The Invasion Of Nadir
A.D. 1738 TO A.D. 1742
The old cry once more!
Over the wheat-fields of the Punjab, just as the seed was bursting
into green, that cry--
"The Toorkh! The Toorkh!"
Surely no land on the globe has suffered so much from invasion as
Hindustan? The mythical Snake-people first, coming from God knows
where.... Then the Aryans, with their flocks and herds, from the Roof
of the World.... Next the well-greaved Greeks, leaving their indelible
mark on Upper India.... So through Parthian, and Scythian, and
Bactrian, to the wild, resistless influx of Mongolian immigrations.
Then finally Mahmud and Mahomed, Tamerlane and Babar ... last of all,
Nadir the Persian.
His was an unprovoked, almost an unpremeditated invasion. It burst
upon India like a monsoon storm, swift, lurid, almost terrible in the
rapidity with which action follows menace. And like that same storm it
came, it passed, and the blue, unclouded sky seemed far away from the
desolation and havoc that had been wrought.
In many ways this, the last, was the worst of all the sacks which
India had suffered. To begin with, it came so late in time. Towards
the middle of the eighteenth century one does not expect a robbing
raid on so vast a scale. It seems almost incredible that an army of
eighty thousand men should march through a country bent on plunder,
and plunder only.
Then its sole object--gold--was such a mean one. No political reason
lay at the back of the raid. Nadir had no ambitions. He did not wish
to add to his kingship; it was all wilful, wicked, merciless greed.
Yet Nadir-Shah himself was not absolutely a mean man. He was a native
of Khorasan, that is to say, an Afghan, born of no particular family,
but born a warrior. At the age of seventeen he was taken prisoner by
the Usbeks, but after four years of captivity made his escape.
Then he took service with the King of Khorasan, but, believing himself
ill-rewarded for a success against the Tartars, gave up his command,
and became, frankly, a freebooter.
A few years later, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, he threw in his
fortunes with those of a Persian princeling en retraite, and in his
name fought a variety of battles, in which he was invariably
victorious. They ended in the nominal restoration of Tahmasp to the
throne of his fathers. But behind Tahmasp sate Nadir, who had become
the idol of the Persian people; and small wonder, since he had raised
the nation from abject slavery to such military glory as Persia has
It was necessary, however, to continue soldierly exploits; so Nadir
set to work to settle a dispute with the Turks who had taken Tabriz.
He had recovered it, when trouble in Khorasan called him back, and
kept him employed for so long, that when he returned to the capital,
Isphahan, it was to find that his puppet Tahmasp had, during his
absence, become a person of much importance, and was exercising all
the royal prerogatives.
This did not suit Nadir, so, on the excuse of lack of statesmanship in
concluding a treaty with the Turks, he deliberately deposed Tahmasp,
and set his infant son in his stead.
This was practically the beginning of Nadir's reign, but he refrained
from assuming the title of King until many victories over the Turks
and Russians had strengthened his hold on the Persians.
Then, covered with glory, he assembled all the dignitaries, civil and
military, to the number of about one hundred thousand in a sort of
mutual admiration conference, when, no doubt by previous arrangement,
they offered him the crown, which, after some display of surprise and
reluctance, he was pleased to accept.
Now this was all very deep-laid, very diplomatic; but Nadir's
cleverness was at times too clever. In some of his campaigns
he had deliberately changed his religion--or rather his
denomination--becoming Sunni instead of Shiah, in order to gain over a
warlike tribe which was obdurately troublesome; now, hoping to stamp
out any sentimental attachment to the dynasty which he had just
deposed, and whose claim to kingship rested entirely on its
championship of the Shiah tenets, he changed the national
denomination, and declared Persia henceforward a Sunni country. It was
a mistake; for though the Sunni section was pleased, the Shiahs felt
themselves alienated from their new king.
In another way Nadir showed more sense. It was his greatness as a
general which had won him sovereignty, and he recognised that it must
be kept by the same means; so he gathered together an army of eighty
thousand men and set off to conquer Kandahar.
L'appetit vient en mangeant. India lay just over the barrier of the
Koh-i-Suleiman hills, and the tribes who had hitherto been subsidised
by the Moghul Government to keep the peaks and passes, were now sulky
over their failure for some years past to squeeze anything out of the
bankrupt Government of Delhi.
But even Nadir required some excuse for bald, brutal invasion. He
therefore peremptorily demanded the expulsion of some Afghans who had
fled from punishment to shelter in Indian territory. At all times it
would have been difficult to lay hands on a band of wandering Pathans
amongst the frontier hills, but Delhi was at this time distracted by
fear of the Mahrattas, and still all uncertain whether to acknowledge
Nadir-Shah's claim to kingship.
The hesitation suited the latter; he was over the border, had defeated
a feeble resistance at Lahore, and was within 100 miles of Delhi
before he found himself faced by a real army.
There must surely be some malignant attraction about the wide plain of
Paniput! Surely the Angel-of-Death must spread his wings over it at
all times, since bitter battle has been fought on it again and again,
and its sun-saturated sands have been sodden again and again with the
blood of many men.
How many times has the fate of India been decided amongst its
semi-barren stretches, where the low dhak bushes glow like sunset
clouds on the horizon? First by the mythical, legendary Pandus and
Kurus, backed by the gods, protected by showers of celestial arrows.
Next, when Shahab-ud-din-Mahomed Ghori broke down the Rajput
resistance, and Prithvi-raj, the flower of Rajput chivalry, was killed
flying for his life amongst the sugarcane brakes. Timur passed it by,
but his great descendant Babar strewed the plain with dead in his
victorious march to Delhi. Here Hemu met with crushing defeat at
Akbar's hands, and now Nadir was to carry on the tradition of death,
until that last great fight in 1761, which ended the Mahratta power,
and so paved the way for British supremacy.
How many men's dust is mingled with the soil of Paniput? All we know
is that the life-blood of over a million is said to have been spilt
Nadir's battle, however, appears to have been a comparatively
bloodless rout of an absolutely incapable enemy. Mahomed-Shah, the
so-called emperor of all the Indies, at any rate gave up the struggle
incontinently, sent in his submission, and the two kings journeyed
peacefully together to Delhi, which they reached in March 1739. Did
the populace come out to greet the sovereigns riding in, brother-like,
hand in hand, to take up their residence in the palace built by
Shahjahan? It is a quaint picture this, of cringing submission and
To Nadir's credit be it said that, whatever ultimate object of plunder
he may have had, he wished to avoid bloodshed. For this purpose he
stationed isolated pickets of chosen troops about the city and suburbs
to keep order and protect the people. Unavailingly, for a strange
thing happened. Whether owing to some deep-laid, well-known plan for
poisoning the intruder which failed unexpectedly, or from some other
cause, the report was spread abroad within forty-eight hours that
Nadir-the-Conqueror, Nadir-the-mainspring-of-Conquest, was dead. The
rumours blazed like wildfire through the bazaars. In quick impulse the
mob fell on the pickets, and seven hundred Persians were weltering in
their blood when Nadir himself rode through the midnight streets,
intent, they say, on peace. But the provocation proved too much for
his cold, cruel Persian temper.
Struck by stones and mud hurled at him from the houses, the officer
next him killed by a bullet aimed at himself, he gave way to Berserk
rage. It was just dawn when the massacre he ordered began; it was nigh
sunset when it ended, and night fell over one hundred and fifty
thousand corpses. Nor did his revenge stop here. The treasure, which
he would no doubt have extorted in any case, was now seized on by
force, torture and murder being used to make the miserable inhabitants
yield up every penny. Every kind of cruelty was employed in this
extortion; numbers died from ill-usage, and many others destroyed
themselves from fear of a disgraceful death. As an eye-witness writes:
"Sleep and rest forsook the city. In every chamber and house was heard
the cry of affliction."
The Afghan has always possessed a perfect genius for pillage, and
after a short two months Nadir-Shah left Delhi, carrying away with him
an almost incredible quantity of plunder, which it is very generally
estimated at being worth L30,000,000; an enormous sum, but it must be
remembered that the famous peacock throne in itself was counted by
Tavernier as equal to L6,000,000 sterling.
But Nadir left Delhi something which, possibly, it might have
done better without; for ere leaving, he solemnly reinstated the
puppet-king, and swore fearful oaths as to the revenge he would take
on the nobles when he returned in a year or two should they fail in
allegiance. But he never did return; he really never meant to return.
He was a robber pur et simple, and he had got all that he had any
hopes of getting.
So he disappeared northwards again, to die a violent death ere long.
For despite his success, something of remorse had come to him,
uninvited, with the spoils of ravaged Delhi. He became cruel,
capricious, tyrannical; finally, he grew half-mad, until one night
the nobles, whose arrest he had decreed, the captain of his own
body-guard, the very chief of his own clan, entered his tent at
midnight. Then from the darkness came the challenge in the deep voice
which had so often led them to victory.
"Who goes there?"
For an instant they drew back, uncertain; but only for an instant.
They went for him with their sabres as they might have gone at a mad
dog, and Nadir, their hero, their pride, their tyrant, their horror,
ended his life.
How had he affected India?
First of all it had for the moment checked Mahratta aggrandisement.
The appearance of this unknown, hitherto almost unheard-of foe, who
traversed with such ease the country he had hoped to annex, and did
the things he had meant to do, seemed to paralyse Baji-Rao. His first
impulse was to aid in a general defence of India. "Our domestic
quarrels," he wrote, "are now insignificant; there is but one enemy in
Hindustan. The whole power of the Dekkan, Hindu and Mahomedan alike,
must assemble for resistance."
And even when Nadir-Shah had retreated without further progress
southward, Baji-Rao, free-booter, as all the Mahrattas were at heart,
must have felt himself frustrated. What use was there in reaching a
city desolate utterly, still infected by the stench of unburied
bodies; a city whose treasury doors stood wide open, empty, deserted;
a city, briefly, which an Afghan had pillaged? So he and his Saho
As for the effects which Nadir's sudden swoop on the interior of the
plum-cake had on the nibbling mice upon its circumference, there is
little to be said. It must have been a surprise to the civilised
communities which were so rapidly coming into existence at such
centres as Calcutta, Madras, Bombay; centres in which life went
elegantly, and people began to talk of the latest news by mail from
England. Still, the mere brute-force of the invasion cannot have
shocked them much, for Europe itself was a prey at this time to wars
and rumours of wars. The 1715 rebellion was over in England; the 1745
had not yet begun. In France affairs were working up towards the
Revolution. Spain and Germany were alike, either at the beginning or
the end of disastrous struggles.
Yet the mere fact which must have filtered through to the
seacoast--that thirty millions worth of solid plunder had just been
filched away from the treasury of India by foreigners--cannot have
been pleasing news. The East India Company, however, seems to have
made no great efforts at aggrandisement during the years between the
special granting to it of lands by Farokhshir and 1746, when it
formally entered into grips with the French East Indian Company, which
about this time began that dispute for supremacy in India which
virtually ended with the taking of Trichinoply in 1761.
In truth we have very little information indeed regarding the doings
of John Company during this period. All we know is that British
imports into India fell from L617,000 in 1724 to L157,000 in 1741,
which, taken with a corresponding decrease in dividends, would seem to
show some depression, some check to trade.
One thing is certain. The Constitution of the Company was not
satisfactory. An attempt had been made to avoid a monopoly of large
shareholders by ruling that, no matter what the share held might be,
it should only, whether L500 or L50,000, carry one vote for the
election of the Court of Directors. But this ruling could be, and was,
easily evaded. All that had to be done was to split the L50,000 into a
hundred L500 shares, registered in the names of confidential agents,
who--in consideration of an honorarium, no doubt--voted according to
direction. It was not very straightforward, of course; on the other
hand, the original ruling was silly in the extreme, since it prevented
those who had a real interest in the Company from exercising their due
share of influence.
Unfortunately, this faggot-voting brought with it a corrupt
atmosphere. Appointments under the Company were a common bribe, and as
the Court of Directors had to be reappointed every year, there was
endless opportunity for jobbery.
So, after a time, opposition to the monopoly of the trade began once
more to take form. Proposals for yet a new company were floated.
Parliament once more took up the matter; which was finally settled by
the existing company offering L200,000 to Government, and a reduction
of 1 per cent. on the rate of interest payable on the previous loan of
some three-and-a-half millions (that is to say, a yearly income of
L35,000), as payment for the extension of their monopoly till 1766.
This offer was accepted, and in 1744 the term of monopoly was still
further extended until 1780, in consideration of a further loan to
Government of L1,000,000 sterling at the low rate of 3 per cent.
Coming as it did in the middle of a very expensive war, the temptation
of this pecuniary assistance must have been potent; but there can be
but little doubt that, publicly at any rate, the trade of India
suffered considerably from the exclusion of private enterprise.
Certain it is that while the English East India Company found
themselves forced to reduce their dividends to 7 per cent, the Dutch
Company was dividing 25.
Altogether, then, it is not surprising that, until the French, by
assuming the aggressive, forced the East India Company to bestir
itself, it did nothing of importance in the way of progress.