India In The Beginning Of The Eighteenth Century
Before making our volte face, and in future chronicling the history
of India from the Western standpoint, it will be well to see what this
India was which England set herself deliberately to annex.
So far as the East India Company was concerned, the vast peninsula was
at this time what a huge slice of iced plum-cake upon a plate must be
to a hungry mouse. That is to s
y, nice enough for outside nibblings,
but with unexplored possibilities of plums within. Every now and again
a bolder merchant would dive into the comparatively unknown centre,
and come back laden possibly with idol-eyes, rich brocades, jewels in
It must--to repeat ourselves--have been a tremendous temptation having
to live, as these early writers or clerks to John Company had, on the
very verge of Tom Tiddler's ground--to have only to reach out their
hands and touch a totally different world. A world which by virtue of
immutable changelessness had not commuted the gold which the years had
brought it into luxuries, but had stored it up uselessly in lavish
ornamentation and idle, almost unappropriated treasure. Except as a
gaud for a woman, a toy for a babe, or a flourish of trumpets for some
man who called himself noble, gold in India had practically no value,
for the rich man lived in all ways much as the poor man lived. The
standard of personal comfort had not risen at all either for the
wealthy or the poverty-stricken during the four thousand years and odd
since the splendours of Princess Draupadi's Swayamvara had been
chronicled in the Mahabharata. An instant's thought will show us the
effect which this hoarding of every diamond found in Golconda, of
every bale of rich stuff made by some leisurely artificer, must have
had upon the country. It became full to overflowing with scarcely
recognised riches. To English traders, keen on commerce, India must
indeed have been the land of Upside-down; a land into which their gold
was sucked down at the same time that astounding, almost undreamt-of
treasures were literally vomited forth from every petty bazaar.
Francois Bernier's views on this matter, and the conclusions which he
draws from the indubitable facts which he observed, are so distinctly
what may be called conventionally insular, that they serve well to
show the attitude of mind in which the West, strong in conviction of
its own worth, faced the East, all unfamiliar and startling.
"Before I conclude," he says, in a letter addressed to M. Colbert, the
French Minister of State, "I wish to explain how it happens that
though the gold and silver introduced into the Empire centre finally
in Hindustan, they still are not in greater plenty than elsewhere, and
the inhabitants have less the appearance of a monied people than those
of many other parts of the globe.
"In the first place, a larger quantity is melted, re-melted, and
wasted in fabricating women's bracelets, both for the hands and feet,
chains, ear-rings, nose and finger rings, and a still larger quantity
is consumed in manufacturing embroideries; alachas or striped silken
stuffs, touras or tufts of golden nets worn on turbans; gold and
silver cloths and scarves, turbans, and brocades. The quantity of
these articles made in India is incredible."
He then goes on to paint, in vivid, horror-stricken phrases, the evils
of a paternal despotism, pointing out that it is "slavery," that it
"obstructs the progress of trade," since there is no encouragement to
commercial pursuits when the "success with which they may be attended,
instead of adding to the enjoyments of life, only provokes the
cupidity of a neighbouring tyrant." This we are assured is the sole
cause why the "possessor, so far from living with increased comfort,
studies the means by which he may appear indigent: his dress, lodging,
and furniture continue to be mean, and he is careful, above all
things, never to indulge in the pleasures of the table."
Poor Bernier! And after more than a hundred years of comparative
freedom under British rule there was still not a face-towel or a bit
of soap in an Indian household; not a chair, not a table, and the
simple food, cooked over a hole dug in the ground, was served on
leaf-plates set upon the floor. For luxury has hitherto passed India
by. Will it do so in the future? Who can say?
The state of the arts in India evidently puzzled Bernier's Western
brain, and he sets to work to find out some occult cause for the
undoubted skill of the artisan. He asserts that
"no artist can be expected to give his mind to his calling" without
the stimulus of personal advantage, "and that the arts would long ago
have lost their beauty and delicacy if the monarch and the principal
nobles did not keep the artists in their pay to work in their houses."
"The protection afforded by powerful patrons, rich merchants and
traders, who give the workmen rather more than the usual wages, tends
to preserve the arts; rather more wages, for it should not be inferred
from the goodness of the manufactures that the workman is held in
esteem, or arrives at a state of independence. Nothing but sheer
necessity or blows from a cudgel keeps him employed."
And this in a country where, to this day, the pride of hereditary
dexterity in hand and eye is handed down from father to son, and to
say of a coppersmith or a carpenter or a weaver in brocades: "His
grandfather, see you, was a real ustad (teacher)," is to raise that
man above his fellows. Once more, poor Bernier! He might have learnt
something from the eager-faced, lissome-fingured Indian smith, who,
handling a gun made by Manton, laid it down reverently and salaamed to
it as if it had been a god, with these simple words: "He who made that
was a Great Artificer."
Here we have epitomised the true artistic temperament.
But it needs art to apply the solvent of sympathy; and the dealings of
the West with the East were at this time purely commercial; so we meet
with absolute, almost pathetic lack of comprehension. Indeed, as we
read with painstaking care every record that exists of these Western
dealings with the East at this period, we know not whether to laugh or
to cry at the spectacle presented to us of mutual misunderstanding.
India is a problem even now. What must it have been then, to these
worthy Lombard Street merchants who knew nothing of ancient faiths and
past civilisations, who looked on the native of India as a barbarian
utterly. What a shock it must have been to them, when a native
accountant, given some abstruse problem in arithmetic, solved it
lightly, easily, by algebra! Small wonder that, finding the Hindu
circle divided into 360 equal parts and the ratio of diameter to
circumference expressed correctly at 1 to 3.14160 they credited
Alexander's Greek phalanxes with being mathematical teachers as well
as conquerors. Small wonder that every discovery of scientific
knowledge amongst these "barbarians" should have been referred to some
contact with the West.
It required long years before due credit could be given to the East;
it is doubtful indeed whether sufficient credit is given to it even
now. Who, for instance, knows of the accurate trigonometrical tables
of India, in which sines are used instead of the Greek chords?--or
of their framer, of whom Professor Wallace writes:--
"He who first formed the idea of exhibiting in arithmetical tables the
ratios of the sides and angles of all possible triangles must have
been a man of profound thought and extensive knowledge. However
ancient, therefore, any book may be in which we meet with a system of
trigonometry, we may be assured that it was not written in the infancy
of the science. Hence, we may conclude that geometry must have been
known in India long before the writing of the 'Surya Siddhanta.'"
Now this book on Astronomy was written at the latest computation about
the year A.D. 400. Centuries before this, therefore, India was aware
of certain of those inviolable laws of our Universe, in the
apprehension of which lies humanity's best hope of immortality. And
there is one curious fact about these vestiges of ancient knowledge
which Professor Playfair has noted in a pregnant remark concerning
these same trigonometrical tables. "They have the appearance, like
many other things in the science of these Eastern nations, of being
drawn by one who was more deeply versed in the subject than may at
first be imagined, and who knew much more than he thought it necessary
It is a remark which stimulates the imagination.
But as a matter of fact the Western imagination of those days appears
not to have been stimulated at all by anything save the prospect of
plunder. And in truth the hoarded wisdom of the East was not nearly so
much in evidence as its hoarded wealth. In Akbar's time some effort
had been made to give such wisdom fair hearing. There is small doubt,
for instance, but that his study of the kingcraft chapters of the
Mahabharata had done much towards making Akbar what he was--the best
ruler India has ever seen, or is likely to see; but, taking it as a
whole, the tide of Mahomedan conquest had simply submerged Hindu
learning, and the rising flood of Mahratta power was not one whit less
prejudicial to philosophy. But below the troubled surface of wars and
rumours of wars the heart of India dreamt on undisturbed. All things,
as ever, were illusion. The Wheel-of-Life revolved between the pivots
of Birth and Death, so what mattered it whether the painted zoetrope
showed the yellow face of a Toorkh from the North, or the white one of
a trader from the West? Both sought gold; and even gold was illusion.
It is quaint to think, say, of those pirates of Arracan bursting in
upon a crowd of pilgrims round some ancient shrine, and carrying off
the whole concern, as it were--priests, worshippers, offerings, even
the idol-eyes, leaving the empty sockets staring out helplessly at the
But there are many such quaint items to be added to our picture
gallery of India in the beginning of the eighteenth century, not the
least of these being the spectacle of Job Charnock, the founder of
Calcutta, carrying off from amongst the very flames of her husband's
funeral pyre the Hindu widow who afterwards became his wife.
For on the confines of the various factories in the contiguous lands
which had been won from Moghul rule by purchase, or bribe, or treaty,
English laws had already begun to oust native customs. Indeed, quite
an elaborate legal procedure, duly decked with Courts of Appeal, had
been set up in the three presidencies. So far, it is to be feared,
without much benefit to the people, for those who held the power seem
ever to have been more occupied by the rules of commerce than those of
Already, also, each presidency had its own regular army. This was
composed first of recruits from England, sent out by the Company in
their ships; secondly, of adventurers who had deserted from other
European armies and had come out to the East to seek their fortunes;
thirdly, of half-caste Indo-Europeans, the offspring of mixed
marriages. In the beginning of the eighteenth century a few pure
natives were enlisted, and from this time the Sepoy army of John
Company grew by leaps and bounds.
As yet, however, there was no attempt at the policy of pike and
carronade. That had been disastrous in the days of Sir John Child; so
the small armies--the garrison of Calcutta in 1707 was raised to
three hundred men--were kept simply for defence.
The insecure state of the country, also, which followed on
Aurungzebe's death led to greater caution on the part of the Company.
Hitherto, its clerks and merchants and agents had themselves carried
their English goods to the various markets in the interior of the
country; but now orders were issued directing everything to be sold by
auction at the port of import, thus minimising the risk of loss.
A simple order which, nevertheless, must have had far-reaching
results, since it introduced the middleman between the English
merchants and the people of India; an unscrupulous middleman also.
Then the method employed, and necessarily employed, in the collection
of the calicoes and other woven cotton-stuffs which at this time
formed the staple of Indian trade was one which made fair dealing
almost impossible. For there were no large merchants with whom the
Company could deal. It had therefore to elaborate an agency of its
own, by which it could come in contact with the weaver, who--ever one
of the most poverty-stricken of Indian artisans--required raw material
and sustenance given him before he could keep his rude loom going.
A fateful affair this! One European functionary issuing orders to a
native secretary, he employing a native agent, who in his turn calls
together the local brokers, who send out to village and towns by their
paid messengers and advance cotton and money to the actual workmen.
Here indeed were sufficient loopholes for fraud. Each one of these men
had, in addition to his poor pay, to find secret gratification for
himself and for those who were supposed to keep an eye upon him. The
wretched weaver, of course, coming off worst in the scramble, being
made, first, to work as he had never worked before, and secondly, as a
set-off to the sustenance given, to take a price often 40 per cent.
less than the work would have fetched in open market.
But the rate of pay which at this time the Company offered to its
servants tells in unmistakable brevity the whole tale of its
The salary of a president was but L300 a year, that of a factor but
L20. Even when Bengal was practically ceded to it, and all power,
judicial and executive, vested in its servants, the pay of a man who
had almost unlimited power, and who had doomed himself to a life of
exile, was but L130. Yet the actual profit of the East India Company
at this time was nothing prodigious; it barely touched 8 per cent. on
the capital employed. Still, the monopoly must have been valuable, for
the efforts made to retain it would fill volumes; and one Act of
Parliament followed another, prohibiting foreign adventure to India
under penalty of forfeiture of triple the sum embarked, and declaring
all British subjects found in India who were not in the Company's
service liable to seizure and punishment, and generally crying "hands
off" to all and sundry.
The Portuguese power in India had by this time dwined away;
none too soon for its reputation. It had suffered reverses at many
hands, not least of these being one dealt by itself; for the story of
Bahadur-Shah, the king of Guzerat, is not one to bring credit with it.
He had entered into negotiations with the Portuguese, had granted them
many favours, amongst others the right to build a factory. This,
however, they surrounded with a wall which converted the whole into a
fortification. Bahadur-Shah remonstrated, and was met with fair words
from Nuno de Cunha, the Portuguese viceroy, who, however, came to the
conference with a suspiciously martial fleet containing over four
thousand fighting-men. Now, whether the Portuguese historians are
right in attributing meditated treachery to the Mahomedans, or the
historians of the latter are right in attributing it to the
Portuguese, matters little in face of what actually happened. The
viceroy, feigning sickness as an excuse for not paying his respects on
land, the king, with but a few unarmed attendants, went to meet him on
the admiral's ship. Once there, he became alarmed at whisperings and
signs that were passing between the viceroy and his officers, and took
a hasty leave. Hardly had he reached his boat, however, when he was
attacked. Being a good swimmer he flung himself into the sea, was
pursued, struck over the head with an oar, and when he clung to it,
was finally despatched with a halbert.
The facts are brutal. Nothing can extenuate them, and though the
affray may have originated in mutual distrust and alarm, there can be
no doubt that such evidence of premeditated treachery as there is
points to the Portuguese as the real criminals.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, they had retired
to Further India, there to repeat their brilliant but evanescent
career of conquest, and in 1739 they finally ceded their few remaining
possessions in the Konkan to the Mahratta power.
But their influence lives still all along the western coast, where to
this day a large proportion of the people are professedly Roman
Catholic, the descendants of the converts who, it is said, flocked in
thousands to be baptized by St Francis Xavier. This, however, is
extremely doubtful. Yet even the Portuguese power was but a sea-board
influence, the nibblings, as it were, of the Western mouse upon the
rich cake of India.
Inside this frayed and fraying fringe of contact with the outside
world India was very much what it had been always, what in a way it
will be always. So far as princes and principalities went it was a
very distracted country; so far as the peasantry went it was a very
peaceful one. But neither prince nor peasant seemed to realise that a
great change was imminent.
One of the most curious points about this coming change was that
though the greed of gold was undoubtedly the chief factor in bringing
it about, the first two solid holds which the English got on India
were due to the skill, not of British diplomacy or British commerce,
but of British medicine. It was in consequence of the services
rendered by Ship's surgeon Gabriel Boughton to the Emperor Shahjahan's
beloved daughter Jahanara, when she was as a child badly burnt, that
the Old East India Company gained the right to trade in Bengal free of
all duty; this being the only fee asked--surely a public-spirited and
disinterested one. And equally so was the only fee demanded by Staff
Surgeon William Hamilton in 1715 for curing the decadent Emperor
Farokhshir of a tumour in the back which had resisted the efforts of
all the court physicians. He asked for the first sizable grant of land
on the Indian peninsula which had ever been given to any foreign
power: that is to say, for thirty-seven villages contiguous to the
factory at Calcutta, which gave the English command of the river for
10 miles south of the port, for some villages near Madras, which
consolidated that pied a terre; and for the island of Din on the
These two fees, given by gratitude for services rendered, were
practically the fee simple of all India.
Some vague recognition of this fact doubtless prompted the epitaph on
William Hamilton's neglected tombstone in Calcutta, which runs thus:--
His memory ought to be dear to his Nation
For the credit he gained the English
in curing Ferrukseer
the present King of Hindustan
of a malignant distemper
By which he made his own name famous
At the Court of that Great Monarch
And without doubt will perpetuate his memory
as well in Great Britain as all other
Nations in Europe.
He died, 4th December 1717. Gabriel Boughton, his predecessor in
patriotism, dying God knows when, being buried God knows where.
So the epitaph is a trifle over-confident; for Great Britain has a
trick of forgetting her most faithful servants.