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The Bengali tristate

  • Published at 07:15 pm September 18th, 2015
The Bengali tristate

At around the time of the early, colonial settlement of New York City (New Amsterdam), in the latter half of the 17th century, now the hub of the best known metropolitan conglomeration in the world, regularly known as the “tristate,” was probably evolving the first such complex of administrative areas with Dhaka as its hub.

Dhaka, we are often told, is not only, today, the capital of the free nation of Bangladesh, but was also, once, the capital city of Bengal.

In fact, although overshadowed, today, by a history of the British period, in which Kolkata became, for one and a half centuries, the capital city, Dhaka was not only the administrative capital of Bengal, but of what, it may be reasonable to suppose, was effectively the first such tristate in the world, that of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa.

It may, perhaps, be presumed to have significance that, “general” histories of the latter two states tend to gloss over the Mughal period of their past. The Indians who upload much of such material to the Internet are well known for their glossing over anything that might shine a light on the rich history that is unique to Bangladesh.

Indeed, even much of the shared history, such as the Silk Road that ran through much of north-east of today’s India, but, of course, eventuated in the lands that are now Bangladesh, as one of the world’s most ancient and great trading centres, does not feature in their histories, or, despite the international significance for heritage tourism, their tourist promotion. It is not hard to guess the reason for that, as it would inevitably reflect well on Bangladesh.

Clearly, all three states, Orissa, Bihar, and Bengal -- or should we write four states to distinguish between East and West Bengal? -- have very rich and unique histories that go well back beyond the Common Era.

But it is the Mughal period that sees a common history, much of which, at least until following the death, in 1707, of the sixth, and arguably the last, of the truly great Mughal Emperors, revolved around an administration based on Dhaka.

Orissa (Odisha), in pre-historic times, was the Kingdom of Kalinga, overthrown in 261 BCE, by the Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka, in a war so bloody that it is said over 100,000 people were killed and 150,000 captured and enslaved. So bloody was the last battle of the war that it is also said that when Asoka viewed the battlefield he exclaimed: “If this is victory, what is a defeat?” He eventually converted to Buddhism.

Like most of India, it resisted, hard, the advance of the Mughals, having maintained a high degree of independence following the fall of the Mauryans; however, like the rest of north-east India, eventually, it finally fell, in 1568.

Its lengthy coastline of 450km, and proximity to the Hoogly river, which was, effectively, the southernmost distributary of the delta of the Ganges, attracted the earliest of the European arrivals. The shipping-friendly anchorage of Balasore offering a safe harbour for European vessels which were not, apart from the Portuguese, in the earliest years of the 17th century, permitted the use of facilities closer to Dhaka.

Amongst the historic attractions of Orissa is its diamonds. Indeed, it is said that, until the discovery, in 1728, of diamonds in Borneo, it was the world’s only known source. Certainly, writing his famous work, Robinson Crusoe, in 1719, Daniel Defoe had his eponymous hero’s last adventure, “dealing in Opium and Diamonds” in Bengal.

A reference that focuses on a reality of much business from Orissa under the Mughals being conducted through a Bengal of which Dhaka was the acknowledged administrative capital.

Indeed, the contemporary journals of European merchants, including those based in Balasore, and even, eventually, Hoogly, make clear the pre-eminence of the governors based in Dhaka as “overlords” of those located in the individual states. Appeals, often of a financial variety, to the Dhaka regime, it appears, from journals, could usually be relied upon to trump local problems.

Bihar is another modern Indian state with its very own rich heritage and history. Great kingdoms and empires grew from bases around Patna, including the great and historic Maghada kingdom and the Mauryan Empire. Once again, however, general histories of Bihar during the Mughal period are somewhat limited.

Astride the great Ganges river, the heart of one of the sub-continent’s earliest civilisations, that of the Ganges Basin, its importance was, perhaps, overshadowed by the significance of the delta lands themselves, that also offered linkage through the Brahmaputra and Meghna to central Asian civilisations, especially China. As well, of course, to coastal markets of the Indian sub-continent, and those further afield, across Asia, Africa, and even Europe.

It is difficult to know whether the Mughals appreciated the importance of the vast deposits of saltpetre that were located in the Ganges basin, throughout Bihar, and Bengal itself. Certainly, there may have had some awareness of its importance to their own armies, sometimes referred to as “the armies of the Mughals, the gunpowder empire.”

Some suspect that, in fact, of the nations of Europe who gathered around the region, all with representative bases in Dhaka, the English, who, following the 1707 Act of Union, also encompassing the Kingdom of Scotland, may be more properly referred to as Britain, were the most aware of the importance of that natural resource.

This, of course, was not only a commercial cargo, which, interestingly enough, could, and often was, carried in ballast without interfering with other commercial cargoes such as fabrics, especially fine silks. But that the Mughal administrators appreciated its significance to the East India Company, who had the remunerative, tax-free contract to supply the British Navy, is clearly suggested by regular references to cargoes on the Ganges being impounded until extra payments were made to release them.

That these cargoes of goods shipped out of Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar were enormously valuable there can be no doubt.

Of course, locally raised revenues, from Zamindari lands and trade, were doubtless major contributors to the wealth of Mughal administrators, but it is interesting that only the wealth of administrators with a Dhaka base, such as Shah Shuja, Mir Jumla, and Shaista Khan, ever seems to attract the special attention of European writers of contemporary journals, who seem to almost revel in the vast wealth accumulated by these governors, amounting, in modern equivalent terms, to billions of dollars. It is also probably significant that the last such governor, under Aurangzeb, Ibrahim Khan, was  “promoted” from Bihar to the gubernatorial base of Dhaka.

It was not until the last years of the reign of Aurangzeb that any serious attempt was made to relocate the centre of governments of these three states to somewhere that, perhaps, may have seemed a little more central, but was also, maybe, dependent on the vicissitudes of the flows of Ganges distributaries to facilitate rapid riverine communications. The fact that the relocation to a city known, named after its founder, Murshid Quli Khan, as Murshidabad, was also much closer to the commercial centres, and especially such as the silk manufacturing mills, of the Europeans, may also have influenced the move.

There had been a number of episodes of violence against the administration, and there is no doubt that, by the end of the 17th century, especially following Child’s War, after the attempt by the English to seize Chittagong, increasing suspicion regarding the pacifism and intentions of these foreign settlements.

But even the move to Mushidabad did not, at the time, strip Dhaka of its administrative significance. And the fact that, following Plassey, in setting up a puppet governance of the tristate over which, in 1764, the British finally gained full effective control, a palace was constructed in Dhaka for “their” appointed Nawab, Mir Jafar, suggests that even the British regarded Dhaka as the heart of the region.

Kolkata, of course, with its already well-established British bases, such as Fort William, for protection, inevitably became, slowly, but surely, the centre of, not only the tristate of their initial control, but, eventually, the heart of its administration of the growing areas of their domination in the entire sub-continent and beyond. But that, too, may well have had as much to do with the state of the river flow of the Ganges as anything else.

There is, however, little doubt that, for almost a century, Dhaka played the role of the hub of three states, just as New York does today. 


Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.