Child’s pursuit of a territorial expansionist policy that brought the Company into conflict with the Mughals. The Mughals defeated the Company and forced them to accept humiliating terms for peace.

Captain Richard Keigwin (d. 21 June 1690)

Richard Keigwin was a sea-captain who had distinguished himself in the defence of St Helena during the Anglo-Dutch War of 1672. He arrived in Bombay in 1676 and was in-charge of the Company’s fleet and army in Bombay at the time of Aungier’s death.

Bombay was a potential target for a Maratha attack and the build up of the Maratha navy was indicative of their intentions. Keigwin favoured armed defensive action rather than negotiations with the Marathas. He continued to build up defensive capabilities and when the Marathas attacked in October 1679, Keigwin was well prepared and able to defend Bombay.

The expenses incurred by Keigwin on military preparations made the Company remove him from the position of Commandant, although he was reinstated after two years. However, the imposition of a reduction in the soldiers’ pay initiated in London made them revolt and declare Keigwin the Governor. Keigwin on his part immediately declared Bombay a Crown territory of which he was the head. He continued as the rebel Governor 1683–84 till he was persuaded by Sir Thomas Grantham to step down. He was given a royal pardon and appointed captain of a frigate in England.

Richard Keigwin was sent to the West Indies in 1690 and was killed in the attack on St Kitts on 21st June, while leading his men in a landing for an assault on Basseterre.      

Following the creation of the New Company (described in previous chapter), infighting increased between the two factions to the detriment of English reputation in the sub-continent. This period was disastrous for Bombay—normal growth of commerce was arrested, crime increased in the island and the Englishmen residing in Bombay started to behave recklessly with no control being established over them.

The Coromandel Coast

In 1611, and again in 1614, the English had made attempts to land at Pulicat and been repulsed by the Dutch, then ruling supreme in the east coast—the Coromandel. The English had managed to land at Masulipatam in 1611 and two years later been permitted to erect a fortified factory there. However, the Dutch opposition to this settlement was relentless and the English were forced to abandon it in 1628. They withdrew to Arumugam (the English calling it Armagaon) about 40 miles north of Pulicat. Arumugam was the first territorial acquisition of the English in the India sub-continent. They resolved to return to Masulipatam only after the Qutab Shahi ruler of Golconda, under whose control the region fell, provided them a grant of land.

In 1630, Masulipatam was devastated by a famine, while the English had kept away. In 1632, the Qutab Shahi Sultan gave the long-coveted firman for the English to establish a factory at Masulipatam. However, they found that most of the weavers and dyers who had earlier supplied them cloth had died in the earlier famine. Trade was still continued since the Coromandel provided the cloth to Bantam, which was used as payment for pepper. Another attraction of the east coast was the trade in diamonds from Golconda, which was not only a lucrative commodity but also a means of remitting money from India to Europe.

Founding of Madras

In 1632, Francis Day (1605–70) arrived at the crumbing settlement of Arumugam as the Company factor and was subsequently made a member of the Masulipatam council. Since Arumugam was surrounded by rivals, he started to look for a safer place to build a factory. On a journey from Masulipatam to Pondicherry, he landed on a small strip of land between two villages—Madirasipatanam and Chinnapatanam—three miles north of San Thome, a flourishing Portuguese settlement. He purchased the land from the local ruler Damarla Venkatadri and obtained permission to build a fort at 600 pounds rent per annum.

Day saw many advantages to the site: cloth was much cheaper to obtain; the coast was very good for landing; it was nearer to the source of the painted cloth that was in demand in Bantam; and the local ruler was friendly. Although the local ruler promised to build the fort for the English, when Day returned in 1640, it was non-existent. Day started to build a fort on his own, possibly on Saint George’s Day. He invested his own money in the endeavour since the Directors in London considered it non-essential expenditure. However, they left the decision to support or punish Day for his initiative to the Surat President, who along with the factor in Masulipatam supported Day. They quietly ignored instructions from London. The fort was completed and named Fort Saint George in the new settlement of Madras.

Madras was an immediate success as a commercial centre with weaver families moving into the settlement. It also became the half-way point for trade between the archipelago and the sub-continent, controlled from Bantam. In 1642, the headquarters of English operations in the Coromandel was shifted from Masulipatam to Fort Saint George in Madras. Unlike in Surat and Masulipatam, where they were merely permitted to trade, at Madras the English were minor landlords—a precarious title, which nonetheless made the Company a territorial power, even though in a small way.

From 1644, Carnatic region was in turmoil with the Chandragiri kings, who had granted the English title to Madras, caught up in a succession struggle in which the rest of the Peninsular and Deccan rulers were also interested parties. The kingdom of Chandragiri, ruled by Sriranga Raya the scion of the once glorious Vijayanagara Empire now reduced to ruling a minor kingdom, was being invaded. An English agent managed to visit him at either Vellore or Chandragiri itself in 1645–46 and obtained a letter granting them the possession of Madras. However, by 1647, Mir Jumla the general of the Sultan of Golconda, was in control of the Carnatic from Gandhikota to Chandragiri and Tirupati, the region surrounding Madras. The English hastened to make peace with him.

The Madras Presidency

In this instance, the Qutab Shahi general Mir Jumla confirmed all the privileges that had been granted to the English by Sriranga Raya. His own army being heavily dependent on European gunners and officers is likely to have influenced his decision to leave the English alone. 1646–47 was also the time when a famine affected both San Thome and Pulicat and to a lesser extent, Madras. In 1652, Madras was raised to the status of a Presidency independent of Bantam, although four years later it was reverted to status quo ante. In 1658, the independence of the Presidency was re-established with all factories on the Coromandel coast and Bengal being made subservient to it. In the meantime, a wall had been built around Madras, making it a fortified enclave of several factories. The settlement was divided into the Black Town, where all the local people mainly artisans lived and the White Town where the English resided. Madras entered a new phase of life.

A Succession of Presidents/Governors

Sir Edward Winter (?1622–86), appointed President 1662–65, was given the authority to punish all private traders, if necessary. He has the dubious distinction of being the first English President to threaten hostile Indian powers with retaliation at sea, a distinct change from the conciliatory attitude adopted till this time by the English ‘traders’. True to his arrogant character, even though he was recalled by the directors in London, Winter refused to hand over the Presidency to his nominated successor, George Foxcroft (1634–1715). He imprisoned Foxcroft on a trumped up charge of using treasonous language against King Charles and continued as the Governor 1665–68. Foxcroft was Governor only for one year after Winter’s voluntary retirement.

The next Governor for the duration 1670–78, Sir William Langhorne (1629–1715), carefully negated the efforts of both the Dutch and the French to undermine the Madras Presidency. He developed the settlement further and raised a militia of local people called the Black Guards. Langhorne was replaced by Sir Streynsham Master (1640–1724) who was Governor 1678–81. He introduced the first organisational reforms in Madras Presidency and enacted legislations for the conduct of administration, behaviour of civil servants and the carriage of justice. He is credited with banning the practice of sati, the burning of Hindu widows on the funeral pyre of the husband, which could also be considered the first English reaction to this practice. However, this report cannot be authenticated. Master also managed to keep the Maratha king Shivaji away from Madras with his diplomatic skills. Under his leadership, trade improved dramatically and some contemporary accounts call Master the ‘Second Founder of Madras’.

In 1682, English obtained permission from the Maratha king ruling Gingee to settle in and trade from Porto Novo and Cuddalore. (Porto Novo is the current Parangipettai, near Cuddalore)  Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta was expelled by the Mughals from Bengal took refuge in Madras. (The founding of Calcutta will be covered in detail later in the chapter) The Mughals threatened to attack Madras, but catastrophe was averted through some skilful manoeuvring by the English. Nawab Zulfiqar Khan, commanding the Mughal forces in the Carnatic campaign, re-confirmed English privileges in Madras and other settlements.

Several important events took place during the tenure, 1687–92 of the next Governor, Elihu Yale (1649–1721). In 1690, the English purchased the fort at Tegnapatam, near Cuddalore from the Maratha ruler of Gingee, Raja Rajaram and renamed it Fort Saint David. Yale revamped the administration of Madras, made it into a corporation and appointed a Mayor and Alderman. For the next fifty years, all the Governors were ‘merchant princes’, who concentrated on two objectives in Madras. First, was the advancement of the Company trade and second, the accumulation of a private fortune for themselves. The Directors of the Company in London turned a blind eye to the private trade, knowing fully well that the Company’s interests were being advanced simultaneously.

Thomas Pitt (1653–1626) was the Governor of Madras 1698–1709 and is reported to have presided over the golden age of Madras vis-à-vis the development of commercial activities and the great increase in both Company and private wealth. He successfully defended Madras and resisted an attack by Daud Khan, the Mughal governor of the Carnatic. He is better-known for having protected the Company’s interests when the New Company was formed in 1698 and its representatives tried to influence the trade of the Old Company.

Entering Bengal

To start with, in 1633, the English Agent in Masulipatam sent a few factors to establish factories at Hariharapur and Balasore in the northern part of the Coromandel coast. Although a small settlement was established at Hariharapur, the place was found to be unviable for a long-term factory and abandoned almost immediately. The settlement in Balasore survived, in a barely functional manner, with strong support from Francis Day who had established Madras.

An English merchant, Gabriel Boughton, who was in favour with Prince Shah Shuja the Viceroy of Bengal, managed to get the Prince to grant permission for the ‘English’ to trade in his province without having to pay custom duties. However, latest research into this aspect reveals categorically that the permission to carry on free trade was given personally to Boughton and did not include the trade of the Company in general. (There are other versions of the story: of Boughton being a surgeon in Shah Jahan’s service, being instrumental in saving Princess Jahanara when she was burned in an accidental fire, and Shah Jahan bestowing trade concessions to the English on his request. This version is not authenticated.)

From an English perspective, for the kind of trading the Company was engaged in, Bengal had many advantages—cotton cloth in Bengal was relatively cheap and came in a large variety; the region was well served by rivers which made transportation easy; food was cheap since the land was fertile; and the region already had established trade links with the Arakan, Burma and South-East Asia.

The Company’s overtures to establish in Bengal was expedient to Shah Jahan, the Mughal ruler, since he distrusted the Portuguese and wanted the English to fill the vacuum left by the expulsion of the former from Hooghly in 1632. In 1651, the Company established its factory at Hooghly and in 1657 made it the Chief Agency in Bengal with new subordinate agencies in Kasimbazar and Patna, while bringing Balasore also under its control. The Bengal enterprise grew because of the English interest in Dhaka muslin and the saltpetre from Bihar. However, the growth was uneasy and uneven because of the political situation in Bengal. The English experience so far had been in Surat and Madras. In Surat the Mughal influence was waning and in Madras it was non-existent. Bengal on the other hand was a Mughal province with the Governor appointed directly by the ruling Mughal king. Therefore, Bengal was susceptible to political upheavals in Agra.

The Company realised the Mughal primacy in Bengal and faced some setbacks after Shah Jahan died and the succession struggle in North India percolated to Bengal. Trade improved in the mid-1660s, after piracy in the Arakans and Chittagong regions were put down, and Master, the Governor of Madras who controlled Bengal, introduced a new system of management and account keeping while enforcing strict discipline in Bengal. However, a new challenge emerged in the 1670s. European private traders were attracted to Bengal for the same reasons that had brought the English there. They were able to obtain permission from the Mughal Viceroy, Shaista Khan, to engage in trade by paying a higher duty than the English and settled down at Kasimbazar and Hooghly.

In late 1681, William Hedges, one of the Company Directors was appointed independent in-charge of the Hooghly Agency. Bengal was not under the Madras Presidency anymore. Hedges however was unable to negotiate the subtle and labyrinthian court shenanigans prevalent in the Mughal courts in Bengal and Agra. The need was to be able to bribe the appropriate courtier to obtain permissions and to achieve one’s objectives. Hedges’ personal ego outstripped his understanding of Mughal politics, and he was a failure. English trade suffered and could barely be called indifferent.

Enter Job Charnock … and Calcutta is Built

The most experienced Company officer in Bengal at that time was Job Charnock (1630–93), who had already served in India for 30 years. He was fluent in Persian and Hindustani, had married an Indian lady and had started to wear Indian clothes, a habit that lasted throughout his life. In 1669, he moved to Hooghly from Patna and by 1685 he was second-in-command in Bengal. Even though unsuccessful as an administrator, Hedges was convinced that the English must own territory that was fortified to defend their interests in Bengal. He examined the island of Saugar at the mouth of the River Hooghly and then Chittagong. Both were rejected—Saugar as being exposed to tropical storms that frequented the region and Chittagong as being too distant.

Charnock had his own views regarding the way forward and did not agree with Hedges’ way of dealing with Shaista Khan or the private traders. The Directors removed Hedges but refused to negotiate with Shaista Khan, thrusting an armed conflict on Charnock’s small and inexperienced army. Meanwhile Charnock had been scouting for a place to establish a fort, looking at three places on the River Hooghly—Uluberia and the island of Hijli  on the western banks where the River Damodar joins Hooghly and Sutanuti on the eastern bank. Uluberia and Hijli were discarded as contenders, the first being open to attack by Mughal forces and the second being in a malaria-ridden swamp. He had settled on Sutanuti as the possible place to build a fort.

Fearing a war, the Company in London sent a fleet to Hooghly. But before it could arrive, a series of skirmishes forced Charnock to load as many people and merchandise as possible on country boats and sail down the river to Sutanuti. Here the Mughal army caught up with them. The Mughal heavy artillery in combination with a lack of supplies reduced the numbers of the English. Fortunately a Rajput noble, Puran Mal, interceded with the Mughal commander who having been misinformed of the English strength accepted an offer of a truce. Throughout the negotiations, Charnock demanded permission to build a fort in Bengal. However, he was exiled to Madras.

In the following three years, the English suffered a great defeat on the western coast, inflicted by Aurangzeb’s forces over a disputed attack on a pilgrim ship. This almost ended the English enterprise in India, being saved only by an abject apology. (This episode has been covered earlier in this chapter) Satisfied that the English had been sufficiently humiliated, Aurangzeb allowed them to carry on trading in a small way in Bengal. In 1690, Charnock was permitted to return to Bengal and immediately started the process of purchasing land. He negotiated with the local zamindars, the Majumdars, for the purchase of three villages—Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Dihi-Kalkutta for a consideration of Rupees 1,300. These were on the eastern bank of the River Hooghly and therefore, strategically safe from the Mughal army.

Since the parent Company was not supportive of building a fort, much like Francis Day, Charnock decided to build the fort with his own resources. London then endorsed the decision and appointed Charnock the President of Bengal. The foundation for the Calcutta fort was laid at Kalkutta in 1690, the English finally following the much-maligned Hedges’ recommendation to possess a fortified settlement. When the Afghans rebelled in Bengal, the English in Calcutta (and the Dutch in Chinsura) asked permission to raise troops for their protection, which was granted in 1697. The English built walls around their factory and the other two villages, creating the embryo from which Calcutta as a city would grow.

Looking back, it would be easy to credit Charnock with a prescient mind and consider him as being strategically astute, as many historians have done. In reality, Charnock was not a visionary but a merchant caught up in the complex political imbroglio of the time without sufficient military power, strategic resources, or support from his superiors residing in London. He was an agent who had to fend for himself, which he did as best as he could. He made a decision on the spur of the moment that turned out to be right and to a certain extent Fate intervened on his side. The only factor that makes him special is that in an era when most Englishmen did not spend too much time in India, Charnock adopted India as his home. The political conditions in Bengal at that time needed a person who saw himself as a local rather than as an agent of a foreign power—being accepted by the locals, Job Charnock fitted that bill.

In 1700, Bengal was constituted as a separate presidency, the Presidency of Fort William with Sir Charles Eyre as the first president. At Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the English feared civil war and built two bastions to their fort, boldly threatening any retaliation by local or Mughal officials. However, their fears did not eventuate and the new Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah and his Viceroy in Bengal were quick to confirm the privileges of the English.

In the first decade of the 18th century, the English East India Company had three independent presidencies located in well-constructed forts at Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. They were entrenched in all three with their inherent ambition to control territory becoming overtly demonstrated for the first time. From these three forts they were able to threaten local rulers, and viceroys of the declining Mughal kingdom, again an overt display of a new-found confidence in a people who had come to ‘trade’ and a demonstration of their ulterior motives, which could not be hidden any longer. Sadly, none of the local kings, rulers or chiefs took any notice of these developments.  

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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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