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Indian society and the making of 
the British Empire 

Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


General editor GORDON JOHNSON 

President of Wolfson College, and Director, Centre of South Asian Studies, 
University of Cambridge 

Associate editors C. A. BAYLY 

Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge, 
and Fellow of St Catharine’s College 

Professor of History, Duke University 

Although the original Cambridge History of India, published between 1922 
and 1937, did much to formulate a chronology for Indian history and de- 
scribe the administrative structures of government in India, it has inevitably 
been overtaken by the mass of new research published over the last fifty 

Designed to take full account of recent scholarship and changing concep- 
tions of South Asia’s historical development, The New Cambridge History 
of India will be published as a series of short, self-contained volumes, each 
dealing with a separate theme and written by a single person. Within an 
overall four-part structure, thirty-one complementary volumes in uniform 
format will be published. As before, each will conclude with a substantial bib- 
liographical essay designed to lead non-specialists further into the literature. 

The four parts planned are as follows: 

I The Mughals and their contemporaries 
II Indian states and the transition to colonialism 
Ill The Indian Empire and the beginnings of modern society 

IV The evolution of contemporary South Asia 

A list of individual titles in preparation will be found at the end of the volume. 

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Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 

Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 



II - 1 
Indian society and the making of 
the British Empire 




Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 

The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom 

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© Cambridge University Press 1988 

First published 1988 
First paperback edition 1990 
Sixth printing 2006 

British Library cataloguing in publication data 

Bayly, C. A. 
Indian society and the making of 
the British Empire. - 
(The New Cambridge History of India) 
1. India - History - 18th century 
2. India - History - 19th century 
I. Title 
954.03 DS463 

Library of Congress cataloguing in publication data 

Bayly, C. A. (Christopher Alan) 
Indian society and the making of 
the British Empire. 

(The New Cambridge History of India) 

Includes Index. 

1. India — History - 18th century. 

2. India — History — 19th century. 

I. Title. I. Series 
DS463.B34 1987 954.03 87-704 

ISBN O §21 25092 7 hard covers 
ISBN 0 521 38650 0 paperback 

Transferred to digital printing 2004 

Frontispiece: ‘John Mowbray’ by Thomas Hickey, c1790. 
India Office Library and Records, London. 

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List of maps 
General editor’s preface 
1 India in the eighteenth century. The formation of 
states and social groups 
2 Indian capital and the emergence of colonial society 
3 The crisis of the Indian state, 1780-1820 
4 Theconsolidation and failure of the East India 
Company’s state, 1818-57 
5 Peasant and Brahmin: consolidating ‘traditional’ 
6 Rebellion and reconstruction 
Conclusion. The first age of colonialism in India 
Glossary of Indian terms 
Bibliographical essay 

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1 India under the later Mughals 17 

2 British expansion: north India, 1750-1860 52 

3 South India: physical and towns §4 

4 British expansion: south India, 1750-1820 88 

5 British India: economic and social 137 

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The New Cambridge History of India covers the period from the begin- 
ning of the sixteenth century. In some respects it marks a radical change 
in the style of Cambridge Histories, but in others the editors feel that 
they are working firmly within an established academic tradition. 

During the summer of 1896, F. W. Maitland and Lord Acton be- 
tween them evolved the idea for a comprehensive modern history. By 
the end of the year the Syndics of the University Press had committed 
themselves to the Cambridge Modern History, and Lord Acton had 
been put in charge of it. It was hoped that publication would begin in 
1899 and be completed by 1904, but the first volume in fact came out in 
1902 and the last in 1910, with additional volumes of tables and maps 
in 1911 and 1912. 

The History was a great success, and it was followed by a whole 
series of distinctive Cambridge Histories covering English Literature, 
the Ancient World, India, British Foreign Policy, Economic History, 
Medieval History, the British Empire, Africa, China and Latin 
America; and even now other new series are being prepared. Indeed, 
the various Histories have given the Press notable strength in the publi- 
cation of general reference books in the arts and social sciences. 

What has made the Cambridge Histories so distinctive is that they 
have never been simply dictionaries or encyclopedias. The Histories 
have, in H. A. L. Fisher’s words, always been ‘written by an army of 
specialists concentrating the latest results of special study’. Yet as 
Acton agreed with the Syndics in 1896, they have not been mere com- 
pilations of existing material but original works. Undoubtedly many 
of the Histories are uneven in quality, some have become out of date 
very rapidly, but their virtue has been that they have consistently 
done more than simply record an existing state of knowledge: they 
have tended to focus interest on research and they have provided a 
massive stimulus to further work. This has made their publication 
doubly worthwhile and has distinguished them intellectually from 
other sorts of reference book. The editors of the New Cambridge 
History of India have acknowledged this in their work. 


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The original Cambridge History of India was published between 
1922 and 1937. It was planned in six volumes, but of these, volume 2 
dealing with the period between the first century a.p. and the Muslim 
invasion of India never appeared. Some of the material is still of value, 
but in many respects it is now out of date. The last fifty years have seen 
a great deal of new research on India, and a striking feature of recent 
work has been to cast doubt on the validity of the quite arbitrary 
chronological and categorical way in which Indian history has been 
conventionally divided. 

The editors decided that it would not be academically desirable to 
prepare a new History of India using the traditional format. The selec- 
tive nature of research on Indian history over the past half-century 
would doom such a project from the start and the whole of Indian 
history could not be covered in an even or comprehensive manner. 
They concluded that the best scheme would be to have a History div- 
ided into four overlapping chronological volumes, each containing 
about eight short books on individual themes or subjects. Although in 
extent the work will therefore be equivalent to a dozen massive tomes 
of the traditional sort, in form the New Cambridge History of India 
will appear as a shelf full of separate but complementary parts. 
Accordingly, the main divisions are between I. The Mughals and their 
Contemporaries, II. Indian States and the Transition to Colonialism, 
Ill. The Indian Empire and the Beginnings of Modern Society, and IV. 
The Evolution of Contemporary South Asia. 

Just as the books within these volumes are complementary so too do 
they intersect with each other, both thematically and chronologically. 
As the books appear they are intended to give a view of the subject as it 
now stands and to act as a stimulus to further research. We do not 
expect the New Cambridge History of India to be the last word on the 
subject but an essential voice in the continuing discourse about it. 


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The aim of this work is rather different from that of earlier Cambridge 
Histories, including the old Cambridge History of India, v (1929) and 
the more recent Cambridge Economic History of India, 2 vols (1982 
and 1983). All these works attempted to one degree or another to be 
‘authoritative’, ‘definitive’ or at the very least, to provide a good deal 
of basic factual material. This volume cannot hope to do that in view of 
its length and the complexity of the subject. Besides, the notion of a 
Western history seeking to be authoritative, in some sense to master 
India, has become a little dubious. Rather, this should be seen as an 
attempt to provide a single author’s synthesis of some of the more im- 
portant work and themes which have appeared in historical studies of 
India, written in the subcontinent and outside, over the last twenty 
years. As‘such the book is partial, argumentative and thematic, rather 
than exhaustive, balanced and chronological. 

The book deliberately deals with some episodes and types of history 
which were the staple of the older volumes, notably the conquests in 
India under Lord Wellesley and the Rebellion of 1857. This is because 
history cannot be written without the history of events, and because 
however subtly refracting are the mirrors through which area special- 
ists now see India, these events remain critical to non-specialist under- 
standing of the subcontinent, and indeed of world history. At the same 
time some current specialist themes, ecological change and the nature 
of resistance, for instance, have received attention because they 
demand some treatment at an all-India level. Other subjects, the 
history of the poor, of changes in the micro-economy of the districts, 
of specific policies implemented by provincial colonial governments: 
these are better tackled by the regional and thematic volumes which 
will appear in this series. 

Much of the historical writing on India since 1960 has been a per- 
suasive attempt to argue the importance of regionalism: political, 
economic and cultural. This volume notes regional differences as far as 
possible, but attempts to draw themes together at an all-India level. 
This is not because the powerful case for different regional histories 


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has been ignored, simply that most regional and local studies assume 
the existence of processes working at a broader level, and if only for 
heuristic reasons these should be considered in their own right. 

For the same reason I have not hesitated to use terms such as ‘capi- 
talist’, ‘class’, ‘class formation’, ‘bureaucracy’, ‘aristocracy’ and 
‘gentry’ in my analysis. This is because I consider, firstly, that there 
were indigenous concepts and understandings of the social order 
which very closely approximated to these Western terms, though of 
course, one must always bear in mind the uniqueness of Indian cultu- 
ral and social forms. There are dangers in glib comparison, but on the 
other side excessive Orientalist purism has done little except make 
India seem peculiar to the outside world. These terms are also 
employed because general changes in India’s and the world’s economy 
and governance during the period considered here were, in fact, bring- 
ing into being social groups and relationships which were similar to 
those of contemporary western Europe. These groups and relation- 
ships never lost their specifically Indian character but they are never- 
theless amenable to comparison at an international level. 

I have used the less ‘corrupt’ Anglo-Indian forms of Indian place- 
names and personal names used by the early twentieth-century litera- 
ture. Poona is English for Pune, and Ganges for Ganga, as surely as 
Munich is for Miinchen and Florence for Firenze. On the other 
hand, I have not suppressed Indian names and terms simply to 
make things easy for a Western audience since audiences who read 
English are no longer overwhelmingly Western. In the old days 
the British used to like India without Indians and Indian words as 
they liked France without the French and French words. Those days 
are gone. 

My colleagues will know where in this book their work has been 
drawn upon, even if they are not directly referred to. I hope that it has 
not been distorted too much in the process. But some more specific 
debts must be acknowledged. Among many institutions in India the 
staff of the Connemara Library, Madras and Professor Mehboob 
Pasha and the staff of the Muhammadan Public Library, Madras, pro- 
vided invaluable assistance. I must also acknowledge the help of Sri 
V.A. Sundaram, I.A.S. Among those who have provided useful criti- 
cism are Susan Bayly, Sugata Bose, Raj Chandavarkar, Sunil Chander, 
Hiram Morgan, David Washbrook and above all Peter Marshall who 
patiently corrected far too many errors. They are warmly thanked. 


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Finally, Neil McKendrick, David Fieldhouse and Graeme Rennie 
helped this project to completion in an indirect, but no less important 
manner. I am very grateful to them. 

C. A. Bayly 

Note on annotation 
The policy of the series is to provide bibliographical and reference 
material in the essay (below, pp. 212-30). However, footnotes and 

references have been considered appropriate in the case of (a) direct 
quotations; (b) unpublished material; or (c) less well-known works. 


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When H. H. Dodwell published his fifth volume of the Cambridge 
History of India in 1929, this book also became the fourth volume of 
the Cambridge History of the British Empire. The aim of the work was 
to chronicle the conquest of India by British arms and its transforma- 
tion by British institutions. This must have seemed a very appropriate 
theme in the years just preceding the Statute of Westminster of 1931, 
which laid new foundations for the British Empire and Common- 
wealth. But since that date there has been a considerable change of per- 
spective. Historians working after 1929 have, if anything, emphasised 
the importance of India to Britain’s world réle in the nineteenth cen- 
tury even more strongly. However, the nature and extent of India’s 
transformation has been vigorously debated from perspectives that 
would have seemed alien, even offensive to the interwar authors. 

The importance of India for Britain’s imperial system lay in both the 
military and economic fields. Seizure of the cash land revenues of 
India between 1757 and 1818 made it possible for Britain to build up 
one of the largest European-style standing armies in the world, thus 
critically augmenting British land forces which were small and logisti- 
cally backward except for a few years during the final struggle with 
Napoleon. This Indian army was used in large measure to hold down 
the subcontinent itself, but after 1790 it was increasingly employed to 
forward British interests in southern and eastern Asia and the Middle 
East. More symbolically, the Indian army opened up a second front, 
as it were, against the other great Eurasian land powers, Russia, the 
Ottomans, France and Austria. This reinforced the significance of the 
dominance of the Royal Navy at sea. From its Indian base Britain had 
already begun to construct informal empires of influence and trade in 
the Middle East, on the China coast and in East Africa during the first 
two decades of the nineteenth century. The campaign against the 
French in Egypt in 1801 and the seizure of the Cape of Good Hope in 
1795 and 1806 anticipated at key points the global strategy of Victorian 

Scarcely less significant was the Indian contribution to Britain’s 

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growing economic power. Though it is unlikely that East Indian for- 
tunes made a critical contribution to the British industrial revolution, 
Indian raw material exports, notably cotton and opium shipped to 
Europe and Asia, helped balance Britain’s whole Asian trade, while 
India’s revenues were a significant indirect subsidy to the exchequer. 
True, Asian trade still only represented about 16 per cent of Britain’s 
global trade in 1820. But India was already becoming a fair field for the 
exports of the key sector of Britain’s industrial economy, the textile 
industry, and a market whose importance was to be greatly increased 
after the improvement in communications in the 1850s. India also pro- 
vided cheap raw materials and indentured labour which had begun to 
open up valuable plantation economies in Sri Lanka, the Caribbean 
and Mauritius before mid-century. 

However, this perspective from the history of the British Empire 
has come to seem rather restricted since 1929. For the East India Com- 
pany’s conquest and patchy exploitation of India can also be seen more 
broadly as one of the first and most striking examples of the forging of 
dependent economic relations between the north European world 
economy and non-European societies, a process which later engulfed 
much of the rest of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Far East. 
Though its per-capita income was certainly much lower than western 
Europe’s, Asia still remained in 1700 the world’s major centre of arti- 
san production and accounted for a huge slice of world trade, conson- 
ant with its 70 per cent share of the world’s population. Europeans 
were already important to Asian economies in that they provided 
much of the silver imports which helped Asia’s great kingdoms to 
expand and develop. But their réle in internal trade and even in inter- 
Asian trade remained relatively small. That situation was significantly 
altered by 1800, and transformed by 1860. By this time Europeans 
controlled the largest and most valuable parts of inter-Asian trade and 
Asia’s international trade, while also commanding the most valuable 
parts of her internal economy. The epochal growth of differentials in 
income between Asians and Europeans that followed the shift of Asian 
economies from being producers and exporters of artisan products to 
mere exporters of agricultural raw materials is only now being 
reversed in parts of East Asia. 

All these arguments would have been understood by the authors of 
1929, even though they would have given much more weight to the 
political rather than economic aspects of European dominion in Asia. 

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Where they would have differed much more from recent historians 
was in their estimation of the causes of the East India Company’s rise 
to power and the depth and the nature of Britain’s transformation of 
India. The Cambridge History starts from the assumption that the 
centralised Mughal empire was in purely degenerative decline, along 
with the Indian economy and society. Consequently, the English East 
India Company was forced to intervene in order to protect its own 
trade and the political stability of its clients. Now, however, the 
Mughal empire seems a much less substantial hegemony, its decline a 
much more complex and ambiguous process, and the society of 
eighteenth-century India more varied than the stereotype of decline 
and anarchy which is the unwritten emblem of the authors of 1929. 

The crisis of eighteenth-century India now appears to have three 
distinct aspects. First, there were cumulative indigenous changes 
reflecting commercialisation, the formation of social groups and pol- 
itical transformation within the subcontinent itself. Secondly, there 
was the level of the wider crisis of west and south Asia which was sig- 
nalled by the decline of the great Islamic empires, the Mughals and 
their contemporaries the Ottomans and the Safavids. Thirdly, there 
was the massive expansion of European production and trade during 
the eighteenth century and the development of more aggressive 
national states in Europe which were indirectly echoed in the more as- 
sertive policies of the European companies in India from the 1730s, 
and notably of the English Company after 1757. 

The first and second chapters of this book deal with the Indian 
aspect of the crisis and concentrate on commercialisation and political 
change within India itself. One of the interesting revisions which has 
arisen out of recent studies of the late-Mughal period and the early 
eighteenth century is the view that the decline of the Mughals resulted 
in a sense from the very success of their earlier expansion. Local 
gentry, Hindu and Muslim, prospered in Mughal service or flourished 
under their loose régime and began to separate themselves off as a 
more stable landlord element throughout much of northern India. It 
was not so much impoverished peasants but substantial yeomen and 
prosperous farmers already drawn into the Mughals’ cash and service 
nexus, who revolted against Delhi in the late seventeenth and early 
eighteenth century. Hindu and Jain moneylenders and merchants, 
who were the oil which worked the expansion of commodity produc- 
tion and the Mughals’ taxation systems, easily provided the economic 

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basis for the local kingdoms and provincial magnates that ultimately 
supplanted the power of Delhi, or emerged to prominence in areas 
where the Mughal writ had never run. Commercial growth which had 
succoured the power of Delhi ultimately eroded it. Commercial men, 
scribal families and local gentry consolidated their power at the 
expense of the centre. Many of these elements later provided capital, 
knowledge and support for the East India Company, thus becoming 
its uneasy collaborators in the creation of colonial India. 

However, these processes of economic change, and the emergence 
of regional kingdoms in eighteenth-century India were fraught with 
conflict. Wars between the Mughals and their recalcitrant subalterns 
damaged trade and production in many areas even if commercialis- 
ation and the creation of kingdoms fostered it in others. India’s crisis, 
then, reflected the conflict between many types of military, merchant 
and political entrepreneur wishing to capitalise on the buoyant trade 
and production of the Mughal realm. In the early eighteenth century 
this conflict was supercharged with a wider regional conflict reflecting 
commercialisation and a crisis of empire throughout the whole central 
and eastern Islamic wotld. In 1739 a Persian army invaded India and 
conquered Delhi. In the 1750s and 1760s Afghans invaded north India, 
following their harrying of Iran. The military and tribal leaders of 
these regions had also been drawn into the wider mercantile and politi- 
cal world of the great Islamic empires. Now they too demanded their 
patrimony in silver, booty and land-control as those older supre- 
macies dissolved. 

Yet the third, and widest, level of conflict was associated with the 
growing power of the Europeans who had for long operated on the 
fringes of Asian trade and politics. Asia still remained marginal to 
European trade and world power; until 1820 the Caribbean and the 
Americas were vastly more important. Yet the increase of European, 
and especially British trading activity and commercial power had 
already transferred much of the most valuable areas of inter-Asian 
trade into British ships before 1750. Burgeoning private trade and the 
ruthless creation of monopolies in tropical produce by the East India 
Companies had bitten deep into the wealth of coastal India by the 
1780s. To begin with, as the second chapter of this book shows, Euro- 
peans working in India were dependent on the support of Indian com- 
mercial groups which had augmented their own wealth and influence 
during the transformation and commercialisation of the late Mughal 


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empire. In a sense Indian capital and expertise was drawn inexorably 
into a partnership with the alien invader. But in time the English East 
India Company began to create its own state using the territorial 
revenues of Bengal. This fusion of military and commercial power re- 
vealed the Europeans achieving on a larger and more ominous scale 
what Indian local rulers had been doing for the last century. The 
demands for tribute, the sale of military power for protection and the 
growth of European inland trade all conspired to erode the foun- 
dations of regional and local kingdoms in the subcontinent’s interior. 

This expansion was a slow, piecemeal penetration using lines of 
power and flows of commodities and silver which already existed. But 
two developments transformed the crisis and speeded it up after 1780. 
These new forces are dealt with in Chapter Three. First, was the 
change in the ideology and grasp of the state in Europe which ac- 
companied the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The 
French threat to Britain and its overseas possessions was well under- 
stood by Dodwell and his generation. But the matter went deeper. 
War galvanised the whole taxation and political base of British society. 
The reaction of gentry and merchant was distantly reflected in the 
governor-generalship of Wellesley (1798-1805) when the Company 
went on a general offensive against oriental government in India which 
was now legitimated by a true imperialist ideology. 

Secondly, the stakes in India had been raised by the emergence of 
more powerful and determined kingdoms in the shape of Mysore in 
the south and the Marathas in the west. These realms also sought to 
harness and canalise the buoyant trade and production which had been 
given play during the expansion of the seventeenth century. Yet, 
unable to deploy power at sea and restricted to less productive inland 
tracts of India, these powers withered and were defeated. Neverthe- 
less, their resistance and response forced the British to construct yet 
more powerful armies and also significantly changed the social and 
economic face of large parts of inland India. Indians remained, there- 
fore, active agents and not simply passive bystanders and victims in the 
creation of colonial India. 

There were thus many threads of continuity between pre-colonial 
India and the India of the Company. One thread was commercialis- 
ation and the marketing of political power. This had created many of 
the conditions for the decline of Mughal hegemony and had provided 
the Europeans with the tools to unlock the wealth of inland India. As 

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the British sought to tax the subcontinent and also to extract com- 
modities for international trade from her, Indian commercial people 
continued to underpin the growth of imperium. On the fringes of the 
colonial state Indian capital, peasant colonists and inferior adminis- 
trators played a vital part in the subordination of tribal and nomadic 
peoples and culture to the discipline of production for the market. 
Indian gentry, now transformed into landlords, and scribal people 
also supported a political framework within which the conflicts which 
arose from these social changes could be accommodated. India was 
made tributary to the capitalist world system, but the dynamism of its 
deeper social changes and the endemic resistance of its rural leadership 
helped determine the nature and extent of the subcontinent’s tribute. 
The first chapter therefore begins by considering some general social 
and political changes which seem to emerge from the complex histori- 
cal record of late pre-colonial India. 

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India in 1700 had a population of some 180 million people, a figure 
which represented about 20 per cent of the population of the entire 
world. Over much of this huge land mass from Kashmir in the north to 
the upland plateau of the Deccan in the south, the Mughal dynasty at 
Delhi fought to maintain an hegemony which had been consolidated in 
the second half of the sixteenth century by the Emperor Akbar. In the 
farther south of the peninsula Hindu warrior chieftains vied for con- 
trol of villages, many claiming parcels of the authority of the Hindu 
Vijayanagar kingdom which had faded from the scene in the later six- 
teenth century. 

Under the Emperor Aurangzeb (1658-1707) the Muslim power at 
Delhi still shook the world. The Emperor remained capable of com- 
manding a remarkable concentration of soldiers and treasure, if only in 
certain places and during some months of the year. In the 1680s the 
Mughals had destroyed the last independent Muslim kingdoms of the 
Deccan. In the following generation they continued to expand. Their 
lieutenants pushed down to the south-eastern coast and began to 
demand tribute from the Hindu warrior chiefs of all but the most 
remote parts of the former Vijayanagar domain. In 1689 they had 
beaten off the threat from the Hindu Maratha warriors of the western 
Deccan and had savagely executed their war-leader, Shambaji. In 1700 
the Maratha capital, Satara, was taken by the Emperor’s siege trains. 
Even in the north Mughal power was still strong. In 1716 they had 
suppressed a revolt of Sikh landholders and farmers in the Punjab. By 
the time of Aurangzeb’s death imperial finances were already in dis- 
array, strained to breaking point by the need to maintain constant cam- 
paigns throughout the whole subcontinent. After 1712, the imperial 
centre was immobilised by factional conflicts which culminated in the 
murder of the Emperor Furrukhsiyar in 1719. Despite this, however, 
Indian notables and Europeans trading from the ports of the coast still 
regarded the Mughal emperor as one of the great kings of the world. 


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The decline of Mughal power over the next century was dramatic. 
Though historians in the last two generations have begun to ask 
questions about the nature of the Mughal empire, particularly about 
the degree to which it ever was a centralised state, there can be no 
doubt that politics in the subcontinent underwent a significant change. 
The main problem for the Mughals, even at their height, was the 
restiveness of the Hindu warriors and peasant farmers, buoyed up 
with new wealth from trade and military service and harassed by the 
demands of the Mughal tax-gatherers. Hindu landholders of the war- 
rior Rajput and Jat castes flew into rebellion whenever they sensed the 
central power was weak. The Marathas, and, later, the Sikhs, re- 
covered from their defeats in the opening years of the eighteenth cen- 
tury. By the 1730s the rich lands of Malwa to the south of Delhi had 
become subject to the Maratha warriors of the Deccan. Delhi’s 
treasury already suffering shrinking inflows from the Punjab and 
Awadh was further depleted. So the emperor faced the invasion of the 
Persian monarch Nadir Shah in 1739 unsure of the loyalty of his own 
great commanders but certain that the Hindu landholders would ‘raise 
their heads in revolt’ as soon as the Shah’s armies set foot in Hindu- 

Hereafter the decline of imperial power speeded up. Provincial 
governors in Awadh, Bengal and the Deccan surreptitiously consoli- 
dated their own regional bases of power in the aftermath of the Per- 
sian, and later the Afghan, invasions (1759-61). In 1757 the English 
East India Company seized control of the rich province of Bengal, and 
in 1759 it rolled up the last vestiges of Mughal influence at Surat on the 
west coast. After a brief rearguard action in defence of the core area of 
Delhi the Mughal emperor submitted in 1784 to the ‘protection’ of the 
greatest of the Maratha war chiefs, Mahadji Scindia. With the defeat of 
the Marathas by the British armies of Lord Lake in 1803, Delhi was oc- 
cupied by the Company, and the Mughal was reduced in European 
eyes to the status of a pathetic ‘tinsel sovereign’, surrounded by the 
emaciated ladies of his harem and chamberlains who maintained the 
shadow of his authority through the reiteration of court rituals. 

The suddenness of the collapse of Mughal power and magnificence 
astonished European contemporaries and appalled the Muslim poets 
and learned men for whom the Delhi throne had been an ancient and 
venerated source of patronage. For many historians of the recent past 
the twilight of the Mughals and the eighteenth-century ‘anarchy’ con- 


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tinued to be the only important set of events in the history of 
eighteenth-century India. Yet this perspective, concentrating as it 
does on Delhi, on the politics of the court and the decline of the 
Mughal grand army, seems now, for all its drama, not so much wrong 
as manifestly inadequate as a theme with which to encompass the 
changes overtaking the subcontinent. 


One new perspective has already emerged, though research is still at a 
very basic stage. The eighteenth century saw not so much the decline 
of the Mughal ruling élite, but its transformation and the ascent of 
inferior social groups to overt political power. The great households of 
the Mughal nobility (called umara; generally persons with an official 
rank: mansab) were not a class as such, but they evidently did have 
considerable influence on the nature of social organisation in Mughal 
India. Merchant groups, free cavalry soldiers and Hindu 
administrators all worked within their ambit. Noble households had 
considerable economic influence; in Bengal they participated in 
external trade. Elsewhere they sold grain and probably lent money to 
the non-Muslim commercial communities. In the eighteenth century 
such households broke up and dispersed alongside their exemplar, the 
Mughal court, or they were radically transformed. In the early 
eighteenth century the system of assignments of revenue on which the 
noble households had subsisted began to break down. Too many new 
nobles were absorbed into the system as Aurangzeb made his 
conquests in the south and tried to placate its indigenous nobility. 
Local revolts cut into the rents and customs dues on which the nobles 
lived, while the imperial treasury became less and less able to pay cash 

However, other social groups which had long been forming, though 
politically dwarfed by the Mughal nobility, began to emerge more 
clearly into the limelight. First, there were the Hindu and Muslim 
entrepreneurs in revenue — the so-called revenue farmers. These men, 
often relations of the old nobility, sometimes local princes or simply 
adventurers, combined military power with expertise in managing 
cash and local trade. Their households were organised on principles 
similar to that of the older nobility, but their relationship to the 


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regional rulers was largely mercenary and contractual. They took a 
‘farm’ of the revenue of a given territory in return for a cash payment 
to the ruler, and hoped to benefit from the difference between what 
they had paid and what they could collect. They were not bound by 
loyalty or by the military ethos which had sustained the mansabdars. 
Such men attracted condemnation from the more traditional 
commentators of the period. Yet they were an indication of the fact 
that the commercial economy survived and even expanded in the 
eighteenth century, as the scramble for cash revenues and control over 
production and labour intensified. 

Secondly, Indian merchants who were largely Hindus of the 
‘traditional’ commercial castes or Jains appear to have become 
politically more important in the eighteenth century. The commercial 
interest had always been crucial in the organisation of the great 
Mughals’ revenue and the trade in agricultural products and artisan 
goods which sustained it, but had never achieved much political 
visibility. With the decline of the nobility this situation began to 
change. Rather than receiving capital from the nobles, big merchant 
houses now lent money to rulers and nobles. As the Mughal treasury 
collapsed they became more important in India’s capital markets, 
moving money from one part of the country to another with their 
credit notes. In this capacity they came into contact with foreign 
merchants, supplied them with resources, and at the same time 
benefited from the Europeans’ own growing political significance. By 
the middle of the eighteenth century the indigenous merchant people 
were a powerful interest in all the major states which had emerged 
from the decline of the Delhi power. Even in the far south where the 
Mughals had never had much control, combinations of revenue 
farmers and local merchants wielded much influence in the politics of 
the small military kingdoms. 

Thirdly, many of the features of the nineteenth-century landed class 
were consolidated in the eighteenth century. The weakening of 
Mughal power enabled local gentry to seize privileges which they had 
once been denied. Zamindars (landholders) began to tax markets and 
trade and to seize prebendal lands which the Mughal élites had once 
tried to keep out of their hands. Families of servants of the Mughals 
and relatives of the old nobility bought up proprietorial rights over 
land or quietly converted non-hereditary into hereditary rights. To 
some extent the Mughals were forced to acquiesce in this ‘rise of the 


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gentry’ since they needed local support in their battles against the 
Marathas or Sikhs. But often these insurgent warrior groups 
themselves attained the réle of a gentry in their localities, controlling 
labour and production and carving out effective proprietary rights in 
land. Strong kinship links at the sub-district (pargana) level facilitated 
their survival in the face of state demands. 

In the midst of military conflict and disruption, therefore, the 
eighteenth century witnessed a significant stage in the formation of the 
social order of modern India. These developments were themselves 
the culmination of the slow commercialisation of India under the loose 
but dynamic Mughal hegemony. Commercialisation meant much 
more than the slow increase in the use of money in the economy. It 
meant the use of objective monetary values to express social 
relationships. Royal ‘shares’ in produce were expanded creating a need 
for new markets and financial institutions. Such shares and privileges 
were increasingly sold on the market. Rents, houses, the proprietary 
rights of landholders and headmen were more regularly exchanged by 
sale and mortgage. Statuses and offices were leased and sub-leased. 
Developments of this sort were also speeded by the growing contacts 
between India and the European international economy which 
facilitated commercialisation through imports of bullion and demand 
for artisan products. The receding tide of Mughal rule, as it were, 
revealed these slowly consolidating interests in Indian society. Yet at 
the same time Mughal decline was itself a result of the creation of new 
wealth and social power in the provinces where it could not easily be 
controlled by the distant monarch in Delhi. It was, after all, many of 
the areas and groups which had been most successful in the 
seventeenth century who revolted against or surreptitiously withdrew 
from under the Mughal umbrella in the eighteenth. The same areas and 
groups — Bengal, the commercial communities, the new gentry — in 
turn became the foundation of the British colonial régime. 

How far can these social groups which became more politically 
powerful in the eighteenth century be considered ‘classes’, even in the 
looser sense in which the word is applied to pre-capitalist interests? 
Certainly, some of the more rigid orientalist interpretations which 
emphasised the unique and incomparable features of the Indian social 
scene appear less convincing now. Caste, for instance, was not an 
immutable ‘given’ of Indian society. Castes were constantly in the 
process of formation and change, notably in periods such as the 


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eighteenth century when political authority was very fluid. Again, 
Indians of the pre-colonial period certainly possessed categories of 
social distinction which reflected differences of economic power. In 
addition to words such as zamindar or ratyat (agrarian dependent) 
which reflected legal statuses on the land, there were words such as 
bhadralog, bhallalog and ashraf in common use in north India and 
Bengal which implied ‘gentry’ and comprised notions of landed 
economic power as well as status. These were terms which at this time 
were applied to members of different castes and religious 
communities. So too the term mahajan (lit. ‘great man’) was 
often applied to merchant people across the lines of caste in the same 
way as bakkal (‘grocer’) could be a derogatory equivalent. There were 
also a variety of words which designated a managerial class (mutsaddi, 
amlah) and also inferior agrarian interests (for instance, malik or 
agrarian boss). 

In addition contemporary writers, amidst their bitter complaints 
about political decline, seem to be aware of social changes. The Persian 
chroniclers savage the growing pretensions of bhumias or ‘little rural 
potentates’; the rise of low men devoid of proper training in accounts 
and ‘grocers’ into positions of trust is denounced. Doubtless there 
were some such cries of woe in earlier periods of Indo-Islamic history, 
but perhaps they can be seen to have much greater meaning in a period 
when the commercial economy and a literate political culture capable 
of recording rights and power had penetrated so much deeper. 

To this extent the interests which come into sharper relief during the 
‘decline of the Mughals’ might be regarded as ‘classes’ in a loose sense, 
and the collisions between different groups might be seen as ‘class 
conflict’. Moreover, the form of the post-Mughal state itself across 
India was very widely determined by the growing power of landlords, 
literate administrative people and Indian capitalists. As we shall see in 
Chapter 2 merchant people restricted the authority of the rulers of 
Bengal and Benares after the second decade of the eighteenth century. 

However, contemporaries do not seem to have thought of these 
shifts primarily in terms of regional or all-India ‘classes’. Agrarian 
magnates sought to establish Jat or Sikh or Maratha kingdoms of 
righteousness, not landlord power, even if the occasion for their 
conflicts with the Mughals was often conflicts over revenues or the 
destination of the agrarian surplus. Merchants and revenue farmers 
became more influential in the post-Mughal states; kingship became 


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more commercialised. But the rhetoric and aims of politics remained 
very much what they had been under the Mughals. These were not 
Indian varieties of mercantile states. A balance must be struck 
therefore between emphasising the particular features of Indian 
tradition, worship and patronage which went into the making of the 
late Mughal order and the unintended consequences of political and 
economic changes which were tending to consolidate new types of 
power across the subcontinent. ‘Class formation’ would at best be a 
shorthand, and an inadequate shorthand at that. 


Commercialisation and group formation provide themes which run 
through the whole period covered by this book. Another such theme, 
then, is the differentiated and hierarchical nature of power in India 
which means that localities could sometimes be shielded from changes 
at a wider level. This theme creates ambiguity and contradictions in 
historical analysis. But it is important to stress that ‘empire’ and ‘state’ 
always remained limited political entities in India. This was not 
because India was a society dominated by caste in which the state 
could not take root, as many orientalists have asserted, but because 
there were many sharers in the dignity and power of kingship with 
overlapping rights and obligations. 

The Mughals claimed universal dominion; sometimes they achieved 
political dominance in India. But for the majority of their Hindu sub- 
jects power and authority in India had always been more like a compli- 
cated hierarchy than a scheme of ‘administration’ or ‘government’. 
The Mughal emperor was Shah-an-Shah, ‘king of kings’, rather than 
king of India. He was the highest manifestation of sovereignty, the 
court of final appeal, for Muslims an earthly successor to aspects of the 
authority of the Prophet Muhammad. Yet many of the attributes of 
what we would call the state pertained not to the emperor or his 
lieutenants, but to the Hindu kings of the localities, the rajas or to the 
notables who controlled resources and authority in the villages. The 
emperor’s power and wealth could be great, but only if he was skilled 
in extracting money, soldiers and devotion from other kings. He was a 
marshal of kings, an entrepreneur in power. His tools were at once the 


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siege-train and the royal honours given out at the great assemblies 

Even the rajas, for all their importance as guardians of the caste 
order and sacrificers-in-chief of the Hindu religion were dependent in 
turn on the warrior farmers who controlled the villages. These village 
magnates also participated in the mystique of kingship. Ultimately 
they were the real lords of men and resources in India. It was the 
build-up in the Punjab and western India, and the Ganges valley, of 
dissident coalitions of such magnates, determined to fight off demands 
for taxes and assert their status as warrior kings or gentry in their own 
right which spelled the end of the all-India hegemony of the Mughals. 

Some historians have described this political system in terms of 
‘levels of power’. This is useful provided one remembers that there 
was constant interaction, alliance making and alliance breaking be- 
tween powers at these different levels. Even under strong emperors, 
the hierarchy was always shifting and realigning. Village farmer- 
warriors could overrun their neighbours, collect revenue from the vil- 
lages and become recognised as rajas by the imperial court. Equally, 
servants of the court, Muslims from outside India as much as Muslims 
and Hindus from within India, could use their authority to build up 
landholdings around the small towns and become local magnates. 

This chapter starts by examining the changes in the imperial hege- 
mony during the eighteenth century, then moves to the petty king- 
doms and finally to the magnates of the villages who controlled 
production. There follows a discussion of the Indian economy and 
society in the eighteenth century. Yet these divisions only constitute a 
device for organising themes. Developments at all these levels and in 
all these domains were linked. 


One reason that the ‘fall of the Mughal empire’ now appears a rather 
limited theme around which to organise the record of the eighteenth 
century is that the emperor continued to be a fount of authority 
throughout India long after his military power had atrophied. If any- 
thing the sacred mystique of the imperial person increased after 1707. 
The emperor Muhammad Shah (1719-48) once again asserted the 
imperial right to adjudicate between different Muslim schools of law 
which had been foresworn by the purist Aurangzeb. He also resumed 


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use of the title ‘Heir of Ali’ (son-in-law of the Prophet) and reinstitu- 
ted the office of imperial chronicler, emphasising again the emperor’s 
role as the shadow of God on earth.' During the wars which occurred 
after 1759 between factions of Mughal notables, the Marathas and the 
British, possession of the imperial person and imperial proclamations 
became an important resource for aspiring kingmakers. The value 
of the royal charisma grew in importance even as the royal purse 

All powers seeking to establish their rule in eighteenth-century 
India needed to acquire imperial titles and rights. The Sikhs and the 
Marathas, for instance, represented traditions which might seem to 
refute the right of a Muslim state to rule them. The Sikhs derived auth- 
ority from their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, while the 
Marathas developed and extended the ideal of Hindu kingship 
expressed in the protection of brahmins, holy cattle and holy places. 
Yet the rulers of both these warrior polities sought to become agents of 
Mughal sovereignty. The Maratha king Shahu had walked barefoot 
and made obeisance at the tomb of the Emperor Aurangzeb at Khulda- 
bad in 1714; Mahadji Scindia, the greatest Maratha warlord towards 
the end of the century, received the title of Regent Plenipotentiary of 
the empire when he became dominant at Delhi in 1784. The Sikhs, 
unbending as they seemed to be in hostility to the monarchs who had 
slain several of their great religious teachers, made ceremonial offer- 
ings to the throne in 1783, as they sought to strengthen their political 
position in the environs of the capital. 

Even when regional viceroys had begun to found dynasties and 
engross imperial offices and perquisites, the emperor’s ultimate auth- 
ority, as opposed to his power, was rarely challenged. The rulers of 
Bengal, Hyderabad, Awadh and the Carnatic held off from seeking the 
title of emperor or invading his quasi-religious functions. Certainly, 
the Nawab of the Carnatic (Arcot) delighted in the appellation of 
‘Sultan of India’ conferred on him by the citizens of the holy city of 
Mecca in return for charitable offerings.” The rulers of Awadh at the 
beginning of the nineteenth century — encouraged by British officials — 
attempted to assert their equality with Delhi as ‘universal kings’ of the 

1 Muzaffar Alam, ‘Mughal imperial decline and the province’, unpub. Ph.D. diss. Jawa- 

harlal Nehru University, 1981, p. 8. 
2M. H. Nainar (ed.), ‘Tuzak-i-Wallajahi’, Sources of the History of the Nawwabs of the 

Carnatic, Madras Islamic Series, 4 (Madras, 1956), 244ff. 


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Shia branch of Islam.’ But these developments had little wider signifi- 
cance. Only Tipu Sultan of Mysore, uneasy as a newcomer with the 
traditions of the Indo-Persian nobility and contemptuous of the flacci- 
dity of Mughal power, took up the title of emperor. Even Tipu main- 
tained a respectful communication with the imperial court. So it is not 
surprising that the British too maintained the form of imperial grants 
and participated in the rites of Mughal authority — at least down to 
1848. Richard Wellesley, Governor-General 1798-1805, warned his 
aides to show respect to the Emperor as ‘almost every class of people 
... continue to acknowledge his nominal authority’* during the most 
expansive period of empire-building, and it is arguable that British 
success was facilitated by this scrupulous regard for Mughal authority. 

A second reason why the fall of the Mughal empire seems an inad- 
equate general theme is that the spirit of Mughal administration went 
marching on even when Delhi’s military power lay mouldering in the 
grave. In the south the frontier of Muslim rule continued to expand 
with the fall of the Hindu Nayaks of Trichinopoly to the Carnatic 
rulers in 1732 and the later expansions by their successors into the 
lands of the chieftains of the far south. The rule of the Nawabs of the 
Carnatic was often no more than a loose hegemony, but the Hindu 
warlords were invested with the titles of Mughal dignity while 
Mughal-style jurisconsults (kazis), urban executives (Rotwals), auth- 
orities in law (muftis) and revenue agents were appointed. Even where 
non-Muslim kings came to power the forms of the old system were 
usually maintained. The Muslim officers continued to play an import- 
ant part in the politics of holy Benares even after a Hindu raja 
engrossed power in 1738. In the early nineteenth century the new Sikh 
ruler of all-Punjab appointed Muslims as judicial officers in the city of 
Lahore. Very often the new rulers (and this included the English East 
India Company) issued their coinage from Mughal-style mints with 
the Mughal emperor’s name prominently displayed. Prayers for the 
emperor were still said in mosques throughout India. 

The agents who maintained and spread this administrative culture 
were drawn from the petty Muslim gentry of north and central India, 
from central Asian or Persian immigrants, and in the Deccan and the 

>M. Fisher, “The imperial court and the province: a social and administrative history of 
pre-British Awadh’, unpub. Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1978. 

*M. Martin (ed.), The Despatches, Minutes and Correspondence of the Marquess Welles- 
ley, K.G. (London, 1837), iv, 153. 


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Sings _ 

y 7 ar" 
oe ®t Y <a ~y 

® Kandahar 



vn \ 

Maslipatnam [Br] Bengal 

TRAVANCORE ®,, © Provincial (subah) 
0 100 200 300miles OO a headquarters 
eeeceesellessendiseesseass! : 
Main roads and caravan 

—-—-— Approximate boundaries of 
Mughal Empire, c. 1707 

1 India under the later Mughals 

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south, from Hindus of the writer castes who had taken to Persian 
learning. They were all influenced by the classical tradition of adminis- 
trative practice summed up in the Emperor Akbar’s great Domesday 
book of India the Ain-i-Akbari (circa 1590) and later manuals on land- 
revenue management. This notable expansion of the Mughal style of 
government drew learned men of the Muslim gentry into new regions. 
Citizens of Delhi and Agra went east to Bengal, just as Hindu Bengalis 
were to follow British administration west into upper India in the next 
century. One of the most ancient and prestigious of the Muslim service 
clans of the west coast, the Navaiyit lineage, found office in the fron- 
tier state of Arcot and in the kingdom of Mysore which only fell to a 
Muslim ruler, Haidar Ali, in 1761. Learned men and soldier- 
administrators of the northern Indian Muslim religious schools took 
service in the new realm of Bhopal which only stabilised in the first 
decade of the nineteenth century. 

Even if in matters of authority and administrative culture there was 
much continuity between the highpoint of Mughal hegemony and the 
eighteenth century, surely the mechanics of political power were 
drastically modified? Here too the record seems less clear-cut than it 
did sixty years ago. Certainly political authorities based on India’s 
ancient ecological and cultural regions became significant after 1707. 
Yet this ‘decentralisation’ of politics was itself anticipated by the very 
successes of Mughal expansion. It was on the basis of the expanding 
commercial economy of the seventeenth century and the slow ac- 
cumulation of wealth by literate Muslim gentry, Hindu landholders 
and merchants that the quasi-kingdoms of the eighteenth century were 



The most striking political change of the eighteenth century was the 
long metamorphosis of Mughal provincial government which led to 
the creation of autonomous kingdoms in Bengal, Awadh and Hydera- 
bad. Alongside them the Hindu Marathas and Sikhs created political 
systems within the ambit of the imperial domains which also made use 
of many of the administrative methods of the Mughals. Ironically, 
these new political formations derived in part from attempts by the 
Mughals to strengthen the foundations of their rule. Murshid Kuh 


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Khan, the Mughal governor who stands as lineal predecessor of the 
independent Nawabs of Bengal, was sent by the emperor to rationalise 
the finances of this rich province in 1704. He consolidated and brought 
to obedience the great Hindu and Muslim zamindars (landholders) of 
Bengal. In the process the offices of revenue manager (diwan) and 
governor (subahdar) which previous emperors had tried to keep 
separate were gradually amalgamated. Murshid Kuli Khan and his suc- 
cessors, notably the Nawab Alivardi Khan (1740-56), also began to fill 
local offices and confer revenue grants on their own dependants, and 
slowly slipped out of control of Delhi. Until 1739, and Nadir Shah’s 
invasion of the capital, the large Bengal revenue was religiously sent to 
Delhi, but thereafter remittances became less regular. The emperor 
was often in the hands of enemies of the Bengal régime; the commer- 
cial links which alone made the remittance of silver possible withered 
as Delhi consumed less of Bengal’s fine cotton goods; and Bengal itself 
was financially hard-pressed in the aftermath of Maratha invasions in 
1742 and 1744. 

Factional conflict at Delhi and the impotence of the emperor after 
1712 strengthened these tendencies towards provincial autonomy. A 
long struggle in the 1720s between leaders of the Indian-born faction 
at court and notables of Iranian or Central Asian origin encouraged 
Asaf Jah (Nizam-ul-Mulk), Aurangzeb’s former commander, to build 
up a power base in the high plains of the Deccan which by the time of 
his death in 1748 had become a recognisable political entity (though 
not a centralised realm) and precursor of the later princely state of 
Hyderabad. The Persian-born war leader Saadat Khan (Burhun-ul- 
Mulk), who became vazir or viceroy of the Empire, similarly moved 
his political base from Delhi to the rich but turbulent province of 
Awadh in the 1720s and 30s when his enemies triumphed at the court. 
As in Bengal these potentates amalgamated offices which the Mughals 
had tried to keep separate, though their bases of power were the offices 
of governor (subahdar) rather than revenue manager (diwan) as in 
Bengal. Early on Asaf Jah and Saadat Khan began again to ensure that 
their descendants inherited these newly amalgamated offices in what 
was a clear break with Mughal tradition. All these grandees were in a 
position to enhance their independence when Delhi fell to Iranian and 
Afghan invaders in 1739 and 1759-61, though they continued to 
supply and aid the imperial court until the end of the century. 

The spirit and forms of Mughal provincial government changed 


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only slowly. Asaf Jah’s testament to his successors, recorded in 1748, 
urges them to respect the emperor as overlord and not to threaten the 
hierarchy of rulers. Since the Deccan had once been made up of six dif- 
ferent Muslim kingdoms, ‘it is right that the ancient families of the 
realm should be properly looked after’, though none should be 
allowed to accumulate offices. The ruler of Hyderabad should seek 
accord with the Maratha zamindars, ‘but he should maintain preemi- 
nent the dignity and prestige of Islam and never allow them to over- 
step the bounds’.® This old policy of enticement and suasion of local 
élites would best be pursued if the ruler moved around the country in 
tents, but he should allow the soldiers regular leave in order for them 
to father children. The tactics and goals of the eighteenth-century 
potentates were not greatly different from those of previous Mughal 
governors, only their tenure was more permanent and the ability of 
Delhi to discipline them much reduced. 

The regional power-holders also inherited the problems of previous 
Mughal governors. In Bengal, where the Hindu landholders were 
more pacific and the money economy and trade was more developed, 
the nawabs and later the British had some hope of regular revenues and 
a degree of control. In Awadh the picture was mixed; Saadat Khan 
chastised the fiercely independent Rajput landholders of the central 
and southern territories, but warrior domains and revenue peculators 
quickly asserted themselves if the centre was momentarily deflected. 
In the Deccan and the Carnatic the neo-Mughal régimes flourished 
only fitfully, dependent on many cross-cutting alliances with local 
Telugu and Maratha chieftains. Yet, to an extent, Hyderabad was able 
to utilise the memory of the authority of the old, independent Deccani 
sultanates, and the Nawabs of the Carnatic, that of Vijayanagar. 

All these modified provincial authorities gave Mughal élites the 
chance to deepen their hold on power in the regions, if they were 
clever and persistent. In the Deccan as in other parts of the empire 
Mughal military officers had once lived on assignments of revenue 
which were constantly changed to prevent them being transformed 
into heritable rental holdings. In the later eighteenth century in some 
parts of Hyderabad such grants did, however, tend to become heredi- 
tary. This created a more settled landholding class which negotiated its 
revenues and military commitments through agents settled in Hydera- 

° Nizam-ul Mulk’s Testament, 1164 Hegira, Yusuf Husain Khan, Nizamu’l Mulk Asaf 
Jah I (Bangalore, 1936), pp. 284-90. 


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bad city. In Awadh and Bengal clients and family members of the new 
ruling houses were also able to amass large bundles of proprietary 
rights and rights to farm revenue from the state which in course of time 
became hereditary estates (zamindaris in Bengal; talukdaris in Awadh 
and Hyderabad). Seeking allies in local society the regional rulers 
allowed locally resident Muslim families to build up areas of revenue- 
free land acquired during the later Mughal period and convert them 
into fuller proprietary rights. In this way they hoped to contain the 
power of the indigenous (largely Hindu) clans more effectively. It is an 
apparent paradox that during the ‘fall of the Mughal empire’ many 
families of former Mughal servants were able to establish a much 
closer control over the resources of the countryside and become local 
power-holders. Once again, it was the very success of processes of 
change set moving during Mughal expansion which helped undermine 
the fabric of their empire. 

In the same way the transformed Mughal provinces provided a con- 
text in which entrepreneurs in revenue and trade could function, as the 
next chapter will demonstrate. In the early eighteenth century the 
rulers of Hyderabad, Awadh, Bengal and even the hard-pressed ad- 
ministration in Delhi tried to continue Mughal military practice and 
Mughal military salaries. In the second half of the century European 
weapons, methods and military advisers became more common. All 
this needed money and Hindu trader bankers or Muslim revenue far- 
mers who could provide capital became increasingly influential. The 
Jagat Seths (Hindu bankers) became the key force in Bengal politics; 
Agarwal bankers ‘commanded the state’ as far as revenue matters were 
concerned in Benares. Even in the Maratha states banking firms 
became overt actors in local politics. 


The great non-Muslim warrior states —- Marathas Sikhs and Jats — 
represented, of course, something more than simple devolutions of 
Mughal power to the provinces. The elements of continuity and 
change are quite difficult to distinguish, however. The rise of these 
warriors did reflect popular movements of peasant insurgency direc- 
ted in part against the Indo-Muslim aristocracy. The Marathas drew 
their strength from the ordinary peasant and pastoralist castes of west- 
ern India, now under arms and aspiring to the life-style of the ancient 


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Hindu kings. Maratha victories fostered a sense of community ident- 
ity expressed through the Marathi language and Hindu devotional re- 
ligion. The Brahmin administrators who increased their power in the 
first half of the eighteenth century pictured the Maratha state as a 
classic ‘Brahmin’ kingdom, protecting the holy places and sacred 
cattle. The Sikh leaders who dominated the Punjab after the Afghan in- 
vasion of north India during 1759-61 were often of humble origins — 
the descendants of Jat peasants, village servants and pastoralists from 
the dry west of the Punjab. Their sense of identity too, nurtured 
through the military brotherhood of the Khalsa (founded 1699), was 
sharpened by both political and religious conflict with the Mughals. 
To emphasise their Hindu and Sikh beliefs the leaders of all these 
movements tried hard to ban the slaughter of sacred cattle in the lands 
they conquered. 

Yet the relation between Hindu and Sikh and the Muslim empire 
was ambiguous and became more so as the century moved on. Rebel- 
lion and schism had been the essential force behind Mughal expansion, 
indeed behind the expansion of Islam throughout west and south Asia. 
Rebellion did not imply a total severance of political relations or the 
creation of sharply defined territorial entities. The treaties made be- 
tween the Mughal and the Marathas at the beginning of the century 
and in the 1780s, therefore, continued to recognise the position of the 
emperor as pinnacle of the hierarchy of kings. Even the new Sikh 
rulers patronised Muslim holy men; they established police officers 
and jurisconsults modelled on the Mughal officers and used Mughal 
methods of revenue collection. The trend was most strikingly illus- 
trated in the case of the Jat state of Bharatpur near Delhi. Here the 
ruler Suraj Mal began to expel his own clansmen and caste fellows 
from positions of power during the 1750s and imported the whole 
panoply of Mughal revenue collection in their stead. Even on the 
fringes of the Maratha domains where the Marathas had once taken 
their feared ‘portion’ of the revenue (or chauth) from farmers, their 
plundering incursions had given way to an efficient form of the 
Mughal revenue system by the 1760s. As Maratha power moved north 
during the 1770s and 1780s with the emergence of the great war lord 
Mahadji Scindia from beneath the hegemony of Poona the Mughal ele- 
ments in their régime became more marked. Mahadji’s army in the 
late 1780s had as many Muslim as Hindu soldiers (drilled often by 
Europeans) and the basis of his revenue collection was in the environs 


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of the old Mughal capital of Agra. Those movements which began as 
plebeian reactions against Mughal domination came to prosecute the 
aims of Mughal rule with its own methods. 


The Mughal model was influential throughout India. But on the 
fringes of these semi-autonomous regional states or operating within 
their domain existed a host of smaller kingdoms which owed them 
only nominal allegiance. Muslim chroniclers often viewed this lowest 
rung in the hierarchy of kings in India as little more than a rabble of 
bucolic landholders or recalcitrant chiefs. However, they often rep- 
resented the remnants of constellations of Hindu polities, built on the 
power and expressing the values of the dominant landholding com- 
munities which had once ruled the country without much intervention 
from above. They were important because they provided the context 
within which economic and cultural change occurred and also because 
it was by the suborning of these smaller entities as much as by the pen- 
etration of the regional powers that the British came to dominate the 

These kingdoms had different origins and related in different ways 
to the organisation of power and production in the countryside. One 
great swathe of such kingdoms running from Gujarat in the west to 
Awadh in the east had been created by the expansion and migration of 
the Rajputs (‘sons of princes’). The Rajputs were the archetypal Hindu 
warrior order. It appears to have been a much looser category in the 
pre-colonial period than it became in the nineteenth century when 
stricter endogamy and aspirations to purity in life-style became 
common among the princes protected by the British. Many Rajputs in 
the eighteenth century belonged to shifting bands of professional 
soldiers who attracted followers by marrying women from lower caste 
Hindu or even Muslim families. This Rajput world was topped out, 
particularly in Rajasthan, by a constellation of kingdoms which had 
survived for generations sometimes in conflict with the Mughals, 
sometimes as their servants. These were not, of course, centralised or 
territorial states. Rival rulers often held assignments of revenue in each 
others’ domains. Moreover the possibilities for the aggrandisement of 
any one state had been limited both by the power of Muslim armies 
and by the fact that the most exalted families had to marry with fam- 


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ilies removed by many degrees of relationship from their own clans. 
This tended to fragment and diffuse power among the Rajput kings. 

In the Deccan and the south the réle of the Rajputs was filled by 
Telugu-speaking warriors who had also spread into the rich river val- 
leys of the Tamil country over many generations. Untouched until the 
seventeenth century by the levelling tendencies of the great Mughal 
revenue systems, these potentates supported the great temples such as 
Tirupati and Madurai, and venerated Vaishnavite sectarian leaders 
who became their gurus or religious teachers. In this way they were as- 
similated into the ancient culture of the south. The Hindu dominion of 
Vijayanagar which had exercised a loose authority over much of the 
south until the late sixteenth century had established a style of king- 
ship, worship and religious art which continued to be represented by 
potentates such as the rulers of Madurai and Mysore. But power 
was highly diffuse with war-band leaders from yet less Hinduised 
groups on the fringes of settled agriculture (the so-called poligars or 
palaiyakkarars of the warrior tribal Kallars and Maravas) exercising the 
functions of protection and tribute taking in the villages on behalf of 
their nominal overlords. 

Alongside the transformed remnants of the older systems of Hindu 
states stood a number of kingdoms more recently established by war- 
riors or clever entrepreneurs in the management of land revenues, 
usually rising from the flotsam and jetsam of the Muslim conquest 
states of the north and the Deccan. Afghan warrior mercenaries had 
established compact sultanates around several armed base-camps 
throughout India. Some had preceded Mughal rule in the 1680s; others 
had arisen as its servants, still others as a result of the emperors’ 
attempts to retain their power after 1707. Notable examples of Afghan 
sultanates were the Rohilla kingdoms near Delhi; the principalities of 
Bhopal and Mandu in central India; and the southern Afghans of 
Ginjee, Nellore and the far south. To create such kingdoms the mili- 
tary powers like their regional overlords and rivals needed financial ex- 
pertise and the aid of men of capital to help the aspiring ruler to remit 
an initial revenue payment to an overlord. Some of the most impress- 
ive petty kingdoms therefore came to light as farms of revenue in 
which capitalist-warriors began to exercise kingly powers. The Raj of 
Benares adopted many of the styles of patronage and worship sup- 
posedly characteristic of ancient Hindu kings. Yet in practice the 
reason that Mansa Ram was able to survive as revenue farmer and later 


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maharaja in the Awadh domains (from 1738) was that he had the 
financial support of the Hindu bankers of Benares and the military 
support of his rural clansmen. Some eighteenth-century magnates of 
Bengal — notably the great zamindari of Burdwan — originated as simi- 
lar bundles of revenue-collecting rights acquired in the service of 
Mughal governors. 

Finally, there was a range of local powers which still lay largely out- 
side the Hindu and Muslim polities which were built up on the rich 
produce of the valleys and plains. The distinction between ‘tribal’ and 
Hindu India was never simple or static. But throughout north and 
central India and the Western Ghats (hills) were peoples only lightly 
touched by the major cultures and religions who lived in part by the 
skills of the pastoralist, the slash-and-burn farmer or the hunter and 
gatherer. Some of these peoples had chieftains who were designated 
rajas by outside potentates, though often the individual nomadic camp 
or hunting family was the key political unit and the state hardly existed 
as an entity. 

The relationship between these petty kingdoms and local forms of 
production varied greatly. Sometimes as in the newly powerful state of 
Travancore on the south-west coast or Maratha Tanjore on the east 
coast, rulers intervened very closely in the production of rice or other 
valuable crops, controlling them through royal granaries and mon- 
opolies. In some cases rulers even controlled their own bands of 
ploughmen to increase the resources of the king’s ‘demesne’. How- 
ever, the general trend was towards something approximating to the 
Mughal system — payment of tax in coin and the predominance of peas- 
ant farming. Between about 1600 and 1780 for instance the old Hindu 
state of Mysore progressively upped its nominal tax revenue from 
under ro per cent of the gross produce to about 40 per cent under Tipu 
Sultan in the 1790s. Of course much of the enhanced total was never 
collected, but the growing costs of warfare and a desire for a new gran- 
diose form of kingship spread across the subcontinent. As in the re- 
gional dominions, therefore, literate and numerate service families 
became increasingly important in the affairs of these local kingdoms. 
Moneylenders and bulk traders set up in their domains as guarantors 
of revenue and provisioners of their courts. 

Petty kingdoms continued to retain their identity, their cults and 
their own form of political organisation. Still, the outward forms of 
Mughal practice at least were widely adopted. In the same way the 


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influx of service personnel from outside encouraged rulers to adopt the 
forms of worship and religious patronage common in the world of the 
larger states. As the Maravar and Kallar warlords of Tamilnadu 
fashioned themselves into Hindu kings, they imported Brahmins and 
Brahmin rituals from the great temple centres of the south. As Afghan 
rulers in the western Ganges plain and the southern Deccan gained a 
more stable hold on their realms, new Islamic seminaries and libraries 
were founded while the teachers of the Naqshbandi order of Sufi 
mystics fanned out into new territories. What emerged was not an or- 
thodox or standard pattern of religious practice so much as a subtle 
and sometimes conflict-ridden accommodation between outside 
forms of religious practice and local deities and cult saints. The ten- 
dency was towards greater complexity and richness of religious and 
cultural tradition rather than towards homogeneity. 

The eighteenth century did not therefore see a resolution of the old 
tensions between the regional and imperial hegemonies and local king- 
doms, so much as an interpenetration of these forms of power. 
Despite the high level of violence and destruction this eased the path to 
dominion of the more enterprising warriors and their administrative 
and capitalist clients. There were, however, two important conditions 
for the survival and even development of complex states and adminis- 
trative forms. First, there needed to be some degree of stability in the 
villages — some persistent authority to provide a link between the 
peasantry and the warriors who lived off them. Secondly, production 
and trade needed to survive at a sufficiently high level to provide a con- 
stant supply of services and cash for the élites. The chapter now turns 
to these issues. 


Regional kingdoms and petty states were built up and collapsed 
quickly but there was more continuity of power in the villages. 
Throughout southern and western India local leadership remained in 
the hands of the village headmen (the patel/munigar) and their subor- 
dinates the accountants (kurnam/kanikapillai) and record keepers 
who together with related families made up the village élite. Often 
those village leaderships were bonded together at a wider level by kin- 
ship or economic interest into domains controlled by local magnates 


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(deshmukhs in the Deccan; kavalgars in Tamilnadu). The hereditary 
office-holding families could often be traced back many generations. 
They assigned land to landless villagers, fixed rents and were promi- 
nent in the village arbitration councils. In rice-growing areas they 
played a prominent part in the communal organisation of agricultural 
production. The state negotiated with the agrarian community 
through the office holders and they received payments and services 
both by virtue of their leadership in the village and their réle in the 
state’s revenue machinery. In western India an early British official 
said that ‘the Patils are the most important functionaries in the villages, 
and perhaps the most important class in the country’.® The headmen 
also played a crucial role in the religious life and ritual of the villages. 
They were protectors of the village deities; they were honoured during 
the great village festivals. The traveller Francis Buchanan was told by 
farmers in Coimbatore District of Madras that even if the state were to 
deprive the headmen of their political power ‘the real hereditary muni- 
gar [Tamil for headman] will always continue to enjoy his rank as a 
chief ; for he is the only person who can perform the annual sacrifice to 
the goddess Bhadra Kali, to whom in every village there is a temple as 
being the Grama Devata or village deity’.” 

The nature of the village élite was rather different in north India. 
Here joint or individual proprietors excercised lordship rights over 
villages, controlling the waste and access to land along with ponds, 
trees and other sources of income. As in the south, this élite was pre- 
dominantly drawn from high-caste peasant communities with a tra- 
dition of warfare, and these village magnates were often linked 
together by kinship bonds to form tight-knit blocs of power which co- 
incided with the lowest unit of Mughal administration, the pargana. 
But it was rental income from tenants, along with these proprietary 
perquisites, rather than the rewards of village office which provided 
most of their livelihood. In part this difference reflected the superior 
agriculture of the Ganges valley which could support a rental profit of 
this sort (there were parts of the south, too, such as rich Tanjore 
district which also maintained joint proprietary communities — the 
mirasidars). In part it resulted from the failure of the state to penetrate 

© G. W. Forrest (ed.) M. Elphinstone, Report on the Territories Conquered from the 
Peshwa (London, 1884), p. 275. 

”. Francis Buchanan, A Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and 
Malabar (London, 1807), ii, 216. 


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beneath the armed peasant proprietor bodies. Even in the immediate 
environs of Delhi itself Mughal grandees had depended on the good- 
will of headmen of the warrior-farmer communities. 

During the eighteenth century the village notables came under 
various forms of pressure. In their search for revenue the regional and 
petty states almost always tried to gain a closer control over the head- 
men or village proprietors. Sometimes direct representatives of the 
state acquired revenue-collecting rights at the village level and eroded 
the power and perquisites of the headmen families. This was particu- 
larly true where the state was strong as in the Maratha territories 
around Poona between 1751 and 1818, or in Mysore where Haidar Ali 
and Tipu Sultan tried to eliminate all intermediaries between them- 
selves and the peasant farmers, subjecting them to new demands for 
the punctual payment of revenue. Elsewhere the absence of powerful 
authorities outside the village enhanced the authority of the élites as 
protectors and petty rulers of the villages. 

In addition the village offices in the south and west were influenced 
by economic change. Village office as a source of profit could be 
shared, mortgaged or sold; through the offices of the headmen and the 
élites villages could borrow from moneylenders on security of their 
revenue. A brisk market developed in shares in the patel’s right, in the 
joint mirasi tenures of the south and to a lesser extent in shares in vil- 
lage proprietors’ rights of north India. The people who bought into 
shares in village office were usually other peasant leaders or local mer- 
chants. Interestingly, around Poona there is evidence that some of the 
great families of the Maratha state also built up bundles of rights of this 
sort to increase their local economic control. Such commercialisation 
had not yet created a village élite independent of moral status and pol- 
itical power as it came to do under the British. Nor had it created a 
market for individual peasant land as such. Yet it was an indication of 
the deep penetration of the money economy into the countryside and 
the fact that commercial change was compatible with political fluidity 
in pre-colonial India. 

What is most striking about the meagre record of conditions in the 
villages at this period is its variety. Even during the worst period of the 
Anglo-Maratha wars observers noted that one village could be entirely 
desolate while the next, secure in the protection of some potentate, 
was dominated by prosperous farmers. A study from indigenous 
sources in Rajasthan reveals a rich peasant élite which accounted for 


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about 10 per cent of the rural population.’ The existence of such a 
group would clearly be dependent on well-developed internal markets 
and relative political stability. Given basic protection, though, it is not 
surprising that the subcontinent would support bodies of rich farmers 
and local magnates. Population density was low and there was much 
good land still to be taken under the plough. In areas of expanding 
agriculture it was not unusual to find agrarian magnates who owned 
and worked up to 200 acres of dry farm land through share-croppers 
or day-labourers and owned many plough teams. Such were the jote- 
dars of north and east Bengal who actually controlled agriculture as in- 
ferior holders beneath the more famous rentier landlords — the 
zamindars. Rural magnates of this sort were also found in parts of 
south India where much smaller peasant holdings were the order of the 
day a century later after population pressure had worked its course. 
It was shortage of labour rather than shortage of land which acted as 
the main constraint on agriculture. This helps explain the rather flex- 
ible society of the eighteenth century. ‘Traditional’ India has some- 
times seemed to be hierarchical and static. But this was true of the ideal 
order of society rather than its actual workings. Men and skills were in 
short supply so that marriage outside caste groups was common. 
Great peasant caste-clusters such as the Kunbis of western India and 
the Jats of the north allowed their males to take concubines from re- 
lated or lower caste groups. The sons of these liaisons were considered 
Jats or Kunbis in the next generation. Even some Rajput subcastes 
which were rigidly endogamous in the colonial period married outside 
caste in the eighteenth century. Caste status in the countryside was in 
fact a rather fluid matter. To some extent it was determined by how 
closely people adopted the ideal model of Brahmin or Warrior purity. 
More often than not the distinction between superior and inferior 
rural castes turned on the bearing of arms. In Gujarat at the end of 
Maratha rule the term Maratha with its connotation was generally 
applied to men of the Kunbi or peasant caste who carried weapons.’ 
Labour and skills could not always be acquired through marriage or 
domestic alliance. The force of political and religious power was also 

used to secure clients. This was all the more true since, as we now 
® Dilbagh Singh, ‘Local and land revenue administration of the state of Jaipur, c. 1750- 
1800’, unpub. Ph.D. diss. Jawaharalal Nehru University, 1975. 
? W. Hamilton, A geographical, statistical and historical account of Hindustan and the ad- 
jacent countries (London, 1820), p. 307; cf. R. O’Hanlon, Caste, conflict and ideology (Cam- 
bridge, 1985), pp. 22-4. 


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know, the ideal order of village-level caste dependencies (called the 
jajmani or balutadar system) only supplied the most refined specialist 
craftsmen and ritual servants. Eighteenth-century Indians were not 
tied into immutable village bodies or always dominated by hereditary 
divisions of labour. So agrarian clients had often to be actively sought. 
Serfs were secured from tribal groups by war or through bonds of 
indebtedness contracted with the large bodies of inferior labouring 
caste people, notably the Chamars in the north arid the Paraiyans in 
the south. The dependence of such groups was maintained not simply 
by force and economic disadvantage but also by subtle systems of 
belief which gave high-caste gentry an important role in the life rites of 
their dependants and vice versa.'° 

Did the dependence of inferior groups therefore increase in the 
eighteenth century? The evidence is both meagre and contradictory. 
Probably it is best to speak of this century as a period of widening re- 
gional differences, compared with the more coherent trends which 
have been discerned in the Mughal and British periods. Warfare and 
the problems of money supply in the late eighteenth century may well 
have reduced many poor peasants — ‘seekers of protection’ — to greater 
dependence on rich farmers, moneylenders, office-holders and sub- 
Mughal grandees. This was probably the dominant trend. On the 
other hand, the very lack of skilled labour and the desperate desire of 
petty régimes to enhance their cash revenue for military purposes 
meant that agrarian labourers prepared and able to migrate retained a 
good deal of bargaining power. Throughout the subcontinent day- 
labourers were said to have been better rewarded than established 
occupancy tenants who would not abandon their fields for reasons of 
sentiment. There are even some examples of labourers and share- 
croppers resisting landholders and yeomen by desertion or by partici- 
pation in millenarian movements claiming to improve their lot on 

The same paradox can be seen in the relations between the agrarian 
states and unsettled, semi-nomadic or tribal peoples who occupied 
such a large part of the map of the subcontinent before colonial rule. 
Indian society as a pioneer society inevitably impinged on such 
groups. The Maratha rulers of the Deccan and central India pushed 
further into the forest homelands of the Bhil and Gond tribes, convert- 

1° Gyan Prakash, ‘Reproducing inequality: spirit cults and labour relations in colonial 
eastern India’, Modern Asian Studies, xx, 2, 1986. 


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ing their tribal leaders into petty rajas and their tribesmen into bonds- 
men or tribute-givers. The great peasant communities continued their 
age-old migrations into the forests of the western Ghats or the jungles 
to the north and south of the Ganges Valley. Haidar and Tipu in 
Mysore invaded the tribal lands of the Coorgs in the 1770s and 80s and 
dragged many of them off to be Islamised and settled as agricultural 
servants near their capitals. But arable India and the state did not have 
it all its own way. With the weakening of the authority of Mughal rule 
and its clients in the north ‘headless’ nomadic and pastoral societies 
such as the Bhattis and Rangars in Haryana and Rajasthan managed to 
extend their tribal grazing grounds and areas of plunder once again.'! 

Even in the Deccan and the south where the Mughal type of state 
was making some headway during the eighteenth century, the effect 
on tribal and nomadic groups was complex. The Bedar archers earned 
large sums of money from service as guerrilla fighters in the armies of 
Mysore. Northern followers of the Arcot Muslims were astonished by 
the Kallar tribals whom they saw as ‘black complexioned people ... 
not pleasing to the eye who ate the raw flesh of animals such as the 
horse’.!* Later the Arcot rulers and their allies of the French and 
English East India Companies recruited many Kallars and Maravars as 
irregulars. This speeded the development of a money economy and 
created more marked differences of wealth and power among the 

Indian society in the eighteenth century was typical of other frontier 
societies in that the internal extent of the state’s influence and of the 
arable economy with its more hierarchical landed society was con- 
stantly in flux. Migration was followed by counter-migration, 
especially across the great empty lands of the Deccan. Settled society 
and its values were not irrevocably divided from the frontier; they 
were in a state of mutual dependence. The tribesmen and nomads fur- 
nished the settled with beeswax, honey, spices, carriage, milk and 
soldiers. The settled provided the fringes with money, cloth and grain. 
The forest continued to play a part in the artistic and religious system 
of the settled. Muslim mystical teachers often started as ‘forest 
fathers’, while the unsettled and its peoples remained powerful carriers 

"' G.L. Devra, ‘Efforts to check the problem of desertification in the north-west region of 
Rajasthan’ unpub. paper, Department of History, Dungar College, Bikaner. 

'2 Jaswant Rai, ‘Sayeed Nama’, tr. S. A. R. Bokhari, ‘Carnatic under the Nawabs as re- 
vealed through the Sayeed Nama of Jaswant Rai’, M.Litt. diss. University of Madras, 1965, 

P- 95. 


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of magic even for the Hindus who worshipped the high gods. On the 
other hand Brahmins and Muslim soldiers and administrators played a 
part in the rituals and beliefs of most of the tribal groups as they had 
done for many centuries. Brahmin administrators worked for the 
‘tribal’ rajas of Coorg. In the Gond lands a superficial Hinduisation 
had been symbolised by an injunction by the new Maratha rulers of the 
late eighteenth century against the slaughter of holy cattle. Still, the 
old tribal gods were still worshipped and human sacrifice was recorded 
from time to time even in the colonial period 


The main forces working on any agrarian economy are population, the 
diffusion of basic forms of technology and management and the buoy- 
ancy of demand which set prices. Very little is known about any of 
these indicators for eighteenth-century India. What is known paints a 
more varied picture than the one of total decline which emerges from 
earlier literature. This is consistent with the political record of the cen- 
tury. The decline of Mughal hegemony allowed the further develop- 
ment of powerful commercial forces in the regions — a huge burst of 
entrepreneurship in power and money. Such interests often became 
locked in destructive conflict. However, there were forces partly inde- 
pendent of local political power which affected the political economy 
of eighteenth-century India — population growth, external trade and 
the seasons. It is to these influences that the chapter now turns. 
Population growth was held back by epidemic disease and by per- 
iodic mortality from the failure of monsoon rains. In the long run the 
evidence from Mughal India suggests a gradual growth of population 
which may have reached 180 million for the whole of the subcontinent 
by 1750. Famines are recorded in central and western India for the 
1680s and for 1702-4. But the first sixty years of the eighteenth cen- 
tury appear to have been relatively free from widespread famines, 
though the records of the Madurai Jesuit mission speak of severe 
distress in 1709 and 1733-5,'° and there were local scarcities in north 
India. Prices rose slowly through to the 1750s, at least in central and 
north India, and this probably reflects limited population growth 

'? R. Venkatarama Ayyar, A Manual of the Puddukotai State (and edn. Puddukotai, 
1938-44), 1, 312. 


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more than the growth of bullion imports from overseas since both rice 
and dry grains moved up. Some indication of population expansion 
may also be found in the inability of Bengal to supply its weavers with 
raw cotton by the 1740s. The scattered records of internal migration 
point to continuing expansion of settlement and arable farming in 
north and east Bengal, in the jungles of southern Bihar and the Ganges 
Valley. In the south the great peasant lineages appear to have slowly 
colonised the plains and hills, moving out from the already populous 
rice basins. 

The terrible Bengal famine of 1769-70, when excessive rains led to 
crop failure and the death of at least 25 per cent of the population, 
broke this trend. There was also a severe famine in north India in 1783 
and local scarcities in Rajasthan and the south in the following decade. 
Warfare in the years 1773-1810 also damaged agriculture, particularly 
in the Delhi region and the Carnatic. Armies spread diseases to popu- 
lations already affected by malnutrition. Still, there are good reasons 
for doubting whether an earlier trend of population growth was decis- 
ively reversed. Population picked up rapidly in south Asia, particu- 
larly when, as in 1783, much of the livestock survived. In Bengal, at 
least, the labour market appears to have begun to turn against the unse- 
cured peasant farmer before the end of the century, suggesting popu- 
lation recovery. Quite high population densities are recorded in many 
of the famine districts in the early British censuses carried out in 1812 
and 1813, though there were also patches of permanently ‘deserted 

Slow agricultural improvement continued in many parts of India 
through to about 1760, and in some areas even after that date. This was 
despite political fluidity. There were of course significant examples of 
collapse. The great Mughal canal system north of Delhi fell into disuse 
sometime after 1740, while the sugar cane and indigo agriculture of 
this region and adjoining Punjab suffered from the tribulations of the 
Mughal élite and its merchant clients who had once put in stone wells 
in the environs of towns such as Panipat or Bayana. In the south the 
conflict between the Nawabs of Arcot and the Hindu rulers of Tanjore 
in the 1770s also damaged the delicate system of labour upon which the 
southern rice bowl subsisted.'* On the other hand there was new 
investment and expansion. The main roads of the growing state of 

1 But production stayed high until this point and revived again after 1785, Appendix 21 to 
the Fourth Report ... on the Affairs of the East India Company (London, 1783). 


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Awadh were lined with new irrigation ponds and wells constructed by 
its aspiring gentry. The evidence also points to a substantial intensifi- 
cation of agriculture in the great warrior states of the south and west. 
Unbiased observers constantly praised the excellent agricultural man- 
agement of the Maratha heartlands where low initial revenue rates en- 
couraged expansion and investment. Haidar Ali’s Mysore was 
regarded as ‘a garden from end to end’ and there was a great expansion 
of road and irrigation canal building. Most important, there was a con- 
tinuing painful advance of pioneer peasant cultivation on the fringes of 
the arable economy which compensated for the fall-back of high farm- 
ing in areas such as western Rajasthan or the eastern Punjab where the 
domain of nomadic and plundering groups seems to have temporarily 
increased after 1760. 

This expansion and patchy growth was reflected in the vitality of 
demand in early-eighteenth-century India. Price series are quite frag- 
mentary but those few that do exist indicate a steady trend, and in 
some cases movement upward until mid-century, albeit interrupted 
by the effects of periodic wars and local scarcities. Thereafter the series 
suggest great volatility connected with both political and climatic 
shocks, but significantly, a clear downward trend is not recorded until 
the beginning of the nineteenth century. Even if it is accepted that 
disturbances in the Mughal heartland of north India diminished the 
capacity of its élites to consume and protect, the nobility of the new 
political entities went a long way to make up for the decline. The 
Marathas acquired large quantities of grain, cattle and cloth from the 
Gangetic plain by trade; this has been obscured by the constant 
references in British and Mughal sources to their looting campaigns. 
Large volumes of cotton wool and hides from the northern Deccan, 
sugar from the Benares region and cloth from the Carnatic were 
sucked into the Mysore of the Sultans in the last thirty years of the cen- 

Foreign demand also persisted in adversity. Crises in western Asia 
combined with the impact of the initial Maratha invasions to damage 
the trade of the great Mughal seaport of Surat as early as 1720. There 
were also temporary setbacks in the trade of Bengal and the Carnatic as 
a result of the Anglo-French conflicts occasioned by the War of 
Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, but the volume of 
cloths, saltpetre and other trade goods acquired by the English Com- 
pany and other European merchants increased steadily through to 


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1770. By the 1790s new commodities — cotton wool from Gujarat and 
central India, Malwa opium and indigo — had partially made up for the 
decline of some of the old staples. Indian-owned shipping and Indian 
exporting merchants were under pressure everywhere and had gone 
into a steep decline after 1780. Indian merchants were excluded from 
free trade in many valuable commodities by British monopolies, 
especially after 1763. However, Indian goods were still transported in 
British, French and Arab shipping. 

Demand from Europeans continued to be supplemented by that of 
the Indonesian archipelago which took large quantities of Madras 
cloths; west Asian demand in the form of the trading empire of Muscat 
had also revived by 1790. The greatest purchaser, the English East 
India Company, drastically changed its form of payment after 1757 
with considerable implications for the internal economy. After Clive’s 
conquest of Bengal the British increasingly used the proceeds of their 
new Bengal revenues to pay for the goods acquired from Bengal and 
eastern India. No longer did they need to bring in bullion from exter- 
nal sources on anything like the same scale. With the decline of Surat 
and the atrophy of the Mughal revenue system this presumably 
accounts for the complaints of dearer money and trade recession 
which were heard throughout north India in the 1760s. However, this 
down-turn should not be viewed as an apocalypse. The resulting tight- 
ening of money supply did not amount to an actual demonetisation of 
the economy, except possibly on the fringes. Indeed, the ‘scarcity of 
money’ may be connected with the even stronger incentive to maxi- 
mise cash revenues and mobilise new agricultural resources found 
among rulers and élites during this period. Massive stores of precious 
metals had built up in India between 1600 and 1750. The dispersion of 
old hoards may have eased the money supply, while bullion continued 
to come in through Bombay, Madras and many smaller ports. Indian 
bankers and revenue farmers with ready cash consequently increased 
their importance in the political system. 

The acid test of the capacity of India’s huge internal economy to 
resist severe pressures of war and poor external trading conditions is 
the fact that revenue continued to be paid in cash in the second half of 
the eighteenth century. This indicates that peasants continued to pro- 
duce for markets and that traders continued to pay them in silver 
rupees or other coinages. The volumes of collection in the Mughal 
empire’s northern heartlands do not appear often to have fallen below 


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65 per cent of the nominal demand of the later Mughals while agricul- 
tural production probably intensified in the domains of the Marathas 
and Mysore. 

It may be better to conceive of economic change as the interpenetra- 
tion and conflicts between several levels of activity. These levels were 
closely related to the different levels of political power. The economy 
can be divided into three interlinked elements. First, the world of the 
great cities, of external trade and the trader-financiers who moved 
wealth around the subcontinent in the form of bullion and credit 
notes. Secondly, the ‘intermediate economy’ of mass artisan produc- 
tion, of small country towns, and of the petty farms or assignments of 
revenue, or shares in office which proliferated in the wake of state- 
building and expansion. Thirdly, the vast bulk of India’s internal 
agrarian economy. This responded to changes in the other elements 
since it was affected by money supply, demand and protection. Yet it 
always retained a great deal of autonomy — as the petty village markets 
and local cattle fairs were only spasmodically and poorly linked to the 
subcontinental economy. How far did these elements demonstrate the 
capacity for development as opposed to a simple resilience in the face 
of adversity? 

The pan-Indian economy of the towns and great trade routes un- 
doubtedly suffered disruption and flux after 1707, though its stability 
before this date should probably not be overestimated. About ro per 
cent of the population lived in towns of above 5,000 in 1800, but esti- 
mates of the percentage of urban dwellers under the Mughals vary 
from 7 per cent to 15 per cent.’ Key commercial towns of the earlier 
period — Surat, Ahmedabad, Maslipatnam and Dacca — suffered rapid 
decline. However, these were rapidly compensated for in the rise of 
British-controlled Bombay, Calcutta and Madras which will be dis- 
cussed in the next chapter. Inland cities also suffered great vicissitudes. 
Delhi, Lahore, Agra and Burhanpur, which may have accounted for 
two million people in 1700, supported 500,000 at most by 1800. But 
several important new centres had established themselves in the mean- 
time, sometimes on an earlier urban base. Lucknow, Hyderabad, 
Benares, the Maratha capitals, Mysore, Srirangapatam and Bangalore 
grew rapidly during the century as a reflection of the power of the re- 

‘5 Irfan Habib and Tapan Raychaudhuri (eds.), The Cambridge Economic Hist ry of 
India, i (Cambridge, 1982), 169. But Stephen Blake has much lower percentages, see his 
forthcoming article in South Asia. 


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gional dynasts. Trading cities such as Mirzapur, Kanpur or Baroda 
also sprang into life to service new external trades. The loss of services 
and accumulated wealth in these movements was probably consider- 
able, but it is significant how quickly demand and production was 
made up from new sources. New overland trade routes emerged to 
compensate for the clogged Mughal trade arteries; production of 
Dacca and Murshidabad fine cloths held up remarkably to supply both 
Indian courts and the requirements of European companies. New 
commercial and credit networks run by mercantile castes in both east 
and western India acted as creditors both to Indian rulers and to the 
British. The great concentrations of military and urban populations 
under Aurangzeb may have dispersed. But urbanisation was more 
widely spread across the subcontinent by 1800. 

In some of these centres there is evidence that merchant entrepre- 
neurs gathered bodies of dependent weavers into something that ap- 
proximated more to the conditions of wage-labour in factories. The 
cheapness of labour and relatively low technological level of weaving 
appears, however, to have perpetuated the tried system of advances 
and piece-work. Signs of a technological or institutional breakthrough 
in the weaving sector are too scattered to suggest any trend. The grow- 
ing dominance of Europeans in India’s external trade and of the 
English Company in the internal capital market suggests a clear limit 
to the autonomy of its capitalists. 

A more important source of wealth for Indian trader-bankers was 
investment in political and military activity. Indigenous bankers were 
closely connected with the great families of revenue farmers, giving 
them advances on the security of their holdings. In several of the smal- 
ler eighteenth-century states trader-bankers were a key political group 
by the 1760s. Under the Mughals they may have been vital to the 
working of economy and society, but they never held open political 

The problems of the great grid of subcontinental markets, produc- 
tion and capital does not necessarily imply that decline or disruption 
was universal or persistent in the other two elements of the economy. 
In fact, the presumption that the decline of a powerful, extractive all- 
India state in the form of the Mughal Empire brought misery seems a 
curious reflexive shadow thrown by the imperialists of the following 
century. In theory it is possible that the decline of such an empire 
could have led to a more intensive and efficient use of resources in the 


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still large regional entities that survived its demise. The record on the 
ground, once cleared of the biases of contemporary discourse, pro- 
vides some evidence of economic growth. Rural fixed markets (ganjs 
in north India; pettas in the south) were being created in great numbers 
in the first half of the eighteenth century. In the much less favourable 
conditions after 1750 such markets were still appearing in Awadh, 
Maharashtra and peninsular India. The presence of substantial 
yeoman-magnates cultivating their lands with day-labourers, share- 
croppers and large teams of ploughs has already been noted in Bengal, 
Benares and the south. This sort of development was often associated 
with growth of new centres of artisan production directed at mass re- 
gional markets. 

The fine spread of new élites and flexible political institutions 
across the country following the waning of Mughal power sometimes 
intensified such changes. The putting out to ‘farm’ of revenues — 
denounced by the old school of Mughal political economist was as- 
sociated with growth in western Awadh under the great manager 
Almas Ali Khan and the Maratha territories under the peshwas even in 
the last quarter of the century. Elsewhere military magnates and 
gentry encouraged the settlement of agricultural specialists in order to 
raise the revenue potential of their fiefs. Trader-bankers, far from 
being unproductive usurers, invested in shares in the open and flexible 
village economies of Rajasthan and western India, providing relief in 
the event of bad seasons. 

To understand the political economy of eighteenth-century India, 
we must therefore make a distinction between economic institutions 
and economic cycles. After 1760 many unfavourable trends began to 
operate on regional economies, though these were certainly not uni- 
versal. However, long-term development of commercialisation in 
India — of credit, of markets and of the significance of traders and 
moneylenders — continued. It was these forms which facilitated, even 
attracted, British intervention and conquest. 


In the commercial world the decline of Mughal hegemony gave free 
rein to forms of entrepreneurship throughout the subcontinent, but 
the result was to intensify conflict. An analogy can be made here with 


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developments in religious and social life. The creation of successor 
states allowed to deepen the existing synthesis between the ‘high re- 
ligion’ of the Brahmins and the Kuranic schools and particular forms 
of worship in different regions of India. However, rapid change also 
led to religious conflict and the creation of strong religious identities 
whose consequences flowed over into the colonial period. 

Eighteenth-century Europeans were still impressed by the richness 
of the high traditions of Hindu and Muslim civilisations in India and 
intrigued by their popular forms. Sir William Jones who founded the 
Asiatic Society of Bengal (1784) and the Frenchman A. Anquetil 
Duperron venerated the Hindu scriptures as manifestations of an- 
tiquity comparable with the relicts of ancient Greece and Rome. But 
discourse about Indian culture was already set into trends which 
would produce the early Victorian denunciations of ‘superstition and 
barbarism’. The supercilious William Tennant condemned the 
domestic economy of Hindus for corruption and superstition which 
he thought laid the basis for ‘public tyranny’. Francis Buchanan whose 
topographies and accounts provided models for later amateur British 
ethnographers compared Hinduism unfavourably with the ascetic 
Buddhism which he had encountered in Burma. More modern oriental 
scholarship has ignored or dismissed the record of the eighteenth cen- 
tury since it apparently threw up no great devotional poets and tea- 
chers of the Hindu tradition comparable with those who had 
flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: notably Chaitanya 
in Bengal and Kabir in north India. Even the doctrinal vitality of Sik- 
hism seemed to diminish after the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 

Yet for all this the eighteenth century was a period of creativity in 
Indian religious and cultural life, not a sultry pause before the ‘redis- 
covery’ of Hinduism and Islam in the next century. The centres of the 
learned and philosophical Hinduism retained great vigour. Contem- 
porary political change provided its own incentive for cultural reinter- 
pretation. In the south the Maratha court of Tanjore presided over an 
outpouring of poetry, religion and dance in the first half of the century 
which resulted from the fusion of the ancient Vaishnavism of the south 
with the Shaivism and north Indian influences of the new rulers. 
Benares, strengthened by the continuation of all-India pilgrimage pat- 
terns, was vitalised by the influx of southern and Deccan Brahmins: its 
teaching institutions were likened to a university by European visi- 


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tors. New centres of learning also grew up. In Bengal the patronage of 
local magnates enhanced the ancient Vaishnavite centre of Nadia as a 
centre of scholarship in Sanskrit and the Dayabhaga Hindu law. It was 
these flourishing traditions which were taken as exemplars of Hin- 
duism by the scholars of the later part of the century who worked for 
British patrons or who had knowledge of the western critical textual 
traditions. So Henry Colebrooke worked with a Nadia Brahmin when 
he sought to draw up a ‘code of Hindoo law’. Jonathan Duncan, 
British Resident of Benares, elicited fitful and suspicious interest 
from Benares pandits when he tried to establish the Benares Hindoo 
College. In the south Raja Serfoji of Tanjore, who had been edu- 
cated by Danish missionaries, resurrected the literary and musical 
traditions of his immediate predecessors with the eye of an enlighten- 
ment scholar. 

Eighteenth-century Muslim learned men also propagated a vigor- 
ous, developing tradition. This was not surprising in view of the rapid 
changes which took place in the political and economic circumstances 
of Indian Islam. The growing influence of the Shia sect, expressed par- 
ticularly in the new court of Awadh, combined with a sense of unease 
among Sunni Muslims throughout the world to provoke a major reass- 
essment of thought and practice. In Delhi the famous teachers Shah 
Waliullah and Shah Abdul Aziz spanned the century with their flow of 
tracts and analyses of Islam’s contemporary weakness. Naqshbandiya 
sufi teachers sought to strengthen the faith through a rapprochement of 
the learned and mystical patterns of Islamic practice and had estab- 
lished a large number of teaching institutions in the imperial capital 
and its environs before 1800.'® In the Punjab there was a vigorous de- 
velopment of the Chishti sufi order associated with a series of famous 
teachers whose shrines became the moral heart of the lives of Punjab’s 
Muslims. The expanding Muslim states of the Deccan and southern 
India also drew in learned men from the north. The Nawab of Arcot 
venerated and maintained Maulana Abdul Ali Bahr-ul Ulum, teacher 
from the famous Lucknow seminary of Firangi Mahal,’” as well as 
Maulana Baqir Agha, representative in Arcot of the learned traditions 

‘© W. Fusfeld, ‘The shaping of sufi leadership in Delhi: the Naqshbandiyya Mujaddidiya, 
1750-1920’, unpub. Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1981. 

'7 F.C. R. Robinson, ‘The «/ama of Firangi Mahal and their adab’, in B. D. Metcalf (ed.), 
Moral conduct and authority. The place of adab in South Asian Islam (Berkeley, 1984). 


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of the Deccan.'® Everywhere the state-builders of the eighteenth cen- 
tury sought the solace of holy men and built up Islamic libraries. 
Rohilla Afghans, for instance, maintained a close link with men of the 
Nagshbandi order. Everywhere the Afghans established petty king- 
doms from Rampur in the north to Nellore in Tamilnadu the chain of 
pupil-teacher relationships was expanded. 

But it was not just the formal, learned traditions within Hinduism 
and Islam which took on new patterns. Popular cults and shrines dis- 
played remarkable vigour, often in accommodation with practices 
drawn from the high traditions. All Indian rulers sought to secure 
their domains by linking themselves to centres of religious power, 
Hindu, Muslim and even Christian. Again the mobile warrior bands of 
the age were particularly favourable to the syncretic styles of religious 
practice which crossed the boundaries of the great faiths. In the north 
the Marathas supported the important shrine of Sheikh Muin-uddin 
Chishti in Ajmer, already a shrine of popular veneration for the 
Hindus of Rajasthan. In the south the Hindu Rajas of Tanjore and the 
severely Calvinistic Dutch merchants supported the shrine of Shaikh 
Shahul Hamid of Nagore, centre of an integrated network of Hindu, 
Christian and Muslim shrines which attracted veneration from the 
mercantile people of the Coromandel coast. On the south-west coast 
the expansionist rajas of Travancore adopted ceremonies of kingship 
representing the highest Brahminical aspirations. Yet in the corona- 
tion ceremony of his neighbour, the Raja of Cochin, local Jewish and 
Christian merchant people played an important symbolic réle. 

Developments in the religious practices of the ordinary townsmen 
and countrypeople are most difficult to chart for the eighteenth cen- 
tury. Among Hindus the devotional or bhakti cults appear to have 
maintained the popularity they achieved in the preaching phase of the 
previous two centuries. Ordinary people became followers of the 
popular cults associated with the Rama and Krishna cults of north 
India. Based on towns such as Brindaban, Ajodhya and Muttra, de- 
votional religion was spread through the medium of the developing 
Hindi language, popular festivals and popular art. Local warfare seems 
even to have enhanced the popularity of these cults and the ascetic 
orders associated with them. Ascetics (Gosains and Bhairagis) had 

18M. Y. Kokan, Arabic and Persian in the Carnatic (Madras, 1976) p. 148; Zakira 
Ghouse, ‘Baquir Agha’s contribution to Arabic, Persian and Urdu literatures’, unpub. 
M.Litt. diss., Madras University, 1973. 


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forged themselves into powerful armed brotherhoods; they were also 
able to accumulate large quantities of capital because of their corporate 
organisation. Peasants and farmers looked to them for protection and 
finance in adversity and even donated their children to them in times of 
famine. In the same way the deification by ordinary Hindu and ‘tribal’ 
peoples of eighteenth-century Muslim and Hindu warriors speaks 
again of the capacity of ordinary Hindus to incorporate into their 
belief and imaginative world dangerous forces from the outside. 

Of course, it has been said that developments such as these were no 
more than the sterile elaborations of traditions which were incapable 
of creativity. But this too needs examination since it echoes the 
missionaries’ castigation of the ‘meaningless ramblings’ of the Brah- 
mins, besides assuming the need for modernisation along Western 
lines. In fact, several of the traditions elaborated in the eighteenth cen- 
turies had distinctly practical applications. The Islamic teaching 
course, the Darz-i-Nizamiya developed at Firangi Mahal, Lucknow, 
owed its popularity in part to the fact that it provided an excellent edu- 
cation for the type of man of business needed in the contemporary 
courts as registrars, judges and revenue agents. The Delhi reformers 
similarly spent much of their time debating matters of inheritance, 
usury, relations with non-Muslims, particularly apposite to a period 
of rapid change. Again, the Usuli branch of Shia Islam which became 
established in the Awadh court emphasised rationalistic discrimination 
in matters of religious practice, an approach well suited to a kingdom 
grappling with problems of finance and British penetration.'? 

Nor was Hindu learning and religion ‘otherworldly’ to the point 
that it stultified beneficial social and economic change. Literacy in 
parts of north India may have been low by wider Asian standards.”° 
However, letters supposedly from a Brahmin to Danish missionaries 
in Tranquebar and observations from a century later describe a well- 
developed system of pandit schools throughout the Tamil country. If 
a boy picked up the arithmetical forms taught here: 

He may do anything in accounts, and may earn a very handsome maintenance 
in these countries, especially if he is capable of being an accountant in the 

19 J. R. 1. Cole, ‘Imami Shi’ism from Iran to North India’, unpub, Ph.D. diss., University 
of California, Los Angeles, 1983. 

20 J. R. Hagen, ‘Indigenous society, the political economy and colonial education in Patna 
district. A history of social change, 1811-1951’, unpub. diss., University of Virginia, Char- 
lottesville, 1981, p. 284. 


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Pagods [local silver coins], where receipts and disbursements are very dif- 
ferent, and therefore the more difficult [1717].”" 

This widespread practical literacy is consonant with the mobility of 
men of the ordinary Tamil agricultural castes into the position of 
managing agents (dubashes) for both the incoming Mughal govern- 
ment and later the British. 

A similar picture emerges from art. This was not a period of unrel- 
ieved stagnation despite the collapse of the culture of the great Mughal 
cities. It was during these years that the great schools of Indian music 
entrenched themselves in the regional power centres in both north and 
south India. Carnatic music was given a great impetus in the courts of 
Tanjore, while the Afghans of Farrukhabad also established a major 
tradition. The representation of devotion to God Krishna within the 
small states of the north is attested to by the vitality of the painting of 
Kangra and Rajasthan which broke away from the formalism of 
Mughal miniature painting. Even the architecture of the new centres 
such as Lucknow or Hyderabad or the Arcot palace at Chepauk, once 
considered ‘baroque’ or ‘degenerate’, can be regarded as a creative 
response to western European styles and an abandonment of the 
sombre formalism of the Mughal tradition. 

Along with this vitality went conflict. The foundation in 1699 of the 
Sikh warrior brotherhood, the Khalsa, gave an added edge of commu- 
nal solidarity, sometimes even aggression, to a movement which 
hitherto had been syncretic and lacking in militancy. The decline of 
empire saw an increasingly bitter conflict between the Sunni and Shia 
branches of Islam, while the implications for relations between 
Hindus and Muslims of the many and varied movements of Islamic 
reform were doubtful. As in the realms of politics and the economy, 
creativity and conflict were deeply interconnected. 

The eighteenth century in India was neither a period of universal 
collapse nor one of easy social transformation. It saw rather a resilient 
adaptation to political and economic conflict by élites, merchants, 
peasants and artisans which favoured some of these groups at the 
expense of others. The myth of universal anarchy and the fall of the 
Mughal empire has proved persistent in part because it seems to offer 
an easy explanation for the speed with which the British were able to 

21 “Mr. Phillips’, An Account of the religion, manners and learning of the people of Mala- 
bar (London, 1717), p. 66. 


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penetrate and dominate a subcontinent which had held them at bay for 
so long. But a more balanced and less pessimistic view can also help to 
explain western domination. For these positive changes in Indian 
society also helped the British. The growing divorce between the auth- 
ority and the power of the Mughal helped the East India Company to 
establish legitimacy within the Indian system. In the same way the 
military and commercial sophistication of the Indian scene could be 
turned to the Company’s advantage. By paying regular and generous 
wages its agents could sweep into service men of the north Indian 
soldier castes; its protection could procure the support of merchant 
credit-networks; its formal adherence to the science of Indo-Persian 
justice and revenue management attracted the service of the literate 
gentry both Hindu and Muslim. At a humbler level the spread of the 
skills of management, of money-changing and money-use provided 
the colonialists with the keys to unlock the wealth of Indian rural 
society. By buying into revenue-farms, monopolies and the political 
perquisites which had been the stock in trade of the eighteenth- 
century kingdoms, Company servants and free merchants effectively 
made the transition between trade and dominion before the authorities 
in England knew what was afoot. It is to these developments that the 
next chapter turns. 


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Europeans had been domesticated into the Indian scene since the early 
seventeenth century. Like the great Arab, Asian and Jewish trading 
communities, the Europeans — Portuguese, Dutch, French and 
English — were attracted to the Indian trade by her fine manufactures 
of cloth and silk and her agricultural raw materials, notably indigo, 
pepper, cardamum and other spices. Around their coastal settlements, 
particularly Portuguese Goa, Europeans already exercised consider- 
able local influence in the wars and politics of the maritime states. 
However, under the great Mughals their trade had even begun to affect 
the inland economy in one important respect. Europeans paid for their 
commodity purchases in silver bullion from the New World, in Japa- 
nese copper and sometimes in gold. Precious metals were only found 
in India in small quantities, yet India’s revenues and much of her rents 
were paid in cash. Europeans therefore filled an important function in 
providing the raw materials for the coin which made the internal econ- 
omy — indeed the Mughal hegemony as a whole — function smoothly. 
In this sense India was already linked to and partly dependent on the 
European world economy from earlier than was once thought. 

The European réle did not begin to grow significantly until the war 
of the Austrian Succession, 1744-7. In their attempt to destroy each 
others’ trade and political influence on the southern (Coromandel) 
coast, the English and French East India Companies became embroi- 
led in the factional conflicts between Muslim military leaders, and 
these intensified following the death of the Nizam of Hyderabad, Asaf 
Jah, in 1748. Superior British naval strength and larger capital re- 
sources allowed them to beat off the French challenge and at the same 
time to consolidate their hold over their Indian client, Mahomed Ali, 
Nawab of Arcot, who was officially a subordinate of the Hyderabad 
régime. By the time of the Peace of Paris (1763) which ended the 
Seven Years’ War between Britain and France, the French had been 
reduced to minor intrigue and impotence throughout India. 

In 1757 Robert Clive used the now greatly augmented forces of the 
English Company at Madras in a dispute with the Nawab of Bengal. 


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This had arisen over the fortification of Calcutta in response to a resur- 
gence of French power, but it escalated when the Nawab, Siraj-ud 
Daula attempted to expel all the English from Bengal and its riches. 
Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1757 followed by the defeat of the client 
Nawab Mir Kasim and his north Indian allies at Buxar in 1764 made 
the position of the British in Bengal unassailable. Hereafter they were 
able to use the land revenues of Bengal to support a yet larger army, to 
intervene in the internal politics of other Indian states and decisively to 
check the threat from the new, more militarily alert Indian kingdoms, 
notably Mysore and the Marathas, which rose to prominence in the 
later half of the century. 

A critical condition for British success was naval dominance in the 
Indian Ocean and Arabian seas. By 1760 Bombay and Calcutta both 
had large merchant fleets involved in inter-Asian trade which could be 
stiffened by flotillas of the Royal Navy and used to supply hard- 
pressed coastal settlements throughout the subcontinent. British ships 
now carried much of India’s most valuable external trade to west Asia 
and the Far East. But the English Company servants also had large cor- 
porate and private interests in the inland trade of India. Unable to viol- 
ate the Company’s monopoly on direct trade to Europe, they invested 
their earnings in the so-called ‘country trade’. This created a myriad of 
ties between them and the Indian merchant communities and made their 
commerce critical to the finances of Indian states. Indian rulers derived 
between 5 and 15 per cent of their income from taxes on internal trade. 
Besides, flourishing trade was essential to the workings of the land-revenue 
system and the functioning of the agrarian economy as a whole. 

The next two chapters discuss the reasons for the British conquest of 
India between 1757 and 1818 particularly from the vantage point of the 
indigenous conditions which made it possible. In the past (though not 
always by contemporaries themselves) Indian politics and trade were 
seen as irremediably disorganised and self-destructive. Yet from 
another perspective the British were drawn into internal trade and 
politics precisely because they were buoyant, volatile and immensely 
profitable. The large artisan industrial sector was linked through flows 
of commodities to the agrarian hinterlands and through flows of 
money to Indian administrations and armies. Trade, politics and rev- 
enue were so closely intertwined that any successful entrepreneur had 
to work in all these fields. The British were sucked into the Indian 
economy by the dynamic of its political economy as much as by their 
own relentless drive for profit. In turn, the Company was forced to 


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build an army and develop new administrative methods to contain not 
so much India’s crises of degeneration, but the crises which arose from 
its long-term expansion. Chapter 2 shows how indigenous entrepre- 
neurs and the late Mughal commercial and fiscal systems were a forma- 
tive influence in the emergence of British India. Chapter 3 shows how 
some Indian states were undermined by the pressure of the system of 
alliances which the Company constructed to contain these intensified 
economic and political conflicts. It also shows how other states were 
forced into reconstruction and into powerful resistance which was 
only narrowly defeated by the Company’s political cohesion and 
gathering military strength. 


The first chapter has shown that India in the eighteenth century was a 
dynamic, though conflict-ridden, society. During the years 1680- 
1750 the waning of the Mughal hegemony had allowed the lower ranks 
of India’s ‘hierarchy of kings’ to achieve greater autonomy. Following 
the strengthening of regional centres of power the typical Islamic 
system of farming out the state’s revenues extended in the north and 
spread to areas of central and south India where it had made little 
impact before. Military entrepreneurs farmed revenue, engaged in 
local agricultural trade, and tried to build up holdings of zamindari 
land in the countryside. The magnates’ great households were usually 
closely linked to merchant houses of Hindu or Jain origin. These firms 
were essential to political dominion. They could mobilise large re- 
serves of liquid capital at times other than the harvest period because 
merchants alone participated in all-India chains of trade and credit. 
Busy markets for agricultural produce and for rights and offices con- 
tinued to develop in the villages and fixed bazaars of areas which had 
survived or prospered in the political flux. 

These actors ~ the petty kings, the revenue and military entrepre- 
neurs, the great bankers and the warrior peasant lords of the villages — 
all represented forms of indigenous capitalism. All derived wealth 
from commodity trade; all speculated in money profit. The revenue 
farmers and rural lords were dependent on trade and the operation of 
rural markets because peasants had to sell their produce in order to pay 
rent in silver rupees. However isolated they were, even the rural 
Hindu lords needed cash to buy cannon, muskets, elephants and other 
badges of power and status. 


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Yet the interests and culture of these different types of entrepreneur 
were often in conflict. The Mughal emperors had sought to control 
local officials through a delicate system of checks and balances. As this 
system atrophied the way was left open for more severe conflict. The 
growing intervention of merchants in military finance and soldiers in 
trade, usury and revenue management provided many occasions for 
such conflict. Rulers and revenue farmers needed credit to tide them 
over the periods between harvests as they were required to equip and 
pay armies month by month throughout the year. This encouraged 
them to squeeze the merchants and village magnates. Merchants for 
their part avoided direct management of agrarian taxation and were re- 
luctant to disburse resources which they might need in commodity 
trades. It was in the interest of the village magnates to protect their 
resources from all outside interference and to construct their own net- 
works of credit in the countryside. Above all, the successor states to the 
Mughals were often in conflict with each other, fighting for cash revenues 
and for the still limited pool of agricultural and artisan labour. 

The English East India Company was the great beneficiary of this 
age of war, flux and opportunity. The Company was able to play off 
one state against another and offer its own formidable services for sale 
in the all-India military bazaar. At the same time its own interests in 
the textile trade encouraged the Company to support the Indian mer- 
cantile interests in their periodic conflicts with military entrepreneurs 
and revenue farmers. The very flexibility and sophistication of these 
networks for making money inexorably drew the Company and its 
servants into politics. Politics, warfare and land management all deli- 
cately interpenetrated each other. And since the British inherited the 
expansive but fragile system of Mughal revenue management, the 
Company soon found itself in conflict also with the Hindu warrior 
lords of the countryside. The need to ‘pacify’ this second key element 
of Indian society forced the European merchant adventurers to con- 
struct a larger and larger army, and the framework of an adminis- 
tration which could sustain trade and bring in ever-growing quantities 
of tribute and revenue. 


It was in Bengal that the British most clearly exploited the conflicts of 
the Indian body politic. From the early eighteenth century the Com- 


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pany had emerged preeminent on India’s external routes. The disrup- 
tion of trade on the west coast resulting from turmoil in Iran and 
Arabia and the Maratha attacks on the old Mughal seaport had encour- 
aged western Indian Hindu merchant groups to rely increasingly on 
the protection of the British fleet during the 1730s and 40s. The 
growth of the export of textiles from Bengal between i690 and 1740, 
and the burgeoning profits to be made on the triangular trade between 
India, China and Britain, had gradually built up the importance of 
Calcutta at the expense of its Mughal counterpart, Hughly. The 
English Company was much more heavily capitalised than its nearest 
rival, the French, and was usually able to beat the competition in the 
Bengal textile market. Since the Company paid for its goods with 
silver until Robert Clive’s coup of 1757, it had developed close re- 
lations with the great banking houses of the Bengal Nawabs, especially 
the famous Jagat Seths and another north Indian banker, Omichand. 
The desire of the Company (and of its servants trading on their own 
account) to control textile supplies at source, also encouraged them to 
try to get direct control of local merchants and weavers in inland 
towns such as Lakshmipur, Dacca and Patna. 

The politics of Bengal in the 1740s and sos were volatile. Beginning 
in 1704 when Murshid Kuli Khan was appointed diwan Mughal pro- 
vincial government had been reorganised. His successors became vir- 
tually independent dynasts or nawabs. In their desire to streamline 
revenue administration they encouraged the consolidation of about 
thirty great zamindaris. Some of these were long-established Hindu 
chieftains whose social influence selected them out as useful intermedi- 
aries between the nawabs and local society. But several, such as the 
magnates of Burdwan and Rajshahi, originated as servants of the court 
who had amalgamated land grants and made permanent earlier farms 
of the land revenue. They were typical late Mughal fiscal lords, in fact, 
and such magnates were at risk from the envy of a cash-hungry ruler. 
Even more at risk were the Jagat Seths and allied banking interests 
whose extraordinary wealth marked them out as milch cows. The 
Seths’ influence had increased as the nawabs themselves removed the 
checks and balances of the Mughals. The Seths and Omichand 
gathered all aspects of state and zamindari finance into their hands. 
They now controlled the Bengal mint, they remitted the periodic pay- 
ments to the Delhi court; they advanced money on the outturn of the 
harvest; increasingly they became financiers and through their net- 
works of smaller dealers, purchasers for the British in inland markets. 


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So a conflict between the different actors in Bengal politics inevitably 
brought in the British. This was all the more so because, since the 
Maratha invasions of Bengal in 1742 and 44 and the European war be- 
tween the British and the French, trading profits in Bengal had been 
less secure. 

The accession to power of the young Siraj-ud-Daula following the 
death of the ‘old Nabob’ Alivardi Khan in 1756 provided the occasion 
for crisis. The new ruler, in an attempt to consolidate his power, began 
to squeeze resources out of the large zamindars and the Jagat Seths. 
Siraj-ud-Daula’s relations with the British also soured rapidly as the 
British, fearing a French attack, fortified Calcutta. This and the refusal 
of the Company to send the customary presents to the Nawab was 
taken by him as a virtual declaration of war. The British were forced to 
flee from Calcutta but, for the Indian merchants and zamindars this 
expulsion could not be borne long; their own interests had become far 
too closely intertwined with the fate of the Europeans who imported 
silver and bought the productions of their zamindaris and their trade 

The British and the alienated Bengali factions therefore plotted the 
nawab’s overthrow. They could employ detachments of the Com- 
pany’s troops from Madras which had been augmented by the Anglo- 
French conflict around Madras. On 30 April 1757 Robert Clive, who 
had been commanding the Company’s forces in Madras, noted the 
conspiracy against Siraj-ud-Daulah led ‘by several of the great men, at 
the head of which is Jugget Seit himself’. In June of that year following 
Clive’s commitment of British support to the conspiracy, he remarked 
about Jagat Seth that ‘as he is a person of the greatest property and 
influence in the three subas [Provinces: Bengal, Bihar and Orissa] and 
of no inconsiderable weight at the Mogul’s court, it was natural to 
determine on him, as the properest person to settle the affairs of this 

Clive’s coup of August 1757, which installed Mir Jaffar as ruler and 
delivered into the hands of the Company control of the court and £4 
million of Bengal revenues and presents, was a fortuitous revolution. 
A key feature had been the estrangement within Bengal of the court 
and the fiscal and trading groups which sustained it. In this the coup 

' Clive to Select Committee, Calcutta, 30 June 1857; Clive to Pigot, 30 April 1787, S. C. 
Hill, Bengal in 1756-7 (London, 1905), ii, 457, 468. cf. J. Nicholl, ‘The British in India, 
1740-63: A study in imperial expansion in Bengal’, unpub. Cambridge Ph.D. diss., 1973, pp. 


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resembled many other incidents in Indo-Islamic history, the replace- 
ment of Mir Rustam Ali as revenue farmer of Benares by Mansa Ram 
in 1738 or the military and fiscal conspiracy which put Haidar Ali in 
power in Mysore in 1761, for instance. But there was one critical dif- 
ference. All this had happened within the context of a system of world 
trade in which the British were rapidly becoming dominant. The 
Bengal revenues could therefore be used to counterbalance the Com- 
pany’s trading performance which had been deteriorating since about 
1740 as a result of war and competition from the private trade of its 
own servants. The revenues could also be used to pay for the Com- 
pany’s ever-growing army. 

Bengal, which had probably been the wealthiest province of Mughal 
India, proved an extraordinary prize for the British. It put the Com- 
pany and its servants at an enormous advantage in dealings with all 
other states and economies in the subcontinent. The massive Rs 30 
million land revenues, secured by good natural irrigation, were 
deployed throughout the later part of the century to support the 
poorer presidencies of Bombay and Madras which at this time had no 
similar rich hinterlands. After 1765 when the Company took over 
direct administration of these revenues as diwan it was able to support 
its embarrassed trade profits by channelling them into the annual 
‘investment’ in Bengal goods destined for the London market. Bengal 
was also a rice surplus area except briefly during the terrible famine of 
1769-70. Its produce was shipped up the Ganges to support British 
inland garrisons. During the second Mysore war (1780-4) and the 
ensuing famine, rice was despatched to Madras; even Bombay was fed 
by sea from Bengal during 1791. Besides its weaving industry which 
was still at a high level of production as late as 1790, Bengal supported 
a large class of literate Hindu gentry who had early showed themselves 
adept in both commerce and revenue management. 

Yet from the point of view of both the Company and its servants 
seeking to amass private fortunes it was the particular form of com- 
mercialisation in late Mughal Bengal which stood out as their greatest 
advantage. Buoyant commodity trade and the inroads of fiscal entre- 
preneurs under the nawabs had resulted in the farming out or market- 
ing of ‘shares’ of a whole range of enterprises. The Company secured 
control of monopolies of valuable produce such as saltpetre, salt, 
indigo and betel nut. Its servants penetrating into the interior after 
1757 built up huge fortunes by using political influence to gain privi- 
leges and to exempt themselves and their servants from Mughal 


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British territory: 

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custom dues. It was this development which brought to a head the 
conflicts between the Company and its ‘client nawab’, Mir Kasim in 
1763. The subsequent war against Mir Kasim and his ally the Nawab of 
Awadh and their defeat at Buxar (22 October 1764) allowed Clive to 
achieve complete control in Bengal. In 1765 the Company began to 
administer the revenues of Bengal as diwan of the Mughal Emperor. 

A further bonanza for the Company and its servants ensued. When 
in 1772 Warren Hastings allowed European officials into the hinter- 
land as revenue collectors, they were able to exploit the market in 
rights and privileges to the full. So, for instance, the Hon. Robert 
Lindsay became revenue farmer of the district of Sylhet. Aided by the 
local monopoly of catching elephants and supplying the bazaars of 
Calcutta with oranges, he was able to acquire a large fortune during 
the 1770s.” 

The unstable commercialisation of late Mughal India was, however, 
modified in one crucial respect. The Company’s profits in land- 
revenue management and private individuals’ fortunes built up 
through the purchase of nawabi perquisites were now used to sustain a 
system of world trade which stretched to Canton and London. After 
1757 the Company virtually ceased to import bullion into Bengal, 
which precipitated a severe credit crisis in eastern India. Instead it used 
the proceeds of political power — cash revenues — to finance its trade. 
Private merchants and Company servants invested much of their earn- 
ings in inland trading, so opening up new pressures on the up-country 
powers of Benares and Awadh. But fortunes were also remitted to 
Europe by covert means, through Portuguese, Austrian or Dutch 
agents in Canton and Macao. 

Indian capital represented by the Jagat Seths and Omichand connec- 
tions, along with the zamindars of west Bengal and dissident military 
entrepreneurs, had provided the support and the occasion for the Bri- 
tish coup in Bengal, just as similar groups had supported earlier 
schisms and rebellions in Indo-Muslim history. They also exploited 
new fields for entrepreneurship opened up by the coups of 1757 and 
1763. True, the Jagat Seths themselves were rapidly deposed from 
their controlling influence over the revenue and trade of the province. 
But other indigenous capitalists quickly filled their rdle, though now 
fronted by and subordinate to the vast system of British peculation and 
inland trade. The inheritors were men who controlled the skills of ad- 
ministration, literacy and commercial management, as often from the 

2 W. Seton-Karr, Rulers of India. The Marquess Cornwallis (Oxford, 1893), p. 29. 


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@ Aurangabad Pus 


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3 South India: physical and towns 

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literate Brahmin, Vaidya and Kayastha gentry as from the professional 
Hindu and Jain commercial castes. Most effective were the banians or 
commercial agents of the most influential British officers who built up 
large fortunes in trade and revenue management while beginning to 
buy up land rights in the environs of Calcutta. These were not simply 
creatures of the British. A man like Krishna Kanta Nandi (‘Cantoo 
Babu’), banian of Francis Sykes and Warren Hastings, was already a 
successful estate manager and silk trader before he came into direct 
European employment. Of course, the banians and agents of the later 
eighteenth century were not fundamentally different as a social group 
from the mutsaddis or men of business who had served the Muslim 
magnates and revenue farmers and were found in all the eighteenth- 
century successor states. Yet there were differences. The operation of 
the new British courts which came into being after 1772, and the 
greater access to landed income afforded by the early colonial régime, 
offered them a much more secure base than the uncertain alliance- 
making and alliance-breaking of the indigenous polities. 

Ultimately, pressures from London combined with the need for 
regular revenues in time of war forced the Company to inhibit the 
dynamic flow of resources from fiscal through military to trading 
entrepreneurship. This was the aim of the Permanent Settlement of 
land revenue in Bengal of 1793, the gradual end to the practice of rev- 
enue farming, and the prohibition on private trading by Company ser- 
vants. First, however, this section will trace the relationship between 
different forms of indigenous capital and the expansion of British 
power in other parts of coastal India. 


In southern India the two centres of Company influence before 1760 
were Madras and the rich provinces of the rivers Krishna and Godavari 
known later as the Northern Circars. The Northern Circars had been 
the scene of some of the English Company’s earliest trading and diplo- 
matic ventures as towns such as Maslipatnam and Vizagapatnam rival- 
led Bengal in their production of fine cloths and printed designs. The 
interior of the country was held by large numbers of well-armed 
Hindu zamindars whose fortresses dominated local market villages. 
The whole tract was highly productive and commercialised. A British 
report of 1776 noted that ‘the forests to the west produce teak and 


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other valuable woods; they have mines which might furnish iron for 
many useful purposes; saltpetre is made on the borders of Guntoor 
Circar; the sugar cane grows luxuriantly in Rajamundhry Circar, and 
over the whole country are weavers in great numbers’. 

Muslim powers in search of revenue and produce had long been 
influential in this territory, battling with the Hindu zamindars for 
control of labour and resources. But as in Bengal the early eighteenth 
century saw the agents of regional powers — in this case the Nizam of 
Hyderabad — intensifying their pressure. Between 1732 and 1739, for 
instance, Rustam Khan, local governor of Rajamundhry, fought many 
campaigns against the Hindu chiefs, forcing them to pay regular rev- 
enue and putting over them revenue farmers from among client 
Muslim and Hindu families whom he rewarded with grants of 
revenue-free lands. In the following decade Charles de Bussy, a 
French general fighting on behalf of Hyderabad, warred down more of 
the Hindu chiefs and expropriated rights and trade privileges. 

The new, more intense pressure generated by Muslim entrepreneurs 
and their Hindu servants for cash-revenue provided the context within 
which successive British commercial residents in the coastal towns of 
Maslipatnam and Vizagapatnam penetrated into the market for mon- 
opolies and perquisites, both on Company service and for their own 
private business. While the country was still formally a coastal prov- 
ince under the control of the Hyderabad régime British officials were 
already working with a combination of Hindu revenue entrepreneurs, 
such as Jogi Pantalu of Rajamundhry and big Gujarati banking houses, 
to secure rents of salt, saltpetre and other monopolies and gain control 
of its forts, the key to local politics. In January 1765, for instance, 
John Pybus, Chief of the Company factory at Rajamundhry, wrote to 
Pantalu that the Company must gain control of the district of Musta- 
fanagar ‘for it is not only a country very capable of improvements but 
has so many of its towns so intermixed with those of the Nizam’s 
districts as to give frequent cause for disputes among the inhabitants 
but the business of the Company’s merchants which is chiefly carried 
on there is liable to interruptions and impositions.”* Once again, the 
lure of a rapid profit attracted the Europeans to the trade of the 

> Fort St George Consultations, 26 July 1776, cited in, Copies of papers relative to the res- 
toration of the King of Tanjore (London, 1787), ii, 361. 

* R. Subba Rao, ‘Correspondence between the Hon. The East India Company and the 
Kandregula family’, Journal of the Andhra Historical Research Society, ii, parts 3 and 4, 1927, 
p. 61. 


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interior, but it was indigenous social conflicts which encouraged their 
direct intervention. 

The Company seized on the growing desperation of the Hyderabad 
rulers in their contests with the Marathas to prize these valuable prov- 
inces out of their hands by promises of regular tribute and military aid. 
Still, in the first instance it seems to have been the private interests of 
Company officials which benefited most from the acquisition. During 
the 1770s men such as Anthony Sadleir of Maslipatnam took farms of 
produce and rents throughout the Circars. The Collector of Ganjam 
had a lucrative business in cloth on his own account. Agents 
(dubashes) of the British drawn from the Komati commercial com- 
munity of Andhra made large fortunes like the banians of Bengal. The 
profits of this and the huge private fines taken from the zamindars con- 
tributed to a system of peculation which reached as high as Sir Thomas 
Rumbold, Governor of Madras (1777-80). In essence practices of this 
sort did not differ greatly from those of Rustam Khan or earlier agents 
of the Muslim powers. However, there was one important difference: 
here again revenue farming and the market in perquisites was tied into 
an international system of commercial and fiscal profiteering. Much of 
this private wealth appears to have been exported in the form of silver 
to Macao and Canton through the agency of private British captains 
and Portuguese commercial houses.* Here it was put to use to make 
further fortunes for the European expatriates. 

It was further south in Madras, however, that the triangle of ten- 
sions and alliances between the Muslim state, British private capital 
and the Hindu entrepreneur found its most dramatic form. The Coro- 
mandel coast and the rich deltas of the rivers Kavery, Vaigal and Tam- 
braparni had long supported high agricultural production and 
flourishing external trade. There were old-established Tamil merchant 
communities, but men of ordinary peasant caste and Brahmins had 
also become entrepreneurs within the bounds of the petty Hindu 
states which dominated the river valleys. Other agents or dubashes 
aided Europeans to secure and strengthen their grip over the region’s 
large and skilled weaver population. Until the 1730s British trade in 
cloths on public and private account had encountered fewer vicissi- 
tudes here than in the north and west, secure in good relations with 
local rulers and their distant Deccan overlords. But increasingly the re- 
verberations of Muslim state-building were felt on the Coromandel 
coast. Lieutenants of the rulers of Hyderabad began to increase their 

> Fourth Report (1773), p- 109. 


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hold on the region’s agricultural resources, pushing south and east 
from the fortress towns of Vellore and Arcot. A savage battle for 
dominance between the Awadh family of Anwaruddin Khan and his 
son Mahomed Ali Wallajah, on the one hand, and Deccani Navaiyits, a 
major administrative service family led by Chanda Sahib, along with 
northern Afghans, on the other, flared up in 1743. In an effort to pro- 
tect and enhance their trade during a period of European war, the Bri- 
tish had supported the Wallajah family, the French, Chanda Sahib who 
was ultimately defeated and killed in 1752. 

By 1763 British naval and financial superiority had virtually 
banished French power from the coast and had helped Mahomed Ali 
Wallajah to consolidate his position as Nawab of Arcot. In the 
meantime, powerful bonds of dependency had been tied which were 
ultimately to strangle Arcot and draw the British into direct adminis- 
trative control of the Tamil country. 

In the first place the British had adopted and perfected the mechan- 
ism of the subsidiary alliance, which they had copied via the French 
from the practice of Indian powers. In return for a tribute — a ‘subsidy’ 
in eighteenth-century parlance — or the lease of productive territories, 
the Company engaged to support Mahomed Ali against his enemies 
and to maintain their own troops in his lands as garrisons. This sort of 
scheme was to be adopted many times over the whole subcontinent in 
the next half-century as a mode of securing a stable frontier for British 
commercial interests and payment for Company troops. In the north, 
for instance, the Nawab of Awadh acquiesced in a subsidiary treaty in 
1765. In practice, however, alliances put intolerable strains on fragile 
Indian states whose rulers were never likely to be certain of the out- 
turn of the revenue from month to month. Shortfalls in subsidiary 
payments faced the British with mutinies among their own unpaid 
troops and led to piecemeal annexation in order to stabilise the 
financial situation. It is ironic that the subsidiary alliance system, de- 
signed to set bounds to British territorial intervention, in fact pointed 
to its unlimited extension. This issue will be taken up in greater detail 
in the next chapter. 

In Madras the mire of the finances of the subsidiary alliance with 
Arcot was particularly clinging. For British personnel in Madras had 
privately lent vast sums to the Nawab, helping to fund his military 
expenditure and his lavish attempts to establish authority among his 
Hindu and Muslim subjects. By the early 1760s, therefore, there had 
developed on the southern coast a tangled series of relationships be- 


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tween British interests and the authority of the indigenous state. Three 
broad groups of revenue and commercial entrepreneurs were 
involved. Based on Madras were the Nawab’s British creditors, a col- 
lection of military officers, contractors and traders chief among whom 
was the architect Paul Benfield. The capital of these men was derived 
from salaries and perquisites, trading ventures to south-east Asia, con- 
nections in Bengal and above all, from Indian moneylenders. It seems 
that smaller Indian financiers felt it was safer to lend money indirectly, 
through powerful British creditors. Here then was a paradox typical of 
eighteenth-century India: indigenous capital penetrated into the 
emerging Muslim state system through the good offices of British 
speculators. A smaller group of Europeans had even lent money to the 
Raja of Tanjore, inveterate enemy of the expansion of Arcot. 

It appears that Nawab Mahomed Ali had gone so heavily into debt 
to Europeans in part because large scale Indian bankers were less in 
evidence in the Tamil country than they were in north India, but also 
because the Nawab hoped to build up a party favourable to his own 
independence among Company servants in Madras and Bengal. In this 
he was quite successful. The Arcot creditors consistently put their own 
interests above those of the Company; in 1776 they were powerful 
enough in the Madras Council to imprison Lord Pigot, the Governor. 
Pigot had sought to return Tanjore, which had been invaded by Arcot, 
into the hands of its own Raja, and so fell foul of the rapacity of the 
creditors. Pigot’s subsequent death as an indirect result of his captiv- 
ity, was another scandal which drew the unwelcome attention of the 
British home government to India affairs. 

Secondly, there were the military men, revenue-farmers and fiscal 
entrepreneurs connected with the Arcot court, who acted much as did 
similar groups elsewhere in the post-Mughal régimes, building up 
blocks of financial interests, trading in commodities derived from 
payments-in-kind and providing new entrées into the Indian 
countryside for their own European creditors. Lastly, there were the 
Hindu men of business — the dubashes — who plied an uneasy course 
between service of the Europeans in their private capacity, the Com- 
pany as a corporate body and their Muslim overlords. One such was 
Venkatanarayana Pillai whose family on both his father’s and mother’s 
side had served the English and French companies since about 1680. 
Venkatanarayana had been servant to Warren Hastings. He had 
secured the protection of the Nawab and had helped manage the Com- 
pany’s land-revenue holdings in the environs of Madras. Another rela- 


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tive had been a dubash of George Stratton, member of the Madras 
council, and later became revenue under-manager of Ramnad district 
in the far south where he is said to have made a fortune by disposing of 
government grain at a profit during a famine. Several other relatives 
and descendents of Venkatanarayana had invested heavily in the bonds 
sold by the Nawab to accommodate his debts.° Agents of this sort 
played a crucial role as intermediaries between the Arcot and British 
rulers and the markets and credit networks of the villages. It was the 
growing confusion of private interests and state-revenue demands 
which forced the British in the 1790s to reorganise the revenue systems 
of the Madras area to create a more permanent set of relationships be- 
tween the state and village headmen. 

This skein of peculation was coming to be seen as ‘corrupt’ in both 
England and India. It might have survived had not the further devel- 
opment of the Muslim state in south India exposed the impossibility of 
reconciling the interests of European creditors, the Company and the 
many varieties of indigenous fiscal and commercial entrepreneur. The 
Sultanate of Mysore, the major threat to British power in the South, 
became the catalyst for change. In 1769 and again in 1781-3 Mysore 
forces penetrated and ravaged the coast. Until its final defeat in 1799 
Mysore was a sword of Damocles suspended over the Madras 
revenues. Throughout a generation of campaigns the Company had 
difficulty in procuring supplies and military aid from the Arcot 
régime despite the subsidiary treaty. In 1781 Sir Eyre Coote, the 
Commander in Chief, wrote of the ‘bad consequences arising from the 
exercise of a separate authority, and the support of a divided interest in 
the country at so very critical a time’,’ when Mysore forces were 
poised to take Madras. The Nawab’s attempts to husband his remain- 
ing resources arose from a pathetic desire to maintain independence 
and the scarcely concealed Anglophobia of his son Umdat-ul-Umara. 
Yet it was powerfully reinforced by the incessant demands of his 
European creditors for repayment. Here then the Company’s public 
interest and that of its servants and European associates were directly 
at odds. 

There was another sense also in which the Company was divided 
against itself. Until 1785 the Court of Directors in London still in- 

© §. K. Govindaswami, ‘Some unpublished letters of Charles Bourchier and George Strat- 
ton’, in H. Milford (ed.), The Madras Tercentenary Volume (Madras, 1939), pp. 28-9. 

7 Coote to Madras Council, 13 November 1781, cited, Lt Col. W. J. Wilson, History of 
the Madras Army (Madras, 1882), i. 98. 


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sisted that the first priority in Madras was the maintenance of the 
annual investment in Coromandel cloths for sale in the European 
market.® Military security and the payment of the army were defi- 
nitely of secondary importance. As a direct consequence garrisons of 
the Madras army were constantly in mutiny. The short-term expedi- 
ent was for the Madras authorities to take over ‘direct’? management of 
wealthy parts of the Arcot lands during the long periods of war. This 
occurred between 1781 and 85 and again in the early 1790s. But the cure 
was as bad as the disease. Direct management merely encouraged pro- 
fiteering by Company officials and their dubashes, undermining the 
structure of the Arcot government further and in some cases actually 
diminishing the land-revenue yields. It also drew the attention of 
London to Madras in an era when Warren Hastings himself was on 
trial for ‘corruption’ and arbitrary acts. Ultimately it was left to 
Richard Wellesley as Governor-General in 1799 to sweep away the 
whole ambiguous and irritating fagade of Arcot rule. However, world 
war, a potential threat from Mysore, and a new spirit of intervention- 
ist government was required before the piecemeal erosion of indige- 
nous authority by the Nawab’s creditors and Indian dubashes became 


In the case of Bengal, Indian mercantile capitalists allied with revenue 
entrepreneurs and disenchanted soldiers to encourage the expansionist 
ambition of Company servants. In the Northern Circars and the Car- 
natic the trading and money-lending activities of the British helped 
undermine the finances of indigenous states, while Indian entrepre- 
neurs provided the skills and means by which they could appropriate 
local rescources. On the west coast again the priorities and fate of 
Indian merchants were to prove a critical spur to British expansion. 
On the Malabar coast the process of commercialisation had gone 
even further than in Bengal or Madras. Bonded serf labour was widely 
in evidence, but there were large commercial farmers, very high land 
prices and a flourishing market in mortgages. This resulted from well- 
developed external and inland waterborne trade routes, down which 
were carried valuable items such as teak wood, coconut produce and, 

8 Tbid., i, 141-2. 


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above all, pepper. The coast was controlled by a constellation of petty 
Hindu kingdoms ruled by the Nayar warrior caste and several coastal 
Muslim states. These petty kings were also entrepreneurs in pepper. 
But their desire for monopolies and transit duties had often brought 
them into conflict with the major pepper-trading interest, the Moplah 
merchants, supposedly the descendants of Arab traders and Indian 
women, who were linked into the wider west-Asian commercial 
world. In the south, the state of Travancore had succeeded by 1750 in 
establishing a viable pepper monopoly and a large army. 

The British, based on coastal fortresses such as Anjengo and Telli- 
cherry, had established a foothold on the coast in the footsteps of the 
Portuguese and Dutch. Their factors at Tellicherry had acted like a 
small Indian state seeking control of pepper lands through a series of 
petty wars against other states and, from time to time, the French. The 
weak and isolated British authorities at Surat and Bombay did little to 
encourage their local territorial ambitions. Yet as in other parts of 
India the decisive turning point in the second half of the eighteenth 
century was brought about by the expansion and consolidation of a 
new Muslim state, Mysore. Haidar and Tipu desired to control the rich 
trade of the coast, as much to further commercial links with Muslim 
west Asia as to break down dangerous dependencies on the Euro- 
peans. For a time the British in Bombay and Tellicherry held off the 
Sultan by satisfying his desire for European weapons, but between 
1785 and 1789 they were effectively cut out of the pepper trade when 
Mysore had succeeded in stalemating Madras during the second 
Anglo—Mysore war. 

Mysore rule in Malabar resulted in the further spread of systems of 
renting monopolies and by an array of new taxes on valuable agricul- 
tural produce, such as coconut and palmyra trees. The Mysore auth- 
orities also tilted towards the Moplah merchant community and 
against the recalcitrant Hindu chieftains. There had long been conflict 
between local rulers and the Moplahs, most particularly because ‘the 
nobles of the country, having frequent resort to the Mapelets [sic], 
who lent them large sums of money at exorbitant interest, sometimes 
upon pawns and sometimes in advance upon the harvests of pepper, 
cardamums and rice’.” With their narrow defeat of Tipu Sultan in the 
third Mysore War (1791) the Company and private British interests in 
a now reinvigorated Bombay were enabled to reconstruct their lucra- 

9 N.M.D.L.T. (dela Tour, Haidar’s French commander), History of A yder Ali Khan Nebab- 
Behadur(London, 1784), i,95- 


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tive trade in peppers and cardamums. Yet why should they have opted 
for direct administration of Malabar rather than an indirect rule 
through the Nayar chieftains? Here the position of the indigenous 
merchant community was once again crucial. The Moplahs were 
agents in the pepper trade for the British; they alone had contacts with 
growers in the interior. However, the reaction of the Nayars against 
Mysore rule was savage. There were frequent massacres of Tipu’s as- 
sumed collaborators, the Moplahs. The British appear to have felt that 
working through the Nayars as independent rulers was an inadequate 
security for political stability or for the pepper trade, hence the situ- 
ation necessitated ‘the interposition of Company authority to enforce 
law and order and protect the Moplahs who are a very useful merchant 
class’.'° Private traders working within the ambit of the Company’s 
influence also appear to have favoured a ‘forward policy’ on the coast. 

Further north in Bombay’s sphere of influence similar consider- 
ations caused the British authorities to play a more interventionist 
role. Since the first decade of the century the great Mughal port of 
Surat had been subject to continuous external threats from the disrup- 
tion of west Asian trade and also from the expansion of the Marathas 
against its inland routes. The powerful and influential Hindu and Parsi 
merchant communities had increasingly sought the protection of the 
British merchant marine and the safety of British shipping in their voy- 
ages to west Asian ports. But the position in Gujarat itself was unsatis- 
factory. The port of Surat was controlled by a condominium of 
Maratha and declining Mughal interests. In 1758 the Indian merchants 
and a faction of Muslim notables urged the British authorities to take 
the initiative and seize control of the strategically important Surat 
castle from the weak Mughal grip. This took place in 1759. Indian 
merchant communities were able to influence Company policies 
towards expansion on this and later occasions in part because it was 
they who kept the bankrupt and exposed Presidency alive by remitting 
money from Bengal through the inland town of Benares during the 
wars of the later half of the century. After 1784 their economic réle 
increased further as the growth of the trade in cotton between Gujarat 
and China greatly enhanced the importance of western Indian settle- 
ments in the financial calculations of both the Company and the grow- 
ing number of British private traders operating in the area. The Hindu 
merchants were now not only financiers for Bombay and Surat, but 

10 Abercrombie to Dick, 21 November 1791, cited in B. Swai, “The British in Malabar, 
1792-1806’, unpub. Ph.D. thesis, University of Sussex, 1974, p. 133. 


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also inland purchasing agents for its most valuable new commodity, 
raw cotton. For their part the merchants and the European houses of 
agency needed the military protection of the Company and feared the 
muscle of the Maratha magnates in the Gujarat cotton markets. In this 
way there developed a consensus for territorial expansion in western 
India.'! The Indian merchants, the Company, and the British private 
traders all desired a more secure Gujarat cotton-growing zone, free 
from the intervention of Maratha renters and agents which tended to 
diminish their profits. The wars of Lord Wellesley’s era provided the 
excuse for such surreptitious territorial expansion, his insatiable 
demands for extra revenue a further justification. Broach, Kaira and 
Ahmedabad districts were seized in 1803. 


The conflicts between different styles of European and Indian entre- 
preneurship provided the occasion for British expansion in seaboard 
India. These conflicts also forced the British to intervene more directly 
in the countryside. By 1794 the Permanent Settlement of the Bengal 
Revenues and Lionel Place’s settlement of the Chigleput district of 
Madras anticipated many of the features which marked out the admin- 
istrative practices of the mature colonial systems. By 1795 Alexander 
Read and Thomas Munro had adapted the system developed by 
Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan to British purposes in the districts which 
had been seized from the sultans after the war of 1791. 

The hectic pace of renting, farming sub-renting and division of 
revenues, monopolies and royal perquisites which had characterised 
the later stages of Mughal rule drew in many varieties of enterprising 
individual; Hindu banians, Muslim grandees, British military officers 
and Company servants trading privately all made fortunes during the 
years 1757 to 1784. Three sets of conditions, however, made it imposs- 
ible that this heyday of the ‘nabobs’ could continue. In the first place, 
there was a pervasive feeling and much evidence to suggest that 
Bengal’s hitherto buoyant rural society was in clear decline. The Com- 
pany ceased its imports of silver in 1757, secure in Bengal land 
revenues; this precipitated a number of commercial crises as the 
money supply of eastern India was tightened. In addition to this, the 

"' Lakshmi Subramanian, ‘The West Coast of India: the eighteenth century’, unpub. 
Ph.D. thesis presented to Viswa Bharati University, 1984. 


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Bengal famine of 1769-70, in which up to a quarter of the population 
perished and many of the survivors were made vagrant, severely 
diminished production over the next few years. The decline of indige- 
nous authority seems to have exacerbated the problem of banditry and 
led to a general feeling of malaise. This concern about decline was 
transmitted to England by enemies of the Company’s monopoly and 
confused with the notion that Indian government was seized by some 
grave moral and administrative weakness which might, if allowed to 
proceed unchecked, infect the metropolitan body politic itself. 
Secondly, the commercial free-for-all rapidly undermined the pre- 
tence that the indigenous political system could survive. The collusion 
between Indian men of capital and Company supervisors in engross- 
ing further rights and privileges after 1765 forced Warren Hastings to 
withdraw European agency from revenue collection once again by 
1773. But the following years failed to provide a stable system of 
Indian collection either. In effect too much of Bengal’s cash revenue 
was still being syphoned off into private Indian and European hands in 
the form of presents, perquisites, remissions and revenue-free grants. 
Finally, the pressures of the American and French wars of 1780~3 
made the need for drastic change irresistible. Lord Cornwallis was sent 
to India in 1786 with a brief from the directors of the Company to 
reform the administration of Bengal and also to make British India’s 
external boundaries safe. The Company was faced with a financial 
crisis since its revenues could not support both its civil and military es- 
tablishments and the annual investment in Indian good for the Euro- 
pean market. Cornwallis argued that the Company’s trade itself was in 
danger ‘because agriculture must flourish before its [Bengal’s] com- 
merce can become extensive’.'* The way to create a flourishing agricul- 
ture was to stabilise a hereditary landed aristocracy. This would also 
allow the rapid extension of the cultivated area in north Bengal and the 
lower deltas and repair the scars left by the mortality of 1770. The 
notion of a stable aristocracy accorded well with both vulgar Whig 
notions of the sanctity of property and the more refined doctrine that 
land was the basis of all wealth, propounded by the French physiocra- 
tic philosophers and propagated in India by Philip Francis, member of 
the Calcutta Council. Moreover, dispensing with ‘native agency’ and 
its replacement by a disciplined cadre of European collectors of rev- 

12 Cornwallis to directors, 6 March 1793, cited in A. Tripathi, Trade and Finance in the 
Bengal Presidency, 1793-1833 (rev. edn, Calcutta, 1979), pp. 17-18. 


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enue and judges would hasten the demise of what Cornwallis saw as 
‘Asiatic tyranny’? and the corruption of public office. 

Did Cornwallis’s settlement abruptly terminate the revenue entre- 
preneurship of late Mughal India? Certainly, there were some import- 
ant changes. Great Indian revenue-farmers or Muslim grandees who 
had previously transformed political service into land-holdings and 
had moved easily between the worlds of military finance, trade and 
revenue-farming disappeared from the scene. British ‘nabobs’ also dis- 
appeared as revenue collectors and other public officers were for- 
bidden to trade on their own accounts or surreptitiously to hold farms 
of revenue rights and monopolies. The British also welded together 
two forms of property which had been kept separate in Mughal India: 
the rights to collect and to profit from the collection of state revenue 
on the one hand, and the rights of proprietory dominion — rental 
profits, profits on ponds, trees and waste land — which zamindars held 
at village level, on the other. Henceforward if a man failed to pay his 
state revenue, his proprietary rights might be put on sale by govern- 
ment, something that did not happen under the nawabs. 

On the other hand, speculation in these modified land rights con- 
tinued to provide the opportunity for rapid advancement as they did 
under the nawabs. The Permanent Settlement fixed the revenue in per- 
petuity at 286 lakhs of Company rupees. In the early days of the settle- 
ment this brought a large volume of land rights onto the market, as 
proprietors were unable to pay this high and inflexible demand. The 
gainers were, however, very much the sort of people who had rapidly 
increased their wealth over the previous hundred years. Literate and 
high-caste servants of the older proprietors, particularly Brahmins 
and Kayasthas of the writer caste bought up zamindari rights as did 
banians of the British. Pressure on the great estate owners descended 
from the servants of the nawabs also led to the creation of many subor- 
dinate revenue rights. Though they were more likely to remain in the 
hands of one family this was not a markedly different form of property 
and profit from the proliferating revenue farms of the old régime. 

The effect on Bengal’s peasantry is more obscure. Certainly, the 
provisions of the Settlement gave few rights to tenants, concerned as it 
was to stabilise a land-owning class. But the prosperity of the ordinary 
farmer continued to be determined more by ecology, price levels and 

13 See, e.g. Cornwallis’s minute dated 18 September 1789, in G. Forrest (ed.), Selections 
from the state papers of the Governors-General of India. Lord Cornwallis (London, 1914), ti, 


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population growth than by administrative fiat. As population pulled 
back from the great famine, the large farmers (jotedars) of north 
Bengal were gradually put in stronger position in regard to their share- 
cropping tenants and day-labourers. Falling prices in the early nine- 
teenth century did little to improve the lot of the more homogeneous 
peasantry of central Bengal. The picture here is one of continuity. 
Many of the institutions of Mughal Bengal, notably the petty rural 
market places (ganys) founded by earlier revenue entrepreneurs were 
drawn into networks of export trade in indigo, opium, mulberry or 
saltpetre. But social relations based upon share-cropping and control 
of credit which were already well-established at the beginning of the 
eighteenth century were perpetuated within the wider world of col- 
onial trade. 

The 1790s also witnessed the experiments designed to stabilise rural 
society in the environs of Madras. The Company’s aim was once again 
to control the conflicts between different types of rural and tax entre- 
preneurs which had become increasingly disruptive to regular revenue 
returns. In particular the Company hoped to eliminate some conflict 
by diminishing the role of revenue-farmers and dubashes. Once again 
it was forced to work with some elements of the old régime. In gen- 
eral the renters and revenue farmers of the Arcot nawabs had failed to 
gain the grip on rural resources clinched by their counterparts in 
Bengal. The farming system was therefore swept away. An effort was 
made to transform payments in kind which had been much more 
characteristic of the south, into payments in cash. This tended to sever 
government officers from the volatile internal traffic in grain. Yet, as 
in Bengal, the British were inclined to enlist in their system men they 
saw as natural leaders of the people. Here the southern Hindu chiefs — 
the poligars — were pressed into service. Where these warrior leaders 
had actively opposed the British or their surrogate, the erstwhile Arcot 
court, new men were drafted to fill the breach. 

There was one exception to this. In the territories conquered in 1791 
from the sultans of Mysore (the Baramahal territories) settlement with 
the poligars or other intermediaries was out of the question because 
the Muslim rulers had already severely diminished their power across 
much of the countryside. Read and Munro, later luminaries of the 
Madras revenue system, were forced to adopt the practice of making 
settlements with village leaders, either declining village proprietors 
(mirasidars) or individual peasant farmers who were called ryots. By 
1820 it was this system rather than settlement with larger magnates 


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which had become the norm for the new Madras presidency. The 
reason for this was not so much the triumph of Munro’s deeply held 
ideal of peasant individualism as an acknowledgement of the rapid 
changes which had overtaken rural society in the south during the pre- 
vious century. 


The accommodation between British power and indigenous capital — a 
relationship in which Indians were rapidly becoming subordinate — 
was forcefully illustrated in the coastal cities. By 1800 Madras and 
Calcutta probably had larger populations than all other Indian cities. 
The sharpest periods of growth in Calcutta and Hughly were in the 
aftermath of 1757 and in the decade after the end of the Napoleonic 
wars. The first period of expansion was based on the immense private 
fortunes accumulated as British private traders and their Indian 
banians gained control of the most lucrative sectors of Bengal’s econ- 
omy; the second followed the boom in sales of cotton and opium to 
China after 1801. Calcutta’s total population appears to have advanced 
from about 120,000 in 1750 to 200,000 in 1780 and 350,000 in 1820. 
The early counts of Madras population are unreliable, but there was an 
estimate of 300,000 in 1802.'* Much of the growth of Madras had taken 
place after the defeat of the French on the Coromandel coast and the 
peace of 1763; after this, population appears to have stagnated. 
Bombay probably had a population of about 80,000 in 1780, though 
its arsenals and the growth of the cotton trade from Gujarat to China 
rapidly increased its importance. By 1825, when Bombay had also 
become educational and administrative capital of a large hinterland, its 
population had also grown to about 200,000. Probably only Luck- 
now, Lahore and Hyderabad could equal that figure, while Delhi was 
barely more than half of it. 

At first the Company’s Indian settlements reproduced patterns of 
indigenous urban growth around a small core of European fort and 
factory. Calcutta in 1760 was still a conglomeration of riverine landing 
stages, fishing and weaving villages and Hindu holy places such as 
Kalighat. Communities of weavers (tantis) and small merchants (seths 
and bysaks) acted as agents, purchasers and commissaries for Com- 

‘* A. K. Ray, Census of India, 1901 (Calcutta, 1902), pp. 59-62; H. Dodwell, Report on 
the Madras Records (Madras, 1916), pp. 59-61. 


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pany ships. They founded residential communities around the fort just 
as similar groups had built up Mughal Murshidabad or Hughly. Out- 
side there was little obviously colonial about Calcutta before 1780. 
Madras was much the same. It remained a stretch of waterside markets 
and villages typical of settlement patterns along the Coromandel coast. 
Telugu warriors (the nayaks of Kalahasti) had given the original grants 
to the Company in 1633, as other inland warriors had patronised the 
region’s diverse merchant group. In turn Tamil merchant communi- 
ties and men from the Andhra Coast (Komatis) where the Company 
had early settlements flocked to secure positions as brokers and agents 
in the business of cloth export. Portuguese convert communities (at 
San Thome) and Brahmin temple towns (at Triplicane and Mylapore) 
clustered promiscuously along the coast in the environs of the British 
fort. After 1763 the Nawab of Arcot settled in Triplicane, adding a 
community of about 20,000 northern Muslims to the old population 
of Tamil-speaking Muslim merchants of the coast, the Marakayyars. 

The formative réle of Indian merchant communities in the growth 
of Madras was expressed through the building and endowment of tem- 
ples. Indian merchants also took part in the rituals of the European 
city burgesses, filling several offices in the Madras Corporation which 
had been founded in 1688. For their part, European officials up to the 
governors were often involved in the power-play, and even religious 
contests, of their Indian subalterns. On the west coast the pattern also 
remained an indigenous one in the early eighteenth century. In Surat 
the English Company increased its control over its European and 
Indian rivals after 1730, but it still acted out its rdéle of corporate 
grantee within the carcass of the Mughal city, not openly assuming the 
réle of sovereign until 1802. In Bombay patterns of settlement were 
caste-based, though lightly influenced by Portuguese patterns of town 
planning and ethnic jurisdiction. Headmen of Gujarati merchants, 
Parsis and later, Marathas from the interior, established themselves 
among existing groups of fishing villages, clustering around what is 
now the site of Mamba Devi temple, later taken to be patron goddess 
of the city. 

Outside the fort enclaves exclusive racial zones and European domi- 
nance in city government were quite slow to develop. However, be- 
tween 1770 and 1800 the easy symbiosis between Europeans and 
Indians began to decline under the pressures of world war and com- 
mercial rivalry. Multi-racial corporate cities in which Indians were 
justices, members of civic bodies and in which a variety of Mughal 


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offices retained honour gave way to colonial cities in which an exclus- 
ively European executive dominated both Indian and European com- 
mercial communities. 

The change was particularly sharp in Madras where the threat from 
the French and, later, Mysore, encouraged the local government to 
redraw the city in its own image. In 1781 following famine and incur- 
sions from Mysore, up to 10,000 poor Indian residents (and some say 
many more) who held no written titles to land were forced out of the 
city to north Arcot district in order to conserve local food supplies 
which were barely being maintained with rice from Bengal. Sporadic 
attempts to create a police force were invigorated by the notion that 
‘Blacktown swarmed with ... spies in the service of European as well 
as Asiatic powers’.!° Government intervened to regulate prices 
charged by Indian merchants and artisans and in 1787 a Board of Regu- 
lation was set up. A campaign against ‘dubashism’ — that is, the sup- 
posedly corrupt association of European officers with Indian capital — 
was initiated. As late as 1776 European private interests, feeding on the 
wealth of indigenous magnates through the Nawab’s debts, could 
imprison a governor who acted against them. But by 1800 the execu- 
tive had greatly strengthened its power against both European and 
Indian merchants. In 1800 private British merchants were expelled 
from the Fort and in the next year Government swept away much of 
Arcot’s influence and began to tackle the running sore of the debts. 

Alongside these attempts to build an untrammelled European 
executive went various forms of social control initiated by European 
residents. There was concern over the ‘growth’ of the half-caste com- 
munity, thought to number more than 11,000 in the British coastal 
settlements by 1788. Protestant charitable organisations hoped to 
transform these people from carriers of popery and impure blood into 
a ‘Protestant colony of useful subjects’.!® An orphanage was designed 
to deal with the problems of the foundlings of the European poor. 
Conservancy measures funded by a wall tax were imposed on mem- 
bers of Blacktown and the original ‘Portuguese’ half-caste militia was 
gradually subordinated to British executive control. The rapid loss of 
power and status by Portuguese Asian communities both here and in 
Calcutta was a consequence of the fear of Catholic subversion during 
the French wars and also of the decline of the powerful Portuguese 

'S Capt. Popham, 1786 in H. D. Love, Vestiges of Old Madras, 1640-1800 (London, 
1913), ill, 323. 

'® Richard Wilson, surgeon, 1778, ibid., iti, 179. 


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trading houses which had once dominated the routes from the Indian 
ports to Manila, Macao and Canton. It was reinforced by the trend of 
official policy which in 1793 barred people of mixed race from govern- 
ment service and emphasised the growing racial separateness of Euro- 
pean residents. The British spilled out from the Fort enclave into 
Blacktown. However, the most notable feature of the years after 1770 
was the creation of a market in land within the mirasi villages which 
surrounded Madras. It became possible for Europeans to buy up large 
tracts of land for conversion into Palladian-style garden houses which 
emphasised the new grandeur of white domination within the city and 
its new colonial character. 

In Calcutta too the European population asserted its dominance and 
within it the executive separated from the commercial community, 
though the timing was somewhat different. Calcutta’s first crisis 
occurred during the period of the Maratha invasions in the first half of 
the century and the struggle with the Nawabs between 1756 and 1764. 
The response was a remodelling of the town’s defences and the de- 
struction of the Bengali village of Govindpur to make way for a new 
fort in the 1760s. Thereafter the European residents (who may have 
numbered 3,000—4,000 in 1790) gradually spread out from the central 
Tank Square area of the city to salubrious suburbs such as Chowringee 
and Garden Reach, so cutting themselves off from the other merchant 
communities. Wellesley’s autocracy saw the creation of a neo-classical 
Governor-General’s mansion and the building of new roads and other 
public buildings which had the effect of splitting off European from 
Indian residential areas. Calcutta’s second period of growth between 
1815 and 1837 was to see the creation of a Lottery Committee which 
spent money on conservancy and policing among Calcutta’s Indian 
residents. Even Bombay, where European commercial ventures on a 
more equal basis with Indians persisted much longer than in Calcutta 
and Madras, had thrown up by 1800 a separate European society, 
dominated by heads of the Agency houses and Bombay adminis- 
trators. These features were by slow degrees exported to other towns 
where British commercial and administrative influence became para- 
mount before 1800: Patna and Mirzapur on the Ganges trade route, or 
Surat and Tellicherry on the west coast, had small and exclusive com- 
munities of expatriates, particularly Scots and Anglo-Irish. 

While the British sought a new dominance within ‘their’ cities 
during the years 1770 to 1820, Indian society was also changing its 
form. One striking feature was the decline of Muslim influence and the 


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rise of a more segregated and hierarchical society amongst Hindus. 
Muslim power had once been considerable in both Madras and Cal- 
cutta. In Madras the Arcot palace and its associated bazaars formed a 
centre of power which at times threatened to overwhelm Fort St 
George itself. The Nawab had perhaps 500 highly paid staff in 1790 
and each of these supported about another ten dependants. European 
clerks, surgeons, builders and soldiers fronted for a large Indian net- 
work of power and perquisites. In Calcutta too members of the 
Muslim clerical classes and wealthy artisans dominated the middle 
level of city life as late as 1780 and made up nearly 40 per cent of the 
population. But in both cities Muslim influence was on the wane. In 
part this reflected the dismantling of Mughal administrative forms in 
Bengal and Madras; in part the failure of Muslims to participate in the 
new commercial opportunities which the Company and European pri- 
vate trade had opened up. On the west coast the decline of the Mughal 
port city of Surat in the face of rising Bombay marked an even sharper 
break with the past. In both Surat (1795)!” and Calcutta (1789)' riots 
by sections of the Muslim artisan communities against the new domi- 
nance of Hindu capital and British administration marked the passage 
of the old order. 

At the same time the basis of influence within the Hindu community 
had changed. In the mid-eighteenth century banians, brokers and fac- 
totums connected with senior Company servants had dominated 
Hindu society in Calcutta. Some of these men had been Brahmins, but 
the general picture is of rapid social mobility by men of quite humble 
origin, largely unconnected with the control of land. By the beginning 
of the nineteenth century there had emerged a much more stratified 
society based on the control of landlords’ rents both within and out- 
side the city. Some banians had made money from the Permanent Sett- 
lement and become landlords in the districts adjoining Calcutta. Other 
families of middle-level literate estate servants had used landed prop- 
erty in the interior as a basis for invading the city in search of service in 
the expanding British administration. Such, for instance, were the 
Babus or ‘gentry’ of Bishnupur, high-caste landowners from Bankura 
District who bought up land after 1793 and soon created a successful 

7 L. Subramanian, ‘Capital and crowd in a declining Asian port city’, Modern Asian 
Studies, xix, 2, 1985. 

18 Calcutta Gazette, 9 April 1789, Selections from the Calcutta Gazettes, i (Calcutta, 


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pool of patronage for office jobs in the city. The rising value of land in 
Calcutta also encouraged the development of an Indian urban landlord 
class. The old community-based divisions of the city broke down. 
Magnates like the famous Malik family built large suburban palaces in 
an ornate Italianate style and became rack-renting landlords of the 
tenement buildings which surrounded them. 

Similar developments took place in Madras. After 1802 the rapid 
expansion of the Madras Presidency attracted numbers of literate 
Tamil- and Telugu-speaking Brahmins to the city. Such families com- 
bined with propertied dependants of earlier dubash entrepreneurs 
such as the Pachaiyappa family to create a magnate class less dependent 
on trade and more dependent on office and rents. In Bombay Parsi 
families (total population about 13,000 by 1813) whose ancestors had 
been Surat shipwrights and carpenters two generations earlier matched 
a cheerful westernisation with the construction of large houses in the 
European style and the acquisition of valuable city property. 
Bombay’s urban élite was to remain mercantile — a reflection of the 
persistence of openings in trade not completely controlled by Euro- 
peans. After the expansion of the Presidency from 1805 onwards 
increasing numbers of Maratha and Gujarati literate people came to 
the city in search of service in government offices and new educational 

So cities which had begun as settlements of merchants and artisans 
within the broad ambit of Mughal rule were transformed into adminis- 
trative centres dominated by separated European enclaves, now sup- 
ported by land-owning and money-lending Indian élites. Naturally, 
these new Indian oligarchies sought to define their relations with the 
Europeans and with the burgeoning Hindu populations of their cities. 
This was particularly important because the power of the old ruling 
families who had guaranteed castes and statuses in rural society were 
largely absent. Problems of ranking, definition and ritual became even 
more pressing. Temple-building, the feeding of Brahmins and elabor- 
ate death-ceremony rituals represented the pious aspirations of these 
new rich, so contributing to what a British official characterised as the 
‘more rigid form of the modern Hinduism’. Yet how were distinctions 
of ritual to be maintained in these melting-pot societies? In Madras 
newly urbanising families were absorbed into the ancient divisions of 
‘right-hand’ and ‘left-hand’ castes. This delicate hierarchy of cer- 
emonial honours and precedents was shaken from time to time by riot 


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and contention, notably in 1707, 1716 and in 1787. But these were-pat- 
terned and controlled conflicts which allowed magnates connected 
with the East India Company to build up support and reputation. 

In Calcutta problems of ritual and leadership were also acute. In the 
mid eighteenth century Calcutta had a series of caste courts (cut- 
cherries) to adjudicate on matters of ritual and marriage. These were 
presided over by caste-elders — often magnates associated with Com- 
pany officials. By the end of the century a looser pattern had emerged 
with the appearance of multi-caste factions (dals) centred on a leader 
who helped resolve conflicts of caste, inheritance and marriage among 
his adherents and provided a centre of cultural activity for them. This 
was the latest of a series of institutions which Bengali society had 
thrown up over the previous millennium in the face of rapid political 
change which might bring about a ‘mixing of blood’ and degeneration 
of the caste order. Thus the local caste associations (sabhas) of the fif- 
teenth and sixteenth century may themselves have been responses to 
the decline of Hindu kings under pressure from Muslim invasion. Still, 
these dals or factions were something new. They represented the for- 
mation of a new type of social power combining control of land in a 
capitalist property market with literacy and tenuous commercial con- 
nections to the world economy. Dals were to be not only the basis of 
the newly defined caste order of colonial Calcutta; they were also the 
basis of the political and cultural associations which articulated the 
Bengali response to western ideas and British dominion. Associations 
such as the reformer Rammohun Roy’s Brahmo Samaj (1828) and the 
neo-orthodox Dharma Sabha which fought the religious and social 
battles of the next generation drew on links and sympathies created 
through the dals. 

Multi-caste factions of this sort in Calcutta and the patterned dis- 
putes over temple and processional honours in Madras drew in mem- 
bers of inferior groups and impinged on the lives of the urban poor 
who lived in large shanty towns in the cities’ suburbs. Yet it would be 
wrong to see these institutions as monolithic tools of control or to see 
the early colonial period as an era of calm before the era of ethnic and 
class conflict at the end of the Raj. Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were 
all the scenes of continuous riots, affrays and demonstrations against 
authority. In Calcutta the execution in 1775 on charges of conspiracy 
of the administrator Nandakumar, popularly considered a man of pro- 
bity, caused a powerful demonstration against the authorities. Within 


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the city regular conflicts took place between mixed gangs of ‘Portu- 
guese’ and Bengalis associated with liquor shops and brothels. Euro- 
pean soldiers often took part in incidents of looting and rape in the 
port areas. Sir William Jones advancing his view of the need for 
tougher policing in his address to the half-yearly sessions in 1788 as- 
serted that ‘the alarms of burglaries, riots and assaults were almost 
constant.’!? Other evidence of severe social tension included regular 
fire-raising which devastated whole communities of a city where two- 
thirds of the population lived in thatched straw shanties. No doubt the 
new concern of the European population for order — reflecting chang- 
ing social mores in Britain — and concern for their property on the part 
of newly wealthy Indians tended to exaggerate these events. Yet the 
high level of communal rioting, affrays and burglaries do give the im- 
pression of the strains of rapid urbanisation. 

One feature which increased the physical instability of the early col- 
onial cities was the settlement in them of large communities of migrant 
workers and specialists on a seasonal basis. While the cities’ links to 
their immediate hinterlands were sometimes rather weak, people came 
from considerable distances to work there. In Calcutta were settled 
doormen and guards from Patna (four hundred miles away) and from 
Benares whence the Company recruited its soldiers. Palanquin bearers 
came from Orissa and many tradesmen came from the Afghan hills. 
The north Indian population of Calcutta was as high as 30 per cent in 
1830 and the population of Madras drawn from the Deccan, Kerala 
and the north may also have been as high. 

Though the Indian sections of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay were 
increasingly separated off from the European, institutions within the 
European cities were already having a powerful influence on indige- 
nous intellectual and social life. Indians were associated with the new 
Calcutta Supreme Court created by the 1773 India Act. The form of 
law created for these courts was also influential. Hastings, guided by 
oriental scholars such as Nathaniel Brassey Halhed considered that 
Indians should be subject to Hindu and Muslim laws. But the very fact 
of finding and consolidating the wide range of variable practice and 
custom into monolithic codes of law created new interpretations. 
Works such as H. T. Colebrooke’s compendious treatise on ‘Hindoo 
Laws’ always tended to draw on textual and high caste interpretations 
and to propagate these through Anglo-Indian courts. In this way 

19 Calcutta Gazette, 11 December 1788, ibid. 


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European influences and the British concern for stability helped con- 
solidate the desire of Indian élites for hierarchy and control. The re- 
covery and editing of Islamic and Persian texts by teachers at the 
Calcutta Madrassa founded by Hastings in 1781 had a similar effect 
on the Muslim learned classes, reinforcing the search for pure, auth- 
oritative and codified statements on law and religion ‘to qualify the 
sons of Muhammadan gentlemen for responsible and lucrative offices 
in the state.’?° 

So while the legislative assault by the British on the ‘corruption’ of 
Indian society was not initiated until evangelical Christian and utili- 
tarian pressures became stronger in the 1820s, European norms had 
begun to influence the conduct of Indian élites from an earlier period. 
Indians had become acquainted with notions of positive law, judicial 
process, western science and, above all, with the notion of linear his- 
torical change before the turn of the nineteenth century. 


It was during the last thirty years of the eighteenth century that there 
came into being the administrative structure which survived, little 
modified, until the end of the colonial period. Parliamentary control 
was asserted over the East India Company at home and in India. Three 
pieces of parliamentary legislation, the Regulating Act of 1778, Pitt’s 
India Act of 1784 and the Charter Act of 1793 limited the power of the 
Company and created the India Board of Control by which govern- 
ments sought to control Indian affairs in London. At the same time the 
home authorities sought to rationalise relations between different 
authorities in the subcontinent. The governor-general emerged para- 
mount in his own council in Calcutta. Calcutta in turn gained the 
upper hand over Madras and Bombay. A central secretariat was 
created and a professional civil service of collectors and district magis- 
trates emerged from the reforms of Lord Cornwallis. 

This administrative consolidation was a continuation of the process 
of British expansion itself. Territorial acquisition was a response, di- 
rectly or indirectly, to the complex manoeuvring between forms of 
Indian capital and revenue entrepreneurs. The danger was not only 

20H. Sharp (ed.), Selections from Educational Records, i, 1781-1839 (Calcutta, 1920), 7. 


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from Indian powers and principalities engaged in the constant redistri- 
bution of resources of taxation and Indian labour, but from Europeans 
who were also drawn into the process. The subordination of Madras to 
the authority of Calcutta in 1786 was a response to the gradual en- 
tanglement of private Europeans in Madras in a typical Indo-Muslim 
system of fiscal state-building and military entrepreneurship — what 
came to be known by the British as the ‘Nawab of Arcot’s Debts’. In 
the same way Cornwallis’s settlement of 1793 was an attempt to freeze 
the dangerously volatile processes of revenue farming and fiscal fief- 
building in Bengal. He worried that otherwise India, already a scene of 
‘native corruption’ would become ‘the resort of all the most unprin- 
cipled ruffians of the British dominions.’”*’ Only a commercial system 
acceptable to the English landed gentry, creditworthy and separated 
from political entanglements could be allowed to flourish in India. 

For not all the pressures for reform came from within Indian 
agrarian society. A rationalisation of Company government was also 
required by the vast growth of Indian country and international ship- 
ping and by the slow change in India’s commercial relations with the 
rest of the world. For instance, the Company’s stake in western India 
had to be reorganised and put on a firmer footing after 1784 when the 
cotton (and later opium) trades to China from Gujarat through 
Bombay dramatically increased, bringing new profits to private Bri- 
tish traders and welcome relief for the Company’s own battered fin- 
ances. This trade was made possible by an act of Parliament of 1784 
which reduced the British excise tax on tea from 129 per cent to 12.5 
per cent at a stroke. Since raw cotton was the only commodity which 
the Chinese would buy in large volumes in return for their teas, a 
secure and well-protected Bombay became an essential feature of 
imperial policy. The need to supply funds for Company armies, pro- 
tect British private trade now burgeoning again on the west coast, and 
to provide funds for its continuing investment in Indian cotton 
manufactures increased the pressure on the Calcutta authorities to ex- 
periment with new systems of revenue management. 

Finally, the virtual creation of the British Indian bureaucracy after 
1784 was a response to changes of opinion in Britain as well as Indian 
practicalities. Enlightenment approval of the stability of Asian civilisa- 
tions was tempered by a chorus of vilification of Indians for the sup- 

7! Cornwallis to Dundas, 7 April 1790, cited, W. Seton-Karr, Cornwallis, p. 78. 


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posed corruption of their ‘public affairs’. In particular the ‘economical 
reform’ of Indian government under Cornwallis was infused with 
what the editors of the later Fifth Report on Indian affairs called ‘the 
strong objections entertained by Lord Cornwallis against the prin- 
ciples and practices of the native Asiatic governments’.”” The corrup- 
tion spreading from Hindu merchants and Muslim ‘tyrants’ to the 
personnel of the Company — as exemplified by Hasting’s career — was 
in danger of undermining moral integrity as the basis of good govern- 
ment. Cornwallis therefore sought to remove Indians from all but 
minor offices, to remove Company servants from the corruption of 
‘dubashism’ and to demote the people of mixed race who had hitherto 
been an underpinning of European power in the Orient. At the same 
time the executive of government seemed to acquire new lustre. As late 
as 1785 Company servants had petitioned Parliament as free and equal 
members of a series of collegiate institutions in the form of presidency 
councils. They were men imbued with the ‘liberties of Englishmen’ 
and jealous of the power of the state.”? After 1793 patriotism expressed 
in the form of public meetings in support of the King became com- 
monplace.”* Some of these changes of view originated in the conflicts 
between British businessmen and Indian banias and rulers. They also 
reflected a wider reformation of morality in British society which re- 
sulted from the threat of war with revolutionary France and the emerg- 
ence of evangelicalism among Protestant Christians. Cornwallis and, 
later, Wellesley fostered a climate of opinion in which drinking, gam- 
bling, liaisons with Indian women and gross peculation were no 
longer admired or tolerated. 

22 W.K. Firminger, Fifth Report from the Select Committee ... on the affairs of the East 
India Company (Calcutta, 1917), 1, 80. 

23 ‘Resolutions ... by the officers of the Third Brigade stationed at Cawnpore’ against the 
1784 Act, cited, V. Harlow, The Founding of the Second British Empire, 1763-93, i, 
(Oxford, 1964), p. 211. 

24 E.g., Memorial of public meeting of the British inhabitants of Calcutta, 17 July 1798, 
Home Misc. 481, India Office Library, London. 


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The British had been drawn into the politics of coastal India by lust for 
profit and the intricate connections between markets in produce and 
markets in revenue and political perquisites. The need to control the 
conflicts of a society in the process of rapid change forced them to 
elaborate their own style of Indian government. Their success at the 
art of combining the sale of military services with entrepreneurship in 
the management of cash revenues embroiled them further in indige- 
nous society. But Indian powers were not hypnotised victims of the 
cobra’s strike. Those which drew on the strength of the subcontinent’s 
tradition of military sultanates and mobilisation of peasant warriors, 
notably Mysore, the Marathas and the Sikhs, remained a challenge. 
For these states also had the capacity to put together flexible combina- 
tions of cash and men. Moreover, the changes which these martial 
régimes wrought on rural India were as much formative influences on 
the Company’s nineteenth-century empire as the British revenue 
settlements. This chapter examines the working out of the processes of 
expansion both of the British and of the last independent Indian states. 
First though, it turns to the new pressures on the Company’s Indian 
establishments which finally forged a European military despotism 
out of the loose congeries of independent mercantile corporations and 
creole armies which it had been in Hasting’s time. 

Richard Wellesley’s period as Governor-General (1798-1805) rep- 
resented a new phase of British imperialism in India. The ambition of 
the Wellesley ‘family circle’ — his brothers Henry and Arthur along 
with an assortment of younger military acolytes and Orientalists — was 
strident. It was complemented by a new aggressive spirit in an em- 
battled Britain and the ‘voracious desire’ for lands and territories 
announced by Henry Dundas, President of the Board of Control 
established to oversee Company affairs under Pitt’s India Act of 1784. 
Wellesley had a clear plan for British India when he arrived in Madras 
in April 1798 and foresaw two great problems. The first was how to 
stabilise the military organisation of those Indian states with which the 


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Company had contracted subsidiary alliances in the previous gener- 
ation: Awadh, Hyderabad and the Carnatic. Against the background 
of world war with the French, the activities of Frenchmen at Indian 
courts and an imminent Afghan invasion of north India, Wellesley de- 
cided to cut the Gordian knot by outright annexation in the case of 
Awadh and the Carnatic, and by engineering a coup favourable to the 
Company in Hyderabad. 

The second problem was how to deal with the new, expansionist 
Indian states, notably Mysore and the constituent parts of the Maratha 
‘confederacy’ which were adapting their fiscal and: military organis- 
ation to confront the power of the Company. Conquest seemed the 
only option in the case of Mysore, still a threat to the rich lands and 
trade of Madras. The Governor-General hoped that the Maratha 
problem could be dealt with more subtly by concluding a tributary 
alliance with the Peshwa, whom he took to be the ‘head of the Mah- 
ratta nation’. A subsidiary alliance would also, it was hoped, help to 
solve the Company’s crippling debt problem which had arisen from 
the succession of wars. A subsidiary treaty with the Peshwa was finally 
achieved at Bassein in 1802. 

In the event, British interference in Maratha affairs simply forced 
the major Maratha chieftains Scindia and Holkar into direct confron- 
tation with the Company. The Marathas were narrowly defeated by 
the tactical brilliance of Arthur Wellesley. But the longed-for stability 
was not achieved. The Company’s debt tripled between 1798 and 1806 
despite the huge accession of territory. In addition, Wellesley 
bequeathed his successors, Cornwallis (Governor-General again, 
1805), Minto (1807-13), and the Marquess of Hastings (1813-23), a 
formidable problem of pacification. Large bands of mercenary 
soldiers (the Pindaris) who had been dismissed from Indian armies 
roamed the Deccan plateau, complicating the relations between the 
Company and its new Indian client states. The Company’s moves 
against these raiders and peasant rebels with whom they were associ- 
ated panicked the remaining semi-independent Maratha states into re- 
sistance in 1816. The outcome was their final defeat and the 
dispossession of the Peshwa by Hastings. 

These events in India were now part of a world-wide strategy dic- 
tated by the unprecedented demands on Great Britain for resources 
during the Napoleonic Wars. The seizure of Dutch territory in Ceylon 
and southern Africa (1795-6) and Java (1811) was brought about by 


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the alliance of France with the Netherlands. Indian military questions 
were now debated in an international context. The Cape of Good 
Hope and Egypt became vital spheres of influence for the. Indian 
Empire. Bengal troops were despatched to Java and the Bombay 
marine to the Red Sea, while their use in the Caribbean was canvassed. 
So began the réle of the Indian army as an imperial reserve, a position 
which it was to hold down to 1947. 


The political theory and practice of the Wellesley circle represented the 
first coherent imperial policy in British Indian history. Clive was an 
opportunist. Warren Hastings had sought to protect British trade by 
refurbishing the Mughal successor state of Bengal. Cornwallis and his 
men were pragmatists, shoring up the Company’s defences while 
purging its administration along the lines of Whig ‘economical 
reform’. The Wellesley generation made fewer far-reaching changes in 
the structure of administration, but they infused it with a new single- 
mindedness which emphasised the power and dignity of the state, the 
morality of conquest and British racial superiority. Just as the French 
wars saw the emergence of true Toryism in England, so in India the 
combined threat of Indian reaction and local Jacobinism nurtured true 

Richard and Arthur Wellesley both asserted Britain’s right to India 
by conquest. The Company, they argued, had saved Bengal by its mil- 
itary protection. Besides, Britain’s exploitation was ‘founded upon the 
policy usually adopted by modern and ancient nations in regard to 
conquered territories’! The summary execution of resisting petty 
rulers in southern and western India was justified by similar appeals to 
quasi-Roman precedents. A second order of legitimation was supplied 
by the notion that most contemporary Indian rulers were tyrannical 
usurpers of previous dynasties and rights, and could therefore be dis- 
pensed with at will so that ‘this ancient and highly cultivated people’ 
could be ‘restored to the full enjoyment of their religious and civil 
rights’? This line of reasoning reached its pinnacle in the elaborate 
denunciations of Tipu Sultan of Mysore who ‘violated the law and 

1 ‘Memorandum on Bengal’, S. J. Owen (ed.), A Selection from the Despatches relating to 
India of the Duke of Wellington (London, 1880), p. 503. 
? Asiatic Annual Register (London), 1798, p. 37. 


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intercourse of nations’ while at the same time destroying the basis of 
landed property under the ‘ancient Hindoo constitution’. According 
to Mark Wilks, one of Wellesley’s new political agents and resident in 
Mysore, the aim of British policy was to restore this ancient consti- 
tution and the Hindu Wodiyar house which had existed before Haidar 
Ali’s takeover in 1761.° 

As yet there was no attempt to deny the legitimacy of properly con- 
stituted Mughal authority. The Mughal emperor should be accorded 
‘reverence and respect’ so that the Company could secure possession 
of the person and continue to participate in ‘the nominal authority of 
the Moghul.”* All the same, for Wellesley and his supporters it was es- 
sential that the Company and particularly the governor-general 
should stand forth as sovereigns in dealing both with Indian powers 
and their own servants. The governor-general ‘should have the power 
of summoning a privy council and should act in it as the King or the 
Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland’.° The ancient corporate nature of the 
Company councils with their near equality between members should 
be dispensed with for these ‘had the character of an aristocratic repub- 
lic rather than a monarchy’. It is notable that though Wellesley’s 
successors discountenanced the semi-royal character of the governor- 
generalship, they nevertheless stressed the need for the Company to be 
seen as an Indian sovereign in matters such as public ritual and the cre- 
ation of irrigation works, kingship’s traditional duties. 

Wellesley never received the backing of the home authorities for a 
thorough reorganisation of government, but he achieved much 
through patronage and reorganisation in Calcutta. Through his 
brother Arthur and a loyal commander-in-chief, Gerard Lake, he laid 
a firm hand on the Indian army. He kept control of the new adminis- 
trative service through his brother Henry and jealously circumvented 
the Court of Directors in London by appointing his own men not only 
to political office but also to the circles of orientalists and publicists 
surrounding the new ‘court’. He kept direct control of the Political 
Department concerned with British India’s foreign relations and dis- 
pensed with the services of the governor-general’s council in this area. 
His private governor-general’s office became the training ground for a 

> Mark Wilks, Historical Sketches of the South of India (Mysore, 1930), 1, esp. 176-87. 

* Wellesley to Lake, 27 July 1803, Martin (ed.), Wellesley Despatches, iii, 214. 

° E.g. Mornington to Dundas, 1 October 1798, E. Ingram (ed.), Two Views of British 
India (London, 1969), p. 93. 


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creative new generation of administrators and political agents, notably 
Sir Charles Metcalfe, Sir Richard Jenkins, and W. B. Bayley.® Welles- 
ley also tried to rationalise training for the civil service and infuse it 
with a new spirit. The Fort William College, which he founded against 
the opposition of the Court of Directors, was to foster the teaching of 
oriental languages and to extricate the young public servants from the 
‘habitual indolence, dissipation and licentious indulgence’ which were 
the ‘natural consequence’ of living in close proximity to the ‘peculiar 
depravity of the people of India’.’ The young were also to be distanced 
from the commercial character of the Company. The old designations 
of office — writer, factor and merchant — were abolished and the private 
trade of civil servants was even more firmly discountenanced. Open 
concubinage with Indian women was disapproved. Gambling and 
drunkenness censured, and the social life of Calcutta cleaned up. Two 
Calcutta editors critical of the Governor-General were denounced as 
‘jacobins’ and deported. The Company’s old right to make regu- 
lations, akin to the by-laws promulgated by English corporate bodies, 
had been codified by Cornwallis. It was now used vigorously in the 
settlement of newly annexed territories. 

This new emphasis on the power and dignity of the executive might 
appear to be in contradiction to the concern for free trade expressed by 
Wellesley’s friends and patrons and to the constant denunciation of 
restraints to trade operated by Indian rulers. But free trade always 
worked in symbiosis with state power and imperial expansion in 
India. Wellesley and his circle certainly wanted to open Indo- 
European trade to British private merchants and resisted the interests 
within the Company and metropolitan ship-owning circles which 
wished to continue strict monopoly. The immediate aim was to grab 
back from neutral nations the trade which they had won since the 
beginning of the French wars. This in turn was expected to improve 
the Government of India’s capital position and credit. In addition 
English shipping could be ‘more easily controlled and regulated’ than 
sundry Danish, American or Arab fleets. Ultimately the policy was to 
make ‘London the throne of commerce of the world’ as he had 
declared in a parliamentary debate on Irish affairs in 1787.8 Yet the 
Wellesley circle did not espouse the doctrinaire type of free-trade phil- 

® Personal narrative of N. B. Edmonstone, Venn papers, Centre of South Asian Studies, 

” Minute in Council at Fort William, 18 August 1800, Asiatic Annual Register, 1802, 129. 

8 R. Pearce (ed.), The Wellesley Papers (London, 1914), i, 15. 


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osophy. They were too concerned for the power and dignity of the 
state in India. If government intervention was required this was per- 
fectly appropriate according to free-traders, including Adam Smith 
himself, who saw state control to be essential in times of war. So in in- 
ternal policy Wellesley continued Cornwallis’s policy of reducing 
multiple duties on trade and rationalising bazaar taxes. Yet his govern- 
ment also continued monopolies in salt and saltpetre and forced Indian 
merchants into the service of British armies. In the interior Henry 
Wellesley and his contemporaries founded markets through state 
power, making vigorous efforts to facilitate the transport of raw 
cotton to the seaports and to sell British goods at fairs and markets in 
north India. In practice the Company’s monopolies survived through 
to 1833 (when it lost the monopoly of the China trade) largely 
unscathed while the Company itself became more of a government and 
less of a commercial enterprise. 

The Company’s rule in India had come to rest primarily on its mili- 
tary despotism. In the'1780s it had been fought to a draw by both 
Mysore and the Marathas. Cornwallis’s much-heralded defeat of Tipu 
Sultan in 1792 was really only a local war in which Mysore preserved 
its richest revenue-bearing areas. Circles close to Wellesley ridiculed 
the possibility of an overland French attack on India and the Duke of 
Wellington later stated that French naval equipment was not adequate 
to the task of sea~-borne Asian warfare. Yet there was fear that up to 
two hundred assorted European, Catholic and ‘Jacobin’ advisers at 
Indian courts might enhance the military capability of Indian states to 
the point where they could defeat the British. This was more likely 
since the Company’s army had its weaknesses. Its European officers 
formed a tight-knit body, jealous of their rich perquisites and a system 
of promotion which favoured seniority rather than ability. An attempt 
by ministers in London to gain control of the Bengal army through the 
agency of Sir John Shore (Governor-General, 1793-8) was fought off 
in a near mutiny in 1796. 

Yet even before the final showdown with Tipu in 1799 the Bengal 
army had displayed strengths on which the Wellesleys were to build. 
From 1765 the Company had begun to recruit from the major 
breeding-ground of India’s infantry in eastern Awadh and the lands 
around Benares. The high caste Bhumihar and Rajput squireens of 
these areas (known as purbias or ‘easterners’) had been recruited by 
Muslim powers since the fifteenth century. The waning of Mughal 


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power and the limits placed on the armies of its allies demanded by the 
Company forced them to seek British service if they were to retain 
their village status. By 1800 recruiting agents were at work in the 
region which was to provide up to eighty per cent of Bengal troops 
until the rebellion of 1857. Retired soldiers in turn created links be- 
tween the distant European rulers and the Indian countryside which 
were to underpin the British systems of rural control. 

The Bengal army was a reserve of manpower for operations else- 
where in the subcontinent. When Cornwallis sent Bengal troops south 
in 1791 there were some desertions. Yet the force was critical in stiff- 
ening the back of the weak Madras army which had yet to find a re- 
liable recruiting ground, and comprised a less cohesive body of 
Eurasians, Telugu warriors and Muslims who had failed to get service 
in Mysore. Bengal soldiers were also used in the Ceylon, Java and Red 
Sea campaigns. But Bengal was important to the emerging Indian 
army in another sense too. Company sepoys’ pay was high; infantry 
received about Rs 80 per annum, several times the pay of a specialist 
field worker. The regularity of this pay which distinguished British 
from indigenous Indian armies was crucially dependent on the Com- 
pany’s possession of the rich revenue-bearing lands of the Bengal 
Presidency. Seaborne support and access to new musket technology 
doubtless gave the Company a slight edge. Yet the mystique of the 
Bengal army’s prowess was also an important if unquantifiable asset. 
The carefully drilled red-coated sepoys and their white officers 
inspired a kind of awe in their adversaries. In Maharashtra and in Java 
the sepoys were regarded as the embodiment of demonic forces, some- 
times of antique warrior heroes. Indian rulers adopted red serge 
jackets for their own forces and retainers as if to capture their magical 

After 1790 the pace of British military expansion in India speeded up 
notably. Between 1789 and 1805 the Company’s total strength 
increased from about 115,000 to 155,000, making it one of the largest 
European-style standing armies in the world. More important, the 
Company, which had been at the mercy of Indian light horse in earlier 
wars, created a strong cavalry arm. Not only were the numbers of 
cavalry tripled but the state itself provided horse and arms, a system 
whick was imposed on Britain’s tributary allies over the next gener- 
ation. Indian troopers who owned their own mounts had been reluc- 
tant to risk them in close encounters. The importance of cavalry was 


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two-fold: first, it protected and helped supply cumbersome infantry 
and artillery columns; secondly, it made possible quick pursuit and 
control over a fractious countryside. Wellesley, for instance, at- 
tributed his speedy defeat of the Maratha chief Daundia Waugh, ‘heir 
to Tipu’ in 1800 to cavalry pursuit, and cavalry was later to be crucial 
in mopping-up operations against the Pindari raiders. Cavalry power 
was thus an important guarantee of the capacity to extract revenue. 
Bringing in strong horses from Europe and southern Africa the Com- 
pany’s army was able to build up an excellent pool of mares, while the 
decline of pasturage and the loss of horse-breeding skills in British 
India tended to weaken the cavalry capability of its enemies. Along 
with cavalry, there was a clear improvement in the equipment and 
training of the Company’s artillery and the quality of its musketry. 
This was important because the Indian powers were themselves 
rapidly increasing their ordnance and because effective gunnery was 
vital to siege warfare against small fortresses as the British strove for 
mastery in the interior. 

Another major improvement in the Company’s army can be at- 
tributed directly to Arthur Wellesley. No formal commissary’s 
department concerned with feeding and supplying the army was con- 
stituted until the following decade. But Wellesley insisted on detailed 
control and regular payment of the vast private enterprise of pack- 
bullock herds which attended Indian armies. By this means he was 
able to ensure the provision of fodder for and transport of the long- 
range field guns which he regarded as so crucial for success in battle. 
Clearing large swathes of jungle and building roads into the eyries of 
rebellious Nayar chieftains, Arthur Wellesley also pioneered the use of 
ecological warfare by Europeans against Asians. In turn success 
brought greater efficiency. The defeat of Tipu in 1799 left in the Com- 
pany’s hands nearly 250,000 strong white Mysorean draught cattle 
which proved vital in the Deccan campaigns of the following decade. 

The development of military organisation had its repercussions in 
the field of government and politics. Despite the Wellesleys’ stated 
desire to keep military and civilian, judicial and executive powers 
separated, they recognised that Company rule was a military despo- 
tism outside Bengal. The revenue systems adopted by Munro and 
Read in the areas seized from Tipu in 1792 (the progenitors of the ryot- 
wari system) were simple adaptations of the revenue systems of the 
Sultans, designed to provide money to pay for armies. Military per- 
sonnel filled the vital office of resident at the Indian courts. The young 


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soldiers despatched by Wellesley into Mysore and the Maratha terri- 
tories and to Delhi transmitted vital political and military information 
which was stored in the reorganised Foreign and Political Depart- 
ments in Calcutta. Whereas Hastings had often worked in the dark his 
successors after 1792 had at hand detailed family histories of most of 
the ruling families in India, assessments of their military capabilities 
and notes on their commercial resources. A Persian Secretariat dealt 
with correspondence in Indian languages and acquired great com- 
petence in bending to British advantage the systems of precedence and 
ceremonial gift exchange among the Indian powers. The Persian Secre- 
tary, N.B. Edmonstone, was appointed as superintendent of Welles- 
ley’s ‘Governor-General’s Office’ which collated information and 
dealt with ‘those branches of the administrative government which the 
Governor-General deemed it proper personally to conduct’.’ 

Much of the information which enabled the British to control and 
tax their Indian possessions was gathered by army and naval officers 
and resulted from the growing military character of the Company after 
Cornwallis. Officers accompanying residents on their postings ex- 
tended the techniques of the great cartographer James Rennell to the 
Indian interior and drew the maps which were later filled out by the 
revenue surveys of 1814-35. Investigations of Indian resources, par- 
ticularly on the west coast were driven by the need to find suitable 
sorts of timber for the Bombay marine. Yet not all of this explosion of 
information on India in the last ten years of the century resulted from 
military and practical incentives. There was also a change in the orien- 
tation of European knowledge about Asia. As late as 1770 there had 
been a preoccupation with issues regarding Brahminism and the 
Indian scriptures. Hastings’ Calcutta Madrassa signalled a greater in- 
terest in Indian languages and literature among the rulers, but it was in 
the last fifteen years of the century that the real change came. The 
Permanent Settlement brought officials for the first time directly into 
contact with problems of Indian village organisation and concepts of 
right. Colebrooke’s Remarks on the Present State of Husbandry in 
Bengal (1795) with its quantification and concern for peasant produc- 
tion became the pattern for future domesday books of parts of the 
Indian empire, providing a standard against which future topogra- 
phers, Francis Buchanan and Walter Hamilton, assessed the societies 
they investigated. 

° Edmonstone narrative, Venn Papers. 


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——¥w Madras 1763 



assigned 1781 
annexed 1801 


Ceded 1799 

Boundaries of 
Princely state 
=: with date of 
subsidiary alliance 

Company's early 
= Probie id Bs CEYLON 

[_] Ceded by Tipu 1792 

4 British expansion: south India, 1750-1820 

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These developments mirrored the contemporary passion in Britain 
and Europe for social statistics, itself a harbinger of the emergence of 
the modern state, but it was also something with independent scien- 
tific origin. The eighteenth-century concern with belief and systems of 
value gave way to the empirical documentation of known facts, the 
creation in social studies of analyses and taxonomies which distantly 
reflected the norms of Linnean botany. Just as Captain James Cook’s 
aides had been schooled in the new botany, so the greatest of the 
Anglo-Indian topographers, Buchanan, was a medical doctor and 
botanist by training. 


The rdle of commercial, financial or strategic considerations in this 
great wave of expansion is best analysed region by region. The crisis 
which the Governor-General saw among his allies, and the danger 
from his enemies resulted largely from the corrosive effect of the 
British military presence on the delicate politics of the Indian states. 
‘Anarchy’, military weakness and ‘corruption’ were not as the Vic- 
torian historians considered, the consequence of effete rulers and 
oriental despotism. They resulted quite often from British fiscal and 
diplomatic intervention in Indian affairs. The subsidiary alliance 
system, as noted in the last chapter, had been pioneered by the French 
in their dealings with Hyderabad during the 1740s. It was adopted by 
the Madras council in treaties with the Nawabs of Arcot and in 1765 
imposed by Clive on the Nawabs of Awadh. Under these treaties the 
Indian ruler paid for the presence on his soil of Company troops 
which ‘protected’ him against internal and external aggressors. The 
arrangement was presided over by a Company official (later resident) 
at the court of the Indian ruler who was given privileged access to him 
and was able to influence his relations with peers and overlords. The 
essential advantage for the Company, of course, was that it limited the 
costs incurred in the defence of its own borders. 

Yet the subsidiary alliance system posed great problems both for the 
Indian states and for the British. British military supremacy rested 
above all on the Company’s ability to pay its Indian troops regularly. 
However, the Mughal revenue system had been flexible, even unpre- 
dictable from month to month. It depended on the outturn of the 


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crops, adaptable systems of credit and revenue remissions along with 
the mutual cooperation of (or bargaining by conflict between) a host of 
rural intermediaries, revenue farmers and moneylenders. Indian rulers 
subject to a British subsidiary alliance all fell rapidly and irremediably 
into arrears. The stronger became the British pressure to pay, the more 
it impaired the rulers’ ability to produce a regular subsidy for the 
troops. As Arthur Wellesley noted, since the tribute was 

generally the whole or nearly the whole disposable resource of the state, it is 
not easy to produce it at the stipulated moment. The tributary government 
has to borrow at usurious interest ... to take advances from aumildars {rev- 
enue farmers] and to sell the office of aumildar.'° 

This in turn led to avarice, extortion and a decline in respect for the 
indigenous régime. Ultimately the British government was ‘obliged 
to interfere in the internal administration in order to save the resources 
of the state’ and to avoid ‘employing the troops in quelling internal 
rebellion and disorder, which were intended to resist the foreign 

The manner in which stringent demands for tribute or subsidy could 
lead to revolt and British annexation was first seen in 1781 when the 
British stepped deeper into the Ganges valley after the defeat of Raja 
Cheyt Singh of Benares. Benares had become a major crossroads for 
trade and finance in north India. But since 17735 it had also provided Rs 
45 lakhs per annum to the Company’s treasury as an annual tribute 
which had been paid to Awadh before 1775. Hastings pressed relent- 
lessly for regular payment as war spread through India in 1779. But 
the system of revenue farming which was now common throughout 
the region was unpredictable in times of crisis. Poor harvests occurred 
and the Raja found himself squeezed between an implacable 
Governor-General and an intractable countryside. A revolt broke out 
in the city and hinterland which put at risk the life of Hastings, who 
was temporarily in Benares. Cheyt Singh’s revolt was, however, 
quickly snuffed out and a new Raja subservient to the British was in- 
stalled, with the resident now virtual ruler of the territory. 

Much the same happened on a grander scale in Awadh itself. Awadh 
was the classic Mughal successor state. The dynasty which had estab- 
lished itself here after 1720 was nominally subordinate to the Mughal 
court and continued to remit a diminished quantity of revenue to the 

1° Memorandum on Awadh (c. 1798), Owen (ed.), Wellington Despatches, pp. 476-7. 


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centre until the late 1780s. A small élite of Mughal warriors, literati 
and gentry stood poised over a vast Hindu countryside ruled by petty 
chieftains of Rajput origin. In order to guarantee regular income the 
system of farming out revenue had been generalised in the early part of 
the century and about two dozen great magnates accounted for most 
of the state’s revenue and much of its military strength. 

The British had, since 1765, received a large annual tribute of Rs 75 
lakhs or more in payment for the Company troops now stationed at 
three places in Awadh to ‘protect’ it from internal and external 
enemies. Using their political clout, the British officers associated 
with these garrisons grabbed a monopoly in several of the most im- 
portant items of trade in the realm, thus reducing the ruler’s income 
from customs and transit duties. More seriously, the pressures of the 
huge annual demand disrupted the fragile and multi-layered political 
system. At times the rulers connived in a process of decentralisation 
which hid the true revenue resources of the state. At times pressures 
from revenue contractors forced local notables into revolt, while peas- 
ants and merchants moved to areas of lower taxation. In 1781 attempts 
by British temporary collectors under the direction of the resident at 
Lucknow to extract a larger revenue resulted in a mass rising of Rajput 
landholders and their liegemen in southern Awadh, an explosion 
which foreshadowed the rebellion of 1857. A chastened Hastings drew 
back, and over the next fifteen years British demands on Awadh were 
reduced. A new commercial treaty negotiated by Cornwallis in 1788 
struck at the worst abuses of the private trading system. 

However, the damage to the power and credibility of Awadh was 
already too great. The state’s pressure for enhanced revenue gave rise 
during the 1790s to several revolts. The most serious were in the west 
where the proud Rohillas and their Rajput allies sought to recreate the 
independence they had enjoyed before the Nawab and his English sup- 
porters invaded the territory in 1774 in a search for loot and revenue. 
The Awadh soldiery was in a state of constant disaffection because of 
massive arrears in pay. Meanwhile some of the richest areas of the 
realm were controlled not by the Nawab but by great revenue farming 
magnates such as the eunuch Almas Ali Khan who in the 1790s could 
mobilise more troops than his master in Lucknow. 

The situation worsened after Asaf’s death in 1797. Sir John Shore 
suspicious of the ‘loyalty’ of Asaf’s supposed son, Vazir Ali, engin- 
eered a succession dispute and managed to have Vazir Ali declared il- 


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legitimate, replacing him with the more pliant Saadat Ali Khan who 
had been long under British tutelage. Barely had Wellesley set foot in 
India in 1798 than Vazir Ali, who had been exiled to Benares, mur- 
dered the district collector and fled the city to raise rebellion in alliance 
with Rajput warriors of the Awadh hinterland and with the conniv- 
ance of some of the rulers of the northern frontier. It was the nagging 
fear of Awadh as a dangerous frontier for British Bengal and Benares 
which determined Wellesley to push for the abdication of the new 
Nawab Saadat Ali Khan during 1799 and 1800. It seemed possible that 
the ruler of Afghanistan, Zeman Shah, who had already invaded the 
Punjab in 1797, might proceed into Hindustan picking up support 
from the Rohilla Afghans and even from Almas Ali Khan. The Nawab 
refused to abdicate in the manner of his peer in Arcot, but was eventu- 
ally forced to cede all his western territories and those along the rivers 
Ganges and Jumna. The rump of Awadh survived until it too was 
annexed in 1856. But the realm, cut off from its most valuable trade 
routes, subject to continued interference from the British resident and 
suffering a great outward haemorrhage of its capital to British cities 
and into Company bonds, became little more than a backwater of the 
silver age of Mughal culture in north India. 

What was the réle of commerce in this story of erosion and annexa- 
tion? It is quite clear that Europeans were in control of a significant 
sector of Awadh’s economy before 1800. They had little presence in 
the most important trades — salt, grain and inferior cloths. But army 
officers before the commercial treaty of 1788, and private merchants 
afterwards, dominated a large part of the trade in finer cloths and the 
powerfully expanding commerce with Bengal in items such as raw 
cotton. This European commercial penetration affected Awadh in two 
ways. Firstly, free passes and privileges extracted by Europeans and 
their Indian allies denied important sources of a revenue to the state 
so aggravating its fiscal and political crisis. Secondly, the alliance be- 
tween powerful British commercial interests and semi-independent 
magnates strengthened the forces of decentralisation against Luck- 
now. Almas Ali Khan, for instance, lent money to British private 
merchants on a large scale and helped them with their purchase of cloth 
in the inland markets. Groups of these traders influenced the British 
resident at Lucknow to keep the centre’s hands off their ally. It does 
not seem that private traders intrigued for or even welcomed the direct 
cession of large parts of Awadh in 1801-2. And it is certainly clear that 


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the Governor-General was not himself motivated by simple commer- 
cial interests in his decision. Yet the buoyancy of British trade had cer- 
tainly acted to further weaken Awadh’s ailing polity. 

In the summer of 1801 Wellesley’s government forced the Nawab of 
Arcot to cede to them the districts which later formed the heart of the 
Madras Presidency in return for a small fixed pension. The arrange- 
ment followed the pattern already set in the relations between Madras 
and the small but rich state of Tanjore which had been annexed in 
1799. The Company had been in Madras since 1639, and, as the pre- 
vious chapter showed, the slow expansion of its cloth exports to 
Europe and south-east Asia had put the British in a dominant position 
on the Coromandel coast as early as 1756. The question then arises as 
to why the Company allowed the semi-independent state of Arcot to 
exist so long in the heart of its second most important enclave and why 
it finally annexed these territories in 1800. The answer to both these 
questions seems to lie in the weakness of the Arcot régime. 

Compared to Awadh or even to Mughal Bengal before 1757, Arcot 
was a dependent régime. It was a fragile conquest state on the fringes 
of Muslim India, poised uneasily over a Hindu society dominated by 
warrior chieftains. Only in the ancient areas of rice cultivation on the 
Penner river and in the environs of the great fortress town of Trichino- 
poly had the Nawabs’ revenue agents established a firm grip over the 
countryside, and his control over them was never sure. As a client of 
the ruler of Hyderabad, himself only an agent of the Delhi Emperor, 
the Nawab of Arcot’s legitimacy rested on conspicuous Islamic piety 
combined happily with the active patronage of the religious insti- 
tutions of his Hindu subjects. He had survived the wars against the 
French and their allies as a result of the self-interested support of the 
British in Madras. With the rise of aggressive and capable rulers in 
adjoining Mysore the very survival of the state rested on the uncertain 
support of the Company’s Madras army which was secured under the 
initial alliance of the 1740s. But as in the case of Awadh the financial 
demands of the alliance merely served to erode the basis of the state, 
and ultimately to provide the conditions for British annexation. 

The longevity of Arcot compared with the Nawabs of Bengal was a 
reflection of the ease with which the state could be suborned by private 
European interests. In their capacity of exporters of cloth the Com- 
pany and its servants could use the Nawab’s authority to coerce the 
hinterland weavers and create monopolies of their produce. In their 


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more important capacity as usurers living on the Arcot revenues Com- 
pany servants had an interest in keeping the state formally indepen- 
dent. But this was not a situation which recommended itself to 
Wellesley. The wars of the 1780s and 1790s, revenue peculation by Bri- 
tish dubashes or Arcot officials and the emigration of weavers and far- 
mers to Mysore had irreparably damaged the state’s revenues. The 
Arcot debts continued to provide a transfusion of blood to sustain the 
private interests of old Madras into the age of ‘economical reform’ 
pioneered by Cornwallis and Wellesley. Private interests were even 
conspiring with dissident factions at the Arcot court to play off the 
Company against the Crown by instituting a long series of plaints and 
petitions to the Prince of Wales in London. An alleged correspondence 
between the new Nawab Umdat-ul-Umara and Tipu Sultan during the 
Mysore war of 1799 and a further failure by the Nawab’s officials to 
provision British forces effectively sealed the fate of independent 
Arcot. The state was swept away in July 1801. Here once again the 
expansion of British commerce on the Coromandel coast had been a 
precondition for British annexation. The conflict between different 
groups of indigenous and European capitalist and fiscal entrepreneur 
had drawn British influence deeper into the fabric of the indigenous 
state. Yet it had been the pressures of the subsidiary alliance system 
which rendered indirect rule unviable by straining Arcot’s authority to 
breaking point. 

The final buffer state in Wellesley’s cordon sanitaire around the 
Marathas was Hyderabad. Here the cost of administering the vast and 
thinly peopled uplands of the Deccan prohibited formal annexation. A 
new subsidiary alliance in September 1798, along with a subsequent 
commercial treaty (1802), clamped home the Nizam’s dependence and 
expelled the French battalion which had given him a little room for 
manoeuvre in his relations with the British. Of course the Nizam’s op- 
tions had long been limited. Since 1766 the Company had occupied the 
rich coastal weaving districts of his domain and in 1788 it had secured 
control of the district of Guntur. Hyderabad’s own control over the 
Telugu warriors of its outer districts was so weak that the annual 
tribute which the Company continued to pay for these districts was 
crucial to its survival. The British already had a powerful group of sup- 
porters at Hyderabad. The party led by the diwan was made up largely 
of minority Shia Muslims and north Indian Hindus; it tended to look 
to the British for support in internal factions and for protection against 


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the Marathas. The anti-British party based on local notables and 
centred on the ruler’s household corps was more distant from financial 
and administrative control within the domain. As Hyderabad lost 
more of its outlying districts in 1800-1, it was drawn firmly into the 
British orbit as a succession of powerful residents built up this alliance 
with the diwans of the day 


Wellesley’s annexations were mainly the longer term results of the 
erosion of the pluralistic polities of the Mughal successor states by the 
British connection — and in particular by the pressures generated from 
the subsidiary alliance system. But the occasion and justification for 
these annexations were attempts by the militarily stronger states — 
Mysore and the Marathas — to escape from the same trap. The society 
and administration of these two powers were rather different. The 
Maratha states rose as a loose alliance of Deccan agriculturalists and 
pastoralists seeking the status of Hindu warrior kings though still 
operating within the Mughal political system. The Mysore of Haidar 
Ali and his son Tipu Sultan was, by contrast, a Muslim conquest state 
created in 1761 by a coup against the Hindu ruling house, which drew 
on the support of the army and Hindu bankers. The new Mysore was 
maintained by rigorous revenue management and a growing emphasis 
on the power of the sultan. Both polities were seen as a threat to Bri- 
tish dominance because they had begun to develop a capacity in 
infantry and gunnery which challenged the Company’s army. 
Mysore was based upon an ancient core of royal power in south 
India. The black soils of its northern districts grew excellent cotton. 
To the west the land was watered by streams from the western ghats 
and through the heartland ran 1,000 miles of the river Kavery and its 
tributaries. In addition ancient irrigation works provided a further 
1,200 miles of canals and large numbers of irrigation tanks.'’ The natu- 
ral products and crops of the region were well balanced and easily sup- 
ported its relatively sparse population. Mysore in the time of Haidar 
Ali (d. 1782) also had a large artisan population and a flourishing entre- 
pot trade. Srirangapatam, the capital, and the newly founded Banga- 
lore were a crossroads for the south, receiving goods from the east and 

1 Mysore and Coorg. A Gazetteer Compiled for the Government of India (Bangalore, 
y: & 'p §' 
1877), i, chs 1-2. 


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west coasts and from Hyderabad in the north, and exporting its own 
wood, grain and cloth in return. 

Haidar and Tipu both struggled to bring a larger share of this wealth 
under the direct control of the state. Haidar followed the policy of 
earlier Hindu kings (notably Chika Devarayya III, 1672-1704) of 
attempting to discipline the Telugu warrior chieftains and raise the 
state’s revenue portion to something more like the supposed Mughal 
30-40 per cent of the agricultural product. The Mysore rulers pushed 
for money taxation in areas where there had customarily been only 
grain assessments. Haidar Ali had sought to attract into his realm out- 
side merchant communities. He also encouraged peasant farmers to 
migrate from nearby territories, including those of the Company. This 
policy succeeded because until the last days of Tipu’s reign the state’s 
increment was drawn not from the cultivators but from the elimin- 
ation of poligars and intermediate revenue agents. These policies 
brought Mysore a degree of prosperity which even its English enemies 
could not ignore. A British observer wrote of it as ‘well-cultivated, 
populous with industrious inhabitants, cities newly founded and com- 
merce extending’.!? Yet by the last decade of the century the strains of 
war and the huge indemnity squeezed out of Mysore by Lord Corn- 
wallis in 1792 was beginning to tell. Tipu Sultan was determined to pay 
off the indemnity as soon as possible to avoid falling into a state of 
indebtedness such as that which had crippled Arcot or Awadh. He 
pensioned off the old revenue managers, instituted a new system of tax 
collectors and tried to push up the land revenue over much of the 
country by a further 25 per cent. Suspicious of the older Deccani no- 
bility he sought to promote new families into his administration and to 
create an army of Arab and African mercenaries or personal depen- 
dants. Forced loans from merchants and rigorous monopolies in agri- 
cultural produce and rural industries contributed to the picture of 
savage despotism which English apologists loved to paint. But even in 
the 1790s Mysore’s economy had points of growth while still support- 
ing an army of well over 60,000 men. 

The Mysore army was strong in those areas where the Company, 
and especially its Madras contingents, was weakest. The Mysore light 
cavalry was ‘the best in the world’ according to Arthur Wellesley and 

12 Edward Moore, 1794, cited A. Sen, ‘A pre-British economic formation in India of the 
late eighteenth century’, in Barun De (ed.), Perspectives in Social Sciences (Calcutta, 1977), i, 
Historical Dimensions, 46. 


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its harrying of Cornwallis’s army in 1792 was one reason why the 
Governor-General had come to terms with Tipu and achieved only a 
limited victory. Mysore also had a useful force of irregular marksmen 
who were drawn from the Telugu huntsman caste (the Bedas or Bey- 
daru). These had been settled by Tipu in the north of his domains 
where they could dominate the countryside, but were ready for mili- 
tary service.’° Irrigation specialists from the villages also provided a 
good supply of sappers and miners. But the most valuable of all Tipu’s 
military resources was the huge bullock ‘park’ of white Deccan cattle 
which was later used by the British in their war against the Marathas. 

Under the pressure of British encirclement, Haidar and Tipu sought 
to invigorate their state. Both rulers fought for access to the Indian 
ocean on the west; this was the rationale for their intervention on the 
Malabar coast. As Haidar is supposed to have said, ‘I can defeat them 
[the British] on land, but I cannot swallow the sea’. Tipu in turn re- 
alised that the decline of Muslim-controlled trade in the Arabian Sea 
and the rise of the Company’s pepper interests on the west coast pre- 
sented an insidious threat to all the Indian states of the region. Accord- 
ingly he tried to stimulate trade with Arabia and Persia by setting up 
state trading institutions in the port towns. He also ravaged the spice 
bushes of the Keralan coast and dispersed the Hindu and Christian 
populations attached to the foreign trading posts. Most of all, Tipu 
seems to have understood the political weaknesses of Mysore when 
confronting the surrogate of a powerful European nation state. This 
perhaps lay behind his attempts to establish himself as an ‘emperor’ 
(padishah) independent of Mughal authority and, latterly, stress the 
Islamic features of his state (which he called the ‘God Given King- 
dom’). This policy, of course, had to be applied with caution. Mysore 
was too dependent on Hindu warriors and on Tamil Brahmin adminis- 
trators for Tipu to institute a general holy war. He carefully dis- 
tinguished between Hindus and Christians who might be the 
stalking-horse of British influence and the majority of his non-Muslim 
subjects whom he treated with consideration. 

Tipu died fighting Wellesley’s armies at the gates of Srirangapatam 
true to his adage ‘better to live a day as a lion than a lifetime as a sheep’. 
His realm was not a decaying eastern despotism, but an attempt to face 
European mercantilist power with its own weapons: state monopoly 
and an aggressive ideology of expansion. It failed because the re- 

‘3 Buchanan, Journey into ... Mysore, i, 178~9. 


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sources of the British were expanding faster than those of Mysore, 
fuelled as much by Indian merchant capital as by European control 
over the most productive parts of the countryside. For all his rigorous- 
ness Tipu still only had limited success in penetrating beneath the 
powerful poligar lords of the countryside. 

In this respect the Marathas posed a yet more dangerous threat 
because they above all represented the fusion of the power of the 
Hindu warrior landholders with the techniques of the Muslim admin- 
istrators. To Richard Wellesley the Maratha kingdoms represented an 
empire or ‘confederacy’ whose ‘head’ was the Peshwa. If the Peshwa 
were brought into a subsidiary alliance, his subordinate chiefs would 
also submit and the last dangerous frontier of British India would be 
closed. But the Treaty of Bassein concluded between the British and a 
Peshwa weakened by internal opposition in 1802 had very different re- 
sults. The major chieftains, Scindia, Holkar and the Raja of Berar saw 
this alliance as a clear challenge to their own independence and drifted 
into war with the Company. Between 1803 and 1806 large areas of cen- 
tral India were laid waste and the Marathas shackled more tightly to 
the British alliance. At the same time the Company’s debt doubled and 
a series of military reverses undermined Wellesley’s position with the 
authorities in London. 

In the case of Awadh or Arcot the instability which the British per- 
ceived on their frontier was itself a consequence of the pressures of 
subsidiary alliance — and to a lesser extent of the corrosive effects of 
British trade. In the case of the Marathas, the alliance of 1802 forced 
the Maratha magnates into opposition while the growth of trade on the 
west coast had progressively put the hard upland areas of the Deccan at 
an economic disadvantage. Yet the volatility of Maratha politics also 
derived from the rapid social changes which had occurred in the region 
since the beginning of the eighteenth century. By 1780 what the British 
called the ‘Maratha empire’ referred not to a state or even to a culture 
but to a loosely bonded range of Hindu warriors and related agricultu- 
ralists who had achieved dominance within the heartland of Mughal 
India. Maratha hegemony resembled Mughal hegemony in many 
respects and used its methods of alliance-building and breaking. 
Poona had begun to resemble the rdle of Delhi as a moral centre, 
though Delhi retained much of its aura. The Peshwa (a Chitpavan 
Brahmin), and, more distantly, the Maratha descendants of Shivaji, 
their first great war-leader, had attained legitimacy as high-kings 


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among the Marathas. But as in the case of the Mughals a complicated 
process of expansion — of subdividing and sharing in rights and hon- 
ours — had tended to put chiefs in the outer regions at an advantage in 
their dealings with the centre. Like the Mughals too, the power of the 
ruling group was dependent on the support of non-Maratha magnates 
and mercenaries. Around Poona, of course, the Maratha ruling class 
was supreme and the villagers ‘have some pride in the triumph of their 
nation, and some ambition to partake in its military exploits’.'* But 
outside this heartland, Marathas formed only a thin ruling group. In 
the outer tracts of Kanara, for instance, Marathas only accounted for 
8-10 per cent of the population, a small élite of soldiers, revenue- 
managers and brahmins. In north central India and the Ganges Valley 
where the great war leader Mahadji Scindia had created a powerful 
domain in the 1780s within sight of the walls of Delhi, Maratha 
influence and culture were an even thinner veneer. A majority of Scin- 
dia’s troops were ‘easterners’ — Rajputs and Brahmins from the great 
breeding ground of soldiers near Benares, or Muslim troopers from 
further west. His officers were British or French and his state reared 
on the expertise of Mughal revenue managers. 

Even in 1800 the old Maratha society of the upland valleys of the 
north west Deccan had not been completely absorbed into the orbit of 
Mughal north India. The valley of the Tapti, home of the Shivaji still 
bred ‘most of the horses in the Mahratta country’ and most of the ‘mil- 
itary adventurers’.'° The peasant culture of the old Maratha movement 
still survived. Sturdy western Indian warriors rose rapidly to become 
kings. The great cavalry leader Tukoji Holkar was only a generation or 
two removed from his pastoralist ancestry and still maintained the tra- 
ditions of predatory cavalry warfare to the discomfiture of the Welles- 
leys. Women displayed their independence by riding their own 
mounts in camp and the Maratha countryside still boasted weak caste 
distinctions and a homogeneous religious culture infused with the de- 
votional worship of the god Shiva. But the transformation of this 
society by the forces of commerce and Mughal style state-building was 
proceeding rapidly. It was this which the British considered the 
increasing ‘anarchy’ of Maratha politics. 

The expansion of the Maratha polities and the development of local 

 G. W. Forrest (ed.), Report of the Territories conquered from the Peshwa (London, 
1884), 261. 
'S Tbid., 259. 


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centres of power in Gujarat and north India was accompanied by mon- 
etisation, the growth of urban centres, production and trade. Maratha 
rulers had always used revenue-farming leases and revenue conces- 
sions as a way of bringing new areas into cultivation and this had en- 
couraged the growth of ‘great families’ of capitalists and men of 
business of Maratha and Brahmin origin. Commercial links with 
coastal ports such as Goa, Diu and Daman also seem to have expanded 
in the early part of the eighteenth century.'° In the 1750s there was a 
sharp increase in the state’s land-revenue claim and a rationalisation of 
management. Again in the 1790s and 1810s the desire of the peshwas 
for increased revenue to pay for their armies and their obligations to 
British allies caused an expansion of revenue farming and an increase in 
the state’s demands. The greater complexity, maturity and monetisa- 
tion of the Maratha domains provided the background for the growing 
influence of the Brahmin élites, notably the Chitpavan Brahmins who 
consolidated their influence after 1720, when the office of peshwa 
became hereditary to the family of Balaji Vishwanath. Alienations of 
land from the state and the careful husbanding of resources allowed 
this new managerial faction and their rural allies to gain a larger share 
of the produce of the villages and even in some cases to buy shares in 
the crucial office of village headman. At the same time towns such as 
Poona and Nagpur which had been little more than large villages 
before 1780 expanded fast as a new group of urban consumers came 
into existence.’ 

The military complexion of the Maratha polities also quickly 
changed. Their armies rapidly developed European-style infantry and 
artillery wings. Mahadji Scindia’s attempt to establish himself in the 
Mughal heartland led to the creation of a powerful force of sappers and 
gunners to blast down the fortresses of its refractory princes. By 1785 
he had established his own ordnance factories near Agra. These devel- 
opments so alarmed the Company that it forbade Britons to serve as 
gunners with the Marathas and attempted to staunch the trade in mus- 
kets. French and Portuguese officers and gunners, however, quickly 
filled the breach. Contemporary military analysts sometimes argued 
that the move of the Marathas from irregular cavalry warfare to 
infantry battles proved their undoing. Yet on a number of occasions 

'© See, e.g., T. R. de Souza, ‘Mhamai House Records’, The Indian Archives, xxxi, i, 1982. 
17 Malet’s report on Poona, proceedings of the Resident Benares, July 1788, U.P. State 
Archives, Allahabad. 


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they came close to defeating the British. A more convincing expla- 
nation for their ultimate failure is that the British were able to exploit 
the dissidence which arose from the rapid development of the Maratha 
polities. Maratha expansion within the shell of Mughal rule had always 
proceeded by ‘faction’ and apparent ‘treachery’. The problem for the 
Marathas was that they could not fragment and split the British com- 
manders and residents in the same way that they had once played on 
the rivalries between the Mughal generals. 

The British on the other hand could exploit not only the personal 
rivalries which had been the epiphenomena of even the strongest 
Indian state, but also the deeper fissures between different social 
groups. First, there were persistent problems about royal succession 
especially as Maratha politics at the top retained a familial character. 
The ability to compromise conflicts by splitting the patrimony and 
creating shares in royal rights had given Maratha politics a good deal of 
flexibility. But in opposition to the rigid loyalties of the Company it 
rapidly became a weakness. The year 1762 saw the beginning of a long 
factional dispute between members of the peshwa’s family. Raghunath 
Rao, one of the protagonists, had riven the Marathas when he had de- 
manded partition of the Maratha patrimony. He had even enlisted 
British help in an abortive military effort to gain control of the young 
peshwa, Madhu Rao Narayan, in 1778-9. But the consequences of this 
family dispute reverberated to the end of the century and allowed the 
Company authorities to keep the Marathas permanently divided.'® 
Secondly, there were conflicts over the authority of the peshwaship, 
originally no more than one of the ministers to the Raja of Satara, de- 
scendant of the seventeenth-century founder of the Maratha kingdom, 
Shivaji. Several Maratha chiefs, including the rajas of Berar and Satara, 
claimed a prior sovereignty within the polity. These conflicts were also 
exploited by the British. 

Finally, the different functions and réles of major social groups 
within the Maratha domains could provide the basis for political fac- 
tion. The Brahmin administrative and commercial élite, the old 
Maratha aristocracy, and new military adventurers from the backward 
parts of the Deccan or from north India were three groups which 
underlay the whole structure of Maratha politics. Factions of all these 
groups combined and recombined with each other. But the cadre of 

'8 For a detailed account of Maratha politics, ‘Customs of the Marathas’, Asiatic Annual 
Register, 1802, 55-67. 


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Brahmin men of business, led by the master statesman Nana Fadnavis 
did provide a holding alliance which conferred a degree of unity on the 
polities and held the British at bay for more than a generation. The 
death of Fadnavis in 1800 and the rise of military adventurers such as 
Sarje Rao Ghatke eclipsed the power of the bureaucratic and commer- 
cial élite and allowed the intensification of conflicts between the other 

The Marathas ‘failed’ in part because the rapid expansion of their 
polities created fractures which a European state and army could con- 
sistently exploit. Yet they also faced an underlying problem of re- 
sources reminiscent of the dilemma of the sultans of Mysore. The 
heartland of their power around Poona was, by the mid-eighteenth 
century, at the limits of development given the state of its technology. 
It was poorly irrigated and relatively sparsely populated and could 
barely support a landholding and warrior community above the body 
of the peasantry. After the breakdown of the Mughal revenue pump 
(itself partly a consequence of Maratha expansion) the balance of trade 
between the Deccan and the rest of India was severely disadvantageous 
to the Marathas. They did not produce enough to maintain imports of 
specialist goods, particularly weapons. This explains the persistent 
outward pressure of the Marathas into areas of stable agriculture like 
Tanjore in the south and Gujarat and the Ganges Valley in the north. 
But the very processes of social mobility and external conquest by 
which the Marathas sought to remedy this deficiency endangered the 
inner basis of resources on which the central élite subsisted. War took 
away men from agriculture; it also invited reprisal and faction. In 1752 
the then Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao had spoken of the need to ‘water’ the 
dry lands around Poona with the flows of gold of north and south 
India.’? By 1801 that dearth had intensified; Arthur Wellesley noted 
that there was not a tree or ear of corn left standing for 150 miles 
around Poona as the result of a factional dispute between the Peshwa 
and his ‘lieutenant’ Holkar whose cavalry had looted the region. 

The lack of resources of Indian states led to external dependency. 
The cost of mercenary armies encouraged Indian rulers either to risk 
everything in one hazardous throw against their enemies or to bring in 
British aid. When war did break out there was always pressure to come 
to an accommodation. Many Maratha rulers, particularly those in 
Kanara and Gujarat, derived considerable income from levies on trade 

'9'S.N. Sen, Military System of the Marathas (Calcutta, 1858), p. 60. 


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with their British rivals which was channelled towards Bombay. Their 
war effort could only be maintained for a few months. By contrast the 
Company could now redistribute resources from the most productive 
regions across the whole subcontinent and also draw on the capital of 
Indian commercial men. 

Wellesley’s campaigns succeeded in humbling the major Maratha 
war leaders but did not bring to a halt the struggle for succession in 
central India. A military setback against Holkar in 1804, combined 
with an escalating debt, gave the Directors an excuse to recall Wellesley 
in the following year. Under his successors Lord Cornwallis, Sir 
George Barlow and Lord Minto the Company limited itself to small 
wars of containment and used its resources in the East Indies as a con- 
tribution to the international struggle against Napoleonic France. But 
the British connection still acted as a dead weight on the Indian states. 
Sir Thomas Munro echoed Arthur Wellesley’s sentiments when he 
wrote that ‘the subsidiary system must everywhere run its full course, 
and destroy every government which it seeks to protect’. Subsidiary 
alliances forced some states like the Peshwa’s to screw up the ratchet of 
land revenue even tighter which led to British complaints of mis- 
government and oppression. Or else, as in the case of the chastened 
Holkar and Scindia, the desperate battle for resources led to border 
wars for revenue and agricultural labourers, also giving the impression 
of ‘anarchy’. Constant intervention by the British residents, particu- 
larly in the matter of succession to the throne, frustrated the workings 
of the fluid political systems of the Indian states, exacerbating factions 
amongst dependant chiefs. Ultimately in 1817 fear of British inten- 
tions led the remaining Maratha chieftains into a final struggle for 
independence. British penetration of the warrior states of Rajasthan 
proceeded by similar, though somewhat less bloody, stages. 

The occasion for the British mobilisation which panicked the 
Marathas into war was the Company’s campaign against the so-called 
Pindari raiders. The Pindaris, bands of irregular cavalry who roamed 
through central India levying plunder, frightened the British because 
they resembled ‘what the Mahratta power was in the decline of the 
Mughal empire of India’. They derived from several sources. Some 
were Afghan and other north Indian cavalrymen pursuing the ancient 
career of building states on the Deccan. Others were bands of ‘east- 
erner’ Rajputs who sought service with rulers as their ancestors had 
done and found their sources of patronage limited by British restric- 


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tions. Yet others appear to have been leaders of peasant defence associ- 
ations, lumped into the Pindari category by colonial observers who 
saw all dissidence as criminal. A mopping-up campaign against the 
Pindaris, and, if necessary, against the Maratha states who were sus- 
pected of harbouring them, was inevitable since the Company re- 
garded them as dangerous rivals for land revenue and a potential threat 
to commerce in the settled territories of the Ganges valley. 

The Company was drawn into conquest in the western Deccan and 
central India primarily because the demands of its fiscal and military 
machine, expressed through the subsidiary alliance system, was in- 
compatible with the fluid practice of indigenous politics and taxation. 
However, there were examples along the west coast of India where 
direct commercial motives reinforced or even initiated the drive for 
formal empire. Since the early 1780s British private trade based on 
Bombay had become particularly buoyant. Pepper prices were high 
towards the end of the century and both the Company and private 
firms looked for secure supplies from the kingdoms of the Malabar 
coast. Cornwallis had legitimated the Bombay authorities’ acquisition 
of Kanara in 1792 in order to stabilise the pepper trade. Hereafter mer- 
chants sought to extend the Company’s interest in dependent states 
such as Travancore at the same time as they tried to frustrate its mon- 
opoly claims. 

However, it was in the case of the cotton trade that commercial 
motives are clearest. After 1784 the Company needed larger and larger 
quantities of raw cotton for the China market. The House of Com- 
mons had reduced the duties on tea in Britain during that year. 
Increased quantities of tea could only be procured by boosting sales of 
cotton to the burgeoning population of southern China. So the value 
of cotton exported from Gujarat via Bombay increased from Rs 4 
lakhs to Rs 35 lakhs between 1783 and 1802. This benefited the peril- 
ous finances of the Company which held the monopoly of the China 
trade, but also the new generation of Bombay-based agency houses 
such as Forbes and Co. and McKillop and Co. In Bombay private 
trading interests represented by men such as David Scott had a power- 
ful voice in the Company’s counsels and could manipulate the com- 
plaisant governor, Jonathan Duncan. An alliance of commercial forces 
was completed by the Hindu bania merchants of western India who 
purchased the raw cotton from the Gujarat markets and had helped 
keep the Bombay government’s finances afloat during the Maratha 
wars through large loans and other services. 


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The continuation of the complex system of taxation sharing by 
which the British in Gujarat had subsisted with the Marathas and other 
regional powers was seen as a threat by all these interests. Usually the 
case was represented in lurid terms of Maratha ‘misrule’. Actually the 
Maratha powers had as much interest in enhancing the produce of the 
cotton zones as did the Company. But the Marathas played politics 
with trade, interrupting it from time to time and putting pressure on 
growers and merchants in order to maximise their earnings. The 
Bombay government’s decision to take over the government of Surat 
city and to annex the cotton districts of Broach and Surat proceeded 
from pure commercial motives, though it was carried out under cover 
of the subcontinental ambitions of Wellesley. In the words of General 
Stuart, the annexation of Gujarat ‘would secure to us the best manu- 
facture of piece goods, and the command of the cotton market, the 
most valuable staple of India.’?° 

In 1810 the East India remained a powerful mercantilist institution; 
free traders were growing in importance but not yet dominant. If there 
were some important areas such as Gujarat where private traders re- 
inforced local pressures for political expansion there were others such 
as Awadh where private interests opposed Company expansion which 
might inhibit their freedom of action. British commercial wealth 
remained overwhelmingly based on the profits of trade and political 
perquisites acquired in India itself. The new cotton (and later opium) 
trades to China were only very indirectly related to industrialisation in 
Britain. The policies of administrators and governors-general were 
dominated by the military and fiscal needs of the Company as an 
Indian ruler and as a purchaser of Indian-manufactured piece goods. 
British political power in India continued to move forward because of 
the Company’s demands as a military despotism. It was a despotism 
required not only to support an army but also to remit Indian manu- 
factures to Britain. The attempt to find resources compatible with this 
dual réle proved impossible to accommodate within the volatile poli- 
tics of the indigenous Indian states. Rather, the Company’s pressure 
on these polities had undermined them and created the direct con- 
ditions for annexation. 

20 Stuart to Wellesley, 31 January 1800, cited Pamela Nightingale, Trade and Empire in 

Western India (Cambridge, 1969), p. 177. 


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The East India Company rose to power because it had provided a 
secure financial base for its powerful mercenary army. The land 
revenues of Bengal, combined with the capital — Indian as much as 
European — generated in the coastal trading economy, allowed the 
Company’s Indian operations to sustain the massive debts incurred in 
its fight to the finish with the Indian kingdoms. However, political 
dominion did not solve the Company’s financial problems. The omin- 
ous presence and constant pressure of this part-oriental, part- 
European state continued to tempt petty rulers within and outside its 
domains into revolt. Though aspects of the social and political conflict 
which had drawn the Company into expansion were suppressed under 
its rule, so too was much of the economic dynamism which had given 
rise to that conflict. India’s huge agricultural economy was not per- 
forming well enough to underwrite the costs of European dominion. 
The East India Company’s rule widely came to be seen as a dismal fail- 
ure long before the Great Rebellion of 1857 blew up its foundations. 
This chapter demonstrates how the British maintained their fragile 
dominance over the subcontinent in the early years of the nineteenth 
century before considering this economic impasse and the attempts of 
administrators to escape from it. 


The development of a cavalry arm and efficient siege methods for use 
against small fortresses put the Company on the offensive again 
throughout India. The British could begin to suppress what Arthur 
Wellesley called ‘the freebooting system’ and corral those armed plun- 
derers — Pindaris, ‘Arabs’, and Rohillas —- who threatened the land- 
revenue yield in western and central India. The first principles of 
British administration were moulded by strong prejudices in favour of 


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private property in land, but they were usually implemented with an 
eye to maximum military and financial security. Near the hearts of 
eighteenth-century principalities rulers had already warred down in- 
termediary chieftains and magnates in order to deal with village élites. 
In the south and west British administration which was more military 
in character than in Bengal, followed suit. The famous ryotwari 
systems of Malcolm and Munro were developed in the Baramahal ter- 
ritories of Mysore where Tipu Sultan had already reduced the power 
of the warlords and come to terms with village headmen. Even else- 
where in the Madras Presidency where short-lived attempts to find 
zamindars like those of Bengal went ahead, the new rulers sought to 
end the system of ‘military land tenures’ which had prevailed under the 
poligars. The poligars’ servants were ‘excused’ their service under 
arms and instead confirmed in ordinary tenures at low rates of rev- 
enue. Throughout the subcontinent petty chieftains were encouraged 
by cannonade and remissions of revenue to dismantle their mud forts 
and clear areas of forest which could provide harbour for bandits. 

The British paid particular attention to their internal frontiers. In 
western and central India the Marathas had tried to regulate relations 
with tribal societies such as the Kolis and Bhils by awarding their 
chieftains royal honours and the right to control mountain passes and 
forests. In the same way the Nizam of Hyderabad had conferred titles 
on the maiks or headmen of the wandering Banjaras to release his lands 
from the danger of plunder and to secure their service for his armies. 
The Company tried to fix these fluid political arrangements. Once an 
area had been ‘pacified’ Bhil chiefs were separated off from their clans- 
men and recognised as rajas in return for a fixed tribute. In the north 
Deccan a special Bhil Corps was established in 1823 to drain off the 
military energies of young Bhils and to compensate their villages for 
the end of mercenary income. In the areas south of Delhi plundering 
bands of Mewattis were afforded the status of special police force by 
the British and brought formally within the bounds of the law. Meas- 
ures like this took effect only slowly. Much of the Deccan and north 
Gujarat was affected by local warfare well into the 1840s. But the 
security of major towns and trade routes was secured. 

Control and distribution of forest and waste land was another im- 
portant tactic in the settlement of rural society. Here the British broke 
cleanly with the practice of earlier rulers who had not generally as- 
sessed the waste alongside village lands. Instead they sought to parcel 


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out such lands and create forms of private property whose owners 
would both pay them revenue and aid in the containment of ‘unruly’ 
elements. Their aim was to break up unstable concentrations of power 
on the fringes of the arable. Officials acknowledged that the assess- 
ment of waste in ryotwari areas was designed to secure a fixed popu- 
lation and to ‘limit the spirit of emigrating’.’ If populations were to 
move it was to be the orderly emigration of wage earners from one 
district to the next, not the irruptions of armed peasant brotherhoods 
which had occurred in the previous era. These measures had a cumula- 
tive effect on agrarian society. Rates of interest fell quite sharply 
throughout India in the immediate aftermath of British conquest as 
greater security prevailed on major routes and in the commercial cities. 
House prices and the value of urban property in Delhi nearly trebled 
between 1803 and 1826, for instance, while the towns of rural Gujarat 
began to recover from the rigours of the Anglo-Maratha wars. The 
British repaired the Mughal system of fortified rest-houses on major 
roads and this encouraged marketing farmers and small merchants to 
make longer commercial journeys. Moneylenders such as the Bohras 
of Rajasthan moved into small towns as the security of loans and prop- 
erty was felt to improve. However severe the pressure of the Com- 
pany’s revenue assessments, however disturbed some parts of India 
remained, however buoyant parts of pre-colonial India’s economy, 
the reality of Pax Britannica for much of rural society cannot be doub- 
ted. Countless Indian sources refer, grudgingly often, to the new 
security of life. The red-coated sepoy, like the Muslim warrior-on- 
horseback before him, was a figure of terror and destruction in some 
popular and artistic manifestations though as often he appears as pro- 

Of course, the Company’s aim was stability not equity. Almost 
everywhere the rural élite was consolidated or attempts were made to 
create one. Cornwallis’s Permanent Settlement, for all its antecedents 
in eighteenth-century physiocratic philosophy, was primarily a device 
for guaranteeing revenue and military stability in time of war. It was 
avowedly designed to reinforce social control and help settle large and 
productive areas of north Bengal. Officials became discontented with 
the system not because of its aristocratic bias but because they ended 
up with the wrong sort of gentry. John Shore made it clear that they 

' Collector of Chittoor to Board of Revenue, Madras, 7 August 1811, Abstract of papers 
relating to the settlement of 1811-12, North Arcot District, Madras Record Office. 


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had wanted an ‘English gentry’ with deep control over a deferential 
yeomanry. Instead they formed an ‘Irish’ class of non-resident and 
non-productive rentiers lording it over an impoverished peasantry. 

Political and a military considerations dominated the decision on 
the merits of zamindari and ryotwari systems in Madras Presidency 
between 1790 and 1825, even though the debate was conducted in the 
categories of Burke’s conservatism. As William Bentinck’s minute of 
June 1806? makes clear, ryotwari was preferred in the south (and later 
the west) for three main reasons. First, to create a system of large 
‘estates’ over the large areas of Tamilnadu where there were none 
before was to invite default in the revenue and political trouble; this 
clearly acknowledged the realities of south Indian society. Secondly, 
smallholding and a peasant élite was much less of a threat to the state 
monopoly of power than large blocks such as the Bengal zamindars or 
a landlord class of reformed poligars. Thirdly, the ryotwari system 
allowed assessment — and regular reassessments — of each farmer’s 
fields in line with productivity and profit. This made it possible for 
government to increase its share of the value of agricultural produce in 
an era when its value had begun generally to decline. 

This goal of progressively rising land-revenue returns often stood in 
direct contradiction to hopes of ‘improvement’ for the peasantry. For 
even in day to day administration early Company government every- 
where sought to assuage and stabilise the rural community. Wherever 
possible a regular succession to larger estates was encouraged. Often 
this meant that collectors sought to impose primogeniture in defiance 
of local custom. The expansion of information about districts allowed 
officials to develop direct communications with the major landholding 
communities, to build up family histories and detailed methods of sur- 
veillance. A vast array of statistical information poured into the Cal- 
cutta Secretariat as the Company’s charter came up for revision in 1813 
and as new revenue assessments were introduced throughout much of 
the North-Western Provinces and Madras. By the mid-1820s almost 
all districts had revenue survey maps going far beyond the earlier 
Mughal route maps which had been designed simply for military 
supply. Slowly, too, the Company tried to gain direct access to the 

? Cited in S. Balasundaram, ‘Administrative policies of the Madras government, 1800-35’, 
unpub. Ph.D. diss. Madras University, 1963, pp. 228-30; cf. ibid. 110-40, 248-52; for ante- 
cendents, see T. Munro to Board of Revenue, Madras, 9 October 1800, The letters of Sir 

Thomas Munro relating to the early administration of Canara. Selections from the Records of 
the Collector of South Canara (Mangalore, 1879). 


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village-level officials who controlled revenue papers and registered 
land permutations. 

Of course, this was no simple question of the modern state intrud- 
ing into the countryside for the first time. Indian régimes possessed 
subtle and efficient methods of gathering information. Sometimes the 
practice of kingship had extended to areas of religious and customary 
practice from which the colonial government actually withdrew, or 
which it hopelessly misunderstood. In outlying areas such as Guntur 
District in the Andhra country village leaders and subordinate officials 
could combine to reduce the European official to a cipher. Yet the 
range of the Company state, its monopoly of physical force, and its ca- 
pacity to command resources from a peasantry now increasingly dis- 
armed set it apart even in its early days from all the régimes which had 
preceded it. 

The foundations of British rule in India consisted not only in direct 
administration but in the creation of a flexible and expert diplomatic 
system among its subordinate allies and dependants. Shorn of their 
military power the princes could still become magnets for disaffection. 
But conversely, if properly controlled, their resources could be used 
against rebels in directly controlled territories and their lands act as 
fire-screens to prevent the brush fire wars of consolidation becoming 
conflagrations. The eventual adherence of Diwan Purniya of Mysore 
to the civil power during the so-called ‘White Mutiny’ of Madras army 
officers in 1809 nipped a dangerous conspiracy in the bud.’ During the 
British disasters of the Afghan Wars of 1839-42 the Company’s resi- 
dent in Nepal, Brian Hodgson, headed off a potentially calamitous 
revolt along the central mountain chain. In 1857 the resident held 
Hyderabad by a whisker. Otherwise the revolt might have acquired a 
crucial southern focus. So the further development of the residency 
system, an embryonic Indian political service and a series of tech- 
niques for neutralising disaffected Indian states, reinforced the admin- 
istrative consolidation of British India. 

Once relative security had been established in 1818 the main aim of 
the residencies was to regularise the fluid practices of Indian politics 
along lines laid down by the powerful Political Department in Cal- 
cutta. In view of the British assumption of ‘paramount power’, Indian 
states were not allowed to enter into bilateral relations. This put the 

> ‘A Field Officer’, Diary of a tour through southern India, Egypt and Palestine in the years 
1821-2 (London, 1823), pp. 148-9. 

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British government into the position of arbitrator between them. Resi- 
dents sought to control succession to the throne by eliminating the 
influence of royal women and military commanders. Unreliable suc- 
cessors such as Taj-ul-Umara in Arcot in 1799 and Vazir Ali in Awadh 
in 1797 were bypassed. But once residents had gained control over 
access to and the education of princes, an insistence on primogeniture 
was usually sufficient to guarantee subservience. Residents such as 
Mark Wilks at Mysore and Mark Cubbon in Pudukottai became ‘step- 
fathers’ to royal heirs, assuming the position of close personal adviser 
which had been occupied by uncles or royal mothers in the indepen- 
dent courts. Through carefully selected tutors, residents began to 
implant western notions of ‘progressive’ government in the minds of 
their Indian charges, so anticipating the model of the chiefs’ colleges of 
the later nineteenth century. 

The key to the residents’ control of the direction of internal admin- 
istration was close alliance with the chief financial officer, the diwan. 
Here again the British modified the tactics of the Mughal sovereigns 
who had controlled provinces until the eighteenth century by balanc- 
ing the diwan against the provincial governors. In Hyderabad, for 
instance, Chandu Lal, a north Indian Khattri, formed the heart of the 
‘resident’s party’ in court politics. Diwans were often close to the local 
financial community and to the revenue farmers and holders of Com- 
pany bonds who prospered under British rule. Sometimes they were 
outsiders, Hindustani businessmen, Brahmins or Muslim gentry in 
the Deccan, Tamil Brahmins in Travancore. Such men differed from 
the local aristocracy of the states by training and attitude, so they 
could be rallied against them by a clever resident. In some cases, how- 
ever, British control penetrated more deeply. John Munro became 
diwan as well as resident of the state of Travancore in 1811. He sup- 
pressed revolt among the now declining Nayar warrior caste, but 
stirred to frenzy the squabbles between the state’s St Thomas Chris- 
tians with his bracing Anglican evangelicalism. 

British military power cowed the Indian states and the policy of 
Company residents ruled out combinations among them. Yet the 
Company’s success in holding the subcontinent in the face of persis- 
tent revolt and widespread popular hostility still requires explanation, 
particularly in view of the doubtful reliability of the Bengal army, on 
which so many officials remarked. One reason for this success was the 
wide discretion which the British allowed the Indian states and the 


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landed magnates within directly administered territories for the fulfil- 
ment of their vital ceremonial, ritual and cultural functions — at least 
until the 1840s. The magnificence and munificence of the early 
nineteenth-century courts obscured their loss of power. Foreign hege- 
mony may have swept away military élites but it provided ample 
room for the scribes, brahmins and families of court officials who 
served these domesticated monarchies. 

This policy can best be illustrated by particular cases. The ruler of 
the eighteenth-century poligar state of Pudukottai had long been a 
Company ally. In 1794 Madras cancelled the tribute which the raja had 
paid to the Nawab of Arcot and in 1803 ‘released’ him from contribu- 
ting to the Nawab’s Muslim festivals, a move which pleased the grow- 
ing faction of court brahmins. Later the resident dashed attempts by 
the neighbouring king of Tanjore to treat Pudukottai’s ruler as a ‘mere 
zamindar’ and in his form of address implicitly recognised the state’s 
right to share in the ancient sovereignty of Vijayanagar which was so 
important in the south. By this date the raja had acquired the right to 
use the white umbrella and ceremonial maces, key symbols of roy- 
alty.* The British controlled the army and state policy but they 
allowed the king sufficient resources to found temples and establish 
Brahmins on rent-free forest land. Vaishnavite sect leaders were 
patronised, as they had been in the old south; literature and music 
flourished. As the royal house under Raja Rajasinha I (1780-1825) suc- 
cessfully asserted its right to high caste status, honour fell by reflection 
on the families of the erstwhile ‘tribesmen’ — the Kallar military élite. 

In nearby Tanjore the reality of British power was obscured even 
more completely by the kingly munificence of Raja Serfoji, a major 
patron of the arts. In 1799 he had given up the administration of his 
entire rich kingdom in exchange for an annual pension of Rs. 12 lakhs. 
Serfoji inherited the great tradition of scholarship, musical perform- 
ance and religious devotion which had been nurtured by his Maratha 
ancestors, especially Shahji (1689-1712). Serfoji’s lavish donations 
amounted in some years to ten per cent of the territory’s entire rev- 
enue. He had his family history carved on the walls of the now recon- 
structed great Shaivite Brihadeshwara temple. The king also took care 
to venerate the older Vaishnavite temples of the Tanjore delta and even 
succoured the small but powerful Christian flock of the state’s émi- 
nence grise, the Danish missionary Reverend Benjamin Shwartz. By 

*R. Aiyar, A general history of the Puddukotai State (Puddukotai, 1916), i, 301-2. 


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achieving a neo-traditional revival in the realms of painting, dance and 
music, Serfoji appealed to a wide populace. The distance between 
courtly and popular arts was not great and in the institution of the 
north Indian Bhagwati Kava style of musical performance he involved 
ordinary villagers and townsmen in this cultural renaissance.° 
Applauding the popular veneration of their client, British residents 
stood masked in the shadows until Lord Dalhousie brutally stopped 
the show in 1855 and finally annexed Tanjore to British India. 

A similar neo-traditional court style also emerged in Mysore under 
Raja Krishnadevaraja III (1799-1836) and his great financial officer 
Purniya (flor. 1782-1811). With the residents’ help the court made the 
uneasy transition from Tipu’s ‘God-given state’ to a dependent Hindu 
polity, partly by securing the adherence of the great Hindu and Jain re- 
ligious institutions which received massive grants of land. Especially 
important was the powerful Shaivite ‘monastery’ of Sringeri which 
inherited the spiritual power of one of India’s greatest religious sages, 
the seventh-century teacher, Shankaracharya. The ‘abbot’ of Sringeri 
played a major réle in compromising conflicts in the villages where he 
had many followers amongst artisans and specialist farmers.® The 
court itself revived the pre-Muslim administrative system and empha- 
sised the réle of secular brahmins. The line of authority was traced 
back once again to the Vijayanagar kings and a court legend was 
created, with the help of the British resident, Mark Wilks (1799-1805), 
which crudely implicated Tipu in the destruction of Hindu temples. 
The court was brought back to Mysore from the Muslim city of Sri- 
rangapatam where it would be near to the Hindu dynastic emblems, 
the temple of goddess Chamundi and the giant Nandi bull. Yet care 
was taken not to offend the Muslims. Poor Muslims of Mysore were 
given a new mosque and several of Tipu’s officers quietly moved into 
service of the new régime. While it is impossible to gauge the degree of 
popular support for all this, it is significant that the reinstated Duss- 
ehra festival celebrations quickly became among the most sumptuous 
and best attended in India. 

In directly administered territories also the British were generally 

eager to foster the religious and cultural authority of their clients 

° V. Raghavan (ed.) Sridhara Venkatesa. Sahendravilasa (Tanjore Saraswati Mahal series, 
54, n.d.), introduction; C. K. Srinivasan, Maratha Rule in the Carnatic (Annamalai Univer- 
sity Historical Series, 5, 1944). 

°R. Narasimachar, ‘The Sringeri Math’, Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 
(Mysore), vill, 1917-18, 26-33. 


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among the petty rulers, large landlords and men of commerce. If 
necessary they were prepared to fulfil the ritual rdéle of rulers them- 
selves. From as early as 1690 governors of Madras had intervened to 
compromise disputes in the city’s two great temples at Mylapore and 
Triplicane. They also built up the authority of the chief dubashes of 
the main merchant groups in an attempt to minimise the conflicts be- 
tween ‘right-hand’ and ‘left-hand’ caste alliances. When direct rule 
spread across the south of the continent collectors became donors and 
protectors of Hindu temples as Muslim rulers had been before them. 
They allowed easy access to the great southern temple of Tirupati 
which was venerated by a wide range of people including local tribals 
and Gujarati merchant castes. In Orissa they were careful to encour- 
age endowments for the great temple of Jagganath and fought off 
attempts by Christian missionaries to restrict some of its more exotic 
cult practices. The importance of this should not be underestimated. The 
first clause in the deeds of administrative abdication, signed as rulers 
stepped aside in favour of the British, was often a solemn undertaking 
that the colonial authorities would protect religion, graves and 
shrines. Even if we cannot assume that the masses were casually man- 
ipulated by such policies, they did head off trouble. When in the 1840s 
the Company began to withdraw from the direct administration of 
Hindu places of worship under the pressure of evangelical Christian 
disapproval, there were major riots in south Indian towns and mass 
petitions were collected denouncing the government’s abdication of its 
religious duties. 

Throughout the subcontinent the new rulers tried to associate them- 
selves with indigenous law-givers and centres of religious authority. 
The Muslim law officers (kazi, mufti, kotwal) were maintained when 
the Bengal Regulations were extended to north India after 1793. This 
was important because it allowed those Muslim learned men who 
remained neutral on the question of whether Christian rule posed a 
threat to Islam to argue that some of the basic conditions of Muslim re- 
ligious life were still preserved. Few jurists considered that India had 
now become a ‘land of conflict? where holy war was a binding duty. 
True, there were not many Muslims who would directly associate 
themselves with institutions such as the Delhi College (founded 1792) 
which sought to bridge the gap between Islamic and Western learning, 
just as there were few Hindu pandits who could associate themselves 
with the Benares Sanskrit College (founded 1791). But enough of the 


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learned were prepared to offer guidance in the British courts to still the 
fears of the populace that spheres of family and customary law were 
being interfered with. Only after 1830, with the further infiltration of 
Christian missionaries and a self-consciously ‘reforming’ government, 
did these fears begin to assume wider proportions. 

Some qualifications must be made, however. First, the intervention 
by British officers modified the very institutions whose character they 
sought to maintain. The management of Hindu temples in the south 
became notably more bureaucratic and rule-ridden. Hindu and 
Muslim law as operated in British courts became more rigid, reflecting 
the norms of the high castes and the most orthodox interpretations 
rather than the pragmatic and fluid ajudications of the pandits and 
jurists of the past. Secondly, while the British viewed their inter- 
vention as an attempt to order and control society, well-placed 
Indians were still able to manipulate British officers for their own pur- 
poses, as witness the periodic explosion of ‘scandals’ in princely 
courts, temples and trusts. At a humbler level village leaderships were 
sometimes able to exploit British misunderstandings or distortions of 
indigenous legal and social forms to entrench themselves in power. 
The mirasidar proprietors of Tanjore and Tinnevelly in the far south, 
for instance, put up a clever and well-orchestrated opposition to Sir 
Thomas Munro’s ryotwari regulations in the areas which they con- 
trolled during the 1820s and 30s. The result was that they became 
recognised as ‘ancient lords of the land’ in those districts. 

Finally, the tactics of cultural suasion were only partially successful. 
Many Muslim learned withdrew from the land of unbelievers to work 
in the more pristine environment of Hyderabad, or better still, Mecca 
and Medina. In Delhi the leader of one of the city’s most important re- 
ligious institutions, the Chishti Sufi hospice, turned his back on the 
visiting Sir Charles Metcalfe, Chief Commissioner of the City, ‘an 
infidel stinking of alcohol’. Nor were all Hindus swayed by the cultu- 
ral largesse of the new courts. The great south Indian singer and poet 
Thyagaraja refused the blandishments of Raja Serfoji. Altogether the 
balance was a delicate one. Popular revolt, cultural reaction and re- 
ligious revitalisation could always combine into a combustible mixture 
as they did in the 1830s and more momentously in 1857. The final 
chapter considers in greater detail how Indian resistance in conflicts 
over both material and ideological issues also shaped the form of the 
colonial régime. 


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Britain’s economic dominion in the east as much as her political power 
was built upon the foundations of the Indian land revenues. As early as 
1765, Clive had hit upon the expedient of using Bengal’s revenue yield 
of £3 million to subsidise the faltering trading activities of the Com- 
pany and to keep up its dividend in London. By 1818 the Indian 
revenues in British hands amounted to some £22 million.” They were 
used to cover the large deficit on Britain’s balance of trade with both 
India and China. First, there were large unreciprocated transfers of 
bullion and bills from India to Britain which were known as the Home 
Charges. This was the prime component of what the nationalist his- 
torians were to term the ‘drain of wealth’. With the salaries and for- 
tunes also transferred the total amounted by 1820 to £6 million 
annually. This ‘political profit? must have dwarfed the profits made 
from the £15 million of import-export trade between Britain and 
India. The importance of the political element is even greater when we 
consider that the most valuable components of India’s exports were 
themselves ‘administrative’ rather than ‘free’ trades. This was because 
indigo was often sold at a loss on the London market in order to trans- 
fer home the salaries and perquisites of British residents. Opium, the 
other great commodity, remained a government monopoly in India 
even after 1834 when the Company lost its monopoly of the China 
trade to the free-traders. Opium continued to provide up to 15 per 
cent of the Indian government’s income and to account for up to 30 per 
cent of the value of India’s trade up to 1856. Indian revenues were in 
fact remitted to Britain as a form of tribute — as contemporaries were 
readier to recognise than more recent historians. Arthur Wellesley 
argued that this was payment for the new security conferred by Britain 
on India. But the scale and implication of the transfers were hardly 
called into question. 

Control of the land revenues brought large advantages to Britain in 
other sectors of the Indian economy. Besides financing the lucrative 
China trade, it helped to keep Government credit high. This attracted 
large inflows of investment into Company bonds to help fund war and 
expansion. Company ‘paper’ carried regular, safe yields of between 

7 E. T. Stokes, ‘The rationale of British Indian Empire, 1828-56’, unpub. seminar paper, 
School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1977. 


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eight and twelve per cent per annum, a copper-bottomed investment 
for up-country magnates and merchants. A strong Company credit 
position in turn benefited private trading concerns based in the presi- 
dencies since it increased the overall pool of capital and meant that in- 
terest rates could be kept lower. Finally, of course, land revenue 
funded the Company’s large and expensive army which was deployed 
throughout Asia in campaigns which directly or indirectly protected 
Britain’s commercial interests. The Bengal and Madras armies were 
used in Burma and south-east Asia; the Bombay marine was used to 
cow the Wahhabis of Arabia and the rulers of Mesopotamia. All this 
helped to open up Asia’s trade to British goods. The conquest of Sindh 
and the Punjab pushed private trade to the north-west and led to the 
growth of the port of Karachi. The lucrative timber trade was for- 
warded by the defeats of Burma (1824-6 and 1852). Finally, in the 
1850s, the intervention of the British and Indian armies in China 
widened the entrée of British trade into valuable Far Eastern markets. 
None of these campaigns was directly created by private merchants. 
The Company’s strategic interests and desire for new sources of rev- 
enue were paramount, though such conquests did create economic 
benefits on the side. 

Monetary policy, the policies of the courts in Calcutta and Bombay, 
the structure of internal tariffs — all these restricted the role of indige- 
nous exporters and ship-owners in inter-Asian and inter-continental 
trade. Even humanitarian moves such as the Lascar Acts of 1820~4, 
which were designed to improve the conditions of Indian seamen, had 
the effect of reducing the competitiveness of indigenous participants in 
Britain’s world trade. They were unable to capitalise on their one great 
advantage — cheap labour, since minimum wages and conditions were 
now enforced by law. Access to Britain’s highly sophisticated in- 
surance, credit and financial systems inevitably gave British merchants 
added advantages over European and Asian rivals. 

Yet Britain’s growing stranglehold over India’s external economy 
failed to lead to the transformation which the free merchants and of- 
ficials of the 1820s hoped for. India was now firmly tied into cycles of 
north European trade and production. Some inland merchants and 
some peasant farmers profited even in the early nineteenth-century 
from the fitful booms in the export trade to China and Europe. But 
much of the buoyancy which had characterised some indigenous re- 
gional economies, even in the eighteenth-century, disappeared. 


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In part this was because the Company’s political and economic aims 
were in conflict; in part because the Indian economy, though subordi- 
nate, proved resilient to invasion by European control or European 
styles of management. The Company was able neither consistently to 
advance the interests of private trade nor to inject growth into the 
economy itself. Free trade was introduced into India in a patchy 
manner. By the 1830s British officials, it is true, had withdrawn from 
internal grain markets during times of famine, secure in the belief that 
these calamities represented the iron laws of economics. Charles Tre- 
velyan abolished internal transit duties in 1836. But the Company’s 
attitude to the role of state power in the economy remained ambiva- 
lent at best. Its agents in Gujarat and Central India continued to secure 
supplies of cotton and other goods by driving other purchasers out of 
the market through the payment of uneconomic prices. The transit 
duties which operated between 1806 and 1834 had already had the 
effect of strangling many internal trade routes in the interests of mer- 
chants who traded export goods to Calcutta, Madras or Bombay. 
Even after 1834 the Company retained many local monopolies, no- 
tably in high-value goods such as opium, salt and tobacco. Most of all, 
the weight of land revenue itself dampened investment in the internal 
economy and worsened the periodic crises which arose from India’s 
involvement in unstable world markets. 

The Company’s involvement in the rural labour market was equally 
ambivalent. Some measures to free tied labour were introduced. 
Agrestic servitude was abolished in Malabar; domestic slavery was of- 
ficially outlawed in north India. The customary prohibitions against 
low castes owning agricultural land which operated in some parts of 
India were discountenanced. Yet other British measures had the effect 
of tying labour. Where the market was against them, official authority 
was often used through caste headmen to extract customary labour 
payments for state projects. No move was made to limit the practice of 
bonded sharecropping which was common throughout eastern India. 
In fact, the government’s demand for cash payments, combined with 
the periodic scarcities of silver, may have acted to deepen the depen- 
dence of share-cropping peasants on their masters. Administrative 
measures designed to curtail the ‘spirit of migrancy’ helped in the same 
way to reduce the bargaining power of agricultural labour. The British 
had apparently introduced a free land market to India. Yet this was in 
large part illusion. Heavy land-revenue demand meant that zamindari 


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rights had only low market values before the 1840s. The perquisites of 
lordship which were sold at auctions under duress usually went to 
other members of the same locally dominant agricultural caste. In any 
event, the great volume of land sales had little or no effect on agricul- 
tural production. No holdings were consolidated; little capital was 
applied to improvement. 

The Company’s new India was not a fair field for British capitalists 
either. The dream of introducing into India a flourishing plantation 
economy which would spread wealth to the peasant hinterland and 
massively increase the demand for British manufactures was fading by 
1830. First it is important to note that very little metropolitan capital 
was introduced into India before 1850. ‘British’ capital in India was 
overwhelmingly the capital of agency houses in the presidencies rep- 
resenting accumulation of official salaries and fortunes made in an 
earlier period of conquistador imperialism. Investment in internal 
trade and production remained as it had been in the eighteenth- 
century — a way of laundering profits and returning them to England. 
This was why European-controlled indigo production massively 
increased in north India after 1815 only to collapse in 1827 and again in 
1847 when the delicate chains of credit which supported it could no 
longer take the strain of an uneconomic commerce. In fact, far from 
attracting external capital, nearly £20 million was withdrawn from the 
Indian money market in the 1830s and 4os. Indian-controlled com- 
merce suffered in turn. The modernising Indian capitalists of Bombay 
and Calcutta encountered institutional barriers and lacked inter- 
national expertise. Still, their problem at root was poor funding; this 
was compounded by the unstable nature of British business activity in 
India. Only in development of the tea and coffee estates did British 
entrepreneurs break with the lethargic traditions of the eighteenth- 
century agency houses. 

The Company’s political aims and financial structure deepened the 
problems for both British and Indian entrepreneurs. Officials were 
very hostile to the direct ownership of land by British citizens, fearing 
that the land revenues might be impaired by conflicts over labour and 
land between zamindars and European planters. Lack of good roads, 
secure routes and local information meant that the European enter- 
prises of the years 1815-27 almost always relied on Indian peasant pro- 
ducers and middlemen. Attempts to set up cotton plantations on the 
model of the southern states of America were a failure, so that the 


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expatriates became just another level of appropriators living on the 
Indian peasantry rather than the harbingers of a true capitalist agricul- 
ture. In its turn the failure of economic growth and the poverty of the 
infrastructure meant that the hoped for boom in British manufactured 
exports to India was aborted. It is true that sales of British twist and 
yarn increased ten-fold between 1815 and 1834. But finished cloths 
did not make rapid headway until the later 1840s so that British pen- 
etration of the Indian market was a disappointment compared with the 
heady advances made in most other parts of the world. Empire had 
brought few of the expected advantages to the British state or even to 
its entrepreneurs two decades after the completion of political do- 
minion. It was against this background that the Court of Directors of 
the Company, worried by the spectre of debt and war, dispatched 
Lord William Bentinck to India as Governor-General in 1828. 


The year 1820 was traditionally represented as a watershed in Indian 
history. All the major Indian states with the exception of the Sikhs had 
been brought to heel. Pliant régimes had been fostered and the ‘free- 
booting system’ had been suppressed. However, the completion of 
conquest did not bring stability for the Company. On the contrary, its 
problems in the first half of the nineteenth-century were very much an 
extension of the basic financial dilemmas which had first pushed it 
along the road of conquest in the late eighteenth-century. Insecurity 
on its extended frontiers and the desire to seize new revenues encour- 
aged expansion. Expansion in turn generated new financial commit- 
ments which could only be met by trying to ratchet up land revenue. 
But squeezing the Indian states for tribute and the dependent terri- 
tories for land revenue merely gave a spur to internal revolt and 
impaired the ability of India’s peasant economy to generate new re- 
sources itself. Between 1820 and 1857 therefore, Company govern- 
ment lurched from expansion to retrenchment and back and efforts at 
reform were implemented painfully slowly. Despite the fine words, 
the problems faced by Lord Dalhousie when he became Governor- 
General in 1848 were essentially those bequeathed by Wellesley in 

The much-lauded Age of Reform associated with the administration 
of Lord William Bentinck (1828-35) implied for many contemporaries 


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reform mainly in the sense of ‘economical reform’. This meant cutting 
the wasteful expenditure of government, rolling back its corrupting 
influences and breaking down vested interests. It represented a retreat 
from the swollen interventionist administration of the Napoleonic 
years like that which had already begun in Britain. In India the im- 
mediate cause was the imminent bankruptcy of government brought 
about by profligate salaries and swollen military expenditure which 
had been boosted by the war of annexation against Burma (1824-6). As 
the Age of Reform began, Sir Charles Metcalfe, a senior administrator 
who served his apprenticeship in the Wellesley era, gloomily remarked 
that India ‘has yielded no surplus revenue. It has not even paid its own 
expenses’.® The Company, he said, was probably going to loose its 
monopoly of the China trade — the only profitable activity —as the free 
trade lobby grew in strength in Britain. The army was under-funded 
and grossly inefficient so that ‘a very little mismanagement might 
accomplish our expulsion’ from India.? Bentinck’s main aim and 
main achievement was to cut establishment costs by trimming the 
army’s perquisites and engineering a long-term fall in the number and 
remuneration of civil servants. Between 1829 and 1835 he transformed 
a budget deficit of one and a half million pounds sterling into a surplus 
of half a million pounds. Bentinck sought to cure the Wellesley dis- 
ease; in fact he merely alleviated it. The underlying problems actually 
worsened during his administration. India suffered a sharp price de- 
pression and a collapse of European-controlled investment. Sales of 
British goods to India rose only slowly. Worst of all British India 
found stability neither on its internal or external frontiers. 

It is against this background that Bentinck’s social and educational 
reforms must be set. The Governor-General was certainly influenced 
by the utilitarian philosophy of government urged by James Mill. He 
believed that good laws make good men. He sympathised with evan- 
gelical Christianity. He was attracted to Ricardo’s theory of rent 
which held that landlords were parasites on productive resources and 
he patronised officials such as R. M. Bird who were responsible for the 
implementation of anti-landlord policies in the North-Western Prov- 
inces. Yet these enthusiasms were tempered by a spirit of gradualism — 
a fear of the consequences of sudden change — and an appreciation of 

® Metcalfe to Bentinck, 19 May 1829, C. H. Philips (ed.), The Correspondence of Lord 
William Cavendish Bentinck (Oxford, 1977), i. 199. 
? ibid.; cf. Ellenborough to Bentinck, 11 October 1829, ibid., 310. 


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the vulnerability of Britain’s position in India which was almost as 
profound as that of the great conservatives, Malcolm and Munro. 

Bentinck moved against the practice of ritual murder and robbery 
associated with the wandering religious cult of the Thugs and sup- 
ported their arch-enemy William Sleeman. But this merely reinforced 
earlier policies directed towards the suppression of sects such as the 
Gosains and Sannyasis. Only the ‘Thug scare’ was new and this 
derived from an exaggerated British fear of all wandering people, shar- 
pened by the disturbed conditions of the 1820s and 30s. In taking steps 
against infanticide and human sacrifice Bentinck was attempting to 
stamp out practices which had never had the sanction of Hindu script- 
ures and had been specifically denounced by Sikh and Muslim law- 
givers. Even in the case of the outlawing of widow-burning (sati) in 
1829 he was only extending the earlier interventions by British auth- 
orities in Hindu custom. Horrifying as sati was, it was more a sym- 
bolic issue than a major social problem and it must be remembered that 
fewer than 1,000 widows were burned each year during the 1820s 
according to official figures. The practice has all the hallmarks of a 
‘reinvented tradition’ which spread among the newly respectable com- 
mercial people of the Calcutta region. The colonial authorities were 
much more circumspect in their policies against what they saw as ob- 
noxious customs among the warrior peoples of north and central 
India. This is not to imply that such measures were unimportant as 
symbols of a new spirit for the British and their conservative Bengali 
opponents or even as humanitarian statements, simply that their 
impact on society was severely limited. 

This was true also of the changes in the Indian educational system 
which concerned Victorian writers. The use of Persian was abolished 
in official correspondence (1835); the government’s weight was 
thrown behind English-medium education and Thomas Babington 
Macaulay’s Codes of Criminal and Civil Procedure (drafted 1841-2, 
but not completed until the 1860s) sought to impose a rational, West- 
ern legal system on the amalgam of Muslim, Hindu and English law 
which had been haphazardly administered in British courts. These 
fruits of the Bentinck era were significant. But they were only of gen- 
eral importance in so far as they went with the grain of social changes 
which were already gathering pace in India. The Bombay and Calcutta 
intelligentsia were taking to English education well before the Edu- 
cation Minute of 1836. Flowery Persian was already giving way in 


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north India to the fluid and demotic Urdu. As for the changes in the 
legal system, they were only implemented after the Rebellion of 1857 
when communications improved and more substantial sums of money 
were made available for education. 

Bentinck and his successors were impeded in carrying out even 
those limited measures of reform of which they approved — road- 
building, irrigation and public works improvements — by the malaise 
of the colonial economy and the ideology of minimalist government. 
Government revenues were seriously diminished by the price de- 
pression which affected many parts of India during the first half of the 
century but which was particularly severe in the 1830s and 4os. The 
decline of the rupee value of agricultural produce was sharpest and 
most long lasting in Madras presidency which had been the milch cow 
of Indian finance in the eighteenth century and was to become so once 
again in the late nineteenth century. Here the index of prices taken as 
too in the decade 1816-25 had fluctuated greatly, declining at one 
point to 50.8 for the years 1840-5 and not recovering to base until 
1855—60.!° In Bombay there was a similar level of decline though at a 
slightly later date. In northern India the feverish commercial boom 
after the end of the Napoleonic wars continued until about 1827 when 
the coming turbulence in cotton, indigo and fine grain prices was 
heralded by the sudden failure of European indigo concerns. Here the 
depression was over in most areas by the early 1840s as cotton demand 
from China picked up sharply. 

Use of the terms ‘depression’ and ‘price depression’ to describe 
these phenomena was made popular in the 1930s by two Madras econ- 
omists, P. J. Thomas and B. Nataraja Pillai. They drew parallels with 
the world depression of their own era which can be a little misleading. 
It is true that the contraction of world silver supplies after the Latin 
American Revolutions affected price levels internationally, and was 
especially disruptive for silver-based economies such as India and 
China. But India in the 1830s was not closely enough integrated into 
the world economy for international developments to be the sole cause 
for her internal problems. India, too, was hardly a single national 
economy in the 1830s. There was much internal variation in price 
movements, even if governments were generally in poor financial cir- 

10 Pp. J. Thomas and B. Nataraja Pillai, Economic Depression in the Madras Presidency 
(Madras, 1934), pp. 4-11. 


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Three further general forces appear to have been at work in creating 
an impression of economic malaise. First, the very heavy revenue rates 
imposed by the incoming colonial power appear to have forced far- 
mers to produce more crops for the market. Since difficulties in inter- 
regional and international transport remained, severe gluts developed. 
Secondly, the rapid disintegration of the high-spending Indian courtly 
élites and armies reduced demand for commodities such as fine grains, 
silks and spices. The colonial army was much smaller and was operat- 
ing away from the main areas of production. It could not initially fill 
the gap. The economic policy of colonial government was also direc- 
ted by 1828 to cost-cutting. Finally, the government itself imposed 
upon this developing set of problems a short-term crisis of liquidity by 
closing several regional mints which had played an important réle in 
recycling gold and silver from rural hoards into general circulation. 

Local conditions were also important, explaining the marked vari- 
ation in response between one region and another. Madras suffered 
continuous bullion scarcities in the early nineteenth century. The Pres- 
idency had lost about 40 per cent of its export trade in cloths between 
the period 1824-34 and 1840-50. Much of the contraction was in 
south-east Asia where British manufactures ousted the Madras blue 
and red cloths which had previously been great silver earners. The par- 
ticular problems of Madras were also exacerbated by the very rapid 
imposition of cash revenue and rents in place of grain rents in the 
period 1800-10, by heavy provincial expenditures on the wars in 
south-east Asia between 1820 and 1824, and also by chronic problems 
concerning the cashing of Company bills at Madras. In the Delhi- 
Agra region, by contrast, the sudden crash of the indigo concerns 
which had been debtors to local landholders and bankers caused great 
disruption. Central India in turn suffered from the sudden cessation of 
Company raw cotton purchases when its monopoly over the China 
trade was ended in 1834. These difficulties were deepened by famine in 
1838-and persistent wars of ‘pacification’ against local Rajput chief- 

Even where regions escaped lightly, supported perhaps by a better 
mix of crops or lucrative grain sales during the famines of 1833 and 
1838, there was an air of economic stagnation which dampened the 
optimism of officials and merchants. The collapse of European indigo 
producers and associated agency houses between 1827 and 1838 
reduced official optimism that European-controlled capital could vita- 


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lise India’s agrarian economy. The Indian commercial classes, bat- 
tered by entry into the world market on unfavourable terms, seemed 
unlikely to provide colonial rule with a sturdy range of allies. Moder- 
nising enterprises in ship-building, coal, and joint-stock forms such as 
those pioneered by Dwarkanath Tagore in Calcutta, fell early victim 
to trade cycles and the short-sighted exclusiveness of British financial 
interests. Most significant the long depression revealed the almost uni- 
versal failure of the Company’s raj to secure growing revenues from 
willing allies in the countryside — this was despite the Whig Permanent 
Settlement, the conservative ryotwari arrangements in the south and 
the first flush of utilitarian enthusiasm in western India. The fall in 
agricultural prices in Madras caused the magistrate of Cuddapah to 
conclude in 1843 that the ‘universal complaint and request of the ryots 
[peasants] is to be allowed to reduce their farms, a convincing proof 
that cultivation is not profitable and that land has never been sale- 
able.’!! Even as late as 1856, Lord Harris, Governor of Madras, con- 
cluded that the area under cultivation was only ‘one fifth’ of the total 
cultivable acreage and similar cries of alarm had been common in 
Bombay during the previous decade. 

All this would have been less serious if there had been hope of stabil- 
ity on the Company’s internal and external frontiers. Bentinck’s 
reforms had swung the deficit into a surplus of £2 million by 1835 but 
the improvement was paper thin and easily eroded by revolts in India 
and wars on the borders. Bentinck’s cost-cutting presupposed a policy 
of non-intervention in the Indian States. Yet demilitarisation and de- 
pression there had created hardship which converged ominously with 
dislike of the British and their puppets. Indeed, some officials such as 
Meadows Taylor’? saw a general pattern of imperial degeneration in 
the rash of revolts during the 1830s. The Lingayat peasantry of the 
Nagar Taluka of Mysore revolted in 1830 and the ham-handed 
response of the court embroiled the British in direct and costly admin- 
istration of this once model state after 1831. In Hyderabad disturb- 
ances continued among dispossessed military factions and Hindu 
chieftains. British revenue agents were withdrawn from the state in 
1830, but the situation scarcely became more settled. In 1839 the 
Nizam’s brother Mubariz-ud-Daulah, was implicated in an abortive 

11 Magistrate to Board of Revenue, 25 July 1845 cited Thomas and Pillai, Economic De- 
pression, pp. 18-19. 
12 Meadows Taylor, The story of my life (Edinburgh, 1878), p. 73. 


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coup d’état and there was an official panic because it was incorrectly 
assumed that radical Muslim divines were implicated. By 1832 the 
situation in Awadh had also degenerated as the court was squeezed be- 
tween zamindar revolt and Company pressure. By far the most costly 
brushfire wars, however, were those associated with the pacification 
of tribal societies. In the 1820s the Burma wars had unleashed new 
pressures on tribal lands on the north-east frontier as the British army 
built roads and Hindu moneylenders moved into the forests in their 
wake. Revolts broke out among the Kasias and the Nagas. The press- 
ure of pioneer peasant settlers and British interference also stirred the 
Kol and Bhil tribal peoples of central India to reaction. 

Ultimately, however, it was events on the north-western frontier of 
British India that plunged the Company’s authority and finances back 
into crisis again. The Bombay government and that city’s private 
interests had always favoured commercial expansion up the river 
Indus. With the China trade out of the Company’s hands, even Ben- 
tinck found it difficult to resist the lure of the area’s supposed trading 
riches. He had concluded a commercial treaty with the Emirs of Sindh 
before he resigned. Whig notions of the balance of power to counteract 
Russian advances in central Asia with a strong British presence in 
north-west India also turned eyes to the tracts beyond the ‘natural’ 
boundary on the Jumna. But the most important consideration, which 
resulted in the outpouring of money and blood in Sindh, the Punjab 
and Afghanistan, was the gradual disintegration of Ranjit Singh’s 
polity in the Punjab after his long-expected death in 1839. The Afgha- 
nistan adventure and occupation of Sindh (1838, completed 1843) was 
in large part a misconceived reinsurance against further instability on 
this crucial frontier. 

The evolution of both Punjab and Sindh indicated the lines of 
change along which other eighteenth-century regional states might 
have proceeded had they not been regarded as more direct threats to 
British interests. Ranjit Singh had pursued a policy similar to that of 
Tipu Sultan or the Marathas a generation earlier. He had built up an 
infantry and cavalry army of about 40,000 men (80,000 with peasant 
militia) and 150 serviceable heavy guns to replace the old mounted 
Sikh war-bands and he had officered it with Europeans trained in the 
Napoleonic style like the Italian D’ Avitabile. The army allowed him to 
increase his large revenue resources (estimated at Rs 100 lakhs at one 
time) overawing other Sikh magnates and extending his rule into the 


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Muslim north-west. The army itself, organised through networks of 
local communities and drawn from the peasant brotherhoods of the 
Rechna and Jullunder areas proved a useful counterweight to the Sikh 
aristocrats, descendants of the eighteenth-century irregular cavalry. 
Ranjit Singh had gathered around himself a generation of new men 
including Muslims and Sikh religious leaders from the villages. Such 
men balanced the power of the Sikh religious establishment based on 
the holy city of Amritsar and the military brotherhood of the Akalis. 
Like the Talpur Emirs of Sindh, Ranjit Singh was also a great mon- 
opolist, enhancing the economic strength of the central government 
through control of the grain and salt trades and the valuable commerce 
in Kashmir shawls. 

Yet the stability of the Punjab depended on the astuteness of the old 
monarch himself. His death opened up the many fissures in society 
caused as much by the British diplomatic and economic presence on 
the periphery as by the conflicts following the creation of a new army 
and ruling élite. Peasant army and royal relatives were pitted against 
Sikh magnates of the eastern Punjab who had been suborned into con- 
nection by the British. 

Further to the north something similar was happening in Afghani- 
stan, though the foreign éminence grise in this case was thought to be 
the Russians. The Emir, Dost Mohammad was also modernising his 
army and trying to extend some semblance of central authority 
beyond the environs of the capital Kabul. This was regarded as 
peculiarly menacing in the contemporary ‘domino theory’ because 
Afghanistan was the technical overlord of Sindh whose own rulers 
controlled a rich vein of trade from Bombay presidency to the north- 
west. Again, the economic policies of Sindh were peculiarly ob- 
noxious to the British, consisting as they did of close control through 
state granaries of the province’s agricultural produce and swingeing 
taxes on trade down the river Indus. Sindhis were ‘certainly the most 
bigoted, the most self-sufficient, and the most ignorant people on 

Fortified by Whig self-confidence and the spirit of expanding com- 
merce, Lord Auckland (1836-42) tried to solve India’s problems of 
rickety finances and external instability with Wellesley’s policy of 
annexation and conquest. Sindh was conquered by the British between 

‘3 Paper on Sindh by J. McMurdo communicated by J. Bird, Journal of the Royal Asiatic 
Society, i, 1834, 244 (my itals.). 


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1839 and 1842 thus cutting a path to Afghanistan. The Punjab 
was invaded and defeated in 1845 and a British-controlled council of 
regency was established to bring the peasant army and outlying chief- 
tains to heel. Since it was Wellesley’s policy it was predictable that the 
result would be Wellesley’s indebtedness. The total cost of these ex- 
peditions was well over £15 million, so that the budget carefully 
balanced by Bentinck went soaring back into deficit in the late 1830s. 
But unlike Wellesley, Auckland did not have the benefit of the Duke of 
Wellington or the brilliant diplomats of the Malcolm and Munro 
school, so the military consequences varied between uncertain and dis- 
astrous. Sindh was pacified, but British intervention in the Punjab 
merely served to compound the instability. It succeeded in weakening 
the power of the Sikh aristocracy while enraging and frightening the 
peasant army. Worse still the Afghanistan episode ended in bloody hu- 
miliation for the British. The appearance of a foreign army at the heart 
of this pious Islamic society sparked resistance in and around Kabul 
while the British had dragged out their lines of communication across a 
terrain whose intricate tribal politics they barely understood. Thus 
20,000 men perished in the two occupations of Kabul and the Com- 
pany began to look with disfavour upon the eastern Indian sepoys 
who had served it so well since the 1760s. 


Despite the Afghanistan débacle Governors-General Ellenborough 
(1842-4), Hardinge (1844-8) and Dalhousie (1848-56) did not give up 
the policy of expanding Company power to its ‘natural’ frontiers 
within the subcontinent. The British could hardly draw back from the 
Punjab, while the other big dependent states were tempting prizes for 
authorities desperately seeking out new sources of cash. Yet revenue 
shortfalls emerging against a background of debt and foreign war did 
cause a more fundamental reappraisal of the colonial state’s relation- 
ship with rural society. As the depression lifted and external trade 
improved, the lineaments of the late Victorian Raj began to emerge. 
The basic principles were to be a more realistic level of agrarian tax- 
ation which allowed some degree of development and helped create a 
peasantry exporting agricultural raw materials. They, it was hoped, 
would in turn buy the produce of Lancashire looms. Government’s 


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revenues and India’s overall balance of trade with Asia would thus 
begin to recover. The technological advances of the 1850s — the scien- 
tific revenue survey, improved roads, railways and irrigation along 
with rapid transit to Europe, could be enlisted to give substance to the 
declarations of modernity heard in the 1830s. 

Senior officials in the provinces had already initiated the change 
before Lord Dalhousie put his seal on it. The new order was signalled 
by the revenue conference held in 1847 by the three heads of the 
Bombay Revenue Survey, G. Wingate, H. Goldsmid and D. David- 
son. Without challenging the concept of a ryotwari settlement, they 
had begun to operate since 1841 a new detailed mode of assessment 
which varied rates of revenue according to the different types of soil 
and took into account costs of production. Pressure from Manchester 
and other cotton consumers for cheaper, better-quality and more 
regular supplies played a part in setting the new trend, but persistent 
revenue shortfalls and peasant indebtedness provided the catalyst. 
While the rhetoric of the survey’s leaders was sometimes indis- 
tinguishable from that of the ‘utilitarians’ of the 1830s, they were 
influenced by the ideas of the economist Richard Jones who argued 
against Ricardo and Mill that ‘rent’ (revenue) should not cut into the 
peasant’s subsistence. This more sophisticated understanding of peas- 
ant economics went along with a clear statement that revenue rates 
would be secure for at least thirty years and that investments such as 
wells and groves put in over that period would not be taxed. Only oc- 
cupied lands were to be taxed and generous arrangements for remiss- 
ions in case of bad seasons were introduced. The effect was to reduce 
significantly tax on poorer lands and marginal holdings. 

The new Bombay revenue rates came into operation when external 
circumstances also were beginning to be more favourable. The assess- 
ments were generally fixed against prices in the period 1835-45 when 
the depression was at its most severe, but prices had begun to edge up. 
The disappearance of the Company as a major purchaser in 1834 and 
the growth of demand from Europe and China initiated a period of 
prosperity for Bombay cotton exporters which was only temporarily 
interrupted by the slump at the end of the American Civil War. 
Government and the towns did well. Land-revenue receipts in 
Bombay which had remained static and even fallen in the first half of 
the century picked up from Rs. 21 lakhs in 1850 to Rs. 29 lakhs in 
1870-1 and Rs. 34 lakhs in 1890. Price rises outstripped revenues in real 


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terms so that land values began to lift and even peasants’ occupancy 
rights became a valuable form of private property. The Parsi and 
Gujarati merchant communities of Bombay flourished despite Euro- 
peans’ strengthening position in the export trade as the electric tele- 
graph and iron ships gave them an edge. These were the years when 
Bombay saw a boom in the construction of neo-Gothic buildings. 

In the countryside of southern Gujarat the British finally began to 
see what they had devoutly awaited since the time of Munro — a rich 
yeoman class which would provide a solid ballast for the Raj. The Pat- 
tidar community of Gujarat, long known as careful farmers and 
experts in the use of manure, gained disproportionately from the pros- 
perity built upon good communications, a relatively low population 
density and competition between agents of Bombay-based European 
firms.'* A small number of substantial Pattidars of districts such as 
Kaira and Ahmedabad liberated themselves from professional money- 
lenders and began to lend money themselves and cart their produce to 
market. The new direction in revenue management was less successful 
in the harsher conditions of the upland Deccan. An early expansion of 
the acreage under cotton between 1840 and 1860 rapidly came up 
against the limits of cultivable land. In 1838, 50 per cent of arable land 
in the Bombay Deccan was reckoned to be waste, but in 1871 the per- 
centage was tiny. There were only limited possibilities for improve- 
ments through state-supported irrigation schemes in the north 
Deccan. Many cultivators remained heavily in debt to immigrant 
moneylenders so that rural conflicts intensified. Yet a small élite of 
substantial men does appear to have emerged in districts such as Poona 
and Sholapur with some minor stake in the stability of colonial 

In the Madras Presidency there was a more piecemeal movement 
towards more ‘scientific’ and lower agrarian taxation. In all three of 
the major physical divisions — plains, river valleys and the upland 
Kongunad — high revenue rates, falling demand and poor transport had 
impeded development between 1810 and 1845. After 1845 some im- 
provement was detected in Kongunad where the enterprising Vellala 
peasants displayed some of the characteristics typical of the Gujarat 
Pattidars. The Collector of Coimbatore remarked in 1851 that a large 
number of new wells had been built and collapsed old ones opened up 

'* Shri Prakash, ‘The evolution of agrarian economy in Gujarat, 1830-1930’, unpub. 
Cambridge University Ph.D. diss., 1984. 


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in the previous fifteen years. One good effect of the ad hoc lowering of 
rates on ‘garden’ cultivation was that lands were ‘becoming saleable’ 
and that discussions were now arising on ‘old dormant claims to lands 
long since waste’.!° In 1845 the Madras Department of Roads was 
formed, new construction was commenced and the rate of cart hire 
showed a steady decline. In the ‘black soil’ plain lands of Ramnad and 
Tinnevelly cotton acreages advanced steadily and the port of Tuticorin 
served by enterprising Roman Catholic Paravas became a major south- 
coast exporter. A new level of substantial yeoman farmers began to 
show itself, different from the village headman of the past, though 
often also engrossing village offices. 

Swifter changes were soon in evidence in the river valleys. Since 
1800 rural poverty and government neglect had allowed many of the 
indigenous irrigation works to decline. This was particularly true in 
the districts along the Kavery,-such as Trichinopoly and Tanjore and 
also on the delta of the rivers Krishna and Godaveri where constant 
zamindari disturbances and bankruptcies during the 1830s had 
damaged output. Between 1836 and 1860, however, a large-scale plan 
of irrigation improvement was initiated by Arthur Cotton, one of the 
greatest of the Anglo-Indian civil engineers. This had the effect of 
bringing nearly a million acres of new paddy land under cultivation in 
the valleys. Dense settlement and large networks of markets were to 
make the southern valleys among the most vibrant agrarian societies in 
India. While many of the technical details of the scheme were mis- 
handled and indigenous irrigation schemes were allowed to decay, 
there was a clear medium-term improvement in output. In the later 
nineteenth century the Indian government was to fund many of its 
projects from the regular and easily extracted surplus of the southern 
paddy farmers. 

Even amidst the complexity of north India the later 1840s stand as a 
period of real rather than vaunted change. After a bad start the auth- 
orities in the newly conquered Punjab began to gratify the productive 
Sikh and Jat farmers of the riverine tracts with low revenue assess- 
ments. In Bengal the substantial farmers of the eastern delta began in 
the early 1850s to turn to jute, the cash-crop stape of the following 
century. In the north-western provinces during the 1830s and 40s 
utilitarian-inspired assault on large magnates and talukdars had rela- 

'S Cited in S. Saraswathi, ‘The Kongu Vellalas of the nineteenth-century’, unpub. M.Phil. 
diss., University of Madras, 1979, p. 36. 


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tively little economic (though considerably more moral) effect. The 
forfeited lands which poured on to the market in the 1830s were 
mainly those of the poor, joint-cultivating communities situated in 
badly irrigated and isolated areas. Buoyed up by sporadic demand 
from Europe for sugar and China for cotton the agrarian economy 
began to improve marginally in the 1840s. The population of all-India 
appears to have begun to move up significantly about the same date 
slowly fuelling an increase in consumption. About 1848, grain prices, 
which had oscillated around a stationary mean since the 1820s, began 
appreciably to move up. The value of zamindari rights, which had 
been estimated at no more than one and one-third years of the revenue 
as late as 1837, had risen to three and one-half years’ revenue by 1848. 
The cultivated area itself began to leap forward from about 1845, 
partly stimulated by the rapid recovery of population from the famines 
of 1833 and 1838!° Better seasons and slowly rising export prices and 
population lay behind this change. But government policy was not in- 
significant. In some parts of the north-western provinces revisions of 
revenue were quite indulgent after 1836, and under Dalhousie prom- 
ised irrigation improvements began coming through with the full 
extension of the Jumna canal system and opening of the Ganges Canal 
in 1854. Here also, the foundations were laid for a relatively prosper- 
ous yeoman élite which could sustain government revenue and rural 
peace later in the century. Kurmi peasants in the east and Jat farmers in 
the west stepped forward to occupy the position left by the declining 
brotherhoods of Rajput village controllers who could not adapt to 
more productive cultivation because caste status forbade them from 
touching the plough. Ironically, the differentials opened up by this 
very uneven acceleration of agrarian production were to envenom the 
1857 struggle in the Ganges—Jumna plains. The inequitable growth of 
the later nineteenth-century was already foreshadowed. 

Dalhousie inherited in 1848 an agrarian economy which now had 
the capacity for slow but sustained expansion. The revenue shortfalls 
of the 1830s and 40s were now past. The seasons after 1838 were much 
better. Though the volatility of the external market was demonstrated 
by the recession of 1848 and the disruption in China during the Taip- 
ing rebellion, India’s external markets were beginning to improve. 
Before the 1857 rebellion the acreage under tea and coffee in the Nilgiri 

'© E. Stokes, ‘North and Central India’, D. Kumar and M. Desai (eds.), Cambridge Econ- 
omic History of India, ii (Cambridge, 1983), 55. 


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Hills and Assam was appreciable and jute and sugar had replaced ailing 
indigo as major export crops. In 1852 as the international economic 
situation began to improve and the Government’s budget came into 
temporary surplus, the first considerable quantities of British metro- 
politan capital were invested in the subcontinent. Over the next decade 
more than £10 million was put into India’s railway schemes by Euro- 
pean investors looking for outlets for capital beyond continental rail- 
ways and Egyptian loans. The Government set out to encourage these 
schemes by forming local railway committees, as much for military as 
for economic reasons. Dalhousie who inherited the modernising rhet- 
oric of Bentinck along with the rigour of Peel’s administration in Bri- 
tain, pressed forward the development of the infrastructure and the 
rationalisation of bureaucracy. The electric telegraph was installed and 
presidency merchants were given access to it in 1853. The limited 
advances of railway lines (200 miles by 1856) and the telegraph began 
to bring together grain prices throughout India and to help export 
merchants in up-country towns.’” 

Yet Dalhousie was a Governor-General firmly in the tradition of 
Wellesley. Modernisation of the Indian economy and the use of ‘native 
agency’ were firmly subordinated to the needs of military and financial 
security. The most striking way in which he sought to nurture India’s 
convalescent budget was not by improvement but by annexation. Like 
all the governors-general before him, Dalhousie was haunted by fear 
of Britain’s strategic weakness in the subcontinent. The outbreak in 
1849 of revolt in the still-untamed Punjab army as much as the revolt 
of the Santal tribesmen (1853-6), a resistance movement within a day’s 
ride of Calcutta, emphasised the feeling of fragility. The displacing of 
‘sham kings’ within troublesome Indian states and the extension of 
frontiers to India’s ‘natural boundaries’ seemed to be the only ways of 
providing permanent stability. With the exception of the annexation 
(in 1852) of the Burmese delta kingdom of Pegu, where the men on the 
spot exceeded their orders, Dalhousie’s expansion was not a manifes- 
tation of any jingoism of ‘free trade imperialism’. Manchester cotton 
interests were, of course, pleased by the annexation in 1853 of the rich 
cotton-growing tracts of the Berars (designed to ‘solve’ Hyderabad’s 
chronic fiscal haemorrhage). Central Asian trade and the Russians 

'” For Dalhousie’s period a good recent treatment is D. J. Howlett, ‘An end to expansion. 
Influences on British policy in India c. 1830-60’, unpub. Ph.D. diss., Cambridge Univer- 
sity, 1981. 


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were again introduced to justify the final annexation of the Punjab. 
Prudential concerns of strategy and revenue maximisation were, how- 
ever, at the heart of policy making. Dalhousie’s famous ‘doctrine of 
lapse’ by which kingdoms without a direct male heir escheated to the 
Company on the death of a ruling raja, secured three strategically 
placed territories in Satara (1848), Jhansi (1853) and Nagpur (1854) and 
added £5 million to revenues with very little expense. The annexation 
of Awadh (1856) was expected to bring in a further £5 million along 
with a rich agricultural tract and a commercial and financial com- 
munity which had invested huge sums in Company loans over the past 
forty years. 

It is the case of the Punjab, however, which most clearly reveals the 
direction of Dalhousie’s policy. The turbulent frontier in the north 
which had worried the British since the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839 
was finally settled by 1852. Ranjit Singh’s powerful peasant army was 
disbanded but nearly half its soldiers were absorbed into the new 
Company force which was to be weaned away from its dependence on 
recruits from eastern Awadh and the Benares region. The agricultural 
communities of the Jullunder and Rechna Doabs which had provided a 
majority of the Punjab soldiery were to be placated by heavy invest- 
ment in irrigation improvement and a revenue settlement which after 
several false starts took from them as little as 25 per cent of the value of 
produce, and did so after the crops had been harvested rather than 
before so that they could pay more easily. This was the famous Punjab 
system of Sir John Lawrence. Here then the India of the Crown was 
already in gestation. It was to be the India of a mercenary army whose 
career as an overseas ‘fire-brigade’ for the British Empire had already 
begun in earnest with the campaigns in China and south-east Asia. It 
was to be an India where the acquiescence of rural society was bought 
by a progressive fall in the weight of land revenue on the more prosper- 
ous, by a slow but clear expansion of agriculture in Madras, Gujarat 
and the Punjab and by intermittent attempts to associate powerful vil- 
lagers with the alien government. 

It is ironic that in the short term the birth of this new empire was to 
be aborted by a massive revolt in the heart of the Company’s terri- 
tories which finally destroyed its finances and blew it into oblivion 
after it had survived more than sixty years of assaults from free traders. 
For in the countryside of north India a generation of depression and 
grindingly high rates of revenue had been alleviated in a manner so 


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piecemeal and inequitable that any spark could have set off rural 
revolt. The prudence with which the Regency diplomats like Wilks 
and Metcalfe had assuaged the bruised sensibilities of Indian princes 
and their courtiers had been thrown aside as ‘sham kings’ and ‘drones 
on the soil’ were deposed with the hard edge of early Victorian dogma- 
tism. Cultural reaction converged furiously with an uprising of land- 
lord and peasant. And the occasion of revolt was to be the Company’s 
attempt to discipline the haughty Bengal army, perhaps the only part 
of the reform programme to be pursued with vigour. 

The East India Company had penetrated the subcontinent by 
making use of its buoyant markets in produce and land revenue. But 
the needs of its financial and military machine had tended to snuff out 
that buoyant entrepreneurship of revenue farmers, merchants and 
soldiers which had kept the indigenous system functioning. Only by 
the 1850s was this lesson beginning to be learnt. The government was 
boxed in by its inability to reconcile financial stability with economic 
growth. However, the period was certainly not one of social stag- 
nation or the simple continuity of pre-colonial political forms. The 
next chapter turns to social and ideological change in early- 
nineteenth-century India. 


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The East India Company inherited on a greatly magnified scale the 
conflict between state entrepreneurship — the desire to squeeze up land 
revenue or create monopolies — and the entrepreneurship of merchant 
and peasant which had bedevilled many eighteenth-century Indian 
kingdoms. The result for the British was a long period of economic 
lethargy which was barely obscured by the slow introduction of the 
panoply of the modern state. Yet this should not be taken to imply that 
the early nineteenth century was an era devoid of significant social 
change. On the contrary, as this chapter will show, these years were 
critical in the creation of the modern Indian peasantry, its patterns of 
social divisions and its beliefs. 

Many early Victorian writers were convinced that India was on the 
brink of a rapid transformation. Hinduism was fading in the face of 
evangelical Christianity; ‘caste disabilities’ suffered by the lower 
orders would disappear in the face of good laws; the ‘isolation’ of the 
Indian village would be blown apart by the impact of industrialisation. 
Writers in the second half of the twentieth century have dissented. 
Some have argued that the subcontinent was condemned to stagnation 
by its subjection to colonial interests — that society was frozen into 
caricatures of its feudal past by British land-revenue systems and the 
destruction of its artisan producers. Others have argued that colonial 
rule was peripheral to most of Indian society: it could effect changes 
neither for good nor ill because the new export trades were fitful and 
the waves of reform and regeneration were merely paper debates con- 
ducted in the corridors of Government House, Calcutta. 

Neither of these formulations is entirely satisfactory. The deep 
changes expected by the early Victorians evidently never occurred — or 
at least not until better means of communication, the railways and the 
printing press came into their own after 1860. Yet there is no doubt 
either that society was different in important respects on the eve of the 
rebellion of 1857 from what it had been one hundred years earlier. 


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O Weaving centres 

4 Hin it 
PATHAN i au centres 
WHEAT C Muslim centres 

PUNJAB ~—_ Lahore Amritsar 
® , Juilunder 

Multan a Baijnath 

Deoband¢ (qj 
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Kou! Benares «Gaya 

Ahmedabad 4 Ujjain baa eares 




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ZCOORGS c¢ Madras 
" Arcot 
COTTON Nagore 
Mysoree A cawery Nagapatam 


5 British India: economic and social 

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Dominant lineages, patterns of local power and religious institutions 
showed remarkable resilience to the effects of colonial rule, but the 
context within which they operated was significantly different. Some 
of the changes represented the working through of processes of com- 
mercialisation and state building which had been initiated by pre- 
colonial rulers; others were the result of the slow incorporation of 
regional Indian economies into a single unified economy, and the 
further development of links between this economy and the world 
capitalist economy. Colonial government operated to speed up or 
slow down such changes more often than to initiate them. This chapter 
considers the social order and religious and social ideas and seeks to 
find links between developments which have usually been treated 


One area of striking change was in the relationship between man and 
his natural environment. The century beginning 1780 saw the begin- 
nings of extensive deforestation in the subcontinent. Before 1860 it 
was the trees of the plains and the southern hills which fell. Large scale 
commercial logging and clearing for agriculture in the northern forests 
were only in their early stages. Yet the denudation of peninsular India 
had proceeded rapidly before population began to grow significantly 
after 1845 and put pressure on resources. During the early nineteenth 
century denudation resulted instead from the pacification policies of 
the colonial state, from the movement — often under duress — of pion- 
eer peasant farmers, and from the beginnings of commercial exploi- 
tation. Climate and social patterns were already changing in response. 

Indigenous states had begun the denudation of the countryside for 
reasons of military security. According to the eighteenth-century 
chronicler Kirmani, the Mysore Sultans cleared off much forest in 
their wars against the tribesmen of Coorg and the Nayars.’ In the 
north, Sikhs and Afghans completed the deforestation of the area 
around Delhi which had probably proceeded fast during the boom 
of the Mughal economy. The Sikhs again levelled the forests of the 

1 W. Miles (trans. ed.), History of the reign of Tipu Sultan: Mir Husein Ali Khan Kirmant’s 
‘Neshani Hyduri’ (London, 1844), p. 79; for the Marathas in Rajasthan, E. Thornton, A 
Gazetteer of the territories under the government of the East India Company (London, 
1854), 1. 61. 


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Peshawar valley to deny their Muslim enemy natural cover as they 
acquired a shaky dominance over it in the 1820s.” But the British who 
could draw on their experience of ‘clearings’ in Scotland and Ireland 
took ecological warfare to a new level. Arthur Wellesley drove roads 
through the forests of Malabar and cleared trees to a mile on either side 
in his campaigns against the Pychee Raja (1800-2). The territories of the 
conquered poligars and even the Company’s allies were also speedily 
cleared to deny them to Pindaris and tribesmen as hiding places. Sir 
Thomas Munro remarked to the young Raja of Pudukottai in 1826 that 
the forest had been dense when he had travelled this way as a young 
officer in the 1780s, but now ‘the woods had been almost cut down 
and cultivation was going on, some thin wood remaining in places’. 
The policy of settlement and deforestation had been suggested by the 
British resident. 

Movement of peasant cultivators had also pushed forward the 
degradation of the forests in many areas. Under the pressure of the 
heavy land revenue levied on the better soils, farmers moved up into 
the hills or on to poorer soils and cleared the forest as they went. 
Others sought to escape from the diseases of the river valleys which 
were particularly ferocious in the 1820s and 30s. The consequence was 
an acceleration of felling on the higher lands. Even though aggregate 
population growth was slow, there had been a significant expansion of 
the cultivated acreage, and especially the acreage under exhausting 
crops such as cotton. There was also a rapid expansion of the demand 
for fire wood and wood for river boats. The British disliked slash-and- 
burn agriculture even when it was conducted by tribals and had little 
long-term effect on the evironment. Official statements must there- 
fore be treated with scepticism. Still, there is evidence of an acceler- 
ation of permanent felling during this period. Most of the Deccan was 
now completely treeless by 1840, while Dr Gibson, a botanist, warned 
in 1846 of ‘the rapid destruction which is going on amongst the forests 
along the whole length of the district [of Kanara] by the process of 
Cooneri [felling and burning] cultivation’,* and there were similar 
complaints from the whole of the western mountain range and 

? Shahamat Ali, The Sikhs and Afghans in connection with India and Persia (London, 

1847), p- 263. 

> R. Aiyar, History of Puddukotai, i, 366. 

* Extract from Report of Dr Gibson, 9 March 1846, Selections from the Old Records of the 
Trichinopoly District (Madras, 1931), p. 104. 


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A more serious threat to the forests was commercial logging. Indian 
régimes had sought to tax and monopolise valuable timbers. Raja 
Martanda Varma, for instance, had drawn a large revenue from the 
teak forests of Travancore. The impact on forests probably varied 
greatly between areas. A Muslim traveller, Shahamat Ali’s, obser- 
vations on the Himalayas in 1839-40 suggest that much timber was 
still procured from trees which were uprooted by winter storms and 
brought down the mountain rivers rather than by felling.° But the 
demands of the European entrepreneurs and the colonial state were 
more extensive. Massive quantities of teak were felled in the western 
forests by contractors for the Bombay marine between 1800 and 1830. 
Reserves were so far threatened that in 1810 the local government ap- 
pointed a special officer for forest preservation.° Meanwhile Palmer 
and Co., the notorious agency house based in Hyderabad, had begun 
logging in the Berars. The destruction gathered speed after 1840 when 
coffee plantations sprang up in some numbers in the south and tea 
began to expand rapidly in Assam and the Bengal hills. 

The wider effects of the felling and degradation of forest are still in 
need of research. But the cries of alarm spread by botanist officials 
throughout the Empire in the 1840s — almost an ecological panic — 
probably did have some independent factual basis.” In the 1830s one 
observer attributed a supposed increase in the intensity of the hot 
winds of the northern plains to felling in Awadh. It was reported that 
deforestation in Mysore had diminished the supply of water travelling 
down the crucial Kavery watercourse and had raised the summer tem- 
peratures in Tanjore and Trichinopoly in 1842. Combined with the 
widespread decay of indigenous village irrigation systems, this sense 
of decline encouraged the government of Madras to more active water- 
development policies in the 1850s. Yet the main consequence of felling 
at this stage was probably the invasion of tribal lands and the increased 
penetration of money into the tribal economies. This presaged the 
further incorporation of tribal peoples into patterns of agrarian wage 
labour in the plains. 

The expansion or migration of the plains population of Hindu India 
at the expense of local cultures and of economic systems which were 
not geared to the production of an agrarian surplus had proceeded 

° Shahamat Ali, Sikhs and Afghans, p. 111. 

© Thornton, Gazetteer, i, 74. 

”? Richard Grove, ‘Ecological change and Imperial policy, 1800-1860’, unpub. Ph.D., 
diss. Cambridge University, 1987. 


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steadily before colonial rule. For instance, the adoption of Islam 
among tribal people in east Bengal was indirectly connected with the 
expansion of rice cultivation into mixed and forested areas. Low caste 
Bhuinyas in the hills of south Bihar appear to have been descendants of 
tribal groups which were incorporated into the Hindu system as rice 
agriculture also expanded into this area between 1400 and 1800.® By 
the eighteenth century money payments had already become part of 
systems of dependence which had previously been more like ritualised 
patron—client relationships in which the Hindu warrior masters had 
played an important part in the religious practice of their servants. The 
economic changes introduced alongside colonial rule in the early nine- 
teenth century expanded the labour-for-money element in the re- 
lationship and tied it to the creation of surplus for export markets. 

In some parts of Central India the colonial authorities had deliber- 
ately sought to wean or coerce hillmen away from their traditional 
slash-and-burn or hunter-gatherer life-style to solve a perceived prob- 
lem of policing. The Bhil tribes of the Khandesh hills, adjoining valu- 
able cotton-growing lands, were first subjected to a series of 
pacification wars in the 1820s, then settled. So ‘The Bheels were regis- 
tered and waste lands were allotted to all those who were willing to 
form themselves under certain restrictions into colonies.” By 1826, 
300 ploughs were in use among the hillmen of this district and settled 
agriculture proceeded fast over the next generation. Among the 
Munda of southern Andhra, punitive expeditions against recalcitrant 
tribals were justified by British abhorrence of human sacrifice. Such 
invasions allowed the British to set up raja landholders as mediators 
and gradually extend both private landed property and a system of re- 
served forest areas into the hills. In the longer term the resources and 
mobility of the tribal populations were severely curtailed. 

In most areas, however, the slow penetration of Hindu and Jain 
capital and styles of consumption into the forests and grazing lands 
was the most significant change. The partnership between the Com- 
pany and the moneylender-trader which had facilitated the subjuga- 
tion of India now proceeded in the conquest of India’s internal 
frontiers. Monied settlers from the plains trickled into the central 
Indian tribal zone secured by types of landlordism and forms of debt 

8 Gyan Prakash, ‘Production and the reproduction of bondage. Kamias and maliks in 
south Bihar. c. 1300 to the 1930s’, unpub. Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1984. 
? Thornton, Gazetteer, ili, 260. 


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recovery alien to the domestic economy of the tribal people. Colonial 
administrators, solicitous for the stability of revenue, conferred on 
them proprietary rights and legitimised their bonds through the col- 
onial courts. Unequal economic relations between hill and forest 
dwellers and caste Hindus, including slavery, had existed before col- 
onial rule. But debt bondage and agrarian servitude now become more 
widespread as the economy recovered from the setbacks of the 1830s 
and 4os. In 1847, for instance, L. Michael noted that the Kader tribe of 
the Annamalai Hills were in ‘an abject state of slavery worse than any- 
thing on the western Ghats’.'° Traders from the plains bartered rice, 
salt and coarse cloth for tribal supplies of wood honey, wax and 
ginger. The indigent tribals only received a tiny proportion of the real 
value of these commodities from the Hindu traders, and consequently 
fell into debt. Previously the unequal relations between plains- 
dwellers and forest or hill men had been periodically adjusted through 
the looting and plunder by the tribals of settled farmers. Pax Britan- 
nica increasingly precluded this type of adjustment. By the time the 
export economy began to have a significant impact on inland India in 
the 1850s, tribal people were beginning to resort in much larger num- 
bers to areas of settled agriculture such as the Gujarat cotton zone or 
the central India wheat zone where they acted as seasonal migrant 

There was also a sharp decline in the fortunes of the extensive noma- 
dic and pastoral economy of the plains in the first half of the nineteenth 
century. In the eighteenth century, cattle-grazing people had pro- 
vided an important part of the diet of this, the only populous Asian 
society which was lactose tolerant. Horse-breeding and trading was 
also of vital importance to a military aristocracy which marked itself 
off from the commonalty by the possession of horses. Elephant- 
catching and trade in the animals was a source of income, as elephants 
signified royalty. Sheep were suprisingly widely reared as woollen 
clothes and blankets were vital for winter wear in the colder north of 
the subcontinent. Though historians have unduly neglected it the im- 
portance of the grazing, nomadic lifestyle of many Indians before 1800 
is clear from countless legends and rituals. Lord Krishna, modern 
India’s favourite deity was a cowherd. The city of Lucknow was 

'° Actg Secretary Board of Revenue to Collector Trichi, 1; November 1847, Trichi Old 
Records, p. 104. 

" Crispin Bates, ‘Regional dependence and rural development in Central India, 1820- 
1930’, unpub. Ph.D. diss., Cambridge, 1984. 


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supposedly established by cattle-keeping rajas; a piece of deer-hide 
still played a part in the initiation ritual of the most orthodox Brah- 
mins. Nor were the hunters and their lords a world apart. At the end of 
the eighteenth century nomads still plundered the settled agricultura- 
list, but at the same time they provided them with milk and took their 
goods to distant markets. The Banjara carriers gave logistical and mili- 
tary support to the rulers of the settled tracts who rewarded them with 
titles and concessions. 

All this changed rapidly in the early nineteenth century. Large 
nomadic and pastoral populations still persisted in the plains of Hary- 
ana, the central Deccan or the north Punjab as late as 1860. However, 
the British were not enamoured of the nomad. Everywhere they 
sought to settle and discipline groups such as the Gujars, Bhattis, 
Rangar Rajputs and Mewatis who moved their herds around, extract- 
ing ‘protection rent’ as they went. The assessment of waste land and 
creation of more rigid property rights enforceable by court order re- 
stricted the nomads’ mobility. Many of the herdsmen carrier-peoples 
of the Deccan for instance, had already become sedentary and subordi- 
nate agricultural castes before 1870. The imposition of ‘peace’ was also 
significant. In the eighteenth century India had been a world centre of 
horse breeding and whole communities drew their livelihoods from 
horses. The Marathas and Sikhs had owed much of their military suc- 
cess to tough breeds of indigenous horse. However, as Balfour wrote 
in the 1850s ‘native breeds of horses declined under British rule’.!* The 
Multani, Kutchi and south Deccan varieties of Indian horse were all 
but extinct and the large communities which had bred them were 
broken up and had taken to agriculture. Cultivation had spread over 
the old grazing lands. More important, British success against indige- 
nous régimes had cut off the demand, while Arab and south African 
horses had largely supplanted the indigenous breeds. The Indian horse 
stock itself declined because those which served with the British 
armies were worked all round the year. Previously Indian armies had 
operated seasonally and mares were able to foal in the slack season. 

Changes also overtook cattle breeders and hersdmen. The great 
bands of pack bullock owners which had roamed the plains in the late 
eighteenth century, spreading both plunder and trade, were broken up 
into small groups. The huge Indian armies they once serviced had 

'2 E. Balfour, Cyclopaedia of India and of eastern and southern Asia (Madras, 1857), ii. 
64: ‘horse’. 


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melted away. Cattle disease had struck in the north in the 1830s and 
many of the great herds had been decimated. In addition bullock carts 
owned and operated by merchants with hired labourers gradually 
ousted the freelance pack-bullock merchants of the earlier era. The 
great contractor Tori Mull could still assemble as many as 160,000 
head of cattle for service during the second Sikh war, but such concen- 
trations were hardly seen again after 1850. More important, the 
remaining herds were broken up smaller and smaller while there seems 
also to have been a gradual deterioration of stock. In part this seems to 
have been because grazing land was coming under the plough with the 
growth of population; but elsewhere the allotment of large areas of 
grazing ground to speculators, as in the districts south of the Hima- 
layas, seems to have pushed the nomadic cattle which invigorated the 
settled herds on to poorer and poorer grass. 

In terms of the relationship between man and his environment the 
early nineteenth century was a formative phase. India as it is com- 
monly conceived, a land of settled arable farming, of caste Hindus and 
of specialist agricultural produce, was very much a creation of this 
period. The stranger, older India of forest and nomad where the agri- 
cultural frontier was as often in retreat as on the advance, began to dis- 
appear. The more homogeneous society of peasants and petty 
moneylenders which emerged in the later nineteenth century was a 
more appropriate basis for a semi-European colonial state. It also held 
out better hopes of profit to the importers of Lancashire cottons than 
the fragmented consumption of nomads and tribals. Still, in the de- 
struction and degradation of forest, forest produce and herds, the 
people of India had lost some of their resources with which to guard 
against bad seasons or the intrusion of the larger society from outside. 
A hundred years later forests and grazing grounds, along with the cul- 
tures they supported, have virtually disappeared. 

The other side of this story was, of course, the advance of the settled 
agriculture and peasant petty commodity production. Technological 
change on the family farm itself seems to have been slow in the early 
nineteenth century. The Persian wheel type of irrigation system which 
had spread under the Mughals made further headway, as did the iron- 
shod plough. But the most significant changes were probably in the 
external context of farming. Before 1850 there were some significant 
beginnings in irrigation. The Kavery schemes of Sir Arthur Cotton and 
the East and West Jumna canals were underway. Some of the new Bri- 


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tish canals differed from the Mughal canals, moreover, in that they 
were dug-canals in inhospitable terrain rather than extensions of 
existing river systems. The massive expansion of production of cotton, 
indigo and sugar in northern and western India after 1800 also greatly 
changed the subcontinent’s ecology. New varieties of seed, such as 
American cotton and improved varieties of fodder grass introduced by 
the colonial authorities were not generally successful. But the balance 
between existing varieties changed markedly to high-value cash crops. 
There were some innovations. Jute production expanded rapidly from 
the early 1850s in East Bengal as demand for sacking grew with the 
expansion of world trade. Tea and coffee plantations were already 
established in the Nilgiris by 1830. The foundation of the Assam Tea 
Company at Darjeeling in 1839 heralded the complete transformation 
of the ecology of the northern hills and the creation of enhanced 
demands for agricultural labour. 

This spread of crops designed for distribution to Indian and foreign 
markets was one of the main forces which created a more homoge- 
neous agrarian society in the early nineteenth century. Not only were 
tribal people and nomads being settled and subordinated to the disci- 
pline of producing an exportable surplus but many of the gradations in 
status and function between people of the settled agricultural tracts 
which had existed in the Indian states were disappearing and giving 
way to simpler distinctions based on wealth and landholding. ‘Sub- 
jects’, ‘children’ and ‘dependants’ (designated by terms such as ratyat 
and praja and peon) were becoming peasants in the common Western 
sociological sense: that is smallholders working on individual plots, 
deriving sustenance almost entirely from agrarian occupations and 
distant from the sources of power located in towns. So the colonial 
impact split the old warrior peasant communities. Their most eminent 
lineages were separated off as a domesticated aristocracy, or elimin- 
ated by war. Inferior families of warrior land-controllers still retained 
great reserves of power and status in many parts of the countryside. 
Yet their authority was perceptibly eroded and many families were 
absorbed into the upper reaches of the peasantry. 

In the lower reaches of agrarian society distinctions based on per- 
sonal status were also breaking down. Domestic and field serfdom for 
untouchable groups, a status which had been infused with ideas of re- 
ligion and magic, was falling into disuse. The colonial authorities had 
abolished the condition which they called ‘slavery’ on the south coast 


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and moved against the most obvious cases of domestic serfdom in the 
north by 1850. The British peace also suppressed the practice of taking 
serfs during war which had remained quite common at the end of the 
eighteenth century. But more important was the spread of cash crops, 
of money use and the growth of population which eroded tied, patron- 
al relations such as this. Though the overall population growth rate 
appears to have been slow in the period 1800-50 (probably under o.5 
per cent per annum), there was a modest doubling of population in 
areas such as the Deccan and Haryana which had notably low popu- 
lation density at the end of the eighteenth century. Slow population 
growth combined with more general access to land provided a tied 
peasantry quite adequate to the purposes of the colonial state and 
Indian entrepreneurs. Deeper and socially more complex forms of ser- 
vitude became redundant. 

As late as 1840 it was labour rather than land which was the scarce 
factor of production in much of India. The changing colonial economy 
did not necessarily increase the proportion of landless labourers. For if 
the pressures of the land revenue and of agricultural depression forced 
some poor peasants from the land, there is evidence that persons of 
very low caste who had previously been debarred from holding land 
were themselves becoming poor peasants. In eastern Hindustan 
Buchanan noted that the abolition after 1812 of interdicts against the 
holding of land by low castes had the effect of increasing the demand 
for labour, since this customary prohibition had been a way of main- 
taining a labour pool. In Chhatisgarh in central India, Chamars (a low 
leather-making and scavenging caste) were building up landhold- 
ings.'? In the south, Paraiyans were becoming tenant farmers’*; while 
in the hills of Bihar low-caste farmers were taking on tribal dependants 
as tied labour, a right which had previously been restricted to high- 
caste warriors.'° The settlement of armed retainers of the southern 
warrior chiefs (peons) between 1790 and 1820 and the general abolition 
of military tenures in favour of cash-revenue and cash-rent forced 
greater reliance on agricultural income. The weight of qualitative 
evidence and several new quantitative studies suggest that there was 
a significant decline of specialist weaving communities in the early 
nineteenth century. This was especially concentrated in the great 

3 Balfour, Cyclopaedia, ii, 145, ‘Chamar’. 

' Ramappa Kamic, ‘Memoirs on the origin of slaves’ c.1819, published in J. Shortt (ed.), 
The Hill Ranges of south India, iv (Madras 1874), p. 36. 

'S G. Prakash, ‘Production and the reproduction of bondage’, op. cit. 


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artisan towns of the pre-colonial period such as Dacca, Murshidabad 
and Mau in Awadh. Rural weavers in areas such as Tamilnadu, where 
weaving had been less specialist, survived better. The decline of 
specialist weaving and spinning drove artisan families to more intense 
exploitation of their landholdings. Consequently, the proportion of 
field labourers holding no land rights to the landholding and tenant 
population may have remained fairly constant at about 20 per cent in 
the early nineteenth century. 

Both the landholding peasantry and the rural labouring class appear 
to have become more homogeneous during this period. Certainly, the 
long distance migration of villagers to work as labourers as ‘protection 
seekers’ on distant farms appears less common. The colonial govern- 
ment and population growth restricted internal migration and 
deprived agricultural labourers of much of their bargaining power. At 
the same time the decline of indigenous states and certain types of vil- 
lage service community amalgamated the great range of subtly dif- 
ferentiated dependants of the pre-colonial period into a recognisable 
class of cash-earning field labourers. An overall growth of the percent- 
age of cultivating peasants and agricultural workers in the general 
population is consistent with the view taken by several contemporaries 
that the agricultural price depression of 1820-50 was in part the result 
of local overproduction in a situation where sales of grains and pulses 
were limited by poor transport. 

The relationship of this process of social levelling to standards of 
living and the question of the subcontinent’s inheritance of rural 
poverty is a very complex question, and adequate data does not yet 
exist. The loss of by-incomes (soldiering, herding, etc.) and the effects 
of high revenues, famine and the price depressions must have gone a 
long way to eliminate any gains from the suppression of warfare and 
the expansion of export cash cropping. The relative bargaining power 
of rural wage labour must also have been reduced by the colonial 
state’s dislike of migration and the rebound of population in Bengal 
and the wet south from the travails of the famines and disturbances of 
1769-90. It may well be that there was no decisive trend upwards or 
downwards in rural standards of living in the early nineteenth century, 
though some peasants, cultivating opium or cotton, may have 
achieved prosperity amid this stagnation. 

Distinctions of function and status in the higher reaches of the 
agrarian hierarchy were also being eroded. In the south and west, 


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village élites had been clustered around village office — particularly the 
office of patel or headman. The headman had been a little king in the 
village and his control over waste land and revenue management made 
of him and his kinsmen much more than peasant ‘bosses’. The status of 
headman had already been modified in the later eighteenth century as 
Maratha and Mysorean officials had sought to limit his privileges. 
Headman’s right had also been monetised and sold to élites which 
sought shares in village management. Under colonial rule the press- 
ures on the headman lineages greatly increased. In parts of the Central 
Deccan by mid-century there had been general ‘abrogation of the 
rights of the Patel and his degradation to the level of the other cultiva- 
tors’.'¢ British officials had sometimes tried to purloin the rights of the 
headmen and had generally attempted to wrest from them control of 
village waste lands. But agricultural depression and population growth 
had similar effects. Patels’ remuneration was divided up generation by 
generation so that the receipt to the individual sharer in 33 villages in 
the Central Maratha Deccan was the paltry sum of Rs.15 per head. 
Other ancient ‘liberties’ given for the performance of caste or religious 
functions in the village and beyond had also been sudivided or eroded 
by time and the disinterest of European government. So while the total 
amount of land exempted from taxation on the grounds of ‘service’ 
may have been great enough to attract the attention of jealous adminis- 
trations throughout India in the 1840s, these perquisites were so 
widely scattered and so fragmented that they no longer provided the 
basis for a distinct rural service élite in many parts of the country. 
Even if there was some physical continuity of the families of the village 
magnates of 1800 through to the small group of ‘rich peasants’ of the 
second half of the nineteenth century, the nature and context of their 
power had changed. 

Other classes of village élite had also declined in status. It will be 
remembered that in parts of south India and throughout north India 
village élites based not on office-holding but on joint village proprie- 
torship had existed in the pre-colonial period. In the south these sta- 
tuses were termed mirasi and in the north they were represented by the 
village-controlling brotherhoods of Brahmins and Rajputs (pattidari 
or bhaiachara systems of landholding). While the political struggles of 
the eighteenth century had sometimes reinforced these associations for 

'6 Neil Charlesworth, Peasants and Imperial Rule. Agriculture and agrarian society in the 
Bombay Presidency, 1850-1935 (Cambridge, 1985), p. 27. 


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local security, especially in the north, strong states had tried to break 
them down. There is evidence that mirasi was already on the wane in 
Mysore under the sultans, while Mughal régimes in the north pre- 
ferred to deal with individual rajas and revenue-farmers rather than 
‘hornet’s nests’ of armed village leaders. Nevertheless, at the end of the 
eighteenth century what the British saw as joint-village proprietors 
held great power throughout India. Their power derived as much 
from their status as lords, warriors and protectors of the village shrines 
as from any simple notion of proprietorship. And in the same way 
their livelihood derived from military service and their rights over 
local service and artisan communities. 

The influence of these communities also tended to decline in the 
early nineteenth century and many of them were absorbed into the 
wider peasant body. The operation of the market was important here. 
In the south mirasi seems to have disappeared fastest in areas of 
expanding cash-crop production or in the environs of the great towns 
where such rights were marketed, split up and in time became simple 
free-hold types of property.’” In the north, the depression of the 1830s 
and 40s combined with British land-revenue policy to throw the rights 
of many of the village brotherhood communities on to the market. 
These communities were squeezed hard when prices fell, and now that 
their rights in the villages had been welded by the British to their ca- 
pacity to produce land revenue, arrears inevitably led to auction sales. 
Some of these rights found their way back into the hands of new pur- 
chasers of the same broad caste group. Yet thousands of families of old 
proprietors still suffered a decline both of income and, more import- 
ant, of status as they battled against the new landlords from outside the 
village or village group. 

Three other important influences on the position of the eighteenth- 
century village-controllers are relevant. First the effects of population 
pressure were felt very strongly. As the Hindu system of inheritance 
divided and subdivided proprietary rights and income, large sections 
of these communities had to fall back on their small plots of personal 
cultivation. In many cases, indeed, they were forced to cultivate with 
their own hands, something which they felt to be acutely derogatory 
to their dignity. Secondly, the decline of openings for military service 
with the advance of the British peace had a significant impact. In both 

17 See, e.g., Madras District Revenue Volumes, 1021-22 of 1817, extracted in Guide to the 
Records of Madras District from 1719-1835 (Madras, 1836). 


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south and north India, British rule had severed power in the villages 
from military service in the armies of overlords or of the distant 
Mughals. Groups such as the Bais Rajputs of Awadh or the Muslim 
Rohillas of the lands north of Delhi had served in Muslim armies from 
at least the fourteenth century, redirecting the profits of their service 
to the villages. It was this loss of status and political rights at village 
level, the experience of gradually being reduced to the status of the or- 
dinary peasant castes of the village, which was to be such a powerful 
incentive to revolt in 1857. 


British legal measures did not ‘create’ the Indian peasantry in a simple 
sense. They speeded and generalised changes which had gathered pace 
over centuries. Demand on foreign markets for Indian agricultural 
produce was an important stimulus to peasant commodity production 
and settled agriculture. So also was internal demand generated by slow 
population growth and the emergence of landlord and merchant 
groups since before colonial rule. Even amongst these landed élites, 
British social engineering was effective mainly where it went with the 
grain of indigenous social change. The British did, it is true, create a 
new type of property right in land by welding together existing forms 
of proprietary dominion with the obligation to pay the land revenue. 
Previously, failure to remit the state’s revenue might attract severe 
punishment but it had not led to the sale of the right of dominion on 
the open market as it did in the British revenue courts in Bengal and 
north India after the Permanent Settlement of 1793. In law the pro- 
prietor was now also armed with a more exclusive right which he could 
employ in a strong land market against non-occupancy and even occu- 
pancy tenants whose rights in the pre-colonial period had existed 
alongside with his own. Yet it remained the balance of local political 
power, the historical status, influence and resources of different lin- 
eages which still basically determined the outcome of the ensuing legal 
battles. On its own the possession of a piece of paper from a collector 
or revenue court did little more than swell many local battles to a 

Much scholarship has been directed over the last generation to 
showing that the creation of a wider market in land did not, in fact, 
bring about the far-reaching changes which British optimists or pessi- 


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mistic nationalists thought they saw. In north India where powerful 
and well-entrenched bodies of peasant landholders existed, land rights 
sold to moneylenders and outside speculators usually found their way 
back into the hands of the same caste and clan groups. While individual 
families might have suffered the loss of income and status, the great 
bodies of Jats, Rajputs or Brahmins who controlled the villages still 
clung on tenaciously even in the mid-nineteenth century. In Bengal, 
where the Permanent Settlement and subsequent land sales were 
thought to have decimated the zamindars, there was a proliferation of 
smaller estates owned by literate men or indigo magnates. However, 
the most powerful of the eighteenth-century agrarian superiors had 
recouped their losses and emerged as an élite of rentier landlords in 
Calcutta or Dacca by the 1840s. In the south, communal forms of 
agrarian management tended to decline as the individual peasant pro- 
prietor was recognised in law under the ryotwari system. But there 
had already been a vigorous market in shares in village management 
before British rule and the tougher agricultural communities were 
physically much the same in 1750 as in 1850. 

In the same way the losers in the early nineteenth century were 
those with fewer means to control agricultural production through 
force or kin connections, and their position had been as vulnerable in 
the pre-colonial kingdoms. In north and central India Muslim and 
Islamised Hindu writer or service communities were sometimes dis- 
possessed by land sales because their links to the new colonial state 
were weak. Holt Mackenzie in one of the most over-quoted remarks 
in the colonial record spoke of the ‘melancholy revolution’ in landed 
property under colonial rule. He was perhaps thinking of small 
Muslim landed proprietors near Delhi who had flourished on the ser- 
vice of the Mughal and post-Mughal régimes but had little access to 
the new white raj. Otherwise, it was the old intermediary magnates — 
the mamlatdars or agrarian managers in western India or the more 
intractable warrior chieftains from among the poligars of the south 
who failed to adjust to the new imperial dispensation. There had been 
much attrition among such groups in the eighteenth century also. 

A more subtle and pervasive change was in the spirit of the colonial 
administration and the definition of Indian aristocracy. Though even 
here it is possible to underestimate the degree of movement towards 
commercial and pragmatic land management in the eighteenth cen- 
tury, and to overestimate its progress in the nineteenth. Still, the 


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capacity to mobilise followers through the politics of the camp and 
court, the importance of parochial alliance and faction, of fortune, 
gesture, nuance and slight was diminished. Kingliness and the distri- 
bution of honours became less important and less practicable, while 
‘economy’ and ‘good management’ were the measure of success for the 
dependent princes and the landlords of the British territories.’® 
Eighteenth-century magnates (such as the rajas of Bharatpur) had 
sometimes sought to create armies and scribal classes from foreigners 
at the expense of overmighty kinsmen. In the nineteenth century 
zamindars tried more and more often to expel from privileged land- 
holdings kinsmen and caste fellows, who would previously have 
formed the core of their political influence, in order to substitute more 
amenable and ‘productive’ cultivators from lower castes. Royalty, 
royal arbitration and royal sacrifice had come to play a less creative 
part in the organisation of the Indian social order, a change which was 
abruptly reinforced when the Rebellion of 1857 revealed the moral and 
ideological bankruptcy of the old leadership. The physical — almost 
biological — continuity of the old order into the colonial period should 
not obscure the new sources of power which colonial landlords com- 
manded and the radically changed context in which they used it. The 
pressures of colonial administration and the world market had frac- 
tured the unity of the local kin-based land-controlling corporations 
(such as the north Indian pargana). 

As rural magnates were subtly transformed into ‘mere’ landholders, 
the réle of the literate specialist and merchant also changed. Adminis- 
trative families had continued their surreptitious accumulations of 
power throughout the eighteenth century, though many were over- 
turned in political storms. Persian-knowing gentry from the small 
towns and cities of north India found service under the new dynasts of 
the eighteenth century in the environs of Murshidabad, the Muslim 
towns of the Deccan and Vellore, Arcot or Madras. Further from the 
Muslim heartlands of the north even self-consciously Muslim mon- 
archs were forced to rely on members of the Hindu literate castes. 
Tamil administrative Brahmins served in the Mysore of Haidar Ali and 
Tipu Sultan, as well as in the Hindu state of Travancore. Chitpavan, 
Nagar and Saraswat Brahmins in western India secured an important 

'8 See e.g., Pamela Price, ‘Resources and rule in zamindari south India, 1802-1903: 
Sivaganga and Ramnad as kingdoms under the Raj’, unpub. Ph.D. diss., University of 
Wisconsin, Madison, 1979. 


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share in the power and perquisites of the Maratha kingdoms. Some- 
times such clerical and administrative families were rewarded with 
grants of land or purchased rights in village management or revenue 
farms. Sometimes they went further to convert such rights into heredi- 
tary zamindaris as they had done around the small towns of the north. 
But many famous families found the going rough in the conditions of 
political flux. The famous Bara Sayyid families of the districts north of 
Delhi were largely dispossessed of their land rights after 1730. In the 
south the Muslim Navatyit clan which had once served in the Deccan 
kingdoms and controlled the Nawabi of Arcot, were reduced in 
influence by the rise of Mahomed Ali Wailajah and the Hyderabad 
state in the second half of the eighteenth century. 

British rule also induced much change among the service communi- 
ties. For those which survived the rewards were great. Since British 
rule expanded out from commercial Calcutta and it was Hindu entre- 
preneurial families who served the British as banians, it was they who 
cashed in on British expansion. Higher caste Bengalis were already 
entrenched in up-river cities such as Patna, Benares, Agra and Delhi 
before 1850, serving the colonial administration as mint-masters, 
commissaries and subordinate officials in the courts. By contrast the 
predominantly Muslim service families of Murshidabad or Dacca 
tended to lose influence and slowly forfeit their land-rights. In the 
south Tamil and Telugu Brahmins moved into British service with ala- 
crity. They accompanied British armies and administrators to Ceylon 
(after 1796) and Malaya and Singapore (after 1819), while maintaining 
their role in the administration of the Deccan states. In several parts of 
India, notably Bengal and the North-Western Provinces, government 
servants seized the opportunity of the disorganised and harsh British 
land-revenue settlements of the years 1793 to 1830 to buy their way 
into rentier landholding, stabilising a social position which had been 
dangerously exposed under the indigenous régimes. | 

Yet once again the spirit of Western administration wrought subtle 
changes. Large areas of moral and religious adjudication which had 
once fallen to the lot of the literate service people were now severed 
from the utilitarian colonial administration. Muslim shariat law and 
Hindu customary jurisdiction were formalised in codes and pushed to 
the edge of the legal and administrative system. Notions of largesse 
and gifts for service succumbed to European concerns for financial 
rectitude and educational qualification. Rational systems of legal and 


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administrative thought and the commercialisation of government 
were, of course, features of the immediate pre-colonial realms. How- 
ever, under the British, ‘training’ of civil servants became a concern. 
After the abolition of Persian in 1835 and its replacement with English 
in the higher reaches of government business the mystique of the old 
scribal order was slowly undermined. 

On the face of it, the indigenous merchant community were the 
great beneficiaries of the Western impact. In the early days of the 
conquest Indian moneylenders consolidated the hold over state and 
military finance which they had gained during the previous era. 
Bankers stepped in to finance the heavy demand for revenue in the 
North-Western Provinces (1800-1818), in the Central Provinces and 
Maharashtra (1818-30) and notably in Baroda (1805-20). The great 
flows of merchant people to new centres of trade intensified. Marwaris 
from Rajasthan drifted into north India and Bengal. Gujaratis con- 
tinued to move to the growing metropolis of Bombay. Tamil Muslims, 
Hindu Chetties and Christian Paravas financed south-east Asian trade 
and the pearl fisheries of the Ceylon coast. At the same time, the heavy 
bias in English law and the revised ‘Hindoo’ Law in favour of contract 
and private property in land favoured commercial men who were re- 
leased from the fear of forced levy which hung over many during 
indigenous régimes. Some acquired large bundles of land rights, 
especially in north India during the depression of the 1830s. A 
symbiosis developed between rentier landlordship and usury capital 
which possibly impeded the emergence of true capitalism in the 

While monied men achieved new influence in the countryside col- 
onial rule acted as a straitjacket on many commercial operations. 
Indian capital was slowly squeezed out of ship-owning and ship- 
building and restricted in all export trade by the inaccessiblity of tech- 
nology, world-market information, finance and insurance. The 
European agency houses maintained a strong hold over the command- 
ing heights of the colonial economy in the great coastal centres of 
Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Even before 1860 merchants in 
Ahmedabad, where European influence was less constricting, had 
made a start in the development of cotton manufacturing. But against 
this success was set the failure of the modernising attempts of Calcutta 
merchants such as Dwarkanath Tagore who fought the Europeans 
with their own weapons but found themselves unable to enter the club 
of the creditworthy. The early-nineteenth-century ‘Age of the Bania’ 


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did not signal the birth of modern Indian capitalism because ultimately 
it was difficult for entrepreneurs to flourish against the background of 
an economy in which growth was so fragile. 


The richness and variety of Indian social and religious life makes it dif- 
ficult to generalise about change under colonial rule. It is seductively 
easy to reduce complex matters of faith and interpretation to simple 
reflections of social and economic change, or intellectual ‘modernis- 
ation’. Yet the broad social trends which have been discussed in this 
chapter did hold implications for the definition and operation of caste 
and for the practice of the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jain religions 
as they evolved during the nineteenth century. The consolidation of 
peasant society and its epochal defeat of the India of the nomad, the 
soldier and the tribesman set the scene for the emergence of a more 
stratified and more rigid system of castes and more homogenous re- 
ligious practice within all the main communities. The literate and 
monied townsmen whose security was greatly strengthened in the first 
generation of colonial rule found much to attract them in the rationali- 
stic type of spiritual teaching which was already established within all 
the main religious traditions. It was in the context of well-developed 
indigenous movements of reform and practical reconstitution of re- 
ligious organisation that some Indians felt the influence of Christi- 
anity and Western rationalist and positivist thought. 

Neither Victorian writers on empire nor contemporary historical 
anthropologists have given sufficient weight to these material and 
moral transformations of pre-colonial society. For the evangelicals 
and utilitarians of the 1820s and 30s the rigid, traditional caste system 
and superstitious or bigoted Indian religions were on the point of dis- 
solution, buffeted as they were thought to be by the winds of indi- 
vidual conscience and scientific thought. Marx and the first generation 
of socialists saw the same process but made it a material one. For them 
the basis of caste was the cellular and hereditary nature of the village 
economy which would soon be blown apart by the railways and Lan- 
cashire exports. But the picture was essentially the same, for they also 
considered that Indian society had undergone no significant social 
change before British rule. 


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Some modern writers have almost seemed to turn this argument on 
its head. Pre-colonial caste and religious practice for them was fluid, 
eclectic and uncodified. Families could change their caste ranking in 
quite short periods of time; degraded liquor distillers might serve 
armies, become revenue managers and even landlords, elevating their 
caste status in the meantime. Traditional India was not a rigid society. 
It was British rule which made it so, codifying many localised and 
pragmatic customs into a unified and Brahminised ‘Hindoo Law’ and 
classing people into immutable castes through the operation of the 
courts and ethnographical surveys. Colonial society was seeing a 
mirror image of itself when it understood Indian society as rigid and 

A more realistic picture than either of these would give weight to 
deep-rooted social changes and conflicts of interpretation within 
Indian society itself. Hierarchical application of caste which stressed 
the great gulf between the pure and the polluted and the immutability 
of caste boundaries and lifestyles were long established at the ancient 
centres of Hindu scholarship in India where Brahmins clustered in 
numbers and a constant process of textual recension and interpretation 
went on. Tanjore, Benares and the newer centre of Nadia in central 
Bengal were all places where the high philosophical traditions of Hin- 
duism prevailed and notions of purity and pollution were expected to 
define social life. Indian normative codes and the descriptions of 
travellers suggest that life in the ancient agricultural areas dominated 
by these religious centres was, in fact, conducted according to prin- 
ciples of purity, pollution, endogamy and hierarchy. In the last cen- 
turies before colonial rule the growing power of Brahmins and scribal 
people and the desire of new dynasties to legitimate themselves in 
terms of orthodoxy ensured that this was a powerful tradition in the 
process of constant reinvention. And it was from the adepts of this tra- 
dition at Nadia in particular that H. T. Colebrooke derived the 
material and the ideology which was to form the basis of his Hindu law 
code prepared for the use of Warren Hastings’s neo-traditional admin- 
istration in Bengal. 

Yet while most areas of the subcontinent, including the tribal 
fringes, were aware of the hierarchical and Brahminical interpretation 
of the universe and responded to it in their own rituals and daily life, 
there were still in the eighteenth century powerful ideologies working 
against hierarchy and rigid caste boundaries. Where such ideologies 


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were fused with expanding movements of peasant colonisation or sup- 
ported by the sharing and decentralised styles of life of tribal people 
and nomads, Brahmins were peripheral and the social system ex- 
tremely malleable and inclusive. Here notions of pollution and purity 
were at a discount. The ideology and social organisation of settled 
Hindu society was powerful and adaptable. But a precondition for its 
expansion to encompass the whole subcontinent was the defeat by the 
state and the peasant economy of alternative styles of living which 
were still powerful, and in places still expansive in 1800. 

The hierarchies of kings and priests were not very influential where 
Hindu devotional religion (bhakti) had spread among egalitarian rural 
brotherhoods. Devotion to the deity (sometimes a form of Shiva but 
more often Vishnu in the form of Krishna) did not necessarily imply 
equality in this life. In their second and third generations bhakti move- 
ments often became temple- and ritual-centred. But where they suf- 
fused a society composed of groups of warrior landholders who made 
wide-ranging marriage alliances among rural castes of roughly equal 
esteem, Brahminical ritual and rigidity were marginal or inappro- 
priate. The Sikhs were a good example of such a group, though their 
faith was formally distinct from Hinduism. The Sikhs believed that the 
line of their gurus preaching service of god had ended in the seven- 
teenth century. Religious authority inhered in the sacred scriptures, 
the guru Granth Sahib. There was less room for the development of a 
formal hierarchy equivalent to Brahminism, though Brahmins were 
sometimes enlisted on the fringes of Sikh society to confer blessing in 
the ritual of everyday life. Similar attitudes prevailed among the Kunbi 
peasants of western India who filled the Maratha war bands. Even 
after 1720, when Chitpavan Brahmins enhanced their power within 
the Maratha states, the Maratha warriors and peasantry clung to many 
tribal features. Women were freer in their camps; Kunbis continued to 
marry other closely related peasant castes, and Shaiva bhakti devotion 
transcended the divisions of social life. 

In the early nineteenth century, however, the spirit of hierarchy and 
ritual distinction became more pervasive. The British peace speeded 
the rise of high Hindu kingship, Brahminism and the advance of prin- 
ciples of purity and pollution in the countryside. Writer and adminis- 
trative communities such as the Kayasths of north and central India 
now served in British and not Muslim administrations and began to 
aspire to a more Brahminical style of life, throwing off what were now 


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seen as degrading Muslim and lower-caste habits such as the drinking 
of ‘wine’ and extravagant marriage customs. Pastoralist and tribal 
communities lost status, as we have seen, becoming amalgamated with 
low-caste village service communities as the market for agricultural 
labour developed. The great agriculturalist castes also appear to have 
become less permeable and more internally divided themselves. The 
Jats around Delhi began to prohibit the practice of taking concubines 
from women of other similar agricultural castes; following their rajas, 
many senior families began to seclude their women and adopt complex 
rules for marriage. Rural Rajput clans who had been exogamous or 
even in some cases had married with lower-caste military people (such 
as the Pasis in Awadh) to enhance their power had become endoga- 
mous by the mid-nineteenth century. Princely lineage replaced the 
war-band as the focus for Rajput loyalty or pride. 

So hierarchy and the Brahmin interpretation of Hindu society 
which was theoretical rather than actual over much of India as late as 
1750 was firmly ensconced a century later. The reasons for this were 
complex. Population growth emphasised the need to control land by 
the exclusion of rivals rather than control of people by incorporating 
them from many different backgrounds. The expansion after 1800 of 
pre-colonial cities and merchant people encouraged the search for 
status and security which often took the form of a nice emphasis on 
caste distinction. The British indirectly stimulated such changes. Early 
officials began the process of ranking and grading the Indian social 
order in an attempt to understand and control it. So James Tod’s neo- 
Gothic extravaganza, The Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (1829- 
32) itself became a reference book for the princes of that region in 
history and marriage customs. In the same way British law began to 
dispense to all castes and communities the high Brahminical and schol- 
arly traditions derived from the seminaries of Nadia or Tanjore. Yet 
the colonialists did not create this interpretation of India; rather they 
speeded up and transformed social and ideological changes which were 
already in train. 

Much has been written to show how Christian, deistic and rational 
ideas transformed the interpretation of Hindu religion in the early 
nineteenth century. Reform movements such as the Brahmo Samaj and 
its opponents, or later the Arya Samaj, were no doubt an important 
influence in the creation of ‘secular’, rationalistic, modern India. But 
the missionary and utilitarian critique of Hinduism, which became 


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more bitter after 1813, had the effect of concealing here also the vitality 
of developments which arose from within the three main categories of 
Hindu religious activity — ritual, devotion to god, and the recension of 
knowledge — and which were often only lightly influenced by the 

Centres of knowledge continued to flourish throughout India and 
their texts and ideologies were adapted by the colonial courts and codi- 
fiers. Ritual, the way to salvation through acts of piety and worship, 
benefited from the expansion of pilgrimage along with travel and trade 
in the nineteenth century. Pilgrimage to Benares, Gaya or Tirupati had 
remained strong in the eighteenth century, but the British abolition of 
‘pilgrim taxes’ and easier transport redoubled the flow. Brahmins and 
high Brahminical ritual introduced by eighteenth-century rulers such 
as the rajas of Travancore or the poligars, spread in the protected states 
of the nineteenth century for whom conspicuous piety replaced war- 
fare as the chief charge on state revenues. New men who built up their 
fortunes through the service of the British invested in elaborate death 
anniversary ceremonies (shraddhas) in rural Bengal, while many of the 
great temples of Madras were renovated and expanded in the vivid 
styles of the early nineteenth century. 

Movements of ecstatic devotion, especially those connected with 
the worship of Lord Vishnu and his avatars (secondary manifes- 
tations), also proliferated, softening these tendencies to more hierar- 
chical religious practice. The great age of devotional movements had 
been the central years of the Mughal empire. These were the years 
when rural Bengal had been entranced by the teaching of Chaitanya 
who disparaged caste and ritual, stressing the need for individual ab- 
sorption in god. Comparable movements centred on Krishna’s fabled 
homelands around Muttra and Ajodhya in north India and flourished 
in the Tanjore delta. During the eighteenth century such movements 
passed from an expansive, preaching phase to a period of consoli- 
dation. Those which had created corporate monastic-style institutions 
were well placed to ride the disturbances of the period. Bodies of Shai- 
vite and Vaishnavite ascetics, loosely known as Bairagis or Gosains, 
contributed powerfully to the survival of inter-regional trade since 
they also functioned as armed mercenaries. At the turn of the nine- 
teenth century, fortified with corporate wealth and properties in fast- 
expanding urban land markets, they were strongly entrenched in the 
Hindu life of the colonial towns. 


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One important sect of this sort were the Ramanandis, followers of 
Rama (Vishnu) who apparently came to prominence in Nepal and 
Rajasthan during the seventeenth century. In the following century 
they secured considerable patronage from local rulers including the 
Muslim nawabs of Awadh, at whose court they operated as ‘skilful 
courtiers’ according to Buchanan.'? Firmly based at Ajodhya and 
Muttra, they expanded their influence in the early colonial period 
among the pious mercantile and service élites of the towns, whose 
spiritual guides they became. Ramanandis spread the use of the Hindi 
translation of the great epic the Ramayana of the poet Tulsi Das. They 
emphasised frugality and moderation. They rejected caste distinctions 
sufficiently to spread their faith amongst the poor and low caste; and 
‘many of the heads of the minor sections are drawn from the class of 
menials’.”° Overall their influence tended to spread the polite, un- 
ostentatious Hinduism of the merchant and literate classes rather than 
to accomplish an egalitarian revival. Well-suited to the colonial milieu, 
Ramanandis received the approval of their British rulers and indirectly 
supported them in return. From the earliest period members of the 
merchant castes and respectable artisans had supported movements of 
spiritual discipline which emphasised sobriety of conduct and equality 
in spiritual matters. Their ambivalence about rank and caste in this 
world made it possible for them to make their peace with the society 
around them and function as quiet, productive communities. Despite 
wide differences in theology, Buddhists, Jains, Nanakshahi Sikhs, 
Charan Dasis and Ramanandis always had this in common. Sectarian 
life styles like this developed readily in the context of the slow urbanis- 
ation and growth of the commercial economy which was taking place 
under the Mughals. Their tenets of sobriety, orderly householding 
and commercial rectitude flourished in colonial India too, making as 
significant a contribution to the way the modern Indian middle classes 
think as did the more spectacular borrowings from Western rational- 
ism and positivism. 

Many other representatives of the devotional tradition within Hin- 
duism, and movements distantly associated with Sikhism such as the 
Nanakshahis, quietly developed and consolidated themselves during 
the transition to colonial rule. Yet the classic case of the flowering of 

'? Buchanan, in Montgomery Martin (ed.), The History... and Statistics of Eastern India 
(London, 1838), ii, 485. 

20 W. Crooke, The North-Western Provinces of India (1897, new. edn. Karachi, 1972), p. 
255. ; 


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indigenous movements of religious revitalisation in the colonial con- 
text is probably that of the Satya Narayanis of Gujarat (c. 1780-1830). 
Swami Narayan, the founder, rejected many aspects of Brahminism 
and ritual, preaching an austere form of Vaishnavite devotion which 
had earned the displeasure of the then Maratha rulers. In the early 
years of colonial rule Swami Narayan became connected with a 
number of educated men of the towns of Bombay and Surat who for- 
malised his teachings into a few simple principles and circulated them 
in printed form throughout the Bombay Presidency. The Swami 
Narayan sect dismissed caste as irrelevant to the soul’s status before 
God. In practice caste distinctions remained visible among them 
though reduced in complexity. Most interesting, though, was the 
sect’s role in helping to suppress tribal and low-caste forms of religion 
which persisted on the warrior and nomadic fringes of the society of 
Gujarat. Swami Narayan condemned animal sacrifice, feasting and 
fire-walking ceremonies. His reclamation for a purified Vaishnavism 
of warriors and plunderers attracted the approval of the British who 
applauded ‘the recovery of thousands of these unfortunate men to be 
found throughout Gujarat, whose means of subsistence were equally 
lawless and precarious’.?' The Satya Narayanis attempted to settle new 
converts in standard agricultural communities around their temples. 
They were thus acting as an integral part of the process of creating col- 
onial India, but they derived their inspiration from social and religious 
forms prior to and outside the colonial milieu. 

At an even lower point in the Hindu ritual scale, the Chamars of 
Central India (perhaps 12 per cent of the population in several 
districts) were becoming cultivators by clearing jungle. Their transfor- 
mation from village menial and scavenger to peasant was accompanied 
by a spiritual transformation by the Satnami or Raidasi sect. The tea- 
chers of this devotional religion forbade ritual and images and empha- 
sised monotheism and frugality. The Satnamis were ‘no longer 
weighed down by a sense of inferiority ... the Satnami holds together 
and resists all attempts from other castes to reassert their traditional 
domination over them’.”” 

None of the developments mentioned here was a simple process of 
change. In the same local society new priestly hierarchies and ritual 
centres could grow concurrently with devotional sects. Magical cults 

21H. G. Briggs, The cities of Gujarashtra (Bombay, 1849), p. 238. 
22 Balfour, Cyclopaedia, ii, 145, ‘Chamar’. 


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of blood sacrifice might persist in the midst of communities devoted to 
pious vegetarianism. Incorporation and accommodation rather than 
the annihilation of one set of practices by another was the method of 
change within Hinduism, so that paradoxes abounded. In the south 
the devotional worship of the great gods of the Hindu pantheon con- 
tinued to gain adherents by merging with the cults of local blood- 
drinking goddesses in a symbolic form of marriage. In Bengal worship 
of the Mother Goddess in her aspect of dangerous power (shakti) 
actually expanded in the eighteenth century. Fierce debates took place 
with the quietist Vaishnavites of the countryside who disliked ritual 
and blood sacrifice. Against this shifting background most families 
managed some kind of accommodation. In one shakta subcaste the 
fierce goddess continued to receive her annual sacrifice, but it was 
severed cucumbers and not goats which were offered up to her in 
deference to Vaishnavite devotionalism. The proper context for the 
Christian and rationalistic impact of the early nineteenth century was 
therefore the vitality and not the decadence of Hindu (and Muslim) re- 
ligion in India. 

Yet while Western rationalism had only a limited impact on Hindu 
thought and practice before 1850, its importance for the future should 
not be underestimated. Here Calcutta was the crucible of change, 
though Bombay and Madras also had societies for religious reform 
before 1850. Warren Hastings’s desire to master India through an un- 
derstanding of her languages and scriptures was accompanied by the 
publication of Halhed’s Grammar of the Bengalee Language in 1778. 
In 1781 the Calcutta Madrassa was founded. Wellesley’s Fort William 
College, designed for the education of civil servants, published Hindu 
works of mythology and scripture as did the Hindu Sanskrit College 
(founded 1821). This encouraged their teachers such as Mritanjay 
Vidyalankar to refine and question their own view of India’s past. The 
need for a written redefinition of the nature of Hinduism became 
pressing after 1800 when a Baptist missionary complex was founded at 
the Danish Settlement of Serampore under the forceful leadership of 
William Carey. Evangelical missions of the Church of England and 
other denominations became more active after 1813 when the revision 
of the East India Company’s charter allowed missionaries to gain freer 
access to its territories. The arrival of Bentinck in 1828, openly com- 
mitted to humanitarian reform, seemed to confirm the arrival of the 
millennium of conversion. 


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Indian reaction to these changes was complex. Some, like the icono- 
clastic Michael Derozio and his followers, abused and mocked Hindu 
and Muslim religion. Derozio himself later became a nominal Chris- 
tian. More important is what might be called the neo-orthodox 
school, represented by men such as Vidyalankar who criticised both 
the missionaries and Indian reformers who attacked Hindu customs. 
Collecting and publishing Hindu texts and justifying a purified form 
of caste on the basis of the divine nature of the Vedas and Puranas, 
such men were an important influence on the future form of Hindu 
orthodoxy. This anti-reformist school, for instance, collected nearly 
50,000 signatures and assembled in the Dharma Sabha (Divine Society) 
to oppose Bentinck’s ordinance of 1829 in which widow-burning was 
finally declared illegal. 

Between these poles were the moderate reformers exemplified above 
all by Ram Mohun Roy who founded the Brahmo Samaj (Society for 
the Transcendent Deity) in 1818. Alongside him must be set Deben- 
dranath Tagore, scion of one of Bengal’s most important commercial 
families, who fostered the Samaj until it became a critical influence on 
the life of Calcutta’s emerging intelligentsia. Indigenous influences 
were not lacking in the beliefs of the Samaj. Apart from the influence 
of the monastic philosophy of the seventh-century Hindu sage Shank- 
aracharya, Ram Mohun’s first published work echoed the rationalistic 
style of argument of contemporary Muslim thinkers on the excellence 
of monotheism. Amongst later Brahmo Samajists the tolerant de- 
votional traditions of Bengal bhakti were evident, particularly after 
1850 when the movement began to spread to country towns. Again, 
many Bengali Brahmos failed to abandon caste and traditional mar- 
riage practices as its founder stipulated, especially in the second and 
third generation as the movement became something more like a tra- 
ditional Bengali sect. 

All the same there is no doubting the critical importance of Western 
notions in the practice and belief of the Brahmos and like-minded 
Bengalis. The responsibility of the individual soul, the imminence of 
God (a train of thought which owed much to English Deism), the 
irrelevance of caste and the possibility of achieving salvation through 
rational knowledge of the divine were all themes taken up and devel- 
oped. Comte’s positivism, Mill’s emphasis on political as well as social 
liberation, the ethics of Christ — these revelations powerfully shaped 
the mind of Calcutta’s reformers. 


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Similar developments took place in Bombay and Madras. Radical 
reformers gathered around the Elphinstone Institution in Bombay 
(1827) and a number of clubs devoted to religious reform were con- 
vened especially within the consciously modern Parsi community. 
Even in orthodox Poona pamphlets were written denouncing the 
abuse of the caste system in terms which were reminiscent of the as- 
sault on privilege during the French revolution.”? Orthodox counter- 
reaction was also fierce. In Madras there were riots against missionary 
conversions by the Church of Scotland in 1843. More seriously, the 
Government’s decision in the same year to withdraw from protection 
of Hindu temples on the ground that this was fostering ‘heathenism’ 
was taken as a direct sign of missionary success. There were riots and 
demonstrations throughout the Presidency associated with a self- 
protection association known as the Sacred Ash Society (after the 
sacred ash smeared on devotees of the god Shiva). 

A balanced view of the Indian reformers of the early nineteenth cen- 
tury would need to take account of their adaptation of Western 
methods of argument and education, the creation of an educated 
public and of a historical interpretation of India’s past — and future. 
Yet it is striking how limited was the social vision and social impact of 
these stirrings. Partly, no doubt, this was because the reformers hailed 
from an embattled élite whose dynamism, economic and moral, was 
constricted by the colonial situation. It was the British who controlled 
schools, banks and public offices. At the same time religious rational- 
ism and freemasonry, debated often in Sanskrit and English, was un- 
likely to find echoes in a society which saw its moral future either in 
the spread of hierarchy and ancient righteousness, or in movements of 
simple devotion to godhead. 

Actually, the most successful social reformers of the 1830s and 40s 
were Muslims, for they were able to elaborate a rationalistic system of 
religious education and take advantage of the consolidation of a strati- 
fied peasantry and a colonial urban élite. Before 1860 the influence of 
Western thought was quite limited. Some teachers at the Delhi College 
taught European literature and science. By 1840 they had trained up 
several dozen young Muslims, and had influenced scores of others 
who spoke English and took positions in government service. But the 
Muslim public was indifferent or hostile to them. For a time a social 

23 O’Hanlon, Caste, conflict and ideology, chapter 3. 


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boycott was enforced against the pupils who attended the Delhi 
English College for Boys which was an associate of the College.** 
There were also small groups of modernist Muslims who applied the 
methods of textual criticism to the Koran developed at the Calcutta 
Madrassa. In Madras Edward Balfour, surgeon general and an eminent 
orientalist, founded the Mahomedan Literary Association in 1852.7° 

Of much greater importance in shaping Muslim attitudes was the 
flowering of a range of purist movements which had emerged during 
the eighteenth century in north India, reflecting a much wider spirit of 
godly reform throughout the Islamic world. Three strands were im- 
portant here. First there were the teachers belonging to the Chishti 
Sufi order who preached their message of submission to God to the 
Muslims of the Punjab countryside. Secondly, there was the stream of 
reform associated with teachers of the Naqshbandiya order in Delhi, 
notably Shah Walliullah and his son Shah Abdul Aziz; these men 
opposed unorthodox religious practice and the revivified Shia sect. 
Third, the philosophical and learned tradition of the Lucknow semin- 
ary, Firangi Mahal, was incorporated into a new educational syllabus 
(the Darz-i-Nizamiya) which was propagated throughout India 
during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

These movements varied to such an extent that it is dangerous to see 
them as a single stream of revitalisation. Much of the success of the 
Chishtis in the Punjab, for instance, derived from their more accom- 
modating stance towards the worship of saints,?° which was a feature 
of rural society. By comparison some Delhi teachers denounced saint 
worship, propagating a strict monotheism. Yet there were common 
features. All these movements reacted both against the eclecticism of 
the Mughal ruling class and the loss of Muslim political power in the 
eighteenth century. Shah Waliullah and his followers wished to purge 
Muslim practice of lax habits which he thought had become more 
common as Hindus and Shias (always regarded as more latitudinarian 
by Sunnis) achieved power at the declining Mughal court. All these tra- 
ditions also had indirect links with the schools of the central Islamic 

24 Shahamat Ali, Sikhs and Afghans, preface, p. ix. 

25S. N. Khalandar (Suhrawady), ‘The development of Urdu Language and Literature in 
Tamil Nad from 1745 to 1960’, unpub. M.Litt. diss., University of Madras, 1960, pp. 59- 

26M. Zameeruddin Siddiqui, ‘The resurgence of the Chishti Silislah in the Punjab during 
the eighteenth century’, Proceedings of the Indian Historical Congress, 1970 (Delhi, 1971), 
pp. 408-20. 


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lands in Mecca, Medina and Cairo where a thoroughgoing reinterpre- 
tation of law and tradition was in progress. A spiritual and social self- 
strengthening was called for. Shah Abdul Aziz in particular 
emphasised that political regeneration could only follow a regener- 
ation of Islam in society. 

This regeneration sought to find a new balance between different 
aspects of Muslim belief and knowledge. An attempt was made to 
bring together mosque- and school-centred religion with the esoteric 
knowledge of the Sufi sects. The practice of multiple ordination of 
learned men into Sufi orders had already grown in popularity in 
eighteenth-century Delhi. This bringing together of the two idioms 
would make it easier to purge sufism of its saint worship, reform the 
Shia festival of Muhurram and discountenance other festivals and 
dancing which displayed polytheistical features. The emphasis was on 
purging, for the Muslim reformers (often called the Tariq-i- 
Muhammadiya) did not wish wholly to extirpate Sufi belief as did their 
contemporaries the Wahhabis of Arabia with whom they were er- 
roneously compared. Finally, much of the new teaching and literature 
sought to hold up the life of the Prophet Muhammad as an exemplar to 
all Muslims. Around this symbol of spiritual power the faithful could 
draw together. 

In propagating these themes the Islamic reformers reached out 
beyond the learned and élite in a manner impossible for the bhadralog 
intelligentsia of Hindu Calcutta. They found a ready audience among 
common people seeking dignity and righteousness in a period of social 
dislocation. The charismatic teaching of Abdul Aziz’s confrére, 
Sayyid Ahmed of Rai Bareilly, attracted Muslims of artisan caste in 
declining weaving towns such as Allahabad, Mau, and Patna. Fortified 
by a strong sense of corporate identity weavers in the towns of the 
Deccan and even weaving centres such as Melapalaiyam in the Tamil 
country gave support to local variants of the reformist message. 
Muslim preachers were particularly successful in taking the offensive 
where a sense of social unease was compounded by the appearance of 
Christian missionaries and Western schools, as in Agra during the 

Rural people also turned to Muslim revitalisation and reform move- 
ments. On the North-East Frontier hill tribesmen, disturbed by the 
simultaneous appearance of plains Hindu moneylenders and the Bri- 
tish army, sought a millennial Muslim kingdom in the 1820s. More or- 


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thodox reformist messages were taken up in east Bengal during the 
Faraizi movement of the following decade, which emphasised the fun- 
damental importance of the Koran. While this and similar movements 
in Bengal attracted support from rural religious teachers, artisans and 
petty landlords, the substantial Muslim yeoman farmer (the jotedar) 
seems to have been heavily represented in them. Jotedar conflicts with 
Hindu landlords during the 1830s and 40s introduced a sense of social 
rivalry into religious debate, and the rhetoric of spiritual reform was 
sometimes accompanied by denunciation of the rent and revenue 

Yet these strands never fused into anything like popular revolt 
against landlords or the colonial rulers. The emphasis was on sobriety 
and respectability and many subordinate government servants who 
were to play a loyalist role during the 1857 revolt were influenced by 
notions of an inward cleansing. Thus though Shah Abdul Aziz of 
Delhi issued religious pronouncements in which he castigated Chris- 
tians and unbelievers, the general tendency of his teaching was to en- 
courage Muslims to behave as if India were still a society in which 
Islam could be freely practiced. The more militant Sayyid Ahmed who 
fought the Sikhs in religious war between 1829 and 1831 declared that 
his movement was ‘never meant simply to be a revolt’, and his attitude 
to the colonial authorities was ambiguous. In fact where the British 
did uncover ‘Wahhabi’ conspiracies as in the Pathan State of Kurnool 
in the Carnatic or in Patna in the 18508, this seems usually to have been 
a rationalisation of their own suspicions of reformed Islam and pro- 
vided little evidence of political purpose. 

The international aspect of pan-Islamic reform and its literacy has 
obscured the importance of other indigenous traditions within Indian 
Islam. In fact, the Islam of saints, of regional languages and of syncre- 
tic practices was equally vital during this period. The purist reformers 
viewed it with some suspicion, yet its influence on the beliefs and wor- 
ship of most Indian Muslims was even more profound than theirs. The 
boundary between the reformers and expansive local cults is difficult 
to draw. The Chishti teachers of the Punjab, for instance, wished to 
reform the practice of eighteenth-century Punjabis to prepare them 
for struggle with Sikhs and other infidels. Yet their preference for the 
doctrine of the immanence of God encouraged the development of 
saint worship at their tombs. The manner in which the great Jat landed 
clans encouraged commonality across the boundaries of religion 


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meant that many Hindus worshipped at these festivals and fairs. In the 
1850s the incoming British continued the policy of Maharaja Ranjit 
Singh who had sought to attach powerful Muslim shrines to the Sikh 
kingdom through grants of land and immunities. Far from falling back 
in the face of purist onslaughts the fame of many Sufi saints through- 
out India flowered with the development of communications and set- 
tled agricultural society. The greatest of the shrines, that of Sheikh 
Muin-uddin Chishti of Ajmer received large donations from the 
Marathas as well as the eighteenth-century Muslim kingdoms. Later 
the Company stabilised the trade routes through Ajmer on which the 
shrine thrived. The religion here propagated was prayer for the inter- 
cession of the saint to relieve men from their sins and disease, women 
from barrenness. The method was ecstatic possession by the saint, the 
use of talismans and amulets.’” In south India the nawabs of Arcot 
patronised the notably syncretic shrines of Shah Nattarwali at Trichin- 
opoly and Shah Hamid Sahib at the seaport town of Nagore — and this 
at the same time as they extended patronage to reforming theologians 
from north India and the Deccan. In Bengal and Tamilnadu the de- 
votional hymns in praise of the saints, propagated in the regional 
languages and greatly appealing to ordinary people, were converted 
into literary forms and later disseminated through the printing press. 
In general the relations between reforming Islam and the saint cults 
and great festivals had to be flexible despite surface conflict. For both 
traditions were dynamic, and both sought converts from among tribal 
and marginal groups whose special deities seemed vulnerable as settled 
government and settled agriculture converted jungle and hill-land into 

?” Thornton, Gazetteer, i, 55. 


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Three basic forces moulded the nature of Indian society in the early 
colonial period. First, social relations and modes of thought and belief 
which had consolidated themselves in the later years of Mughal India 
continued to develop under British rule. These were distorted or 
modified by the second range of influences which derived from the 
military and financial needs of the colonial state and from sporadic and 
uneven developments in the European world economy. In turn, 
armed and unarmed resistance from within India itself blunted and 
deflected these influences. So pressure and rebellion operating at all 
levels of political power within the subcontinent, provided the third 
determinant of the nature of colonial Indian society. Revolts and 
armed rebellions were not hopeless causes as the old District Gazet- 
teers tended to suggest. On the contrary, they frequently forced the 
British to modify their system. In some cases the colonial authorities 
were constrained to deploy expensive armies to utterly uproot centres 
of resistance. This had been the case with some of the poligars of the 
far south or the Pindari raiders. More often collectors were forced to 
come to an accommodation with the powerful social groups who 
retained control of resources in the villages and small towns. Thus re- 
sisting village leaderships such as the mirasidars of parts of the wet 
South were afforded preferential treatment. Tribal magnates were sel- 
ected out and given the rights of rajas. Recalcitrant princes retained 
some share of power within the system of native states. None of the 
rebellions and uprisings with which this chapter deals ‘succeeded’ in 
the sense that they were able to exclude the influences of the world 
market or the Company’s state. Yet many of them forced reassess- 
ments of policy and practice which partly disarmed these influences. 


Among the myths which became current in the wake of the rebellion of 
1857-8 was the idea that it was a unique event, something that had to 
be explained in terms of the peculiar folly of the revenue policy of the 


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government of the North-Western Provinces or the foolhardiness of 
the annexation of Awadh in 1856. In fact armed revolt was endemic in 
all parts of early colonial India. What distinguished the events of 1857 
was their scale and the fact that for a short time they posed a military 
threat to British dominance in the Ganges Plains. Another contention, 
perpetuated by some recent historians, is that the Revolt was not es- 
sentially an anti-colonial movement so much as a mélée of local fac- 
tional conflicts: ‘the arbitrary adjustment by the sword of the ancient 
disputes of the land’. This is correct in the sense that many of the par- 
ticipants in the warfare and plunder of 1857 were not motivated by any 
definite animus against the distant white rulers. Yet it is also super- 
ficial. The conflicts which occurred throughout the early nineteenth 
century and climaxed in 1857 were all related to the policies and con- 
ditions of colonial India. Many of these policies and conditions 
created tensions similar to those once released by Mughal attempts at 
centralisation. However, the British pursued their aims more rigor- 
ously within the context of a world empire and a developing capitalist 
economy which provided them with considerable new resources. 
The study of revolt as a thing in itself goes some way to correct the 
picture of stability under the Raj which comes out of much earlier 
history. But it is more useful in elucidating the policies and impact of 
colonial rule than the mind of colonial Indians. The boundary be- 
tween ‘revolt’ and ‘collaboration’ was often very faint, defined more 
by the prejudices of individual officials or by the internal factional 
politics of Indian states and villages than by any clear predisposition 
towards anti-colonial resistance. Many of those who apparently col- 
laborated, the Calcutta intelligentsia for instance, regarded their Bri- 
tish with contempt at some level, or like the Sufi saints of Delhi 
withdrew into an internal spiritual exile to contemplate the travails of 
the Prophet. Many also, from clerks in offices to Rajput princes, used 
conformity to British orders as a way of building their empires of 
patronage and havens of self-respect within the colonial system itself. 
With this in mind, several broad types of dissidence can be isolated 
from the great range of revolts between 1800 and 1860. Most notable 
were the periodic revolts of zamindars and other superior landholders 
fighting off demands for higher revenue or invasions of their status as 
‘little kings’ in the countryside. Then there were conflicts between 
landlords and groups of tenants or under-tenants objecting to the 
transformation of customary dues into landlord rights or to some 


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violation of the obligations between agrarian lord and dependant. 
Next there was a range of conflicts arising from tension between wan- 
dering or tribal people and settled peasant farmers which usually 
centred on the control of forests, grazing grounds or other commu- 
nally exploited resources. Finally, there were frequent revolts in cities 
and towns. These had many causes: some were riots over market con- 
trol and taxation. Some involved bloodshed between religious or caste 
groups or the protests of embattled artisan communities. All these 
types of conflict were widespread but they surfaced in exaggerated 
form in the course of the Mutiny and Rebellion of 1857. 

To the Mughals all failures to pay revenue were tantamount to 
declarations of rebellion. The great eighteenth-century revolts of 
Sikhs, Jats and Marathas were revolts of the countryside — of petty 
gentry, peasant landholders as well as tenants — against their revenue 
machinery and demands for tribute. The British were at once more re- 
laxed and harsher in their policies. They were more relaxed because 
once the countryside was largely pacified, withholding revenue was 
seen as a civil misdemeanour actionable by the sale of zamindari land in 
a revenue court and not necessarily as rebellion which merited torture 
or death. They were harsher since a family’s zamindari land could be 
forfeit forever simply because an individual failed to pay revenue. 
Under colonial rule revenue rates were higher, exactions more rigor- 
ous and relief and compromise was less common. For this was a 
system of close cost-accounting in which collectors achieved advance- 
ment in their careers by raising the yield of their districts. Provincial 
Boards of Revenue were very reluctant to allow the accumulation of 
‘balances’ (deficits) or sanction relief for drought- or flood-ravaged 

The British encountered prolonged resistance from zamindars and 
their followers on two main counts. The first was when they attemp- 
ted to impose their own nominees on the thrones of princely states in 
violation of the sense of the neighbourhood and the dominant alliances 
in local polities. Thus British interference in the succession among the 
Marathas in the 1770s, in Awadh in 1797, and in several Rajput states 
in the 1820s and 30s, provoked serious opposition from the supporters 
of the spurned claimants. Trouble in smaller kingdoms or within indi- 
vidual zamindari estates often arose from similar causes. In the 
Hathwa Raj of north Bihar, for instance, the British had expelled the 
incumbent Raja in the 1780s and imposed his cousin’s line on the 


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unwilling populace. Zamindar supporters of the deposed branch kept 
up a series of local revolts through to the 1840s and this division col- 
oured rural politics well into the later nineteenth century.! 

The most widespread dissidence was encountered when the British 
attempted to control and tax territories which had never really come 
under the direct rule of their eighteenth-century predecessors. In the 
south, for instance, the Madras government continued the policy of 
the Nawabs of Arcot of trying to bend to their will the Hindu chiefs of 
the far south, the poligars. In the model of Mughal hegemony adopted 
by the southern Muslims, these chiefs were no more than zamindars 
who owed service and allegiance to their Muslim overlords. The 
British eagerly took up this notion and designated the poligars ‘auxil- 
iary forces’ — magnates who, it was implied, held their lands on a kind 
of military service tenure from the Company whose own rights were 
ultimately granted by the Mughal emperor. In fact the poligars should 
be regarded as inheritors of shares in the sovereignty of pre-Muslim 
Vijayanagar rulers. They were seen as sovereigns in their own right — 
even aspects of the living deity — by the local people, as became clear 
during the Sivaganga Revolt of 1799-1801 when the poligars put up 
fierce resistance to the Company’s forces and were supported by 
massed levies from within their villages. Several poligar leaders became 
local heroes whose renown and magical powers are celebrated in Tamil 
folk ballads which are still recited in the countryside. 

Conflicts over the Company’s claim to total dominance continued 
to occur across the country up to two generations after conquest. The 
British consistently saw any form of resistance as the work of ‘contu- 
macious’ zamindars or rebel chieftains. For they were seeking not 
simply an increase of their revenues but a monopoly of all sources of 
political authority throughout Indian society. Only the arbitrarily de- 
signed category of ‘native princes’ was to be allowed any degree of 
sovereignty under their paramountcy. If other chiefs resisted they 
were rebels, or plunderers, or bandits, defined out of existence by a 
power which perceived itself to be unitary and unchallenged as no 
other had done before it. Revolt was inevitable in areas where more 
fluid, segmented forms of polities had been preserved by climate or 
terrain from the weaker pressures of Mughal centralisation. Wellesley 
and Munro for instance encountered fierce resistance from the Nayar 
and Maratha chieftains notably Daundia Waugh, the Cotiote Raja and 

' Anand Yang, ‘Hathwa Raj in the early nineteenth century’, unpub. Ms. 


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the Pychee Raja between 1799 and 1806 for here ‘the natural state of the 
country and the violence of the monsoon secured them [the rebels] for 
some months of the year against all military operations’. Riots and 
disturbances followed all the attempts to tax this area and in 1836 there 
was another major rebellion led by the chief Puttabasapah.’ The 
southern Maratha country provides another example. Since the British 
regarded the Maratha polities as ‘an empire’ with the Peshwa as its 
head, and since the Peshwa was first their ally and later their pen- 
sioner, they were not prepared to view the local chiefs here as anything 
but dependants. In the countryside towards Goa in 1844-6 there was a 
‘long, continued and obstinate rebellion’,* which was put down by 
James Outram, later conqueror of Awadh. In this revolt as in those in 
Tamilnadu and Kerala, village headmen willingly provided recruits 
and resources for the rebels, which throws doubt on the British claim 
that these were simply attempts by local tyrants to avoid the payment 
of revenue. 

Company raj also encountered resistance in those parts of the nor- 
thern plains where the Mughals and the eighteenth-century successor 
states had never really imposed their authority. The northern and 
southern fringes of Awadh caused continuous trouble for the Luck- 
now authorities and for adjacent British collectors, particularly during 
the tense 1830s. On the southern fringes of the plains the rajas and 
clansmen of the central Indian hills opposed both the British and the 
attempts of the local states of Gwalior and Rewah to coerce and tax 
them on a regular basis. In 1842 there was a serious revolt among the 
Bundela Rajput chieftains which disrupted trade and agriculture in the 
region for some years. In many instances these were to be areas which 
again threw up prolonged resistance in 1857. 

We have already seen how rebellions of this sort damaged the Com- 
pany’s finances and reputation, eroding the possibilities for positive 
military or economic reform. At the same time the need to find allies 
against such rebels forced agents of the Company to concede privileges 
to those poligars or Rajput chieftains who did not offer direct resist- 

? Munro to Madras Board of Revenue, 18 June 1800, Letters of Sir Thomas Munro relating 
to the early administration of Canara. Selections from the Records of South Canara (Manga- 
lore, 1879). 

> Lewin’s report on the insurrection raised by Puttabasapah and others, 1837, ibid. (Manga- 
lore, 1913). 

* Actg Magistrate to Government, 30 December 1844, Correspondence on the Sawunt- 
waree Disturbances in the Province of Canara in 1845 (Mangalore, 1912) 


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ance. From such groups emerged the princes and landlords of later col- 
onial rule. 

Resistance by village leaderships was also common. In the course of 
the British revenue ‘squeeze’ of the early nineteenth century peasant 
landholders on coparcenary tenures and village headman families in 
the west and south suffered as badly and sometimes worse than the su- 
perior zamindars who held whole groups of villages. But lacking local 
leadership, acquiescence, migration or desertion were usually their 
only possible response. There were some exceptions, though. During 
the Goldsmid—Wingate settlement of the Deccan in the 1850s and early 
60s (which was ultimately to bring down rates of land revenue) in- 
ferior tenure-holders and village officers put up fierce resistance in 
some districts. There were serious riots against the revenue survey in 
the Deccan district of Khandesh in 1852. While some leaders of this 
outbreak seem to have been substantial farmers who had benefited 
from a buoyant cotton market, Wingate thought that ‘the hereditary 
and stipendiary officers have evidently been at the bottom of the 
movement’.? Between 1857 and 1859 the kothi landholders of the 
Konkan withheld cooperation from the revenue officials in a form of 
passive resistance. Before the 1870s the British had evidently failed to 
secure the cooperation of significant sections even of the peasant élite, 
but they had learned to be wary of their local influence. Many officials 
already warned against the uncontrolled expansion of commercial 
forces into the Indian countryside. These voices became stronger in 
the second half of the century. 

The fragile expansion of cash-cropping in the early nineteenth cen- 
tury also set the scene for conflict within the ranks of rural society, be- 
tween tenant and landholder and between arable farmer and nomad or 
herdsman. All these forms of tension were also to play a part in the 
1857 revolt. Revolts by tribal peoples occurred on several occasions — 
among the Bhils in the 1820s and the Kols (1829-33) and Santal (185 5— 
6) tribesmen on the Bengal borders, for instance; the invasion of their 
lands by pioneer peasants and logging agents was a common griev- 
ance.° But many affrays between agriculturalists and marginal groups 
were entered in British police reports as criminal offences. Some 
districts had long traditions of such conflict. The Haryana region near 

> Charlesworth, Peasants and Imperial Rule, p. 52;J. F. M. Jhirad, ‘The Khandesh Survey 
riot of 1352’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1968, 3 and 4. 
© See E. F. Dalton, Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal (Calcutta, 1872). 


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Delhi was the scene of perpetual small-scale rioting as nomadic and 
wandering groups seized the cattle and silver of nearby farmers. The 
Kallar and Maravar districts of the south were notoriously unsettled. 
Despite its severe revenue assessments, the Company state generally 
favoured arable farmers at the expense of nomads or pastoralists. Wan- 
dering people of any sort were suspect as carriers of dissidence. Just as 
British officials had helped weld rather diverse sects into generic 
groups like Thugs or Pindaris, so herdsmen like the Gujars, Rangars 
and Bhattis of north India were beginning to be regarded as ‘criminal 
tribes’, a concept which was enshrined in punitive legislation after 
1870. Yet even if tribals and wandering peoples were forced on the de- 
fensive, the colonial state had to pay a price. Special administrative and 
political arrangements were developed to shield these groups against 
too rapid change; the social separation of tribals from India began at 
the very time when the India of the peasant farmer and the merchant 
was inflicting a decisive defeat on the tribal economies. 

Agrarian conflicts between landlords and their dependants in areas 
of settled agriculture were also common between 1780 and 1860. The 
most usual response to high rents or excessive lordship levies by rural 
magnates was desertion or migration. Sometimes, as in the Chingleput 
District of Madras in the 1790s, temporary desertion by agrarian 
dependants was an almost ritual form of bargaining between superior 
and inferior. Yet as the population on the land grew after about 1840, 
this option became less attractive, for landlords could always secure 
new tenants or share-croppers. Far better known, however, are the 
cases where agrarian conflict took on a religious character as a result of 
the teachings of reformed Islam. Notable here was the Faraizi move- 
ment of eastern Bengal which lasted from the 1820s to the 1850s. Haji 
Shariatullah (1781-1840) and his son Dudu Miyan (1819-62) were 
teachers of a reformed Koran-based Islam. But the movement also had 
a strong social message. Shariatullah was known as ‘the spiritual guide 
of the weavers’ while his son declared ‘no man has the right to levy tax 
on God’s earth’.’ Both men were associated with attacks on Hindu 
trader money-lenders and European indigo estates. Sporadic violence 
continued in parts of east Bengal until 1860 when the colonial auth- 
orities imprisoned Dudu Miyan. 

The Moplah revolts of the central Malabar coast also combined the 
features of religious devotion with social protest. The Moplahs in 

? Qeyammudin Ahmed, The Wahhabi Movement in India (Calcutta, 1966), p. 95. 


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question were not the merchants of the towns but an inland cultivating 
group of putative Arab descent. They had been favoured under the 
rule of Tipu Sultan who had attacked their Hindu landlords (known as 
janmis). The onset of British rule and the restoration of the landhol- 
ders set the scene for a series of outbreaks in which individuals or 
groups of Moplahs attacked and murdered Hindu landlords or British 
officials. The most violent of these disturbances took place in 1802, the 
late 1830s and again in 1849-52. Elsewhere there were periodic out- 
breaks of revolutionary messianism particularly among Muslim com- 
munities suffering rapid social dislocation. In 1808, for example, 
Abdul Rahman of Mandvi in Gujarat declared himself chosen leader 
(Imam Mahdi) and led a movement of weavers and Muslim agricul- 
turalists against Hindu landlords and British personnel.® Again on the 
north-east borders of Bengal a Muslim millenarian movement led by 
one Tipu Sahib converged with a reaction by tribal hillmen against the 
demands of incoming Hindu landlords and the British military pres- 
ence during the Burmese war of 1824 to give a generation of unrest. 
Tipu Sahib is reported to have declared that ‘The Government was 
drawing to its close, that he was become king of the Sherpur pargannah 
[sub-district] and that the zamindars would be no more.’ People 
consequently refused to offer labour services to the landholders.” 

In all these movements there was conflict between landholder and 
tenants, agrarian labourer or tribal. The pressures of the British army 
or the colonial export economy also fuelled the feeling that some novel 
and illegitimate assault on custom was taking place. Still, it would be 
wrong to portray them as simple class conflicts or unanimous reac- 
tions to colonial oppression. In those cases where the ideologies of 
revolt can be reconstructed it seems that the abolition of taxation was 
seen as contingent on the extirpation of infidel rule, an event in some 
golden age rather than an immediate political programme. The enemy 
was often not the landlord as such but the infidel outsider; the soli- 
darity of rural classes was fractured by religion, status and factional 
conflict. The indigo riots in Bengal between 1857 and 1862 perhaps 
stand as an exception to this generalisation. Here indigo cultivators felt 
the weight of the oppression of European planters and the neglect of 
the colonial state which had begun to discourage indigo and favour 

° H. G. Briggs, Cities of Gujarashtra, Appendix B. 
° B. B. Chaudhuri, ‘Millenarian elements in the tribal and agrarian movements in eastern 
India in the nineteenth century’, unpub. paper, p. 10. 


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more valuable crops like jute. The radical intelligentsia of Calcutta also 
played a part in developing peasant organisation through the propa- 
ganda of the play Nil Darpan. However, even in this case, local 
landlords struggling with indigo planters for scarce labour supplies 
provided much of the impetus for rural agitation. The fragmented op- 
position of local communities to specific injustices rather than class 
consciousness was the dominant ideology. 

These events nevertheless gave the British a heightened awareness of 
the role of religious revitalisation in popular protest. The willingness 
of the colonial power to grant special privileges to ‘Sikhs’, ‘Muslims’ 
and even ‘non-Brahmins’ in the later part of the century was in part a 
response to their painful loss of blood and treasure to such movements 
in the period of consolidation. 

Urban revolts were an important though shadowy feature of the 
events of 1857. These also had many precedents in the previous three 
generations. As repositories of wealth, cities had always received the 
attentions of rural plunderers and impoverished labourers. In some 
areas the Sikh and Maratha movements had begun as assaults on the 
town-dwelling Mughal élites, and chroniclers portray several 
instances of town riots against Mughal officials and wealthy people. 
New tensions, however, were introduced by colonial rule. The pre- 
cipitous decline of urban weavers after 1815 produced no social ex- 
plosion. However, artisans were prominent in the riots in Rohilkhand 
and Benares between 1809 and 1818, and more ambiguously in the 
Hindu—Muslim conflicts of the 1830s. They also engaged in attacks on 
rich Hindus in Calcutta in 1789 and Surat in the 1790s and 1800s. The 
teaching of Sayyid Ahmed of Bareilly among weavers in the towns of 
the North-Western Provinces and Bihar was supposed by officials to 
have contributed to their mood of defiance. Of course, the links be- 
tween economic tension and pious religious expression were quite in- 
direct. Muslim weavers formed closely knit communities in most 
Indian cities. A sense of piety and worth as Muslims strengthened 
guild-like organisations which had often staged strikes and agitations 
against local officials and merchants. 

Grain riots and protests against the monopolistic activities of grain 
dealers and interventions by British officials were also very common. 
Outbreaks in western Hindustan and Delhi in 1833-8 were particu- 
larly violent, but even a supposedly peaceable city such as Madras suf- 
fered from regular affrays. Here there were riots about alleged threats 


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to Islam in 1806 at the time of the mutiny in the military station of Vel- 
lore; rice riots in 1806, 1833 and 1854 and serious demonstrations 
against Christian conversion between 1844 and 1858.'° Yet the most 
common form of disturbance throughout the early nineteenth century 
in the towns was led by men of status in the quarters of the cities and 
directed against taxation by the colonial authorities. This was not 
simply an issue of material deprivation. Urban populations felt that 
their domestic custom was invaded by attempts to levy house taxation 
on them. Moreover, the decline of the law officers of the old Mughal 
cities (the kotwal, kazi and mufti) as they were replaced by brusque 
and faceless colonial officials created a sense of unease. A common cry 
of the 1857 rebels was for the restitution of the old system, for the 
bringing together again of civil and moral law. 

Events of this sort may appear feeble and unimportant by compari- 
son with the great rural rebellions. Yet they were significant neverthe- 
less. The British willingness to protect merchant communities and 
their concern to associate urban magnates and leaders with their ad- 
ministration through ‘local self-government’ had already become 
apparent before mid-century. 

This discussion of dissidence in early colonial India suggests several 
conclusions. First, the Indian rebellion of 1857 was unique in scale but 
not in content. Secondly, dissidence and disturbance was wide- 
spread throughout the whole of India and not simply a speciality of 
Hindustan. Thirdly there was almost always a revolt somewhere 
in the subcontinent, though particular periods, such as the height 
of the Wellesley conquests and the 1830s, may have been even more 
disturbed. Certainly, it is not easy to classify, revolts into ‘post- 
pacification’ revolts and ‘traditional resistance’ movements as some 
have done. One wave merged with the next without any obvious 
changes in style or content. Finally, though, the fragmented and 
uncoordinated nature of these revolts must be noted. Almost every- 
where the British could rely on some part of a local population — the 
lowly and the poor as often as the zamindar or raja — to support them. 
There may have been a common dislike of the white ruler, as realists 
such as Sir Charles Metcalfe acknowledged, though common dislike 
was far removed from common action. 

'0 7. Talboys Wheeler, Chronological Annals of the British Government at Madras from 
the earliest days (Madras, 1862), pp. xxiii-xxviii. 


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Common action did not arise out of any inexorable trend to agrarian 
crisis. The 1830s saw widespread distress and much worry among of- 
ficials about how varied forms of revolt might coalesce ominously. But 
the 1840s and sos were years of better prices and harvests. As the last 
chapter showed, provincial governments even began to reduce the rate 
of revenue and grope towards a more realistic system of agrarian tax- 
ation. An external cataclysm was needed to release the pent-up ten- 
sions. The mutiny of the Bengal army in May 1857 was the trigger for 
the legitimist and agrarian uprisings which were to follow it. British 
victory partly resulted from the failure of the Bombay and Madras 
armies to follow the lead of the north Indian sepoys. Ironically, 
though, it was the Madras army which had the most striking history of 
disturbance. Large contingents of it had mutinied in the early 1780s 
because of arrears of pay and resentment at the Company’s intrusion 
into the privileges of the Nawab of Arcot. A more serious revolt took 
place in June 1806 when the garrison at Vellore turned on its officers 
and was only subdued after a pitched battle in which several hundred 
men died. The Vellore mutiny had interesting parallels with the events 
of 1857. The mutineers apparently feared some assault on their re- 
ligion as the result of the introduction of European headgear. There 
was an undercurrent of millenarian expectation as there was again in 
1857. Muslim holy men were spreading rumours of an imminent end 
to British rule as the French and the followers of the now-sanctified 
Tipu Sultan combined to drive the infidel from the land. Hindu and 
Lingayat grievances centred on the rapid destruction of the poligar 
states of the far south."' 

The Bengal army also wavered on a number of occasions. A com- 
pany had mutinied in Java in 1815 and Gwalior in 1834. There was 
trouble during the Afghan campaign of 1839-42 when the deficiencies 
of white leadership were only too clearly exposed. Bengal sepoys in 
their home territories had customarily displayed a ‘haughty’ attitude 
to visiting British officials and Sir Charles Metcalfe put it on record as 
early as 1832 that ‘a very little mismanagement’ could result in the Bri- 
tish losing India as its army and Indian servants were merely ‘fol- 

" P, Chinnian, The Vellore Mutiny, 1806 (Madras, 1892). 


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lowers of fortune’.’? However, the sepoys’ real grievances began to 
mount in the 1850s. The General Service Enlistment Act of 1856 which 
demanded that sepoys should affirm their readiness to serve abroad, 
potentially exposing them to the risk of pollution, was an attempt to 
make the army more flexible in the aftermath of the disasters of the 
Afghan War. It went along with policies designed to introduce a wider 
range of caste and regional groups which naturally alarmed the Hindi- 
speaking rural Rajputs and Brahmins from Benares and Awadh who 
had hitherto dominated its service. These men or their relatives had 
other troubles too. The invasion of Awadh in 1856 had reduced the 
sepoys’ pay (as they lost their benefit from service ‘abroad’) and 
diminished their status in the eyes of other enlisted men. It also looked 
set to deepen the economic problems of the high-caste village land- 
holding brotherhoods who provided many of the recruits. The spectre 
of higher revenue distressed petty landholders whose gentry status 
was already at risk from generations of subdivision of property. The 
rumours that the cartridges for the new Lee Enfield rifle would pollute 
their caste and force them to become Christians was only the final 
spark. The gulf between a complacent officer corps and an embittered 
soldiery had already become wide. 

Why did the revolt spread so rapidly in its initial stages? Yet why 
were the British then able to confine it roughly within the bounds of 
the present-day state of Uttar Pradesh with a few outbreaks in Bihar 
and central India? The initial crucial link in the chain of revolt was the 
march of the rebellious troopers of the XI Native Cavalry from 
Meerut to Delhi on the night of 10-11 May 1857. Once the ageing 
Emperor Bahadur Shah was persuaded to lend his authority to the 
revolt, a number of discontented servants of the vanishing Mughal 
régime, notably Nawab Walidad Khan in the Bulandshahr District, 
came over to the rebellion. Mutinous contingents of sepoys in other 
stations also saw in the Emperor a legitimate authority with which to 
replace their white officers. British forces did not pursue and destroy 
these first Meerut mutineers, it appears, because the local commander 
feared for the safety of European residents of the civil station. Urban 
mobs, composed of artisans, dissident police and day-labourers, had 
appeared on the streets almost immediately. So from its inception the 
civilian rebellion and the mutinies reinforced each other. After a brief 
lull further mutinies and urban revolts occurred in the garrison towns 

2 Metcalfe to Bentinck, 11 October 1829, Philips (ed.), Bentinck Correspondence, i, 311. 


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north and west of Delhi in June and July 1857, effectively severing the 
British forces in the eastern provinces from those in the Punjab. 

Yet it was crucial that even in this, the heart of revolt around Delhi, 
British power was not eliminated. In several of the western districts 
magistrates and collectors put together scratch forces, protected treas- 
uries and attacked and burnt out villages which had risen in revolt. The 
need to guard their rear from the small parties of British troops still 
scattered across the countryside was one reason why the mutineers 
were unable to concentrate for a determined attack on the British 
forces from the Punjab who quickly assembled to march on Delhi, or 
to attack the garrison in Kanpur. From the first, then, rebellion failed 
to create a liberated area in which support for the rebel régime could 
become safe as well as legitimate. Local groups tended instead to con- 
sult their own interests and prosecute their ancient feuds. More 
momentously, the gathering struggle over Delhi itself quickly became 
the moral centre of the whole anti-British movement. Contingents of 
mutineers from the south and east as well as magnate leaders tended to 
converge on the capital. This had the effect of limiting and concentrat- 
ing revolt rather than allowing it to spread outwards towards new 
areas. Delhi was thus the greatest victory and ultimate undoing of the 

The second major centre of revolt was Awadh. Discontent here had 
been growing since the British occupation of the summer of 1856. 
Martin Gubbins’s summary settlement of the Awadh revenues 
managed to antagonise both the great Talukdar magnates and the vil- 
lage proprietors whom British policy was supposedly favouring. In 
the city of Lucknow the ex-Queen Mother and a variety of military 
leaders, incensed by the Company’s dismissal of more than 50,000 
troops, concerted with Muslim religious leaders. When the news from 
Delhi was received in early June revolt spread quickly with very wide 
support from the nobility and urban populace. British public opinion 
and nationalist myth has often concentrated on the war in Awadh, and 
in particular on the relief by Henry Havelock of the small British garri- 
son imprisoned in the Residency in September 1857, followed by 
Colin Campbell’s second relief of the new contingent in November. 
Certainly, the revolt was nearest to a popular movement here. Even as 
the British armies fought their way towards Lucknow further talukdar 
magnates joined the rebellion, driven to despair by the new assault on 
their status as local kings which British policy represented. In the 


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southern marchers of Awadh British troops sustained heavy losses 
well into the summer of 1858, fighting village by village as they 
encountered stiff resistance from those very high-caste village brother- 
hoods which had provided the best recruits for their army. 

Yet from very early on it was clear that the Awadh revolt was an 
heroic sideshow. The kingdom had already been pushed to the mar- 
gins by half a century of social and economic change. Crucially, the 
impetus to revolt failed to carry to the banks of the Ganges and Jumna 
and thus sever British communications between Delhi and Calcutta. 
There were a very few days when the river and Grand Trunk route was 
cut, but in general the Company was able to supply its garrisons up- 
river and move its gunboats and grain boats with impunity. There 
were two main reasons for this. First, many of the talukdar magnates 
of southern Awadh hedged their bets in the contest. Some were too 
aware of British strength; others had a history of conflict with the 
Awadh centre in Lucknow and were distinctly unimpressed by the 
prospect of the revival of the Shia kingdom. Secondly, the British 
districts lying along the Ganges—Jumna had already thrown up a group 
of new magnates dependent on if not actually committed to British 
rule. The Bhumihar rulers of Benares and their kinsmen straddling the 
river in Mirzapur and Allahabad districts had risen by defeating and 
subordinating precisely those tenacious Rajput brotherhoods which 
were now in revolt. Their dominance in the region had pre-dated but 
was ultimately strengthened by British rule. In some districts com- 
mercial men had moved out from the major colonial cities to acquire 
land-rights in the hinterland. These were now surprisingly active in 
the British cause. Ultimately, the failure of revolt to gain a strong foot- 
hold in the riverine districts meant that the three subsidiary centres, 
Awadh, central India and Bihar, were split from each other and the 
British could deal with them one by one. 

Revolt in the south suffered from similar fragmentation. In the 
Maratha states of central India (Gwalior and Jhansi) an ancient dislike 
of British rule which went back to the days of the Maratha hegemony 
was sharpened by colonial intrusion into the states’ affairs, notably 
Lord Dalhousie’s decision to annex Jhansi in 1853 on the pretext that 
there was no legitimate heir. Further south in Hyderabad there was 
much dry tinder also. The residents’ meddling had tended to favour 
the group of Hindu financiers and northeners surrounding the diwan 
at the expense of the old Hyderabad Muslim nobility and the fiercely 


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independent Hindu chiefs of the hinterland. Islamic revivalist move- 
ments had also taken root around the capital; as early as 1838 the 
British had expected a Muslim rising. Holy war was indeed declared in 
1857, and on 17 July a body of Rohilla soldiers and bazaar people led 
by a local Muslim religious leader attacked the Residency. Revolts and 
mutinies at other centres followed, though unlike the situation at 
Meerut these were immediately countered by Company troops. What 
was critical was the fact that even discontented chieftains had held back 
from revolt because it was initially perceived in the south as a Maratha 
movement and Marathas had been the fierce enemies of Hyderabad 
during the conflicts of the previous century.'? The failure of rebellion 
in Hyderabad released troops of the British Madras army who were 
deployed in the Benares region during the crucial months of August 
and September. 

Similar combinations of military chance and Indian disunity played 
into British hands in other parts of India. In Gujarat an ancient sus- 
picion of the old Maratha hegemony along with a new, more lenient, 
régime of agrarian taxation fragmented opposition to colonial rule. 
The Bhil tribes and their leaders had been successfully conciliated 
through the creation of the Bhil Corps which was in turn used 
against other more recalcitrant groups. Critically also, the British 
were very well entrenched in both the Holkar and Baroda courts. 
Precisely because these old Maratha states had been suspected of 
intrigue and fierce anglophobia, successive British political agents had 
worked hard to build up personal links with the leaders and their 


The Punjab, of course, was decisive for it was from here that the Bri- 
tish thrust east against the Delhi revolutionaries. Punjab had been re- 
cently conquered and so there were large numbers of British troops on 
the Spot to suppress the several mutinies which broke out in Punjab 
garrison towns and amongst Muslim pastoralists in the dry west of the 
province. But everything depended on the stance of the Sikh magnates 
and village brotherhoods. Luckily for their future in India, the British 
had played their cards here much better than they did in Awadh. At 
least 16,000 of the defeated Sikh army had been taken into Company 
service with generous pay and allowances. An initially severe revenue 

 H. Briggs, The Nizam. His history and relations with the British government (London, 
1861), ii, 76 ff. 
' Shri Prakash, ‘1857 in Gujarat’, unpub. MS in author’s possession. 


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assessment was made more lenient after 1852 and British irrigation 
plans in the central Punjab had proceeded at a cracking pace compared 
with the lethargy of the North-Western Provinces; the Punjab civ- 
ilians had soon come to appreciate the merits of the Sikh Jat peasant 
brotherhoods. At the same time there was little love in the Punjab for 
the Hindustani soldiers who had taken such a forward part in the 
conquest of their territory. Punjab remained a solid base for the 
British throughout the revolt and emerged afterward as the main bene- 
ficiary of military expenditure and recruitment. 

In Bengal, finally, neither military nor social conditions favoured 
revolt. The British had retained four battalions in the immediate vicin- 
ity of Calcutta whereas they had stripped the North-Western Prov- 
inces in order to police the Punjab. New British troops were arriving 
in Bengal by the beginning of November 1857, diverted from an ex- 
peditionary force to China which was conveniently passing through 
the Indian Ocean. Most important, however, was the fact that the 
people of Bengal had a much more realistic and sophisticated under- 
standing of the power of their rulers. There could be no sense here as 
there was in Awadh that British manpower had already been exhausted 
and that England was stripped of able-bodied men. Few leaders of the 
old pre-colonial military aristocracy survived comparable with the 
Rajput kings of upper India to lead the countryside in revolt. Indeed, 
the zamindars of the Permanent Settlement had conspicuously bene- 
fited from the rising value of agricultural produce while village-level 
controllers like the jotedars of north and east Bengal had been able to 
strengthen their grip on the ordinary peasantry. Created by, yet re- 
stricted and humiliated by, colonial rule, the new professional classes 
of Calcutta and the district towns were still little inclined to support a 
movement which they saw as a typical zamindar revolt in a backward 
area of the country. 


The failure of the rebels in 1857 goes beyond the question of inter- 
regional suspicion and military chance. The underlying deficiency was 
the inability of its leaders to throw up a series of creative goals and 
strategies for the defeat of the Company. Sepoys showed themselves 
astonishingly brave in individual manoeuvres and encounters. The 
bloody war around the walls of Delhi threw up desperate guerrilla 


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heroism. Yet without their British officers the sepoys often found it 
impossible to mount the final bayonet charge which could rout their 
enemy head-on. Instead, fighting tended to degenerate into sharp- 
shooting and a desperate defence by zamindars and bodies of sepoys of 
their own villages. 

Something similar happened to the political leadership of the revolt. 
Many leaders, Hindu and Muslim, had vague notions of the Indian- 
style political order which they wished to reinstate. However, it 
proved very difficult for them to create new institutions or coherent 
plans with which to confront the social crisis. One noteworthy feature 
was the fragmentation of the Muslim response compared with its 
dominant role in the 1820s revolts in Java or later events in the Indian 
subcontinent, such as the Khilafat movement of 1918-21. 

Undercurrents of Islamic millenarianism were not lacking. The 
mobilisation of Persian forces against the Company in 1856 was seen 
in Delhi as the percursor to a great Islamic war which would drive the 
‘nazarenes’ from India.'* In Lucknow the mood of unease which pre- 
ceded and followed the annexation of Awadh was reflected in the ac- 
tivities of Muslim millenarian preachers who proclaimed the end of 
Company rule precisely one hundred years after its inception at the 
battle of Plassey. A Sunni divine had marched with his followers on 
Lucknow in 1855 to protest against the insolence of the British and 

Once revolt had begun several strands to the Islamic movement can 
be isolated. First, there was the appearance at Delhi of several thou- 
sand militant ghazis (warriors of the Faith) who sacrificed themselves 
in fruitless frontal assaults against British troops. These men appear to 
have come from places such as Bhopal and Tonk (former centres of the 
Pindaris and of Muslim state-building) and they may have been associ- 
ated with the fringes of the militant Naqshbandi sufi movement which 
the British called ‘Wahhabis’. Others were men of the Chishti Sabri 
order from the Delhi region and East Punjab where there was a long 
tradition of militant opposition to the Sikhs. Secondly, the war in the 
Saharanpur and Muzaffarnagar districts, north of Delhi, took ona dis- 
tinctly Islamic flavour. Here was a strong concentration of Muslim 
service gentry who had been associated with the Delhi empire and 

1S Translation of petition of Muhammad Darwesh; copy of evidence taken before the 
court appointed for the trial of the king of Delhi, Parliamentary Papers, 1859, First Session, 
XVill, 69. 


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here, also, teachers of the school of Shah Abdul Aziz who had declared 
India ‘land of war’ in 1802, wielded much influence. Several proclama- 
tions of the learned (fatwas) declaring holy war were issued, especially 
from the towns of Deoband and Thana Bhawan which later became 
centres of a major religious movement. Further, there was a good deal 
of Muslim response to the revolt in the small rural towns of Awadh 
and eastern U.P. Here again teachers of the more militant wing of the 
Nagqshbandi order had been active among weavers and bazaar men. In 
Awadh popular Islamic leaders such as the maulvis of Fyzabad and 
Allahabad organised fierce resistance to the British. 

Yet for all this the Islamic response lacked cohesion. There were 
several reasons. First, the Muslim community was itself split socially 
and theologically. The distinction between Sunnis and Shias surfaced 
in some areas. Thus in Allahabad a Shia divine argued that revolt could 
not be holy war without the leadership of a Shia Imam, while in Luck- 
now tension between the Shia court and the Sunni leadership of the 
popular movement led to the Maulvi of Fyzabad arguing that he him- 
self should become ‘king’. Many Sunnis also argued that the key con- 
ditions for a declaration of holy war had not been met. For some the 
British state had not made the continuation of Muslim worship im- 
possible. For others there was little likelihood of success in revolt, and 
this had been a key condition for holy war (jihad) urged on the com- 
munity by the caution of the Prophet. 

Again, tensions which appear to be more social than theological split 
the Muslim community. It is true that British resumption of revenue- 
free grants given by previous rulers had damaged some Islamic insti- 
tutions (though more so in Bengal than in upper India). Still, the 
landed Muslim establishment had survived the first half-century of 
colonial rule relatively well. Muslims had lost land rights in total but 
no more so than other representatives of the old order. There was a 
natural reluctance among well-placed members of the landed gentry to 
endanger their livelihoods and property by joining in the revolt. So even 
in pious Saharanpur there were a number of social and religious leaders 
prepared to issue statements to the effect that this was no religious 
war. Many government servants also remained committed to the British — 
out of fear, out of deep-seated loyalty, or out of a canny judgement 
that Islam must reform internally before it could face down the 
West. Among these latter was Sayyid Ahmed Khan, later founder of 
the Aligarh movement and harbinger of Islamic modernism in India. 

Apart from their internal differences Indian Muslims were also inhi- 


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bited from raising a more full-blooded call to Islam by their relations 
with Hindus. As soon as Delhi was liberated the Mughals banned the 
Muslim sacrificial practice of cow-slaughter and dissuaded their offi- 
cers from seeking a declaration of holy war on the grounds that it 
might offend the ‘eastern [i.e. Hindu Brahmin and Rajput] soldiers’. 
Later rebel proclamations such as that of the Queen Mother of Awadh 
and the Maulvi of Fyzabad scrupulously sought to link Hindus and 
Muslims by arguing that the ‘Firingees [foreigners] have sought to de- 
stroy both the Hindu and Mahomedan faiths’. Elsewhere attempts to 
reinstate Islamic forms of urban government through kazis and kot- 
wals were tempered by the need to avoid offending the Hindu popu- 
lation. That this was a necessary caution was illustrated by events in 
the small towns of Rohilkhand where raising of the ‘Muhammadi flag’ 
sometimes signalled conflicts between Muslim weavers and artisans 
and their Hindu moneylenders, or between older Hindu zamindars 
and the lately come Rohilla Afghans. Locally at least, the tensions re- 
leased by revolt sometimes caused the ‘tree of Hindu—Muslim aver- 
sion’ to grow deeper roots, as Sayyid Ahmed later put it. 

Hindu themes of millenarian regeneration proved an even more fra- 
gile basis on which to build a true revolutionary movement. Many of 
the great leaders of revolt — men such as Kuar Singh in Bihar or Tantia 
Topi and the Rani of Jhansi in central India — became cult figures, the 
subjects of heroic ballads and festival images in later times. Doubtless 
many Hindus saw in 1857 the grim harvest of the final age of the 
Goddess Kali. Rebel proclamations similarly emphasised the need to 
re-establish the old social order, to give service to artisans and zamin- 
dars and beat back the tide of low men of base caste origins. But the 
fragmented and localised nature of Hindu kingship in the region, ham- 
mered to pieces by both Mughal and British rule, provided little in the 
way of a commonalty of interests. And for the Hindu kings the 
Mughal centre was at best an ambiguous focus of loyalty. The Jat king 
of Ballabgarh, south east of Delhi, held a number of Mughal titles of 
honour; in 1857 he pledged himself to Bahadur Shah in the name of the 
ancient loyalty of his house. However, the Jats — once ‘bandit plun- 
derers’ to the Mughals — must have viewed the re-emergence of a 
power in Delhi with mixed feelings. It is not surprising that these same 
princes soon opened up correspondence with the British forces besieg- 
ing the city.'¢ 

; Petitions of the Chief of Ballabgarh, Parliamentary Papers, 1859, First Session, xviii, 


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Ultimately no coherent ideology or programme existed to channel 
the aspirations of the rebels. Peasant millenarianism could not provide 
a common platform even to the extent that it did in the first stages of 
the contemporary Taiping Revolt in China. There were too many rep- 
resentatives of the old order involved from the start. Nor did national- 
ism provide a basis since it was from the marginal or declining areas of 
Indian society that the most prolonged resistance generally came. 


Over the last generation the conviction of the Bengal military that the 
Mutiny was in large part a civil rebellion has been borne out by de- 
tailed research. It was once considered that the inroads of the hated 
bania moneylender into the countryside as a result of the forced sales 
for arrears of the British revenue courts was the mainspring of revolt. 
More recently, the weight of government land revenue, only margin- 
ally eased from high points of the 1830s depression, is now considered 
the culprit. Both explanations may appear to smack of economic 
reductionism. Did Indians only revolt when they were hit in their 
pockets or stomachs? This is a misperception, for questions of land 
and rupees simply summarised a whole range of grievances which re- 
sulted from the clash of an imperial centre, now galvanised with new 
managerial and technological power, with the self-regard of many 
local communities. 

This theme can be illustrated by reference to communities at every 
level within Indian society. On the fringes of settled cultivation and 
Hindu society alike were a range of wandering and pastoralist groups 
who played a key réle in violence in most areas — but visited it on both 
‘sides’ in the national struggle. There was a great difference in status 
between the lordly Rangar or Bhatti Rajput chiefs of cattle keepers, the 
bullock-pack Banjaras, and the humble pig-keeping Pasis who acted as 
watchmen and thieves throughout the plains. But all were alike the vic- 
tims of the expansion of the arable, of the pioneer peasant and of the 
colonial revenue system. In the Delhi Territory and Haryana, for 
instance, huge areas of former grazing grounds had been assigned to 
the Jat peasantry at the expense of the nomadic Gujars and Bhattis in 


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the decade before the Mutiny. Not surprisingly, the Mutiny in this 
region seemed very much like an assault of the marginal communities 
of the dry areas against the more prosperous peasant villages and the 
symbols of imperial rapacity which had spelled the end of their old 
dominance. As in the Great Fear of the French Revolution, the col- 
lapse of British authority was sometimes signalled by rumours that 
roaming and plundering peoples who symbolised the untamed forces 
of the jungles were on the move. Elsewhere, as in the small bazaar 
town of Shikohabad guards and wage labourers from the semi-settled 
‘criminal’ tribes living in peripheral villages were prominent in’ plun- 
dering. Groups like these were among the first to attack the British 
civil lines. But resentment against towns, wealth and trade was by no 
means confined to those where British rule and its allies survived. The 
Mughal emperor’s lines of communication were also plundered by 
‘vagabonds and wretches’ in the summer of 1857. 

Much to the horror and surprise of the British, however, many stan- 
dard peasant communities also revolted in 1857. These do not often 
appear to have been conscious revolts against the landlord system. 
Usually, they were uprisings of whole local communities, landlord 
and tenant alike against outsiders, for where a substantial body of 
people joined the rebellion the British had to fight village by village. 
There were three great arcs of revolt amongst independent peasant far- 
mers. To the chagrin of revenue officials the careful Jat farmers who 
lived north and west of Delhi, particularly in the villages of Meerut 
District, were widely involved in direct anti-British activity. These 
men had fought the armies of the Mughal in the eighteenth century, 
but in 1857 substantial numbers of them found their interests and 
sympathies were at one with the last of the Mughals. Then again, 
revolt was fierce among the coparcenary petty landlords of the 
villages which lay in the dry ravine-ridden lands of the tract along the 
length of the rivers Ganges and Jumna as they pass east from the 
city of Agra through Allahabad, to Benares. Finally, the British 
noted that revolt spread very rapidly among the high-caste peasant 
communities of Awadh even where Martin Gubbins’s summary 
settlement of 1856 had apparently helped them by making them petty 
landholders, responsible for the payment of land revenue. All 
these forms of revolt worried the colonial rulers and threw doubt on 
the picture of the sturdy peasant as the main pillar of the Raj. Why did 
they occur? 


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Those Jats who revolted in 1857 were relatively prosperous by the 
standards of the Rajput petty proprietors of the east. They were pre- 
dominantly owner-occupier holders in an area where there was still 
25-30 per cent of good, cultivable land to take under the plough. But 
the rebellious Jats in western Meerut, Saharanpur and Muzaffarnagar 
districts appear to have been distinguished from those who did not 
revolt in a number of ways. For instance, there were social distinctions 
which derived from different waves of Jat expansion into the region 
and persisted in the form of conflicts between multi-caste factions led 
by Jats. Then again, existing hostility was deepened by the resentment 
of the ‘dry tracts’ — lands which had not profited from the expansion of 
the irrigated acreage after the extension of the East Jumna Canal and 
the opening of the Ganges Canal in 1854, and yet were still subject to a 
very high land-revenue demand which led to the auction sale of their 
lands. In such dry villages Jats sometimes joined their caste inferiors, 
the Gujars, who had taken to settled agriculture more recently, in 
attacks on British positions or in pouring supplies into rebel Delhi. 

However, it was not always as straightforward as this. Some of the 
Jat farmers of the south-west part of Saharanpur District, living in 
well-irrigated and beautifully cultivated countryside, also exploded 
into resistance. Here very severe revenue assessments in the 1830s and 
1840s — an ironic recognition of the Jats’ excellence as farmers — 
appears to have been a cause of long-standing resentment. It worked 
particularly inequitably, depressing the relative status of these farmers 
in comparison with their old social connections and marriage partners 
in other parts of the district. Two important points emerge from the 
detailed studies done by Eric Stokes in this region. First, that caste cat- 
egories are only very crude guidelines to the complex distinctions be- 
tween ‘rebel’ and ‘loyalist’; Jat farmers fought on both sides. 
Secondly, material deprivation or the inroads of the moneylender 
were not in themselves enough to cause revolt: a conviction of the 
decline of status and honour in relation to other communities was a 
more powerful and subtle incitement against the status quo. 

The force of these points is redoubled if one looks to the centres of 
main-line peasant revolt further to the east. Along the rivers Ganges 
and Jumna the British had to fight village by village through the poor 
lands which lay to the north and south of the Grand Trunk Road. 
These were not the rich areas which had done well out of the river 
trade in cash crops, but they bore a very heavy weight of land revenue 


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nevertheless. The proud but indigent Rajput communities of these 
areas had few sources of credit and no rich produce to sell. Their 
strong clan-like social organisation, at or below the pargana level, had 
survived precisely because commerce and land legislation had little 
effect here. The British and their rich hangers-on among the money- 
lenders and Bengali administrators of the major towns seemed natural 

The situation was different in Awadh. Here bodies of gentry with 
small jointly administered rental holdings were scattered in among the 
huge estates of the area magnates — the talukdars who often preferred 
to have low-caste men as tenants rather than troublesome relations and 
caste-fellows. The British, following the anti-landlords policy which 
had come into vogue in the 1830s, sought to deal with village-level 
powerholders (often called mokkadams) when they made the sum- 
mary settlement of 1856. The idea was that if the ‘parasitical’ magnates 
could be pensioned off on 10 per cent or thereabouts of their old take 
from the villages, it would be politic to make a land-revenue settle- 
ment with the true rural élite — the sturdy yeoman ~ who would pro- 
vide the underpinnings of a more stable and prosperous British India 
as was apparently already happening in the Punjab. But as the British 
were to learn in what appeared to be the cardinal lesson of nineteenth- 
century agrarian policy, the new village proprietors did not support 
them and throughout much of the countryside went over to support 
the dispossessed talukdars and members of the Lucknow court. 

Why this occurred still remains obscure. One of the features of 
revolt was, of course, that the government had very little idea what 
was happening in the rebel-held areas and where information was 
available it generally concerned the activities of the great magnates. 
Where magnates took an active part for or against the revolt it was dif- 
ficult for the village communities to oppose them. Yet this is not to say 
that small zamindars and peasants simply waited for the initiative of 
their superiors. For instance, when the Raja of Balrampur remained 
‘loyal’ to the British only 3,000 of his men were prepared to side with 
him, ‘the sympathies of the rest and of all about him are with the 
rebels’.!” Elsewhere small zamindars and sepoys who had returned to 
their villages were found forcing their talukdar leaders to declare for 
the Lucknow dynasty. The very widespread hostility to British rule 

‘7 Wingfield’s memo., 17 May 1858, Bahraich, cited, T. R. Metcalf, Land, landlords and 
the British Raj (Berkeley, 1979), p. 176. 


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among the land-owning cultivators of Awadh is perhaps not as sur- 
prising as it first seems. There were, first, the grievances of the sepoys 
themselves, quickly transmitted to the villages by the returning mutin- 
eers. There was also the incalculable factor of loyalty to the Awadh 
court and dislike of the intrusion of strangers into the village com- 
munities. Yet it should not be assumed either that the peasant landhol- 
ders actually felt that they would prosper under British rule. Their 
long-term history was of rapid population rise, subdivision of hold- 
ings into fractions of rupees and loss of outside earnings. The actual 
details of the summary settlement often left them with government 
revenue to pay without adequate resources of credit, and with the 
looming figure of the dispossessed talukdar on the social horizon. 
Whatever tensions may have existed between landholder and tenant, 
many of the great magnates were still seen as representations of Lord 
Shiva, as founts of patronage and honour in their localities, not lightly 
to be cast aside. Still, even if we accept the wider, popular character of 
the revolt in many parts of Awadh the men who fought staunchly 
against Colin Campbell’s invading army were not the militant tenants 
of later nationalist history. They were village landholders, often not 
cultivators themselves, falling back on their status and the possession 
of a few rough-cast cannons. 

The response of the larger rural magnates was vital in the hinterland 
districts. They alone could muster the forces to chastise recalcitrant 
villages, or alternatively provide a core of rebel organisation for dissi- 
dent villagers. Many magnates were oppressed and insulted by the new 
overbearing manner of the officials of the 1830s and gos. They resented 
the loss of local political honours and may have identified with the 
plight of the Mughal Emperor, whose pensionary status was by now 
fully revealed. Yet local values and local interests appear to have been 
paramount in their calculations. 

Some of the great magnates of the North-Western Provinces had 
adjusted well to the high British land-revenue demand, introducing 
severer forms of land management and gaining from the advance of 
cash-cropping in the riverine districts. But others did not. The rajas of 
Etah and Mainpuri in the rather poverty-stricken heart of the Ganges— 
Jumna Doab both joined the rebels. Neither ‘Awadh influence’ nor 
loyalty to the Mughals can really explain their revolt. Instead it seems 
that the revenue settlements of the 1830s had reduced the rajas’ income 
irretrievably, and being unable to profit from the growth of valuable 


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cash-crops because of the poverty of their territories, they followed 
the rebellion as the last hope of maintaining the ancient prestige of 
their houses. Elsewhere, quarrels within families seem to have been a 
major cause of revolt. The British had made the fluid system of Indian 
inheritance more rigid. In cases of doubt their desire to favour amen- 
able candidates had sometimes set up fierce struggles between rival 
parties of claimants to titles. In some cases the disgraced candidates 
themselves plunged quickly into revolt against the colonial rulers. 
Elsewhere men who had lost out in the immediate aftermath of the 
annexation saw a chance to reinstate themselves in British eyes when 
their favoured relations joined the revolt. So Ajit Singh of Taroul in 
Partabgarh District, Awadh, after a long blood feud with his kinsman 
Gulab Singh, came over to the British side when his relation was on the 
defensive and later claimed the reward of the Taroul estates for his 
‘loyalty’. In some cases the rationale behind different stances taken in 
the rebellion related to ancient feuds not within families but within 
whole sets of rival clans. In Rohilkhand enmities between the Rohilla 
Afghan ruling class of the eighteenth century and the Rajput clan 
leaders of Kutheir who had possessed the country before them 
were sometimes transformed into struggles between the rebels and 
‘loyalists’ when some Afghans expressed their loyalty to Delhi; 
this, of course, had very little to do with any real attachment to British 

Perhaps the most significant general line of distinction between 
those who joined the revolt and those who hedged their bets or 
acquiesced in colonial rule has already been alluded to. This was the 
distinction between the magnates who had broadly survived the onset 
of colonial trade and administration and those who had been steadily 
losing land rights since the cession of 1801. Eric Stokes called the 
former ‘new magnates’. Yet their newness did not consist in any inno- 
vation in agricultural management. Instead bodies of magnates like the 
Bhumihar rulers and landholders of the Benares region had slowly 
been accumulating economic power since the later eighteenth century, 
playing the land-market, moneylending and the British revenue courts 
with more success than their ancient bucolic rivals amongst the Raj- 
puts of the interior. Along with the majority of men of commerce and 
a large proportion of civil servants, these magnates ensured that the 
British administration survived in the most important centres of north 
India and that the revolt was a phenomenon of the backwoods. 


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It is true that some features of the Great Rebellion were echoed at 
later stages in India’s history of anti-colonial revolt. After a prudent 
interval the men of 1857 came to occupy an important role in the 
hagiography of Indian nationalism and peasant discontent. The high- 
caste village yeomen of Awadh who had been so hot against British 
rule in the Red Year, took some part in the later peasant movements of 
the 1920s and 30s. But the disjunction was very great both in ideology 
and in the social origins of resistance. By the 1860s and 70s rebellion in 
the countryside had a predominantly anti-landlord character, a feature 
which was rare or at least suppressed during 1857. This is not surpris- 
ing, for 1857 was at the end of the last period before significant new 
differentials began to open up within the peasant society of north 
India. Inflation, population growth and new land legislation had 
transformed the society of the great plains within a generation of the 
last shots of the Mutiny. 


The most dramatic and immediate consequences of the revolt were 
felt, of course, by the sepoy army itself and its rural allies. No quarter 
was given by the British, enraged at the atrocities committed against 
their women and children. Tens of thousands of soldiers and village 
guerrillas were hanged, shot, or blown from guns. Though the loss of 
life was small by comparison with other great historical revolts, many 
parts of the Doab, southern Awadh and western Bihar showed a sig- 
nificant drop in population between the censuses of 1853 and 1871. At 
a stroke Benares and Awadh ceased to be recruiting grounds for the 
British army and were speeded on their way to poverty and agrarian 
stagnation. The Punjab, notably ‘loyal’ during the revolt became the 
new favoured area, and the ancient traditions of imperial recruitment 
which went back to the time of Emperor Sher Shah in the sixteenth 
century were ruptured. By 1875, half of the British Indian Army was 
recruited from the Punjab, while Gurkhas from Nepal now replaced 
the Brahmin ‘lions’ from Benares as the shock troops of the British 
Empire. Hereafter, the British carefully fostered a sense of caste and 
tribe within their army — Punjabi Muslims, Dogras and Jats were kept 
in separate units, and a more professional officer corps was encour- 
aged to ‘know their men’, and regularly visit the recruiting villages. 


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The Indian sepoy was at no time to outnumber European troops in the 
subcontinent by more than two to one and Europeans were placed in 
charge of artillery in well-fortified and segregated army cantonments. 
The new military expenditure had some economic effects. It brought 
about an increase of government expenditure, larger imports of bul- 
lion and a more rapid circulation of money in the interior. It also 
speeded the construction of railways for strategic routes and encour- 
aged the extension of the Punjab canal colonies to favour the most im- 
portant areas of military recruitment. 

The Rebellion of 1857 also greatly changed the governance of India. 
Parliamentary and ministerial control which had been gradually creep- 
ing up on the Company since the India Act of 1784 was now fully re- 
vealed. The Company itself, which had long fought off the pressures 
of free traders, succumbed to its own military failure and was abol- 
ished. India was now to be governed from London by a Secretary of 
State for India assisted by a Council with fifteen members under the 
Act for the Better Government of India (1858). The Governor- 
General was constituted Viceroy and under the Indian Councils’ Act 
of 1861 the Viceroy’s Council and also the councils at Bombay and 
Madras were increased by the addition, for legislative purposes only, 
of non-official European and Indian members. These tiny advances in 
the practice of representative government were intended to provide 
safety valves for the expression of public opinion which had been so 
badly misjudged before the rebellion. Parliamentary intervention 
became more frequent and India affairs were drawn into British politi- 
cal debates to a greater extent than at any time since the later eighteenth 

Changes in Indian finance pointed in the same direction. The rebel- 
lion cost the huge sum of £50 million (Rs. 50 crores) to suppress, and 
besides, there was a significant short-term loss of land and opium 
revenues. James Wilson, Finance Minister in the new Viceroy’s Coun- 
cil drew up a reformed plan of taxation which included a licence tax, a 
revamped system of customs duties and India’s first direct income tax. 
In time this evolved into a new pattern of provincial finance (1870-2). 
In Bombay and Madras the rate of land tax per acre had already begun 
to decline and these new measures generalised the trend across the 
country. Gradually land revenue diminished as a proportion of 
government income. But it is rather ironic that the colonial state, fear- 
ful for social order, had begun to lose the nerve to tax the countryside 


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at the very point when rising agricultural incomes were creating the 
lineaments of a small class of independent peasants and affluent 
yeomen farmers in some parts of the country. This switch to direct 
taxation on incomes and trades in the towns carried important impli- 
cations. Opportunities for sustained conflict between government and 
the professional or trading people of the large towns were increased. 
Also the need to assess and collect non-agricultural taxes combined 
with a desire for urban improvement to nudge the British cautiously 
into the beginnings of local self-government during the early 1870s. In 
time the municipal boards and the corporations of Bombay, Calcutta 
and Madras were to provide formal arenas where the conflicts between 
colonial government and its subjects would be dramatised by a new 
generation of public leaders. 

It is important to avoid a ‘Whiggish’ interpretation here. Too many 
histories seem to assume a simple transition after 1857 from traditional 
resistance to modern nationalism and political organisation. Neither 
part of this equation is so simply drawn. There is no reason to apply 
the term traditional to the reaction of tribal peoples, peasants or 
zamindars against the invasion of their sphere by the colonial state, 
moneylenders and petty commodity production. Revolts of the types 
which occurred in the early nineteenth century persisted to 1947 (and 
indeed beyond). On the other hand, the early nineteenth century had 
witnessed agitation by urban and professional people as coherently ar- 
ticulated as that which is subsumed under the term ‘nationalism’ after 
1880. The theory of the ‘drain of wealth’ from India by Britain was in 
wide circulation in the upper Indian cities during the series of taxation 
riots which occurred between 1809 and 1818. In 1806 Indian traders 
and scribal people in Madras had combined with the non-official 
European community to petition for the retention of a Welsh judge 
who had fallen foul of the Madras government. Much of the cultural 
activity of Calcutta in the 1820s and 30s was an implied critique of 
colonial rule. What was lacking in the early nineteenth century was 
only all-India organisation, and this lack largely reflected the absence 
of much overall cohesion in the British government of India itself. 
Historians of the future will begin to define the content of nationalism 
more widely and to date its origins much earlier. 

Yet in 1860 the restiveness of traders and professional men was still a 
minor irritant. Instead government was concerned to soothe and 
cajole the great magnates of the countryside and the princes who had 


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wavered during the crisis of 1857. In this they were largely successful. 
Though it is almost impossible to measure its impact, the new rdle 
created for the British Crown in the Indian polity appears to have been 
a stabilising influence. The destruction of Delhi and the show trial of 
the last Mughal finally released the British from their theoretical sub- 
mission to the authority of the house of Timur. Charters and procla- 
mations issued in the last days of the rebellion, including Victoria’s 
famous declaration of religious toleration, were in the Queen’s name. 
Hereafter the British gradually elaborated the royal cult and the 
language of feudal loyalty in India, particularly among the princes. 
This trend culminated in the Delhi Durbar of 1877 when Victoria was 
proclaimed Queen—Empress and princes and people were ranked and 
honoured by the principles of a peculiar amalgamation of Anglo— 
Norman and Mughal conceptions of race and royalty. If Hindu king- 
ship flourished in the localities the rhetoric of public life in the major 
centres was transformed. The Indian National Congress, meeting in 
1885 to criticise the shortcomings of British rule, was obliged to pro- 
claim that ‘loyalty is part of our constitution’. 

Practical measures also helped to confirm the position of the great 
magnates and renew their acquiescence. The British abandoned their 
policy of sequestrating Indian states if their own conception of right 
succession was not fulfilled. There was some trouble over the 
influence of residents, especially in the Maratha state of Baroda, but in 
general British residents were able indirectly to foster ‘modernising’ 
diwans in the important native states. A succession of English- 
educated rajas and diwans in Travancore and Hyderabad’s diwan, Sir 
Salar Jang, more effectively promoted British interests in their respec- 
tive states than any number of interfering early-nineteenth-century 

Those revenue officials who before 1857 had called for a more cau- 
tious approach to the territorial magnates of northern India were, as 
they saw it, triumphantly justified by the events of 1857. Canning 
(Governor-General, later Viceroy, 1856-62) brought the war in 
Awadh to an end by buying off the Talukdars with the promise that 
they would regain control of their villages and secure a much lighter 
land-revenue settlement. Some great estates were seized by Govern- 
ment as punishment for rebellion, but officers made sure that these 
later came under control of the most important of the great rural con- 
nections. The yeoman proprietor, supposed beneficiary of the Sum- 


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mary Settlement of 1856, was given short shrift and a pedigree and 
ideology was elaborated for the ‘Barons of Oudh’ which resembled 
nothing so much as eighteenth-century rural Scotland. Worried by the 
thought that transfers of land to moneylenders had helped precipitate 
rebellion, divisional commissioners sought to give protection to the 
lands of spendthrift aristocrats through the institution of the Court of 
Wards which took over their estates in cases of incompetence or min- 
ority. The Talukdars’ Encumbered Estates Act of 1870 which put 
brakes on the sale of land for debt was echoed in Central India where 
the British opted for a landlord solution and in the Punjab where the 
few great magnates who had survived the terminal crisis of the Sikh 
state were protected. 

However, the ‘tilt towards the landlords’ was only possible in areas 
where large magnates existed to receive the benefits of Western edu- 
cation and instruction in land management. Elsewhere the British 
sought to improve their relations with the vast body of cultivators. In 
Bengal riots against indigo planters after 1857 and later rent agitations 
in the 1870s resulted in slow change in the rent and tenancy legisla- 
tion by 1885. In western and southern India the rate of revenue 
levied on the owner-occupier peasants had already begun to come 
down before 1857. Even in the North-Western Provinces and Oudh an 
outbreak of disturbances between tenant and landlord in the early 
1860s prompted legislation which marginally favoured more substan- 
tial peasants. British land policy after 1857 was in fact riven with con- 
tradiction. It was designed to mean all things to all men. Zamindars 
were to be capitalist farmers; but the state gave no aid in this unlikely 
transition. Improvement was supposed to be the order of the day, but 
the penetration of urban capital into the rural areas was inhibited by 
debt legislation for fear that it might give rise to further unrest. Peasant 
farmers were given a little protection against summary ejectment from 
their plots. Yet all the while the ancient inequalities of rural society 
were maintained by population growth and official inertia. 

That the British were able to carry on this balancing act throughout 
the rest of the century was a result of developments largely unrelated 
to their post-Mutiny policies. In the first place the years 1860 to 1880 
saw a quite rapid expansion of the communications network. In 1857 
there were a mere 570 miles of railway line in India. By 1880 the figure 
had reached 4,300. In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened. Between 1856 
and 1864 demand for Indian cotton almost trebled as a result of the 


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Civil War in America which reduced production in that quarter. These 
three developments made it much easier to sell India’s agricultural 
products on the world market and enriched some farmers and mer- 
chant entrepreneurs. A slow depreciation of India’s silver-based coin- 
age against European gold-based coinages also continued to give a 
boost to the international competitiveness of the subcontinent’s 
goods. Even the weather played fair so that the later 1860s and 1870s 
saw few bad harvests like those which had plagued the 1830s. Finally 
population began its secular movement upwards about the middle of 
the century. The annual growth rate accelerated between 1840 and 
1870 from under 1 per cent per annum to about 1.5 per cent. 

The growth of India’s economy in the years 1860 to 1890 was to 
make only a small dent in its inheritance of rural poverty. In many 
parts of the country inflation merely opened up income differentials in 
the peasant economy. But it did at least give the new Raj a relief from 
the chronic agrarian problems of the first half of the century. The land- 
owning, commercial and urban élites were more stable. For the time 
being they at least continued to acquiesce in the distant rule of 


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By 1860 India was locked into a pattern of imperial subordination 
which was to be essentially maintained, despite formal constitutional 
changes, until 1935. The Indian Army had rid itself of the troublesome 
Hindi-speaking villagers of the Gangetic plains. The post-Mutiny 
army, furnished with a steady supply of Punjabi recruits, now care- 
fully segregated on grounds of caste and religion, was forged into a re- 
liable mercenary force for internal security or protection of the 
North-West Frontier against the supposed Russian threat. Indian 
troops were also dispatched with more confidence to East and South 
Africa, South-East Asia and ultimately, in 1914, to Europe itself. 
Detachments of troops from quiescent native states added to the paper 
strength of this large land army. Most pleasing of all to the new India 
Office in London and to the British Treasury, Indian taxation, which 
had been reorganised after 1857, continued to bear the cost of this ex- 
pensively re-equipped force. 

A more satisfactory imperial economic relationship — from the Bri- 
tish point of view — had also emerged after the 1840s, though this was 
somewhat obscured by the bloody drama of 1857. Exports of British- 
manufactured textiles picked up sharply, despite a lull in the 1860s. 
Indian merchants created an excellent inland retailing system for Lan- 
cashire goods in eastern and southern India and they were now linked 
to the sea-ports by railway lines. It was calculated that one-third of 
the demand for moderate and finer cloth in Bengal and Bihar was met 
by British imports by 1860. Raw material exports to the developed 
world had also achieved a more stable trend. Railways and the pen- 
etration of the buying agents of large European firms into smaller mar- 
kets helped supply. Demand for cotton was boosted by the American 
Civil War and grain by the opening of the Suez Canal. Opium exports 
from India which continued to supply more than ten per cent of the 
income of the Indian government maintained their insidious grip on 
the markets of China. Specialist plantation crops — notably tea and 


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coffee — were firmly established, while the rapid growth in the volume 
of world shipping after 1860 increased the demand for jute from 
Bengal. All the while, large numbers of Indian indentured labourers 
were shipped to Ceylon, Malaysia, the Caribbean and southern 
Africa, replacing earlier slave populations. 

If the orotund pronouncements of Sir John Strachey and Sir Henry 
Maine on empire and human evolution began to impart a certain fin de 
siécle air to Indian government, the traumas of consolidation were 
now passed. Small groups of ‘partners in empire’ had been teased out 
of Indian society. In the north the sons of talukdars attended chiefs’ 
colleges to learn about crop varieties and agricultural improvement. In 
the west some peasant farmers shod the wheels of their carts with silver 
to celebrate their profits from the cotton boom. The fractious Hindu 
intelligentsia produced complaisant recruits for collectors’ offices and 
district courts, while a policy for coopting conservative Muslims to 
imperial rule had already been foreshadowed with the publication of 
(later Sir) Sayyid Ahmed’s, An account of the loyal Mohammedans of 
India (1860). 

The British middle class gloried in the glamour of darbars and their 
status as a Herrenvolk in the east. Yet there were, as always, more 
sober commentators who understood that the hard benefits of the 
Indian Empire to Britain and the British economy, as opposed to small 
groups of entrepreneurs and officials, were more illusory. There was 
no reason to believe that British manufactures, textiles and machinery 
needed formal empire to penetrate Indian markets. After all, they had 
commanded markets throughout Asia, Europe and Latin America 
without benefit of collectors and judges. In fact, modern economic 
historians speculate that without easy colonial markets British 
industries might have modernised more rapidly in the later nineteenth 
century to face growing European and American competition. India 
would have sold raw materials on the world market regardless of her 
formal colonial status. Even the Indian army was used largely to patrol 
and contain dissidence within India. For this reason wise men at the 
supposed height of empire in the days of Victoria’s coronation as 
Queen-Empress continued to reiterate doubts and questions which 
had persisted since the days of Edmund Burke. 

For some the British Indian Empire had gone from adolescence to 
early senility without passing through an age of maturity. The reason 
for pessimism among Indian officials as much as Westminster poli- 


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ticians becomes clearer when they acknowledge how many false starts 
the Indian Empire had made on the road towards economic success 
and political stability by 1870. For the ambitions of colonial planners 
from Clive and Hastings through Wilberforce, Bentinck and Dal- 
housie had been disappointed again and again. 

For one thing India had not become a rich colony of plantation and 
conversion, an Asian Brazil, as some had thought possible in the 
1820s. British capitalism in India was a relative failure. Little money 
was put into the economy, except through copper-bottomed schemes 
like railway loans. Fear of an uncertain trading environment and the 
lack of commitment to the local economy of expatriates in Calcutta 
and Bombay ensured that profits would be returned to England not 
ploughed back into the Indian economy. Cape Town, Sydney, even 
Buenos Aires, saw the development of much more dynamic British 
expatriate economies. The feeble showing of Protestant Christianity 
in India meant that there was no force for assimilation to breach the 
racial boundaries between Europeans and Indians which were now 
widened by the hauteur of the post-Mutiny generation of officials and 
businessmen. The flourishing, if dubious Anglo-Indian partnerships 
of the eighteenth century were discouraged in the new age of Victorian 
probity. Moreover, Indian government retained its hostility to plan- 
tations and European ownership of land. There were too many oppor- 
tunities for conflict with indigenous landowners to please officialdom. 

Again, India had been written off as an indigenous plantation econ- 
omy in which peasants produced crops under state control for 
flourishing export markets. This, J. B. Money proclaimed in 1860, 
when he unfavourably compared British India with Dutch Indonesia 
in Java, or how to manage a colony. The Dutch, through their Culti- 
vation System, had forced Javanese peasants to produce crops for them 
as a form of tribute in kind, and this had bailed Holland’s weak econ- 
omy out of the depressions of the early nineteenth century. India, 
despite its size, was a relatively inefficient producer of agricultural raw 
materials with only a weak hold in foreign markets. Apart from opium 
valuable export crops made relatively little contribution to govern- 
ment finances over much of the country. The British never gained suf- 
ficient control over peasant producers to extract cash crops as a form 
of tribute, even in areas such as ‘wet’ South India where tribute had 
once been exacted as a proportion of the crop. The rigid /aissez faire 
economy of free market which had become dominant in official think- 


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ing by 1815 was a significant discouragement to state control over the 
economy. In fact the so-called Age of Reform of the 1830s coincided 
with a withdrawl of government from many areas of economic man- 

Finally what of the creation of a free peasant economy which was the 
proclaimed aim of many of the theorists of the 1830s and 40s from 
economists such as John Stuart Mill and Richard Jones to adminis- 
trators such as Bentinck and John Lawrence? Several conditions, dis- 
cussed in previous chapters, ensured that this aim was only 
imperfectly accomplished in a few regions such as Gujarat and the 
Punjab. The ‘revenue squeeze’ which accompanied the consolidation 
of British rule undoubtedly damaged peasant investment in new wells, 
bullocks and carts while the depression of the 1830s conspired to 
depress peasant income also. Yet there were deeper reasons. The struc- 
ture of landholding in India as it had emerged from the pre-colonial 
period and had been consolidated by British administrators and rev- 
enue courts made it likely that profits from a period of slow expansion 
(such as occurred between 1860 and 1890, for instance) were monopol- 
ised by the rural moneylenders and landlords or by urban commercial 
people. Again, the social conservatism of colonial administration was 
confirmed by the rural resistance of the early nineteenth century 
which culminated in the Rebellion of 1857. The Indian authorities 
approached matters of agrarian reform with the greatest of caution. 
They were reluctant to tax the rich peasant and moneylender or to pro- 
tect the poor occupancy tenant or day labourer. The limited gains 
from the cash-crop boom of the mid-Victorian years were soon 
swallowed up therefore by the gathering pace of population growth 
and land fragmentation. 

It is with thoughts like this that the authors of the 1929 Cambridge 
History of India might have approached their sixth volume The Indian 
Empire, 1858-1918 if they had yet been imbued with the pessimism of 
the post-imperial age. However, the failure of ‘progress’ as defined by 
an earlier age is no more an adequate paradigm than the supposed 
successes in the field of education, modernisation and local self- 
government which gave heart to the founders of the British Common- 
wealth in 1931. A more enduring perspective is to see the late 
pre-colonial and the early colonial periods as a critical era in the for- 
mation of the social order of modern India, and one in which indige- 
nous forces of change continued to flow strongly even after the fuller 


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incorporation of the subcontinent into the capitalist world system. 
India’s resurgence since 1947 as a great Asian power and its re- 
emergence as a major centre of autonomous growth and of a certain 
type of Asian capitalism, though within a Western-dominated world 
system, suggests that such a perspective is more valid than the older 
imperial construction of Indian history. 

One theme emphasised here has been the attraction and conflict be- 
tween indigenous Indian forms of capitalism and forces generated by 
the European world economy. Contacts between Indian financiers, 
fiscal lords and merchants predated the coming of colonialism. Much 
of the amazing dynamism of early British penetration and conquest of 
the subcontinent was due to the underlying tides of petty commodity 
production, marketing and financial speculation within Indian 
society. By acting as an Indian merchant, fiscal entrepreneur and mer- 
cenary band leader writ large, the Company was able to suborn and 
conquer India. Relying on the support of Indian literati and financial 
expertise, the British were able to push forward the processes of peas- 
antisation and create a sporadically productive export economy. Yet 
by the same token, the very form of this indigenous capitalism helped 
to frustrate their more grandiose economic plans. Zamindar entrepre- 
neurs denied labour to planters; European business houses rarely pen- 
etrated beneath the intricately layered networks of Indian merchants 
and financiers; village magnates fought off the colonial state’s attempts 
to extract the wealth of the rural élites in the style of Meiji Japan. 

The early nineteenth century seen by officials such as William Slee- 
man as the ‘Age of the bania’, was a poor period for Indian merchants 
and by no means a success for the rural moneylender. Yet the vitality 
of the bazaar economy did survive the shocks of depression and the 
lineaments of a national market continued to develop above the ten- 
acious patterns of regionalism. Despite the assaults of expatriate Bri- 
tons, Indian traders in Calcutta (although Marwaris from north India) 
and merchant groups in Bombay kept a hold on some parts of their re- 
gional economies. From these groups were to emerge the first gener- 
ation of India’s industrialists, a transformation that was already in 
train in the freer atmosphere of Ahmedabad in Gujarat and even in a 
military station such as Kanpur in the north. Rural industries such as 
sugar-making and rice-husking which were equally significant for 
modern India’s economy survived and consolidated themselves along- 
side these more spectacular developments. Service industries, notably 


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those connected with literacy and the law, often seen as purely para- 
sitic, developed quite rapidly in the early nineteenth century. They 
drew heavily on indigenous traditions of learning but also represented 
a creative response to Western methods of organisation. India’s stock 
of educated expertise, one of its few great advantages in the present 
century, emerged strongly out of this first colonial age. 

This book has argued that the first half of the nineteenth century 
was a critical period of the formation, by hammer blows from the out- 
side, of the Indian peasantry. But ultimately, the resilience of country 
people is what must be emphasised. Despite the pressures of war and 
social conflict in the eighteenth century, heavy tax and commodity 
extraction in the nineteenth, and the periodic toll of revolt and re- 
pression, peasants continued to adapt in a creative way to their en- 
vironment. The eighteenth-century village magnates and warrior 
people found their dominance challenged and their privileges eroded 
throughout the subcontinent, but their influence remained tenacious. 
The British had fractured the unity of the land-controlling kin groups 
at the pargana level, but had not swept them away. In the later nine- 
teenth and twentieth centuries Rajputs and Bhumihar Brahmins in the 
north, Kamma and Reddi cultivators in the Deccan and the south con- 
tinued to play an important intermediary réle in politics and social or- 
ganisation between townsmen and the countryside. However, 
beneath them and their like, groups of farmers less closely associated 
with the warrior life-styles of the past had begun to assert their econ- 
omic and social importance. Such were the Pattidars of Gujarat whose 
descendants filled the ranks of rural capitalists in western India and 
East Africa and later recruited themselves in some numbers into 
Gandhi’s political following. In the south a group such as the Vellalas 
of Kongunad who had fertilised the upland plains of Tipu Sultan’s 
Mysore solidified into a recognisable rural interest. In Bengal the 
Mahishya farmers of Midnapur profited from the expansion of jute 
and rice cultivation, but also began to assert a higher social status and 
push their children into the attenuated rural school system. 

These developments, of course, should not be seen as an Indianised 
form of a naive doctrine of national progress. This would be a mere 
substitute for the historiography of modernisation and of triumphal 
Westernisation propagated by the old writers. Pioneer peasants and 
moneylenders prospered in part because they were able to break down 
the resistance of tribal and nomadic societies, to annex the labour of 


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backward regions and often to subordinate more completely their 
low-caste underlings. Resistance movements throughout the nine- 
teenth century were directed against more privileged groups of 
Indians as often as the British. In their turn, even the tribal, the low- 
caste farmer or the poor Muslim weaver created political strategies to 
protect their livelihood and communities though their existence is 
often obscured by the extant source material. 

These privileged groups have been seen as a ‘rich peasantry’, 
whether because they genuinely improved their economic status, or 
simply because others all around them were more rapidly impover- 
ished by land fragmentation, expropriation and lack of investment. 
However, what is more important is that groups of rural people of this 
sort continued to play a creative réle in the formation of regional cul- 
tures and economies. Some took up and moulded to their values the 
devotional religious movements which continued to develop power- 
fully in the countryside. Others, such as the Jat farmers of the Punjab, 
or the Pattidars of Gujarat were to annex aspects of the faith of refor- 
mist religious movements such as the Arya Samaj to their own lives 
and their own patterns of worship and community organisation. More 
commonly, movements of social reform in marriage customs, move- 
ments to develop basic education and demands for self-respect 
amongst once-lowly people appealed to and were forwarded by well- 
placed and relatively prosperous farmers whose activities only became 
visible once the infant vernacular press began to report them. 

The implications and directions of these stirrings were complex, 
even contradictory. In some cases they pointed towards the assertions 
of regional culture and political autonomy which became known in the 
later nineteenth century as non-Brahminism. Other comparable 
movements have been bundled by historians into categories such as 
Hindu or Muslim revivalism. Still others began quite early to con- 
tribute a rural and popular base to what is inadequately called Indian 
nationalism. All attested to the vitality of the societies of the Indian 
subcontinent which survived, adapted and consolidated through the 
great changes which accompanied the twilight of the Indian state and 
the onset of colonialism. 


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Note: Indian words which have only been used once or twice have been trans- 
lated in the text. The renderings below are, of course, approximate and 


Arya Samaj 







Bhumihar Brahmin 


Brahmo Samaj 



a movement of Hindu religious reform which 
sought to return to the pristine beliefs of the 
Vedas, or first Hindu scriptures. Active in the 
Punjab and North-Western Provinces. 

a Hindu grain trader; used more generally for 
members of the Hindu mercantile castes; mildly 
derogatory when applied to a substantial 

an Indian manager or factotum for aEuropean 
merchant or East India Company servant; 
usually Bengal. 

the community of nomadic pack-bullock 

a hunting tribe of the Deccan, often employed 
in eighteenth-century armies as guerrillas. 
‘devotion’; used of the Hindu religious path 
which emphasises loving devotion to the will of 
the deity. 

a Hindu nomadic, cattle-keeping community 
found south of Delhi. 

atribal group of central and western India. 
‘landholding’ brahmin caste which had adopted 
the agrarian life style of the Rajput (q.v.); 
common in the Benares region. 

the Hindu priestly order, though widely 
involved in ‘secular’ occupations by the 
eighteenth century. 

a Hindu reform movement of the nineteenth 
century, founded by Ram Mohun Roy. It was 
monotheistic and rationalist and absorbed 
Christian and deist influences. 

aritually impure, leather-making caste-cluster 
of north India; Chamars had widely taken to 
labouring in agriculture by 1750. 

an order of Islamic Sufi (q.v.) mystics. 


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Chitpavan Brahmin 













Kuran (kuranic) 


a brahmin caste of the west coast (Konkan) 
which migrated into the Deccan and became 
powerful in the Maratha states. 

atribal group of Mysore which had created its 
own dynasty of rajas of Coorg. 

the financial minister of a Mughal province or 
Indian state. Diwani: the financial control of a 
province; taken by the British in Bengal in 1765. 
an Indian manager or factotum, for, e.g.,a 
European administrator or merchant. From ‘do 
bhasha’, one who spoke two languages; 
particularly in Madras. 

a tribal group of central-south India. 

a semi-nomadic, pastoralist Hindu grouping 
found in north-central India; sometimes 
agriculturalists by 1850. 

a Hindu spiritual guide. 

amember of an Indian religion, originating in 
or before the sixth century B.C., common 
among merchants of Gujarat and the north and 
some agriculturalists in Kanara and Mysore. 
Stressed attainment of perfection through 
humbling of earthly desires. 

a Hindu agriculturalist caste-cluster of Gujarat, 
Rajasthan, the Punjab and the North-Western 
Provinces. Jats rose in revolt against the 
Mughals in the late seventeenth century. 

an under-tenure holder in Bengal, often a 
substantial magnate who controlled production 
and bodies of share-croppers. 

a warrior and hunter people of the south; Kallar 
leaders became rajas in the dry parts of 

the official in Mughal government; ajurisconsul 
learned in Muslim law; under the British 
became little more than a registrar. 

a Hindu merchant caste of the Andhra Coast; 
some emigrated to Madras in service of the East 
India Company. 

the chief executive officer of a Mughal city; 
became a sort of police chief under the British. 

a major agricultural caste-cluster of western 
India; from them ‘Maratha’ war leaders were 

the Muslim sacred book; dictated by God to the 
Prophet Muhammad. 


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member ofa religious community common 
among farmers and merchants of Kanara, the 
Deccan and Mysore. Lingayats comprised 
several castes and were characterised bya 
special form of worship of Lord Shiva (q.v.) 

a Muslim teaching foundation; specialising in 
the Kuran, Arabic and Persian. 

aresident of Maharashtra (western Deccan); 
applied to the more prestigious families of non- 
Brahmin agriculturalists who provided the war- 
leaders and rajas of the Maratha movement. 

a warrior pastoralist group of dry south India; 
created their own kingdoms in the seventeenth 
and eighteenth centuries. 

a Rajput herdsman caste-cluster (usually 
converted to Islam) found in the Delhi region. 
holder of acoparcenary proprietory tenure 
usually found in the wet areas of Tamilnadu. 

a leading member of the wlama (q.v.) or Muslim 
learned who advised rulers on matters of 
religious law. 

an order of Islamic sufi (q.v.) mystics. 

a Muslim kin group of south India, prominent 
in learning and administration throughout the 
Deccan, Mysore and Madras from about the 
sixteenth century; the early Nawabs of Arcot 
were Navaiyats. 

deputy or viceroy of the Mughal emperors; 
nawabs became semi-independent rulers after 
their decline. 

the Hindu warrior caste-cluster of Kerala. 
aritually inferior set of agricultural labouring 
castes of south India. 

a Christian maritime caste of south-east India. 
the lowest level of Mughal administration. 
Often coterminous with the highest level of 
kinship organisation of Hindu warriors and 
land controllers. 

Zoroastrian merchant people and artisans of 
Gujarat; prominent traders and intelligentsia of 

village headman in western India and the 

aterm applied to the major peasant caste of 
Gujarat, similar to the Kunbis (q.v.) of 


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Saint Thomas Christian 

Satya Narayanis 


(from shakti) 





originally irregular horsemen attached to 
Maratha armies, became military plunderers in 
Deccan during early nineteenth century. 
Hindu warrior chief of South India. 

a Hindu kingdom, king. 

the great Hindu warrior caste category of north 
India; especially dominant in Rajasthan. 

a sectarian devotee of the Hindu God Rama; 
established powerful ‘monastic’ institutions in 
north India. 

anomadic herdsman caste-cluster of the Delhi 

lit. ‘dweller in the northern hills’; Afghan 
warriors who established kingdoms in north 
and central India in the seventeenth and 
eighteenth centuries. 

a form of land-revenue administration common 
in western and southern India, whereby tax was 
levied on the fields of each individual holder. 

a Christian religious community formed by 
west-Asian traders and local people of Kerala in 
the first centuries of the Christian era. 

the classical priestly language of the Hindus. 

a bhakti (q.v.) sect of western India; followers 
of the god Vishnu. 

devotee of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of 
procreation and destruction. 

Hindu sect prominent in east and north India, 
devoted to the worship of the universal female 
principle of divine power. 

lit. the ‘faction’; a main division of the Muslim 
faith deriving from an early succession dispute 
over the inheritance of the spiritual authority of 
the Prophet Muhammad. Shias, prominent in 
Iran and central Asia, provided important 
Muslim ruling families in Bengal and Awadh. 
member of an Indian religion founded in the 
fifteenth century, influenced by Hindu bhakti 
sects of the Punjab, centred on the revelations 
ofa line of Gurus as preserved in the sacred 
book, the Guru Granth Sahib. 

a devotee of hidden or mystical knowledge 
within the Muslim religion. Since the thirteenth 
century divided into orders, notably the 
Nagshbandiya, Chishtiya and Qadiriya; 
centred on hospices (khangas) and the tombs of 


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(sing. alim) 

Umara (sing. amir) 





their teachers, popularly regarded as saints. 

the majority division within Islam, dominant in 
India, often in conflict with the Shias (q.v.). 

a great rentier landholder, usually in Awach. 
the major Dravidian language of south India; 
hence Tamilnadu, the land of the Tamils. 
member of a brotherhood of murderous 
highway robbers. 

a major Dravidian language of south India and 
the Deccan; Telugu-speaking warriors created 
kingdoms in Tamilnadu after 1400. 

Muslim learned man specialising in the Kuran 
and Islamic law. 

the (Mughal) nobility. 

originally a language of the army, combining 
Persian words with a Hindi base, it became the 
literary language of Islamised north India after 
the decline of Persian. 

devotee of Lord Vishnu, God of beneficence 
and protection of the Hindus. 

lit. ‘landholder’ ; a superior proprietor who paid 
land revenue to the government. Often, asin 
Bengal, a large rentier landowner, but 
sometimes, as in the North-Western Provinces, 
a peasant owner-occupier. 


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