In The Name Of The People
The ancient, medieval, and colonial history of Bangladesh covers a period from antiquity to 1947, when India was partitioned. So the history of Bangladesh prior to 1947 is a history of India of which Bangladesh was a part. Today it is an independent nation within the Indian subcontinent, but is half the old Bengal or Bangla.
British Rule: The Greatest Tragedy
1498 - 1600
Vasco Da Gama
Soon after Columbus had discovered (for the Europeans) the americas (while looking for India), King Manuel of Portugal sent out a fleet of four ships under Vasco da Gama. The goal of the fleet was to reach the famed city of Calicut in soutwestern India (Today it is in the state of Kerala) and was a vital commercial centre of the East. Calicut was the centre of a network of trading routes. Towards the west, routes went to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea; routes went to the north to the Gulf of Cambay (Gujarat). To the East routes went to Bengal and Malacca (Malay Peninsula of Malaysia). These (except Malacca) were ancient trading centres of India and were almost legendary.
The ships left on the 8th of July, 1497 from Lisbon, Portugal. They went around the cape of Good Hope (Southern tip of Africa) and arrived in India on 18th of May, 1498. After the route around the Cape Of Good Hope (Cape Route) was discovered, Western Europeans could travel directly to India to trade. The monopoly of the Arabs and Eastern Europeans' over trade with India was broken. This can be viewed as the begining of the European era -- the planting of the seeds of today's Europe. The French, Dutch and the British soon followed the Portuguese. Of them, as is well known, the British, were most successful and it was the greatest tragedy for India.
1600 - 1757
The Weakening Moghuls and the Beginings of British Control
On 31st December 1600 the East India Company was created under the royal charter of Queen Elizabeth I for 15 years spice trading with India but ended up ruling India for about two centuries. At first, the company was humble and just set up trading posts at different locations in India. They set up trading posts at Machlipatanam (1611), Surat (1613, Emperor Jahangir granted the Company permission to establish a permanent trading station at Surat.) Madras (1639/41, leased from the local Raja to fortify, administer and even make own coins for 50% of proceedings) and Calcutta(1699).
Then the company acquired its first territory in Bombay. The territory was part of the dowry King Charles II received from his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza. That was the beginning of the colonization of the great empire that towered above the rest for millennia.
The British hostility began as early as 1686 when they sacked Hugli (West Bengal) and declared war on the Moghuls. The British forces were crushed! As a result of their misadventure the British lost their factories in Surat, Masulipatam (Machlipatanam) and Vishakhapatam. The British then started strengthening their hold on their remaining teritories and started Zamindari (feudal system) in Sutanati, Kalikata and Govindpur and built Fort Williams.
Just a few decades later, around the begining of the 18th century, the British got their chance again. At this time the mighty Moghuls were were under attack from all sides. They became involved in a war with the Sikhs in the western India. Then came the death of Bahadur Shah, the 7th Moghul emperor. After his death civil war broke out among the princes, who all wanted power. There were quick successions of power at Delhi. Instability creeped in.
In 1739, the Moghul army suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Nadir Shah and Muhammad Shah from the northwest frontier. More invasions came from the Afgans and the Marathas started to rise and expand their empire inside India. The Moghul forces, under attack from all sides, were weakened greatly. The sun was setting on the Moghul Empire.
This weakening of the Moghul rule and internal struggles allowed the British to play deeper role in the politics of India. They fueled and used the crisis. They gave support to kings in war who would benefit them. They pitted Indian princes against other Indian princes and started carving out an empire. This was the prelude to another significant phase, the dawn of a new era for England and the West.
1757 The Conquest of Bengal
It was through Bengal that the British started their colonization. In 1757, a historic battle was fought at Polashi (Plassey, as spelled incorrectly) in which the British won Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. This was the battle that changed the course, not only of Bengal or India, but of western history as well. Vasco Da Gama's discovery of the cape route around Africa was the first brick and this battle and subsequent conquest of Bengal was the foundation of today's Europe. It would soon transform and catapult Britain to the centre stage as a world power over the centuries. This battle would be the begining of the fall of India and rise of the west, which had been backwaters until then.
Robert Clive is noted as the hero (to the British) of this battle. It was Robert Clive who laid the foundation of British rule in India. Robert Clive had raised an army of Indian merceneries called the Lal Paltan (because they wore red coats; Lal = red). This unit (though a Bengal unit) hardly had any Bengalis at this time. Most were from west of Bihar, such as the Rohillas, Hindustanis, Pathans, Rajputs, Hindu Jats etc (Amin).
Bengal was a strong Moghul province and it would have been quite hard to imagine conquering Bengal from the Moghuls, but Robert Clive did the impossible. At that time Nawab Sirajuddowla was the semi independent governor (Nawab) of Bengal under the Moghul empire. He had many enemies and rivals within his family who wanted to be the Nawab. The British (Robert Clive) made alliance with these family rivals. The alliance changed the balance of power.
Mirzafar (Sirajuddowla's uncle and general) and other generals were bribed and they betrayed Sirajuddowla in battle. A major part of Sirajuddowla's army never took part in the battle at Polashi. With the mercenery army and using the internal dissention against the Nawab, the British had their biggest victory, the victory at Polashi. After the victory, Sirajuddowla was killed by Miran, son of Mirzafar.
Mirzafar, the traitor, was made the Nawab of Bengal. He was but a puppet of the British. Soon the British made him abdicate in favour of his son in law, Mir Quasim who gave them the Zamindari (feudal lordship) of Burdwan, Midnapore and Chittagong districts. Once again the British used internal rivalry to their favour. For some time, the East India Company put up puppet rulers but power virtually lay in their hands. In 1763 Mir Quasim was defeated by the Company and Mirzafar (Mir Jafar) was restored.
After this victory in Bengal, Clive raised another Sepoy (mercenery) unit in Bengal and six more in Madras (1759). The conquest of Bengal meant that the whole North East India was more or less under the East India Company. In Bombay, similarly in 1760-67, they raised more battalions composed of Muslim Arabs, African Abbysinians, Indian Muslims and Hindu Marhattas (Amin).
1764 Major British Victories
The mercenery armies led by Major Hector Munro defeated the alliance of Mir Quasim, Nawab of Oudh and the Moghul emperor at the battle of Buxar. This was another significant victory for the British. After this battle, the East India Company virtually became master of half of North India. (Later this same army would be defeated by Haidar Ali.)
The Moghul emperor was captured and became a virtual prisoner of the British. Clive assumed governorship of Bengal after this in 1765 and in 1772, became bold enough to remove the Nawab completely and thus turning Bengal (Bengal, Bihar and Orissa) into a British colony, defacto. Of course, technically, it was still not part of the British empire, since it was under the East India Company.
The Company army at this point consisted of 1000 Europeans,and 59, 000 mercenery sepoys (soldier). It was with Indian troops that the British defeated the Moghul emperor and took over Bengal.
It is in the same year that the first major rebellion took place. A Bengal unit mutinied and imprisonned their officers. It was the Lal Paltan (the very first unit). It was suppressed by the 6th Bengal Native Infantry and the leaders were executed horribly.
In 1775, Haidar Ali who had carved out a powerful empire in Mysore and had expanded to the west and had defeated the British several times (including Munro), declared war on the British. Allied with him was Nizam of Haiderabad (Central India). That was the first Anglo-Mysore war.
In 1779, a united alliance of Indian rulers fought against the three mercenery armies. In the battle the British were the victors. Once again the British used the Indians to fight the Indians -- a very clever scheme that the British must be given credit for and shame should be given to the Indians in the mercenery armies.
The second Anglo-Mysore war was in 1780, in which Haidar succeeds in defeating the British everywhere but he dies in battle in 1782. In 1784, Tipu Sultan, Haidar's son signed a treaty in which both sides gave up conquered teritories. In the third war, 1789 - 1792, Mysore lost. Tipu Sultan had to concede half of his teritory. In 1799, he was killed by the British. And in the fourth war, Mysore is conquered. Thus a major force against the British was silenced. After Mysore's fall the British conquest became much easier.
1796 saw the British (East India Company) as a major power in India. They controlled vast areas of India including Bengal which was one of the major trading centres. Then their army in India was composed of:
The Bengal Army was divided into:
European Artillery :- Three
Battalions of five companies each.
By 1805, they had subjugated all of India except Sikh Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan. Their mercenery army strength grew much. Their army size grew to 154,000 of which 130,000 were Indians.
By now the Bengal army was no longer composed mainly of muslims from Oudh, Rajputana and Punjab etc of northwest India. The change started after the battle of Buxar, where the Moghul emperor was beaten. More Hindus were recruited from Bengal. The percentage of Muslims went down to about 25%. Then since 1775, Hindus from Oudh started joining. The size of the Bengal army also started expanding to become larger than the Madras and Bombay armies. From this time, the Bengal army was composed of Bengals.
At the close of the 18th century, the main threat of the British only lay in Punjab and Afganistan. The British had taken most of India and still their main army was composed of Indians. The Bengal army did most of the work for the British.
The British in Bangla
The British in Bengal collected tax without having any responsibility for the country. From the very beginning in 1757, when Sirajuddowla was defeated, the British plundered Bengal and this plunder directly contributed to the industrial revolution in England. The plunder from Bangla (Bengal) was invested in the new British industries while the loss of capital and fall of demand of Bangla goods combined and caused the final ruin of Bangla. In 1813, the British decided that India should no longer be an industrial nation (which it had been a leader since the earliest records) but an agricultural nation and colony of an industrialized England! British goods were sold in India and Indian goods were gradually replaced. The trade was made one way. Britain no longer wanted to import from India but only export to India.
While massive industrialization began in Britain, Bangla (and the rest of India) was de-industrialized. Indian exports were slowly being stiffled, with that its economy. Bengal was hurt tremendously since it was an exporting nation.
They took raw materials from Bangla and sold industrial products from Britain back to the Bengali people. The Muslin still caused a threat for sale of British fabric and so the weavers were forced to stop producing Muslin or passing on their skill to their children. To enforce this the thumbs of the weavers were cut off.
One thing that can be said about the previous rulers of Bengal is that the people suffered relatively little. Under such barbaric conditions as imposed by the British, Bangla, once one of the richest, collapsed and is since one of the poorest nations in the world.
The British enforced a barbaric system of Zamindari in Bangla. The British Zamindari was an extreme form of feudalism. The land revenue in Bengal was also doubled in 1765 adding to the plight of the people. (The amount of land revenue to be collected in Bengal was increased by the English East India Company to Rs 23,400,000, from Rs 14,290,000 in 1722 and Rs 18,180,000 in 1764.) This was changed further in 1773. Warren Hastings introduced a new rule, under which the right to collect land revenue is auctioned to the highest bidder. This meant there was no roof to the tax on the peasants. In 1793, 10/11th of that year’s revenue is fixed in perpetuity as the sum to be paid by the zamindars to the Company. The farmers suffered greatly but to make things worse, they were forced to produce cash crops for the British rather than produce food or other crops that they normally produced. This caused great famines in Bangla. A monstrous reign as never seen before started in Bengal and the rest of India.
Historian, D. P. Singhal grimly notes, "From 1765, when the British took over Bengal, to 1858, when they quelled India's first rebellion, twelve famines and four "severe scarcities" occurred. This frequency increased in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Although there is no accurate record, a conservative estimate suggests that in the nineteenth century alone, more than twenty one million people died of starvation. In 1943, four years before the British withdrawal from India more than three million people perished in the Bengal famine. It is significant that those parts of India which had been longest under British rule were the poorest at the time of independence."
By the end of the 19th century they had taken over most of India from Nepal in the North, Burma in the East, and in the West they had taken Sindh. It took them over a century to take the mighty India. Their conquest was achieved through power and trickery slowly so as not to take on too much at once. They took India piece by piece. And just as Bangla, the rest of India suffered as never before. The British created a colony in India, enslaving the creators of the first civilization. The old India, leader in technology, science, education, philosophy, architecture, cultural and social development ... virtually a leader in every field was dead. Its own achievements and education would have to be learned back from the west. The British ocupation of India was a holocaust of unspeakable magnitude.
In the early 1800s, in Narkelbaria, near Calcutta (Bengal) the first major martyr of the independence movement started his ressistance. This was the immortal Titumir. Titumir led a violent campaign against the British established rich land lords. With his son, Jawhar Ali, and others, he built a legendary bamboo fort (Bansher Kella) to defend against the British. On 19th November, 1831, they clashed with the British forces. In the battle, they were defeated by the British and both Titumir and his son became martyrs.
However, the rebellion did not die with Titumir and nor was he the first to rebel. Ressistance to the British started early when the British started their activities. The Moghuls opposed them but were weakened too much by that time. Mysore and Nizam, the Sikhs fought to prevent the British from taking over the country but were eventually defeated.
After India went to the British, there were many rebellions. In 1824, the 47th regiment rebelled. The leaders were hanged and the unarmed Sepoys (soldiers) were fired upon by the artillery. After Punjab was taken over by the British, there were a series of rebellions in 1848.
In 1855-56, another most daring revolution occured in Bengal/Bihar. The Shantals (an ancient people) in Bengal and Bihar rose in revolt against the tyranical British rulers. They did not have guns or artillery but they fought valiantly. They fought armed only with axes, bows and arrows. They were crushed but their bravery was inspiring.
Then another great rebellion took place. The British East India Company troops were not satisfied with the status quo. They were underpaid and had no future beyond the petty rank of Subedar. They also felt that the British rulers did not respect the traditions of their religions.
In 1856, a rumour was circulated that the cartridges of the new rifles were greased with the fat of cows and pigs. Cows are sacred to the Hindus and pigs are considered Haram or unkoshier by the Muslims. This rumour was serious and in the Bengal army several soldiers refused to use the cartridges. But in Meerut, near Delhi, on April 24th, a group of 85 soldiers refused together. These men were tried for mutiny and were given prison sentences and publicly fettered.
This caused an outrage and the other soldiers of the army revolted and on March 10th, they attacked the jail and freed their comrades along with hundreds of civilian prisoners. Then they attacked the British and their lackeys. They then marched towards Delhi and were joined by other regiments. They took over Delhi with bloodshed and reinstated the deposed Moghul emperor Muhammad Bahadur Shah. As soon as the news reached Bangla, it triggered massive mutiny. And very soon there was a general revolution all over north and central India against the British. Many deposed princes and the Queen (Ranee) of Jhanshi, from all over India joined in with their followers.
Unfortunately, justice was not served and the British defeated the rebellion, butchered the leaders and massacred the defeated forces. In Jhansi, for example, the British left the gift of powerful stench of burning flesh. The last of the rebels were defeated by June of 1858.
After the victory, the British officially abolished the Moghul empire and the authority of the country went from the East India Company to the British crown and the drain of wealth was increased. The army recruitment from Bengal was now reduced significantly and Punjab became the new source.
Famine, the trademark of the British, continued all over India. Furthermore laws were passed enabling planters to coerce, use fraud and other means and keep the workers as virtual slaves. Urban India was converted to a rural nation. Percentage of people dependent on agriculture increased as the industries went down. Hard to imagine but litteracy rate falls dramatically in India to only 6% under the British. The seat of education was no longer litterate.
In the later part after being scared by the 1857 rebellion, the British tried some social programs to benefit the people. This also marked the begining of British policy of dividing the Indian populace on the basis of religion.
Even though there are those who cherish these efforts, they were not totally beneficial. British Common Law was introduced and unfortunately is still followed today. It is in need of modification to fit the specifics of the nation. (Regarding the law and order situation, many boast of the British. However, the law and order situation became a grim situation, where the police became worse than dacoits (violent robbers).
The English language was introduced and as English became a world tongue it opened up India to the western world for good or for bad. They set up a beaurocracy that some consider modern but is the home of corruption. They introduced the western education system. Unfortunately, even though there are those who champion it, the system introduced in India and Bangla, virtually were created to train clerks and an elite that would perpetuate British control.
Moreover, today many western people still cling to the idea that India was educated by the west, where it is really the opposite. The British were also motivated by a racist attitude which fueled the education system. Lord Macaulay decided that Indian education was inferior to the west and that the languages of India were not developed enough to transmit their superior knowledge. This was untrue (as we know today since much of our modern science had already been discussed in the ancient Indian treatises) but using this as a pretext Macaulay recomended that English be the only medium of education thus stiffling Indian learning and cutting off a whole group of people. Indian learning had gone to europe and now it was being taught back as if it were foreign in a foreign language. Under the British, 94% of Indians were illiterate, a sad whimper of the mighty seat of learning.
Another evil of the British education is that many after being subjected to a British style education came to see the British as the greatest people and India as a backward nation. It is an utter shame. Many of the celebrated leaders of India's independence were also victims of that education.
Today the education system has expanded but still retains the nature of mass producing clerks. There are some institutions that are distinguishable though but as a legacy of the British era, Indian history and learning is still taught as the British wanted. In high schools of Bangladesh a rather warped history of Bangladesh is presented where it totally skips major portions dealing with her acomplishments.
There is a need for a total change in the system in India (subcontinental) today, for it still retains the servant mentality. Culturally the people of the subcontinent have been hurt. Today the traditional clothes are associated with lower class and speaking English is considered high class. And worst of all, Hindus and Muslims still play the game of the British and fight each other. (Even though an extreme right wing Hindu BJP can cause concern, there is hope that they might be the ones with the back bone that the Congress Party so severely lacked to revive India.)
Even though the rebellion was crushed in 1857, revolution remained in Indian hearts. Revolution would spring up once again in less than half a century. The halfhearted reforms did not allievate the conditions of the people much and the drums of revolution beat in the hearts of the Indians.
Clickable Map of India
NOVO July 8th 2000
Updated last January 26th, 2001
A History of the Indian People by D. P. Singhal
1857 A Brief Political and Military Analysis by Maj (Retd) AGHA HUMAYUN AMIN
Chronology of Events by Ashish Dharmadhikari
India's Contribution to World Culture by Sudheer Birodhkar
The Indian Freedom Struggle - The Other Stream by Satyavrata Ghosh