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Chapter 8 – First English Settlements on the Bengal Coast


In North-western India the English had adapted themselves to the settled order of the Moghul Empire and won an honourable position as a coast-police and the patrol of the pilgrim ocean highway. In South-eastern India they had secured their settlements by grants from the inland kings, and by forts, amid the perpetual struggle between those kings and their half-subdued coast rajas. In Bengal they were to be confronted by a different set of political conditions.

The great satrapy of the Lower Ganges, including Bengal Proper and Orissa, was in itself so affluent, and lay so far from the Imperial Court, as to render it almost a separate sovereignty. Only by long wars, and after repeated revolts, had it been completely annexed to the Moghul Empire. When the Afghan kings. of Bengal went down before the Emperor Akbar in 1576, they found a refuge in the adjoining province of Orissa. The slow subjugation of this dynasty, amid its hill-fastnesses and network of rivers, I have narrated in a work on the history of Orissa and its condition under British rule.

The Moghul governors who succeeded the Afghan

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rulers were so remote from the Imperial control that they could oppress on their own account; yet at the same time could call in the whole force of the empire to crush resistance to their oppression. This semi-independence of the Ganges viceroys dominated our position in Bengal. It was a personal element which the Imperial Court kept under strict subjection in its nearer province of Gujarat. But it influenced our whole history on the Bengal seaboard, from our first gracious reception in Orissa, to the caprices of the half-mad youth infamous for the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The popular story of our settlement in Bengal is a pretty one. A patriotic ship-surgeon, Mr. Gabriel Boughton, having cured an imperial princess of a severe burn in 1636, would take no fee for himself, but secured for his countrymen the right to trade free of duties in Bengal. It is true that Mr. Boughton obtained an influence at the Moghul Court, but he did not go there until 1645, and meanwhile the English had fixed themselves on the Bengal seaboard by no romance of Imperial favour, but by sufferings and endurance of a deeper pathos.

The draft-treaty proposed by Sir Thomas Roe in 1616 had mentioned the ports of Bengal as places free to the English, and visions of trade with that distant province flitted before the Company’s servants of Surat. Bengal was to be opened to them, however, not by any plunge of the Surat Council into the Eastern terra incognita, but by the gradual advance of the English up the Madras coast. The “Golden Phirmaund” (farman)

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A native boat of the bay of Bengal

of the Golkonda king in 1632 encouraged the Masulipatam factory to send a trading party northward. Accordingly in March, 1633, eight Englishmen started in a native “junk,” “with a square sail, an oar-like rudder, and a high poop with a thatched house built on it for a cabin,” and rolled up the Bay of Bengal till they reached the mouths of Mahanadi, literally the “Great River” of Orissa.

There, on April 21st, Easter Day, 1633, they cast anchor inside the mud-banks of the Moghul customs-station of Harishpur on one of the tributaries of the Mahanadi River. The Hindu port-officer or “Rogger” (our sea-captain’s rendering of raja) behaved with Indian courtesy to the strangers. But presently, as we know from the account by the ship’s captain, William Bruton, which was published at London five years later, a Portuguese frigate steered into the haven, anchored close to our half-decked boat, and got up a scuffle on shore, “where our men being oprest by multitudes had like to have been all slaine or spoyled, but that

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Lucklip the Rogger [i.e. Lakshmi the raja] rescued them with two hundred men.”

Ralph Cartwright, the chief merchant, leaving the boat in the joint protection of its crew and the friendly port-officer, proceeded with a small deputation inland to the Moslem Governor of Orissa at Cuttack, at the delta-head of the Mahanadi, or Great River. Their mission was to “the Nabob of Bengal,” but our simple explorers looked on one native ruler as much the same as another, and they thought that the governor of Orissa would serve their purposes equally well. The kindness which they met with on their few days’ journey up the delta – kindness which Hindu hospitality showed to any stranger from a distant land who came in peace – impressed them deeply. The imposing etiquette of the court at Cuttack quickly brought them back to a sense of their position.

The Moslem Governor of Orissa was Agha Muhammad Zaman, who was born in Tahran, the capital of Persia. This distinguished soldier and able administrator was merely a deputy of the Moghul Viceroy of Bengal, but he was a polite Persian and knew how to combine courtesy with state, displaying a certain simplicity, half-military, half-religious. By day the lord of a magnificent palace, at night he slept like a soldier in his tent, “with his most trusty servants and guards about him,” as we are told in Captain Bruton’s “Newes from the East Indies” (published in 1638), from which this quotation and those in the next two paragraphs are taken. The gracious governor received

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the three Englishmen in his Hall of Public Audience amid Oriental splendour; affably inclined his head to Mr. Cartwright; then slipping off his sandal, offered “his foot to our merchant to kiss, which he twice refused to do, but at last he was fain to do it.” Cartwright presented his gifts. Before, however, he could finish his petition for trade, “the king’s almoner” gave the signal for prayer, the glittering court knelt down with their faces to the setting sun, and business ended for the day. Meanwhile the palace had been lighted up with a blaze of countless tapers, and the English returned to the quarters assigned to them in the adjacent city of Cuttack.

The picturesque negotiations which followed read like a tale out of the “Arabian Nights.” Cartwright came with two distinct objects: redress for the Portuguese attack within a Moghul harbour, and a license for trade. The Portuguese captain lodged a counter-complaint against our crew, and each of the litigants purchased the aid of powerful officials. Cartwright asserted his title to seize the frigate on the bold ground “that all such vessels as did trade on the coast and had not a pass either from the English, Danes, or Dutch, were lawful prize.” The Portuguese captain could produce only a pass from his own nation, which availed nothing, as the Moghul government looked on the Portuguese as pirates, and had in the preceding autumn, October, 1632, sacked their chief -settlement in Bengal. Accordingly the governor “made short work with the matter, and put us all out of strife presently; for he

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confiscated both vessel and goods all to himself.” This was too much for the English temper. To the astonishment of the courtiers “our merchant rose up in great anger and departed, saying that if he could not have right here, he would have it in another place. And so went his way, not taking his leave of the Nabob or of any other. At which abrupt departure they all admired.”

The governor, rather amused than offended by his audacity, gave him three days to cool down, and then ordered him into the Presence. Cartwright knew that his life and those of his companions depended on a nod from the State Cushion. Yet “with a stern undaunted countenance” he declared that his Highness “had done his masters of the Honourable Company wrong, and by his might and power had taken their rights from them, which would not be so endured.” This was a new language to the polite Persian. He inquired of the Indian merchants before him what sort of a nation it was that bred a man like that. They answered that it was a nation whose ships were such that no “vessel great or small” could stir out of his Majesty’s dominions; but they would take them.” “At these words the king said but little, but what he thought is beyond my knowledge to tell you.”

The result soon appeared. The governor or “King” kept the Portuguese frigate, but on May 5, 1633, he sealed an order giving the English an ample license to trade. It was addressed to “Ralph Cartwright, merchant,” and granted him the liberty to traffic and

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Native boats on the Ganges in Bengal

export, free of customs, at any port of Orissa, and to purchase ground, erect factories, and build or repair ships. We had now, by the circuit of the Indian coast, re-entered the provinces of the Moghul Empire, and there was no question of fortifications, as on the unsettled seaboard of Southern India. All disputes were to be brought before the governor in person and decided by him in open durbar, “because the English may have no wrong (behaving themselves as merchants ought to do).”

Next day the governor feasted the Englishmen and sent them contented away. They built a house of business at Hariharpur, on a channel half-way down the delta, and, as they fondly hoped, beyond the malaria

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Kashmir Gate, Delhi.

of the swamps. Next month, June, 1633, Cartwright founded the factory of Balasor further up the coast, and near the present boundary between Orissa and Bengal. The Masulipatam Council gave loyal support, by sending on to him the Swan with her whole cargo, just arrived from England; and on July 22, 1633, she anchored off the Moghul customs-station of Harishpur. There she broke the silence of the swamps by firing three guns, but receiving no answer, sailed up the coast till she found Cartwright at Balasor.

Everything seemed to smile on the adventurers, and they projected outlying factories at Puri in the southern extremity, and at Pippli on the northern boundary of the Orissa seaboard. But their brief prosperity ended in disaster and death. The cargo of the Swan, chiefly broadcloth and lead, found no purchasers at Balasor, and lay for nearly a year unsold. The luscious fruits and cheap arak of Orissa formed temptations which the English sailors could not resist, and during the rainy season the deadly malaria of the swamps crept round their factory at Hariharpur in the mid-delta as round a beleaguered city.

Before the end of the year, five of our six factors in Orissa perished; the mortality among the sailors was terrible; and a second English ship sent thither had to make her way back to Madras with most of her crew stricken down by fever. It is difficult for us now to realize the miseries which the English, with their national habits of eating and drinking, suffered in the stifling forecastles and. cabins of their ships, and in the

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mat-huts which formed their sole shelter on shore. Even a third of a century later, when they had learned in some measure to accommodate their dress and manner of living to the climate, two large English ships, after one year of the climate of Balasor, were unable to put out to sea “because most of their men were lost.”

With their goods unsalable and factors and seamen dying around them, the survivors clung through the rainy season of 1633 to the footholds they had won on the Orissa coast. But two new scourges were added to their miseries. The Portuguese pirates from the Arakan and Chittagong seaboard, on the other side of the Bay of Bengal, swooped down on the river mouths; a Dutch fleet from the Madras coast and the Eastern Archipelago blockaded the roadsteads with pinnaces of ten to sixteen guns, strengthened by an occasional ship. Cartwright had to give up the idea of planting agencies at Pippli and Puri, the northern and southern extremities of Orissa; his central factory midway down the delta fell into decay, due in part to the silting up of the river; and soon all that remained to the English in Orissa was the unhealthy settlement at Balasor. The parent factory at Masulipatam had enough to do to keep its head above the all-engulfing wars between the inland king of Golconda and his half-subdued coast-rajas. The Company at home, in the grip of court cabals, looked on the Orissa settlements as a new and unprofitable burden which had been thrust upon it. In the words of Wilson’s “Early Annals of Bengal,” “No

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one cared about them; they were distant, unhealthy, dangerous.” In 1641 the ship Dyamond was ordered thither to pay off their debts and bring away the factors.

But in the summer of 1642, after nine years’ despairing struggle for existence, the tide began to turn. Francis Day, who had just founded Madras, visited Balasor and protested that it “is not to be totally left.” After all, it lay within the Moghul Empire, whose settled order contrasted with the wild dynastic confusion further down the coast. The Madras Council shrank, however, from the risk, and referred the question home. Meanwhile the Company in London was exchanging the makeshift rule of Charles for the control of Parliament. In 1650 it resolved to follow the example of the Dutch and to found a settlement in Bengal itself. Yet the perils of the Hugli River, then unsurveyed and without lights or buoys, rendered it unsafe for large vessels. The Madras Council resolved therefore to make Balasor a port of trans-shipment, whence cargoes should be carried in native boats round to the Ganges delta, and so up its south-western channel, the Hugli, to Hugli town, about a hundred miles from the sea.

There, on the bank of a deep pool formed by the current whirling round a bend of the river, the Portuguese had built a factory more than a century before. But having incurred, apparently, the displeasure of the Emperor Shah Jahan, while he was Prince Imperial, that sovereign soon after his accession resolved to root

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Diamond harbour, at the mouth of the Hugli River

them out. On a petition to the throne “that some European idolaters, who had been allowed to establish factories in Hugli, had mounted their fort with cannon, and had grown insolent and oppressive,” he took the city by storm in 1632; slew one thousand of the Portuguese (according to the native tradition), and carried off four thousand prisoners to his capital in Northern India, where the most beautiful of the girls were distributed among the harems of his nobility. It is said that of sixty-four Portuguese ships and 257 smaller craft anchored opposite the town, only three small vessels escaped to sea.

A remnant lingered around their old monastery at Bandel, a mile higher up the Hugli, while the Dutch had a factory at Chinsurah, a little way down. The Dutch site was well chosen, for it marked the most inland point of the Ganges delta then accessible to sea-going ships. The ancient royal port of Bengal, on a creek which entered the river not far above Hugli

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town, had lately silted up, and the Moghul Government, after destroying the Portuguese settlement in 1632, made Hugli the imperial court for the Ganges provinces. Hugli remained the chief seat of the maritime trade of Bengal until the founding of Calcutta, half a century later.

The arrival of the English at Hugli in 1650 promised an accession of trade to the new imperial port, and an increased customs-revenue to the Moghul governor. They came as four peaceable merchants who had left their ship the Lyoness far off in the Balasor roadstead, and only asked leave to sell the goods brought up the river in small native boats. The letter of instructions drawn up for their guidance mingled religious admonition with shrewd commercial advice. “Principally and above all things,” runs its opening paragraph, “you are to endeavour with the best of your might and power the advancement of the glory of God, which you will best do by walking holily, righteously, prudently, and Christianly in this present world,” that so, you may enjoy the quiet and peace of a good conscience toward God and man.” In the next place they were to buy in the cheapest markets a cargo of Bengal sugars, silks, and “Peter” (saltpetre); to “enquire secretly” into the business methods of the Dutch; and above all to procure a license for trade which “may outstrip the Dutch in point of privilege and freedom.” They carried with them an able Hindu, Narayan (or “Narrand”) by name, who had been the “Company’s broker” since our first settlement in Orissa in 1632,

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Raj Mahal on the Ganges

and who now repaid its confidence in the face of intrigues against him, by rendering good service to us in Bengal.

They also found a friend at the viceregal court then held at Raj Mahal, one of the shifting Ganges capitals, above the point where the mighty river splits up into its network of deltaic channels. Gabriel Boughton, doctor of the Company’s ship Hopewell, had in 1645 been lent to a nobleman in the Imperial service, and was in 1650 Chirurgeon to the Moghul Viceroy of Bengal, Shah Shuja, who was a son of the reigning emperor, Shah Jahan. In or about the latter year Boughton obtained from his patron a license for free trade by the English in Bengal in return for three thousand

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rupees judiciously expended at the viceregal court. But as the document was lost three years later, by Mr. Waldegrave on a land journey to Madras, it remains doubtful whether the license confined our trade to the seaports or sanctioned it also in the interior. The Masulipatam factory rewarded Mr. Boughton with a gift “of gay apparel” – a dress of honour suitable to a high personage in attendance on the Viceregal Court – and from 1651 onward the English were established as traders alike on the seaboard and in the interior of Bengal. These trading posts were at Balasor, and perhaps at Pippli on the Orissa coast; at Hugli, Kasimbazar near Murshidabad, and one or two out-stations in the Ganges delta; and at Patna and subordinate agencies higher up the Ganges, in Behar.

It soon appeared that this advance northward exceeded the still feeble powers of the Company. The Bengal factories lay beyond effective control. Their staff, in spite of all pious instructions, plunged into irregularities which ended in two of them deserting the Company’s service, in the death of a third ruined by debt, and in the return of a fourth to Madras with a story that he had lost the Company’s papers. The good surgeon Boughton was also dead, and his widow, who had married again, was clamouring for a reward for his services. In 1656–1657 the Madras Council for the second time withdrew, or resolved to withdraw, their factories from the Bengal seaboard.

But once again we were saved from the counsels of despair. In October, 1657, Cromwell reorganized

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the Company on a broader basis. A commission to Bengal put down malpractices and re-established the trade. Hugli. became the head agency in Bengal, with a control over the agencies at Balasor, on the Orissa coast, at Kasimbazar near Murshidabad, in the Gangetic delta, and at Patna on the higher Ganges in Behar, as well as a supervision over the out-stations or local houses for buying goods. Each factory had a chief, with three assistants or councillors, a regular subordination of authorities, and a code of rules for the conduct of life and of business. In the lowest grade of the new staff appears the name of a youth, Job Charnock – the future founder of Calcutta.

Bengal thus took its rank as one of the five important seats of the Company’s trade, and was placed, together with Bantam and the Persian factories, under the control of Madras, itself subordinate to the presidency of Surat. The year 1658, the last of the Protector’s life, saw the Company’s affairs in the East remodelled upon a system of graduated dependence and control, under which its factories were to grow into settlements and finally into the British Indian Empire. The same year saw the deposition of the Indian sovereign, Shah Jahan, by his rebel son Aurangzib, and the commencement of the half-century of bigot rule under which the empire of the Moghuls slowly declined toward its fall.

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