Monday, March 3, 2008

The Beginning of an Empire

One of the topics that's always intrigued me is the colonization of India. That's not too surprising considering my Indian lineage, but in fact my family experienced little of the colonization directly. My grandparents lived in areas of India that were either princely states or lightly governed, and the major impact of the independence movement on S. India, that is the impact it had on the caste system in S. India was also removed from my grandparents given that they were Christian. That is not to say my ancestors were removed from history, there were probably some indirect effects of the independence movement on my grandparents, but the bigger historical influence on my forefathers was the reunification of a branch of the Malankara Orthodox Church with the Catholic Church. Of course, with my parents themselves the post-independence history had an effect, but I am digressing in a majorly fashion.

As I said how a joint-stock company crafted a major empire over one of the most ancient areas of civilization on earth while the only other major area of colonization was in the Americas is an oft wondered question for me.

I hesitate to offer a speculation just yet, especially since I have been around professors who have speculated much better about the matter. But I offer this:

The rise of the British East India Company must be taken within the background of the decline and disintegration of the Mughal Empire.

Now up to 1707 the Mughal Emprie was one of the most powerful empires in the world.

Yet within a decade later, its decline had become epidemic.

1717 is often cited as one of the dates marking the beginning of the British East India Company's rise, but I think it would be useful to put this date in context.

In reference to the British East India Company, 1717 marks the date when the Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar completely waived trading dues (well, in exchange for 3000 rupees a yr.) for British East India Company trade in Bengal and gave them a grant of 38 villages near Calcutta. This would firmly establish them in the Bengal trading/military scene which would lead to their first major conquest, the Presidency of Bengal.

Yet let's take a look at 1717.

This was also the year the Mughals signed a treaty acknowledging Maratha Empire rule over the Deccan in exchange for nominal overlordship and annual taxes. Considering a little more than 30 years earlier the Mughal Empire had executed the Maratha Paramount Ruler who was then considered a rebel, 1717 is a year marking the incredible decline of Mughal authority.

A little more context:

Emperor Farrukhsiyar was to some degree a puppet of the more able, but less legitimate (as imperial legitimacy goes) Saiyid Brothers, major power brokers of the Mughal court whose struggle for dominance was a key factor in the weakening of Mughal rule.

This era also saw the Mughals struggling to repel advances by the Sikh Confederacy, the Sikhs were repelled by 1716 but even afterwards Sikh rebellions and eventually independence would fatally weaken Mughal strength in NW India.

Furthermore, in Bengal itself Mughal authority was questionable.

Thus while the East India Company got a grant of villages near Calcutta in 1717, despite the orders of the Mughal Emperor, their grant of duty-free trade was ignored by many of Bengal governor who would later become Marathas with only a nominal allegiance with the Mughal court.

Thus the decline of the Mughal Empire must be seen as vital in the circumstances that allowed for the rise of the British East India Company. But is that enough of an explanation?

Doubt it.

I hope to go into more of this in my chronology of India, but here's another factor:

The Maratha Empire, which supplanted the Mughal Empire as India's dominant power, was never able to establish a firm centralization and is often called the Maratha Confederacy. Furthermore, even before coming into major conflict with the British East India Company, in 1761 the Maratha Empire was dealt a huge blow to its stability by an invasion from the growing Durrani Empire, the predecessor to the modern state of Afghanistan. The Afghanis did not keep their advances, but they did do a pretty major pillaging job.

This has been a classic NW India problem, being right next to a major imperial area (Persia whose influence on Central Asia often caused imperial rises or destablizations, India itself was often an imperial player in Central Asia). NW India was in somewhat better shape but often had to deal with the impact of the changing fate of the Burmanese Empire.

But all this information is a bit thick and a bit speculative, which is why I shall continue work on my chronology to hit both those fronts.

Only then can the history cometh.

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