The Rise and Fall of Bengal: A Historical Journey

Bengal was the richest province in the eighteenth century. The English East India Company benefitted most from this province. It is, thus, natural for the English East India Company to strengthen its position in Bengal. They had some advantages there as the headquarters of the Company in India was at Calcutta. The Dutch and the French were present in Bengal only through their subordinate factories, like Chinsura of the Dutch and Chandernagore of the French.

In 1756, Siraj-ud-Daula became the successor of Alivardi Khan. He was young and inexperienced; besides, he had many enemies within his family. The English East India Company and the French were fighting in the South. The English started fortifying Calcutta without the permission and knowledge of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula. Siraj ordered them to stop their enhancement of military preparedness, but the Company refused to do so. The English were also misusing Dastak (free permit) based on the Mughal Firman, issued to them in 1717 by Farrukhsiyar. It was understood that the concessions allowed by the Mughals were only on those goods, which had been imported by the East India Company from Europe. The English officials had no right to claim immunity from duty for goods belonging to the servants of the East India Company. But its employees started using, rather misusing, the Dastak for personal trade, causing huge financial loss to the exchequer of Bengal. Besides, they also started selling the Dastaks to Indian traders. Another complaint which Siraj had against the British was that they gave refuge to Krishna Das, son of Raja Rajballabh, his enemy's man.

Siraj attacked Calcutta on June 16, 1756, and captured it on the 20th of June. His large army and sudden attack surprised the English. Though the majority of the English had already fled to Fulta, twenty miles lower down the river, a few of them were made captive and kept in a cell.

If Siraj committed any mistake, it was not pursuing the fugitive English to Fulta and destroying them completely. Neither did he take adequate steps for the defence of Calcutta. Unfortunately, history is not lenient towards such mistakes. The English, led by Robert Clive and Watson, recovered Calcutta in January 1757, and Siraj had to sign the Treaty of Alinagar (the new name of Calcutta) on February 9, 1757, practically conceding to all the demands of the English. The English became so confident that they attacked Chandernagore, the French settlement, in March 1757, again challenging the sovereignty of Nawab Siraj. Siraj, who wanted to balance the power of the British in Bengal with a strong French force, asked the British to abstain from hostilities against the French. Instead of obeying him, Robert Clive started conspiring against him, and there was no dearth of conspirators in and out of his court, or for that matter, in the court of any Indian ruler. Chief among them was Mir Jafar, the Mir Bakshi (Commander-in-chief), Jagat Seth (Banker), and Amin Chand (trader). In the Battle of Plassey (June 23, 1757), Siraj was defeated by a small army of Robert Clive, thanks mainly to the treachery of Mir Jafar and Rai Durlabh. Mir Jafar, as promised by Robert Clive, was made Nawab of Bengal. Siraj was later captured and put to death on July 2nd by the men of Miran, son of Mir Jafar.

As expected, the British took huge cash from the new puppet Nawab Mir Jafar. Clive got $234,000, Watts received $80,000, and the others got according to their rank and file. The English East India Company got 24 Parganas—yielding about £150,000 in rental. The loot of Bengal could be judged by this fact that the entire booty was transported to Fort William by a fleet of 300 boats.

Mir Jafar continued as Nawab from 1757 to 1760, but Robert Clive and his men emptied his treasury. He was of no use to the Company. Some British officials like Holwell were opposing Mir Jafar. On September 27, 1760, Mir Qasim, the son-in-law of Mir Jafar, was made Nawab. This was a peaceful transfer. He gave the lands of Burdwan, Midnapore, and Chittagong to the East India Company. In the beginning, he too was under British control, but the misuse of Dastak had wrecked the whole system of revenue. When he failed to check its misuse, he announced that all trade in Bengal was duty-free. This was enough for the company to depose Mir Qasim. Mir Jafar was once again brought back as Nawab. Mir Qasim shifted his capital to Munger. With the help of Mughal king Shah Alam II and Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Awadh, he tried his luck against the British in the Battle of Buxar (October 22, 1764). The company's army, led by Major Hector Munro, proved to be much more disciplined and modern than the combined armies of Indian rulers. The industrial and technological backwardness of India in the 18th century got reflected in the battles with Europeans.

Mir Jafar was re-installed in Bengal, and a treaty was signed with Shah Alam and Shuja-ud-Daula in 1765 at Allahabad. The Mughal King, through a Firman, granted Diwani rights to the East India Company for Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. In return, the Mughal king accepted a pension of 26 lakh from the Company and 53 lakh to the Nawab of Bengal. It was also decided that Shuja-ud-Daula would hand over the region of Allahabad and Kara to the Mughals and the zamindari of Banaras to Balwant Rai, an old loyal to the Company.

A unique form of government was set up in Bengal between 1765 to 1772, known as the Dual Government. The two Deputy Diwans, Raja Shitab Rai and Raja Khan, were appointed by the Nawab with the advice of the East India Company, but they worked for the company rather than the appointing authority. This was because the company got the Diwani right (the right to collect revenue), and the Nawab still had the responsibility of civil and criminal administration. In other words, the company got all the powers without responsibility, and the Nawab got all the responsibility without power. The ultimate sufferers were the people of this region. Why did the company do this? One reason given is that the English East India Company was a trading company having no expertise in governance, and the company's philosophy was, perhaps, what's wrong if one gets something free of cost.

What was the Black Hole tragedy?

The Black Hole is the current term for the local 'lockup' in which the English captives were kept. J.Z. Holwell, the defender of Calcutta and one of the survivors, narrated what happened in the cell where British subjects were imprisoned. His version was that 146 prisoners were confined in a small room (18 feet by 14 feet) on the night of June (the time of the year when Calcutta is hot and humid). 123 died overnight of suffocation.

The whole story and the figure seem to be an exaggeration as the local (especially Persian) records do not support the claim made by Holwell. This kind of propaganda against Indian rulers was common in those days to prove them barbaric and to justify British rule in India. In any case, Siraj was personally not involved in the so-called Black Hole tragedy.

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