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Oct 12, 2021, 6:05:33 AM10/12/21



BOOK REVIEW: The Theft of India - By Roy Moxham

Recently, I have been completely taken over by the urge to read more
about India’s history. Not only the British but pre-British era. This
craze was triggered by Shashi Tharoor’s Oxford speech, which kind of
demanded reparation from the British for the loot of Indian economy for
about 185 years. However, I wanted to know what happened before 1760s
when the British started ruling India. This urge made me turn towards a
fantastic book titled The THEFT of INDIA: The European Conquests of
Indian 1498 – 1765, by Roy Moxham. The book, I found, is an incredible
account of India before the British rule. I learnt that it all started
with the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, the British, the French and
again the British. What is most striking is that the French were very
close to wipe out the British from the Indian waters in mid-18th century
and to begin the French Indian territory. However, as was the case many
a times, the future of European powers in India was primarily decided by
the turn of events in Europe. As the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was
signed in May 1749, Madras – a strategically important territory was
returned to the British by the French, after which there was no looking
back for the British. In an attempt to keep the reading alive in my
mind, I have made these notes. I hope you find these interesting. Thank
you for your time. Here we go…

BOOK REVIEW: The THEFT of INDIA: The European Conquests of Indian 1498 –
1765, by Roy Moxham

While I was aware that Britain ruled India for almost two centuries
beginning mid-18th century, it came as a surprise to me that most of the
Southern India was ruled by Portuguese for more than a century beginning
the 16th century. Although Britain impoverished India of all economic
powers, Portuguese ruled the economy as cruelly and did it best to
destroy our culture and institutions as early as the 16th century.

In May 1498, when Vasco da Gama discovered sea route to India, it was
unimaginable that Portuguese would begin the terror within two years as
the world enters into 16th century. Not that Indian continent was
unknown. Spices from Indian continent were very well known in Europe and
very much in demand; however, the achievement of da Gama was to find the
route from Europe around the tip of Africa, which made it easier to
travel, predictable and thus, transformed the trade between Europe and Asia.

The greater the number of fortresses you hold, the weaker will be your
power: let all our forces be on the sea; because if we should not be
powerful at sea (which may the Lord forbid) everything will at once be
against us., Dom Francisco de Almeida to the King of Portugal, c. 1508.

Almeida was the first Portuguese ‘Viceroy of India’, who had a very
clear strategy from the beginning. It was him rather than da Gama - who
left for Portugal in 1502, who was the true architect of Portuguese
India. The immediate plan was the conquest of Goa. The conquest of Goa
was the first European annexation of Indian territory since the invasion
of Alexander the Great in c. 326 BC. Superior ships and firepower of
Portuguese soon created their mastery over the seas, which was enforced
by cartaz – a written permit allowing safe passage. The Portuguese,
having secured domination over Malabar, wanted to gain control over
Gujarat too. In 1540s, the Viceroy of India told the king of Portugal
that he had sent a commander with 20 ships to:

Burn and destroy the whole coast, in which he very well showed his
diligence and gallantry, because he caused more destruction to the coast
than was ever done before, or ever dreamt of, destroying every place
from Daman up to Broach, so that there was no memory left of them, and
he butchered everyone he captured without showing mercy to a living
thing. He burnt twenty large ships and 150 small ones and the town
squares were covered in bodies, which caused great astonishment and fear
in all Gujarat.

At Gogha, the Portuguese heaped up the bodies of those they had killed
in the temples, they then cut the throats of cows and defiled the
temples by sprinkling them with the blood. What more, it took almost 90
years to build the great St Cathedral – work had started in 1562 but
finally completed in 1652. It was 250 feet long and 165 feet wide – the
largest church in all Asia.

The Portuguese, however, were soon to be joined by the Dutch and British
by the end of the 16th century. In 1594, a group of Dutch merchants had
sent four ships to the Far East, which successfully brought pepper back
from Java. In 1602, around the time when Britain also created East India
Company, these Dutch companies amalgamated their interests into the
Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (United East India Company), also know
a VOC. In 1604, thee VOC sent a fleet of 13 ships to Western India.
Cochin was the most important Portuguese base in Malabar. The Dutch
realized that if they could capture Cochin, they could capture the spice
trade of Malabar. Although VOC was under the guidelines of peaceful
trade, the Dutch in India had other plans. Royal politics in Cochin
played into Dutch hands and in January 1633, the Battle of Cochin was
won by the Dutch. They renamed Cochin ‘New Orange’. For the Dutch,
however, Malabar and their other bases in India were never as important
as were Java and the Far East. The Dutch ran into troubles when they
interfered with the succession in the royal family. Accordingly, in
1697, the VOC scaled back its operations in Malabar.

The crowns of Portugal and Spain had been united in 1580. When the
English defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, it was also seen as a
victory against Portugal. It was then argued that the English could
challenge the supremacy of the Portuguese ships in the Indian ocean and
seize some of their trade. On December 31, 1600, the charter of ‘The
Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East
Indies’ was finally signed, giving the Company a monopoly over trade
with the East Indies. It was, however, very clearly emphasized that the
Company was to restrict itself to trade and was not to attempt
colonization or conquests, which was in marked contrast to the practice
of other European nations trading beyond Europe.

The four ships of the East India Company (EIC) sailed in 1601. All
returned successfully from Sumatra and Java (today’s Indonesia) in 1603.
India was selected as one of the destinations for the Company’s third
expedition and three ships left in 1607. For most of the first half of
17th century, the Company English naval force was utilized – not against
Indian but against the Portuguese. The first significant piece of land
to be owned by the Company in India was in Madras (then called
Madraspatam village) in 1639 – for at Surat and other places (such as
Batnam) they were merely tenants. By 1670, there were 300 English, 3,000
Portuguese and perhaps 40,000 Indians in Madras. The Company’s main
export business from Madras was in textiles.

Bombay was given to the English by the Portuguese when Charles II
married Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the King of Portugal in May
1662, the treaty of marriage provided for the transfer of the port and
island of Bombay to the English king. (Incidentally, I remember reading
that since Ms Braganza was a ‘tea’ addict, the drink was finally
introduced to the Britain). The English EIC had found it difficult to
establish itself on the south-west coast, which was secured by the
Portuguese and later by the Dutch. The English had been at a
disadvantage since they were loath to use military might. The EIC thus
opened factories at various small places but the last trading region to
be opened by the EIC in the 17th century was that of Bengal. Over the
course of the 17th century, EIC’s trade transformed extraordinarily.
Initially, textiles had been bought, but not for exports to Europe, but
to take it to the Far East in exchange for spices that the English
desired. Until the last decade of the 17th century, the EIC had
invariably been able to pay handsome dividends of 20% or more; however,
the Company suffered huge losses in the 1690s, when Britain was at war
with France. In 1696, the French seized the Company’s returning fleet of
five fully laden ships. As the century came to an end, the Company was
also locked in a position for survival.

The Portuguese, the Dutch and the English were finally followed into
India by the French. In 1664, the French established a company that
could trade with India. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister of Louis
XIV, sponsored the Company and gave then exclusive rights to trade with
the East for 50 years. The first place, which was taken over by the
French was Pondicherry; however, they faced serious rebuke from the
Dutch. Nevertheless, as was to happen so frequently in the 18th century,
it was events in Europe that would determine what would happen in India.
Peace came to Europe with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. In the case of
Pondicherry, it was eventually to be handed over by the Dutch to the French.

On the Eastern cost of India, Chandernagore, on the Hooghly River, had
been occupied by some French settlers since 1676. In 1686, the Mughals
had officially transferred the settlement to them and in 1701, the
French government put it under the control of the governor of
Pondicherry. The French and the English faced each other over Madras. It
never occurred to the EIC that the town might be attacked by another
powerful European force. In 1746, the British capitulated to the French,
who were supported by the Nawab of Carnatic, to whom the French had told
that Madras will be handed over once the surrender by the British had
been finalized. Nevertheless, with negotiations failing, the French were
at war with the Nawab of Carnatic, Mughals. For the first time on Indian
soil, a European power was at war with the Mughals, who were considered
invincible. Nevertheless, the extraordinary French victory transformed
the relationship between the Indians and Europeans. It showed how a
relatively small European army could defeat a vastly bigger Indian army
with modernly equipped and trained force.

Further, the French decided to completely destroy the British on the
Coromandel coast and launched an attack on Fort St David. If the French
could overcome the much weaker British, they would end the British
presence on the Coromandel coast and lay the foundations of the French
Indian empire. However, a squadron of ten British warships from Bengal
soon arrived, which made the French abandon their plans. As the loss of
Madras enraged both the Company and the British government, a Royal Navy
was sent to the aid of the Company in November 1747. In all, the British
had amassed 20 warships – the most powerful force ever seen on Indian
waters. British army then tried to siege Pondicherry. However, as was
usually the case, news of impending peace in Europe arrived with details
of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in May 1749. This forbade any further
hostilities between the French and the British in India and Madras was
returned to the British. All efforts of the French to rule British out
of India were completely wasted. Nevertheless, through their extremely
well diplomatic abilities, soon the French was the master of all of
Southern India.

However, the fortunes turned quickly. With the change in the British and
the French top management in India, the first significant British
success against the French and their allies came in November 1751, when
Arcot (in today’s Tamil Nadu), was won by the former. By early 1752, the
British marginalized the French in the southern India. The final episode
of the French being downgraded by the British came from Chandernagore,
Bengal, which accounted for most of the French profits. The British
helped to remove the then ruler of Bengal and helped the conspirators to
rule in exchange of more land around Calcutta and gifts of in excess of
INR5m. After the Battle of Plassey was won in 1757, the equivalent of
one year’s total revenue of Bengal found its way to Britain. Further,
the EIC was allowed to import and exports goods without paying any duty.

With such huge payments to Britian, Bengal’s coffers were empty and the
economy was severely damaged. The new British-in-command saw this as the
inability of the new ruler of Bengal and supported his deposition. In
their support, several districts of Bengal were ceded to the Company.
After a few years, Britain replaced the new ruler of Bengal with the old
ruler and obviously got paid for this again. In eight years, it is
estimated that the Company’s senior officers had received a total of
GBP3.77m, compared to an annual income of less than GBP2 per Bengali
family and GBP37 per British laborer.

In 1764, the Company extended its influence by defeating the combined
army of Awadh and Mughals at Buxar in Bihar. Soon, the Company was
bestowed with the ‘Dewani’ of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, which made them
the legal rulers and gave them the right to all the revenues. It was, as
Roy outs it, the beginning of British rule in India. In late 1760s, the
Company made a profit of over INR6m, when the basic wage for Bengalis
was one or two rupees a month. The sufferings of Bengal multiplied with
the Great Bengal Famine of 1770. Instead of relaxing the harsh Land tax,
the Company made only minor arrangements for relief by turning blind eye
to the reality. What worse, in April 1770, amid the worst of the famine,
the land tax was increased by 10% because the British Governor had not
‘yet found any failure in the revenue’. By May, however, it was
beginning to dawn on the administration that something serious was
happening. The resident of the Durbar reported in mid-July, when the
rains had finally come

Previous representations are faint in comparison to the miseries now
endured…in the city of Moorshedabad alone it is calculated that more
than five hundred are starving daily, and in the villages and country
adjacent the numbers said to perish exceed belief…In one month we may
expect relief from our present distress form the new harvest, if people
survive to gather it in; but the numbers that I am sensible must perish
in that interval, and those that I see dying around me, greatly affect
my feelings and humanity as a man, and make me, as a servant of the
Company, apprehensive of the consequences that may ensue to the Company.”

In 1772, official toured the Company’s territories to ascertain the
mortality. They estimated that out of a population of 30m, some 10m had
died. The author says It seems likely that in the first thirteen years
of British rule, more harm was done to the people of India than by all
the other European invaders of the centuries before. In 1784, ultimate
control of the Company passed to the British government and soon
imperial ambitions had proved incompatible with profitable trade.
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