In 1644 there was an accident in Agra, the capital of the Mughal Empire. The favourite daughter of Emperor, Shah Jahan, was severely burnt when her dress caught fire. Many doctors tried to help her, but none succeeded. One of the courtiers informed the Emperor of some traders in Surat from a far-away land, who had a skilled medicine man with them. Messengers were quickly dispatched to Surat. They brought back one Gabriel Boughton, surgeon of an East India Company ship. The surgeon was able to successfully heal the daughter. Pleased, the Emperor promised him whatever reward he may desire. May be because of company loyalty or simply a lack of imagination, Boughtan asked for permission for the East India Company to trade in Bengal. At the time, India represented close to 25% of the world’s GDP, second only to China, while Britain had a paltry 2%. Bengal was the richest of Indian provinces. Trading with it could be an immensely profitable opportunity for the Company. The Emperor granted the doctor’s wish and soon first British trading post of opened in a village close to the town of Calcutta.
Calcutta in 1788, thirty years after the war
One hundred and twelve years later, Bengal looked very different. It was now ruled by a Nawab in Murshidabad, who was formally a servant of the Emperor in Delhi but retained de facto independence. The British controlled entire town Calcutta, defended by Fort William. Bengal also had towns of other European powers like the French and the Dutch, but the British settlement was the most wealthy and prosperous of them.
In the summer of 1755 the Nawab, Alivirdi, was dying. For the last few years he had been working to ensure the succession of his favourite grandson 21-years-old Siraj-uddaula. He had even made his general, Mir Jafar, swear an oath of loyalty to his grandson on Koran. Yet when Alivirdi died, Siraj-uddaula’s hold on power was far from confirmed. On the one hand, his own family members, including his aunt, conspired against him. On the other, the Emperor in Delhi kept threatening to march on Bengal and take it back. Even the Europeans, who seemed to be getting exorbitantly rich and powerful through trade, posed a threat to his rule.
Read: The Beginning of the Raj: War over Calcutta (Part One)
Bengal in 1750s. This map is not accurate; it is only intended to give an estimation. Bengal borders are modern-day, not a reflection of Bengal in 1750s.
Clive’s victory over Nawab’s forces in February 1757 had ensured that the British were back to the status they had been before Siraj-uddaula had taken the throne. But now he wanted to make sure that they retain their power for all time to come. He turned his attention to the French. The French and the British had lived in Bengal amicably for many decades. Even during the recent war between the Nawab and East India Company, the French had remained neutral. But Clive had spent his career in Madras, where Europeans regularly fought with each other. Looking from that prism, the French appeared as the greatest threat to the British. In reality, they were far from it. The French East India Company in Bengal was broke, drowned in debt from the local merchants. Its town Chandernagore had little fortifications or manpower. So when the British began making threatening moves, it sought the Nawab for help.
But the Nawab had bigger concerns. The Emperor in Delhi was once again threatening to march on Bengal. To pre-empt this attack, the Nawab wanted to move his forces up to Patna to defend Bengal. His army was severely demoralized after their defeat in Calcutta, so he sought help from the only logical ally he could think of – the British. He proposed to Clive to march with him to Patna in return of Rs. 1 lakh a month as retainer. Clive said he was happy to oblige but in return he wanted permission to attack the French town of Chandernagore. After much back and forth, the Nawab reluctantly gave his permission.
Portrait: Sir William Jones
Let’s begin at the beginning, the discovery of Indian history. When the British took over Bengal after 1757, there was absolutely nothing known about Indian history prior to the Mughal Empire and early Islamic invaders (when the Islamic historians began chronicling events in India). In fact, everything we know about events before 1000 AD was discovered in the last two hundred years. This is a fascinating story of how that modern understanding of our past began:
The biggest challenge was finding that first clue, the thread that could be followed into our ancient past. And the man for the job was Sir William Jones, a Supreme Court judge. Jones had become obsessed with India as soon as he arrived in 1783. At that time, much of India was ruled by Hindu Law that was written in Sanskrit and the British had to rely on local Brahmins to translate it. To bypass this clumsy arrangement, Jones decided to learn Sanskrit for himself. In the process he became the first person to recognize the similarity between Sanskrit and European languages, what would later be recognized as the Indo-European language family.
On his agenda was also to uncover the ancient Indian history. To this end, he waded through ancient scripts from Europe and India for ten years before striking gold.
As Jones and others studied Sanskrit literature, they found a long list of wars, kingdoms and events. But they were all disconnected. There were no dates and names of all the locations had long since been changed. These were undated stories from places that no one knew about. What Jones needed was a marker – an ancient event that Jones could connect to a modern place and a date.