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The tangled politics of Europe and Bangladesh

  • Published at 06:16 pm August 7th, 2015
The tangled politics of Europe and Bangladesh

Dazzled, perhaps, by the rapid rise to supremacy of the British -- first in Chittagong, in about 1760, following the Battle of Plassey -- and by the influence of European politics on the future of the lands around the great delta of the Ganges, little attention has been paid to the steps taken that, between them, certainly eventuated in today’s India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Somehow, the advance of the British through the East India Company seems popularly described, almost as a steady advance to a predictable outcome, and, in a “winner takes all” way, resulting in a largely unchallenged looting of the economic rewards especially.

In fact, both these lands of Bangladesh, and those around them in the Indian sub-continent, and indeed Europe and even the entire world, at the beginning of the 18th century, were heading into one of the most turbulent periods of history. It was a turbulence only the brave, or foolish, would have predicted the outcome of.

It would be fair to observe that, in the end, Britain snatched victory from the jaws of oblivion, and that India itself self destructed.

Little illustrates so well the complexity of European politics that would produce such extraordinary outcomes better than, on the face of it, the improbable setting up of a trading station in Dhaka around 1728 by the Ostend Trading Company.

Today, the Belgian port of Ostend is little known internationally; even its importance as a channel port for communication between Britain and Europe has diminished. That it should have reflected the very tangled political turmoil in Europe in deciding, as a Roman Catholic neighbour to Protestant Britain and Holland, and itself under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, may seem, in its own way, to mirror the changing political times of the lands of the north east of the Indian sub-continent, especially those that are now the lands of Bangladesh.

Not least of the tangled loyalties involved in the development was the significant role of a former East India Company employee -- a Scot by the name of Alexander Hume. There is every reason to suppose that Hume himself had conflicted loyalties. In 1715, the first of the two “Jacobite Rebellions” flared in Scotland, favouring the Roman Catholic Stuart royal branch who had been deposed from the English throne in the “Glorious Revolution” in England in 1688, and replaced by his Protestant daughters, first Mary, with her husband, Prince William of Orange, then by her sister, Anne.

Following the death of Anne, in 1714, another Protestant branch of the Stuart dynasty, George -- the Elector of Hanover, a German descendant of King James I and VI -- became King of the United Kingdom. The Act of Union, which united England and Scotland having had been passed in 1707.

In 1714, James Edward Stuart, the son of the deposed and exiled King James II, attempted to raise rebellion amongst the Scots to recover his father’s throne. He was relying on both traditional Scottish loyalties to the Scottish origin of the Stuarts, and, with his own Roman Catholic faith, the predominance of that religious sect in, especially, the Highlands of Scotland with its great warrior tradition.

Hume was himself a Catholic and, following the failure of the 1715 rebellion in Britain, appeared to have moved to catholic Flanders, which, a century later, at the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became the Kingdom of Belgium, of which today’s monarch is still Catholic.

The lands of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, although, in 1728, perhaps no one could entirely predict it, were themselves on the verge of, what was to prove, over the ensuing half century, their own chaotic period.

The death in 1707 of the great fratricide and patricide, the sixth, and arguably one of the most successful Mughal Emperors, Aurangzeb, had already thrown into turmoil the Mughal governance of its extended realms of rule, with Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa coming under the more or less autonomous rule of the “Nawabs of Bengal.” In 1717, Murshid Quli Jafar Khan became the first of the, short-lived, Nasiri “dynasty.”

Murshid had been born as a Hindu Brahmin in 1670, and having been bought by the Deccan ruler, he caught the eye of Aurangzeb, who sent him to Bengal -- the wealthiest of Aurangzebs’ provinces, but, probably because of the wealth generated there, in large part from revenues and bribes due from the burgeoning European trade, was constantly in some governmental turmoil.

Following the death of Aurangzeb he was transferred to administer the Deccan, but, in 1717, he was sent back to Bengal as “Nawab of Murshidabad” by Emperor Farrukhsiyar, the fourth Mughal ruler in the decade following Aurngzeb’s demise -- a clear illustration of the rapid weakening of the Mughal hold on its realms, and, more importantly, perhaps, its revenues.

There followed two more youthful, politically manipulated Mughal Emperors before, in 1719, Muhammed Shah became Emperor.

History shows that Murshid, in his ten year tenure in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, did quite a lot to restore the revenues -- much needed by the Delhi-based Mughal regime, as well as for the purposes of administering, not only the almost constantly turbulent local administrators of the north east provinces, but also dealing with what amounted, almost, to warfare amongst the European trading houses and their followers.

However, dying in 1727, we may speculate that either one of the last of his “trader-friendly” gestures aimed at improved revenue and competition, for which he was noted, or an early gesture of his son and successor -- following a very brief rule by his preferred successor, his grandson -- underlining, again, the troubles of the administration, Shuja-ud-Din Muhammad Khan, resulted in the granting to the Ostend Trading Company the right to open the trading centre in Dhaka.

That there was conflict between the growing European businesses, there is no doubt, and that such conflict would impact the security, and economy -- not only of the Bengal region, but also of a far wider India -- there is also no doubt either.

Nothing, perhaps, better illustrates the real dangers of these European conflicts being played out in north-east India than the highly improbable plan by this newly introduced, tiny representation of both a distant, “colonial” band of merchants of northern Europe’s outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1744, of undertaking no less than the seizure of the entirety of Bengal, and, presumably, of Bihar and Orissa as well.

It is certainly true that, following the Persian invasion of north India -- with a 50,000-strong army, in 1739 -- the credibility of Mughal Imperial overlordship, if it had not already begun to do so, certainly crumbled with the failure of Emperor Muhammad Shah to defend his capital, and avoid the rape and looting of the city of Delhi that followed.

It may well be that there were other European nations who also felt that the Mughal regime, devastated by the three decades of wars of succession following Aurangzeb’s death, were incapable of countering moves to seize what everyone already recognised not only as the “treasure chest” of India. However, its ability to supply apparently inexhaustible cargoes of gunpowder to support warfare, both in Europe, and, indeed, as it proved, across the entire world, no doubt added to the attraction. Bengal, and its neighbouring territories, also controlled by local rulers, had become a focus for the political power games of the Europeans, and, it seemed, there was no one to resist their endeavours.

The 50 years that followed the death of Aurangzeb were, in fact, to prove traumatic for the lands that are now Bangladesh, and those around.

The rest, as they say, is history. There is no doubt that, in the end, by early in the 19th century -- based on its seizure of both the treasure of trade, and the source of saltpetre, the essential ingredient of gunpowder -- Britain won both the power struggle in north-east India, and in Europe, and, indeed, across the entire globe.

But, tracing the routes that led to Plassey, it is easy to see how the youthful lack of political experience and military endeavour of the young -- last of the “true” Nawabs of Bengal and Murshidabad -- enabled the British, first, to seize control of the politics and economy the north-east. And then, three years later, at Baxar, to finally prove the Mughals incapable of defending their overlordship. It is also easy to see the strands of religious and political conflict in Europe that preceded it.

No one could reasonably describe the conflicts in India as an Asian proxy for the turmoil, not only in Europe, but even within nations of Europe, where, even in Britain, for example, the 1715 rebellion against the Hanoverian dynasty was followed by another, even more serious, in 1745. Rather, the complex strands of Indian political and economic history hold, within them, part and parcel of the political and economic history of a much wider world.