Sushil Chaudhury is not a new name among historians of Indian Ocean trade. He deserves the pride of place among historians of the ilk of KN Chaudhuri, Om Prakash or Ashin Das Gupta. The present volume is devoted to the study of a Mughal capital immediately on the eve of colonial rule.
It therefore falls in the genre of urban studies penned by authors like Abdul Haleem Sharar, Percival Spear, Rosie Llewyn Jones, Narayani Gupta, Veena Talwar Oldenburg and Jim Masselos who came into the limelight for their rich studies of the Mughal capital of Delhi or the regional capital of Lucknow under the Nawabs of Awadh.
As in the case of Nawabi Lucknow, where a tradition of cultural fusion could be noticed in the popularity of the ghazals evolved by the last poet Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, which were based on the theme of the heavenly love of Radha and Krishna, similarly the Nawabi capital of Bengal too saw the flowering of the syncretist cult of Satya Pir.
This was a folk cult, which led the Hindus to offer a special kind of sweet offering popularly known as sinni to the majhar of the Satya Pir. The Muslims too made their offerings to the temples of local Hindu deities in a spirit of mutual goodwill and conformity to a common cultural tradition. However, Chaudhury did not merely stop with details of the city’s foundation or architecture or society and culture.
As a historian of the city’s trade he took it upon himself to cut the Gordian knot of the long debated Plassey conspiracy. It was this conspiracy that ended the glorious rule of the Mughals in the province and shifted the focus of attention from the Mughal pro-consuls to the English in Calcutta.
This also ushered the decline of the capital nurtured through the care of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan on the river Bhagirathi, through which the entire bulk of European commerce had to pass.
This was the entry point which saw the bullion of the whole world making its way into India, as Gameli Carreri had remarked. Chaudhury has established through the archival records in the Algemeen Rijksarchief, the Hague, Netherlands that the raw silk and silk trade of Murshidabad were under the control of the Asian merchants and not Europeans, contrary to popular belief. While Murshid Quli was in control he suppressed all attempts to make any breach into this system.
But the edifice began to be undermined under the lax rule of his successors. By the 1740s the English private traders had made a big dent into the network of the private trade of the Asian merchants, Armenians and the French.
They extended the hostilities of the war of Austrian succession to the Indian littoral to cope with the growing French competition and frantically backed the dissidents in the southern kingdoms as well as in Bengal, to capture political power for themselves.
The correspondence of Robert Clive and William Pigot, the Governor of Fort St George in Madras make it clear how seriously the menace of the competition from the French was viewed by the English.
Thus contrary to the belief so far popularised in the writings of historians of this episode in the history of Bengal like Peter Marshall and Rajat Kanta Ray, the conspiracy leading to the betrayal at Plassey was not merely the brainchild of the disgruntled feudal elements, bankers and aristocrats in the Nawabi Court.
It had its strong roots in the despair and fear seizing the East India Company’s factors in charge of East Indian commerce. The Plassey conspiracy was thus not merely an action replay of the palace revolution which had upset Quli’s will bequeathing the succession in favour of his son-in-law rather than his son, or the advent of the ambitious military general Alivardi Khan to step into the power vacuum created on the death of Nawab Sarfaraz Khan.
Dissident elements in the court probably had not understood the stakes involved for the English. Nor could they estimate the strength and willfulness of the English to extend their hold on the levers of political power. They had viewed the English East India Company as a fledgling commercial concern dependent on their favours for continuing their association with the province.
Their notions of the East India Company’s powers were limited to the recent memories of the discomfiture of Holwell in the hands of Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah.
The court conspirators could not imagine what the backing of the English navy and British political power could make of the English merchants courting them for their favours at the time.
When ultimately they discovered that the English were much bigger than their boots, there was no scope of putting the clock back. Thus the independence of Bengal was inadvertently bartered away by a group of merchants, nobles and bankers.
Chaudhury’s account of the sinking of the once glamorous city of Murshidabad into oblivion is not merely a narrative of the decline of the premiere city of Bengal. It is also an explanation of the various degree of culpability of the different partisans in the conspiracy leading to it.
Chaudhury’s deft use of the trade statistics of the province to explain the changes in its political circumstances opens up a new horizon in the study of the maritime trade of India.
It establishes, as never before, the intimate connection between political history and its economic antecedents. The close complicity between a country’s economic development and the waxing and waning of its political fortunes thus becomes documented beyond confusion.
The pernicious role of colonialism in destroying the independence of colonised countries is once again brought to the arena of historical debate and the myth of the white man’s civilising mission stands exposed.
The reviewer is former professor, department of history, Visva-Bharati University.