When Robert Clive returned to Bengal in 1765, after several year’s absence, he was shocked and discouraged by what he observed in the East India Company’s new possession: an “unwarrantable Acquisition of Riches had introduced Luxury in every shape and in its most pernicious Excess,” so that “every inferior seemed to have grasped at Wealth.” Under this corruption “all Distinction ceased, every Rank became…an Equality” and greed “destroyed all Proportion between Wants and Honest Means.” Clive was distraught by how quickly the rot had set in, how much “Corruption could not keep pace with Rapacity” in the conduct of officials and the Company’s lower servants, “Writers, Ensigns and the Free Merchants.” Clive ultimately did not place the blame on them entirely. They had been corrupted, yes, but by the government and people they sought to rule, and by the results that their conquests had brought. Clive explained to the Committee appointed to inquire into the conditions in Bengal that “in a Country where Money is plenty, where fear is the principle of Government, where your Arms are ever Victorious…no wonder that Corruption should find its way to a spot so well prepared for it.” Worried as he was by corruption, as it deprived the Company of its returns, and despite being one of the keenest supporters of retaining Indian forms of government, or claiming to be (probably to maximize profits through native agents and keep costs down) Clive could not help but draw upon a tradition of distrusting Indians and scorning a creeping and enervating ‘Oriental despotism’.
The territories given over to the Company after the ‘revolution’ of 1757 and affirmed in their control by the grant of diwanny by the Mughal Emperor in 1765 were complex socially, politically and religiously, more so than any prior experience would have prepared the Company for. The Company’s servants sought to explain the chaos they faced in Bengal by attributing it to despotism, to a regime that was rapacious and tyrannical, with the attendant assumption that those who lived in a despotism will be as rapacious and tyrannical as their government. Many Company servants assumed, though Warren Hastings himself would later claim before Parliament to have not believed it, that Bengal was populated by “a people who were supposed to be governed by no other principle of justice then the arbitrary wills or uninstructed judgements of their temporary rulers.” Despotism thus defined, as an unrestricted use of terror and armed strength to rule, was understood by Company servants to engender all manner of vices: corruption, indolence, treason, a government fought over by wicked and scheming ministers, a submissive and weak people, the atmosphere inimical to an honest man.
Amidst the wreckage, many Company servants, including major figures like Warren Hastings, Robert Orne and Harry Verelst, discerned what they thought was an ‘Indian Constitution’, and believed that a lack of vigour, wisdom and strong government had worn away the ideal Moghul state into the violent, treacherous, greedy, decrepit ‘Country Government’ they were forced to treat with. This situation was described by Colonel Clive: “Every state (and such now is your Government in India) must be near the period when the Rage of Luxury and Corruption has seized upon its Leaders and People.” Many Company servants, as their influence grew in the Company’s domains and their responsibilities increased, viewed the Bengali leadership as increasingly irredeemable, never to be trusted. This attitude was enforced by the increasing need to interact with many of the zamindars, leading to “a growing contempt of everything Indian as irrational, superstitious, barbaric and typical of an inferior civilization.”
Old assumptions die hard. Until very recently, historians of India before the British often shared some of these assumptions about eighteenth century India, even if they were hostile to the East India Company or sympathetic to the Mughal Empire. The eighteenth century was viewed as a period of enervation, failure, collapse, venality, civil war, stagnation, and aside from the rise of literary Urdu and Bengali, not really worth studying or treating upon except in light of Mughal collapse and the growth of British dominance. That attitude has old precedents; the first conquerors of India were its first historians, and the idea of eighteenth century decay has taken a long time to die. C. A. Bayly’s Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (1988) was one of the first major exceptions to this scholarly ‘consensus’, not that it was really ‘hegemonic’ or that glimmers of what Bayly proposed were not to be found before the publication of this book. The book is a work of synthesis first and foremost, putting forward a clear narrative and analytical history of India in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It therefore depends upon a great deal of earlier, much more specialized research on more specific topics and areas of India, on ideologies, economies and class. I won’t get into the sources here for Bayly’s book, as it’s worth reading on its own merits and is easily available. It does as synthesis is supposed to do: present diverse and unconnected research as a comprehensive whole, making sense of it for those aren’t specialists in the field.
Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire challenges the basic assumption that India was a decaying society, an anarchic society, or a backward society, in the eighteenth century. The idea of Mughal decline is not so much questioned (the empire was, after all, slowly disintegrating by the 1730’s and finally collapsed precipitously after Nader Shah’s 1738 invasion) but is complicated by arguing that Indian political structures underwent a (violent) devolution to more stable, compact and cohesive structures at the time. Likewise, Bayly points out that Indian society went through no profound social crisis, that there was a resurgence of Hindu political states, and that the economy remained dynamic in the eighteenth century, indeed, that indigenous trade and methods of trade, from banking to military entrepreneurship, increased in scale, scope and their penetration of Indian society.
As an example, I’d like to stick with Bengal. Bayly doesn’t deal specifically with Bengal, but ranges widely over the Indian subcontinent; yet Bengal remains important, because of the details available from local European factories and because Bengal was, after all, the first and most intensely exploited territorial possession of the East India Company. The following comes partly from Bayly, partly from Sugata Bose;s later Labour and Colonial Capital: Rural Bengal Since 1770 (1993) and John R. McLane’s Land and Local Kingship in Bengal, as well as my own research in Company records and parliamentary reports.
Bengal’s population at the time was large, larger than that of Britain: many, many millions of Bengalis, the overwhelming majority of whom were peasant cultivators of rice and grains, called ryots by the British, though more properly called raiyats. The basis of society in Bengal was the raiyat smallholding, while the raiyats themselves were divided (very roughly) by property and economic status into the dihari, the most privileged who owned or had permanent rights to the land they farmed, the fasli, the largest group of peasants whose rents varied by crop, and the khamas, who did not hold land but worked directly for local landowners. Organised generally into small villages along communal lines, the raiyat’s chief relationship with the wider world was through revenue collectors. The raiyats, like peasants anywhere else in the eighteenth century world, were the backbone of the state, whose labour and agricultural surpluses supported the Nawab, his great captains and many soldiers, and the numerous gradations of revenue collectors and landowners who extracted this wealth. The dihari themselves, often high class Hindus, participated in the revenue administration as a local gentry and intermediaries, having been blessed by a taluk, the grant of tax-free land. The other raiyats were expected to provide the revenue by surrendering a proportion of the value of their crop, usually as money or other easily transportable form of wealth. The revenue collector, with the aid of the village accountant, the mandal, would assess the amount of land and the crop grown, the cost determined by use of a flexible, and abusable, unit known as bigah. In theory, the assessment was arrived at fairly, though in practice it was open to abuse, by inflating the worth of the land or the amount grown by the raiyat.
The old Moghul landowning families, called talukdars, owned much of Bengal’s land and payed a fixed tax to the Nawab, and were often entitled to call themselves rajas, such as the rajas of Burdwan and Pinajpur. There were also the heads of territorial states vassal to the Nawab, such as the rajas of Tippera and Cooch Behar.
Then there were the zamindars, families and powerful men appointed by the nawabi state to collect and remit revenue on a conditional basis. The state and its landowners were supported in the countryside by village maliks, or headmen, the jagirs and village zimandars whose resources were a pale shadow of the greats. This social and political arrangement was of recent origin, despite the long roots it had in the Moghul Empire. The description above, in fact, may remind you superficially of the French administration of the seventeenth century, even the presence of venal offices and a body of tax farmers appointed by the state. Hold that thought.
The Bengali financial administration was fairly sophisticated, as befits a large, politically centralized military state. It was, of course, very different from Europe as well, or from China, or Turkey, or any other large agricultural areas agreements on landholding. Land rights, for instance, were not as well established as many Indian rulers, or their British successors, would have liked. The diversity and large number of landless labourers, the wealthy peasants who hired them, artisan communities, hill tribes who bucked the authority of local rulers and even the economic disparity between the raiyats of eastern Bengal and western Bengal made administration difficult, and the peasantry and landless labourers were very resistant to the exhortations of the state. The shortage of labour due to under-population (a shocking thought, but Bengal was a frontier even in the 18th century, and was nowhere near as densely populated as today) and the abundance of land meant that raiyats could leave their land and deprive their local rulers of a population and thus of collectable revenue; this was an effective means of collective bargaining, a force of transhumant blackmail that risked depriving the lord of his tax base if he didn’t listen to their demands for the suspension of certain exceptional fees and dues. Raiyats expected that they would be protected by their masters, and not abused too much, and in return they would not leave his lands and be peaceful cultivators. There is disagreement over the extent of coercion needed or used to maintain labourers on their land, with McClane representing a more ‘coercice’ interpretation and John Wilson in his article “A Thousand Countries to go to: Peasants and Rulers in late eighteenth century Bengal” from Past and Present (189.2005) interpreting a society where peasantry enjoyed a great many rights.
Regardless, Bayly makes a strong argument for the progress and development of industrialism and capitalism in certain areas of India, Bengal especially, despite shades of difference and ‘an essentially Indian form’ (to paraphrase Bayly). He notes, for instance, efforts by Hindu bankers to organise Bengali weavers into something approaching a textile mill, and though it failed and few other attempts are known, the attempt occurred before the British arrived, and disappeared after their arrival. There is considerable debate about the deindustrialisation of India under the influence of British capital and rule, with Paul Bairoch in his Industrialisation et Sous-Development being the source, as far as I can tell, for the statement that Indian manufacturing declined from 25% of the world total in 1700 to 4% in 1900. I can’t quite recall how deeply Bayly discussed that point, but the essential of the Indian development remains the same: indigenous forms of production were capable of matching, in some way, European methods, and more importantly, were already doing so under their own impetus before the East India Company penetration. Bayly notes the size and extent of Hindu, Armenian and Parsee banking interests before the large scale conquests of the Company, interests that stretched in some cases as far as Russia. Large Hindu banking clans, like the Jagat Seths, came to play important roles in the government of Bengal, and likewise in states like Awadh, Mysore and Hyderabad. It is Bayly’s contention that these pre-existing concentrations of capital and trading interests were essential for the British conquest, they smoothed it and united with it, providing ready-made connections and accumulation for Company exploitation, without which British imperialism may have been much more difficult.
Take the example of the gomastah. These men served as a general superintendent of works, the right-hand man of a Company servant, who served for no wages but was entitled to take a percentage from any business deal and to act independently of his master in order to supervise transactions. The gomostahs had existed long before the British had arrived in force, arising as a consequence of the dominance of Muslim and Hindu military entrepreneurs during the turmoil of the Moghul empire’s collapse. As servants of servants, and men who served for no pay, the gomostahs were suspected by British authorities of all manner of mischief. Their methods were reputed to be violent and even murderous, and more shockingly, they were reported to “commit frequent Extortions and Oppressions under the sanction” of the Company, intimidating and intimidating with soldiers and cannon in order to sell goods at inflated prices to terrified raiyats. As a group, the gomostahs came under intense pressure from their Company employers to extract as much profit as possible from individual British business affairs. They, and numerous other middlemen, wholesalers, retailers and agents, were ready and willing to serve the Company as their men went further and further afield to sell. The point is, they were not a new group, offspring of British capital, but an indigenous class co-opted by the Company traders to serve their own ends (broadly similar to local merchants though for different reasons and with greater intensity).
In my last post about Nader Shah, I discussed Micheal Axworthy’s thesis that Nader Shah represented an arrested but accelerated form of the ‘military revolution’ (an idea highly contested today, decades after its proposal by Geoffrey Parker). Bayly suggests a similar ‘hothouse’ military revolution occurring throughout much of India, with some of the most obvious advances being made, of course, in Bengal, the most threatened by the Company’s advance.
The fracturing of the Empire over the last half-century before Plassey and the increasing demands of the local successor states for revenues and for control over its land resources had created a far more mercantile mode of rule, based upon an monetarised economy. The banking clans I mentioned already played a large role in this, and may have developed in tandem with the growing demands of territorial states for funds to fight their wars of consolidation, funds that were often loaned with interest. A new class of military entrepreneurs, all too familiar to the European reader aware of the ‘colonels’ in seventeenth century tasked with recruiting a regiment for their lord (Wallenstein being the most famous), also arose in direct response to the military-fiscal demands of Indian states. Essentially, war and the demands of the state were changing Indian society, changing the relationship of ruled to rulers, and encouraging a rapid development of military-fiscal capitalism, similar to what had occurred a century earlier in Europe. The most extreme examples of this would be the reforms of Siraj ud-Daulah in Bengal, including widespread European style drilling of troops, in order to push the British out, and the successful military and fiscal ‘modernization’ in the Punjab.
Of course, Bayly is very careful in his book, far more careful then I am being in my assertions here. He is always careful to note in Indian Society that the trends he was discerning were embryonic, initial, limited, and in many cases, as in those mentioned above, directly related to the pressure and demands of Europeans So why read this book, besides for an antiquarian interest in another time The answer should be self-evident. There are those who still praise the British empire, and continue to hold it was a good thing for India; that parochial view I expressed earlier does die hard. How the British come to rule India is a pressing question, and the debates over it ongoing obfuscate the issue considerably. Bayly made it well known that India was not a society in need of saving, and that indigenous forms of rule and commerce were still viable in the eighteenth century. There was nothing inevitable about East India Company rule, and it was aided considerably by the presence of banking firms, merchant middlemen and military entrepreneurs able to provide cheap sepoy labour. In short, without a sophisticated existing system, the British conquest would have been nearly impossible. Of course, we shouldn`t really laud the ability of an indigenous elite to coerce and exploit its subjects as well as a foreign conqueror, but as the work of Prasannan Parthasarathi and John Wilson amongst others have shown, there was a least some form of history, past, custom between indigenous elite and subject. The British were much more thorough and demanding in their exactions, and much more likely to respond to peasant revolts as they were used to responding in Europe: with brutality and no sympathy, leaving no room for some of the traditional methods of resolving such conflicts used before the Company. To make a modern comparison, the Company was a profit-making venture first and foremost, whereas the Indian kings, no matter their rapacious nature, at least like modern government had been forced by custom and self-interest to respect their subjects.
The relevance of Bayly`s work also lies in the debate on the origins of capitalism, and its spread throughout the world. It most definitely flies in the face of the more Eurocentric views of Brenner, for instance, and seems to confirm some of the arguments of Bairoch, Pomeranz or Blaut that capitalism per se, in its most basic form, was not unique to Europe, that Europeans gained part of their wealth and power from exploiting overseas resources (capitalism only gave them this advantage in part) and that industrialization was key to European success, but that this industrialization was not born whole cloth, it robbed wealth from within Europe and from around the world, outcompeting and devastating proto-industrial areas in Asia while bringing great wealth to European capitalists. (Louis Proyect had a good summary on his website about the debates on the origin of capitalism, from last summer: I suggest checking them out).