The Two Mughal Princes Who Stood in the Way of the British East India Company

William Dalrymple on Siraj ud-Daula and Shah Alam

The city of Murshidabad, the capital of late Mughal Bengal, lay three days’ sailing from Calcutta up the Bhagirathi, one of the two headstreams of the Ganges.

Along with the great weaving center of Dhaka, it was one of two cities in Bengal that in 1756 was still substantially larger than Calcutta; indeed, according to some estimates its population was roughly comparable to that of London. From it, Nawab Aliverdi Khan ran what was by far the richest province of the Mughal Empire, though how far that empire still existed in more than name in 1756 was now a matter of debate. The Nawab had ceased to send the annual revenue payments to Delhi after the onset of the Maratha invasions in the 1740s, and although those invasions had now ceased the revenue payments to Delhi had not resumed.

Aliverdi Khan, who was of mixed Arab and Afshar Turkman stock, had come to power in 1740 in a military coup financed and masterminded by the immensely powerful Jagat Seth bankers, who controlled the finances of Bengal. The Jagat Seths could make or break anyone in Bengal, including the ruler, and their political instincts were usually as sharp as their financial ones. In this case, as so often, the Seths had chosen their man well: Aliverdi proved to be a popular and cultured ruler; he was also an extremely capable one.

It was his bravery, persistence and military genius which had succeeded in keeping the Maratha invasions at bay, something few other Mughal generals had ever succeeded in doing. He managed this partly by simple military efficiency, but also by ruthless cunning: in 1744, he lured Bhaskar Pandit and his Maratha officers into negotiations, and used the occasion to have his Afghan general, Mustafa Khan, assassinate the entire Maratha leadership in the tent where the peace negotiations were to take place.

In Murshidabad, Aliverdi Khan created a strong and dazzling Shia court culture, and a stable political, economic and political center which was a rare island of calm and prosperity amid the anarchy of Mughal decline. Many talented Mughal émigrés—soldiers, administrators, singers, dancers and painters—migrated here from the increasingly turbulent and violent streets of Shahjahanabad. As a result, under Aliverdi’s rule Murshidabad became one of the great centers of the late Mughal arts.

The celebrated Delhi artists Dip Chand and Nidha Mal led an émigré painting atelier where the Murshidabad court artists soon developed an instantly recognizable regional style, with the wide expanse of the Ganges invariably running smoothly in the background. Many of these images displayed a wonderful new naturalism that rejoiced in bustling riverside village landscapes full of temples and mosques, shaded by mango and kadambar groves, while farmers with ploughs and traders with scales wandered past, bowing to dreadlocked, tiger-skin-clad holy men.

To one side passed nobles on caparisoned elephants and princes in palanquins. All the while, up and down a riverbank dotted with the tall fans of Palmyra palms, fishing canoes and East India Company sloops slipped past the gorgeously gilt and sickle-shaped royal Murshidabad harem barges as they plied their way across the Bhagirathi to the Mughal gardens of Khushbagh.

In one of these court miniatures, painted no later than 1755, Aliverdi’s son-in-law Shahamat Jang enjoys an intimate musical performance by a troupe of hereditary musicians, or kalawants, from Delhi, who were clearly regarded as prize acquisitions because they are all named and distinctively portrayed. Seated waiting to sing on the other side of the hall are four exquisitely beautiful Delhi courtesans, again all individually named.

Bengalis came to remember the last years of Aliverdi Khan as a golden age, which all subsequent epochs failed to match.

Among the many who emigrated from the ruined streets of Delhi at this time was the Nawab’s cousin, the brilliant young Mughal historian Ghulam Hussain Khan, for whom Aliverdi Khan was a great hero. In the Seir Mutaqherin, or Review of Modern Times, his great history of 18th-century India, by far the most revealing Indian source for the period, Ghulam Hussain paints an attractive portrait of a catloving epicure who loved to fill his evenings with good food, books and stories:

“His attention was so intensely given to maintaining the peace and security of his subjects, and of the farmers especially, that none of them can be said to have been so much at ease on their father’s knees or their mother’s lap”:

He understood the arts, was fond of exquisite performances, and never failed to show his regard to the artistes, knowing how to reward those who excelled in the arts. Fond of the pastime of witty conversation, he was himself excellent company; so far as to be equalled by hardly any of his contemporaries. A prudent, keen general and a valorous soldier, there are hardly any virtues or qualifications he did not possess . . .

Aliverdi himself never smoked, but he drank coffee and it was distributed around . . . [After his morning’s work was done] he amused himself for a full hour with conversation, with hearing verses, reading poetry or listening to some pleasing story; to which we must add some occasional orders which he would give about [a recipe for] some dish or other, which was always dressed in his presence, to the care of which was appointed some person freshly come from Persia or any other country renowned for good cookery; for he was fond of good eating, and had a very delicate taste.

Sometimes he ordered the meat, spice, and other necessities to be brought in his presence, and he gave orders to his cooks, often directing them, sometimes inventing some new method of proceeding . . . After dinner, he retired to his bedroom to take a nap, at which time the story-tellers and bed watchmen attended and did their office.

Aliverdi’s other great passion was white Persian cats, and the French and English in Bengal competed to find him the most beautiful specimens from around the world, a present always guaranteed to win them favor. Aliverdi had occasionally pressed the European Companies for substantial contributions to the defense of Bengal against the Marathas, much to their displeasure; but in general they appreciated the peace and prosperity safeguarded by his strong rule.

He in turn was aware of the wealth and other benefits that the trading companies brought to his realm: “merchants are the kingdom’s benefactors,” he believed, “their imports and exports are an advantage to all men.”

On one occasion Aliverdi Khan told his elderly general, Mir Jafar Khan, that the Europeans were like a hive of bees, “of whose honey you might reap benefit, but if you disturbed their hive they would sting you to death.” He advised his generals not to antagonize them: “What wrong have the English done me that I should wish them ill?”

He told one headstrong Afghan officer: “Look at yonder plain covered with grass; should you set fire to it, there would be no stopping its progress; and who is the man then that shall put out the fire that shall break forth at sea, and from thence come upon land? Beware of lending an ear to such proposals again, for they will produce nothing but evil.”

In retrospect, Bengalis came to remember the last years of Aliverdi Khan as a golden age, which all subsequent epochs failed to match: the country was rich and flourishing—Bengal’s revenues had risen by 40 percent since the 1720s—and one single market near Murshidabad was said alone to handle 650,000 tons of rice annually. The region’s export products—sugar, opium and indigo, as well as the textiles produced by its 1 million weavers—were desired all over the world, and, since the defeat of the Marathas, the state enjoyed a period of great peace.

In 1753, an Englishman wrote that merchants could send bullion from one end of Bengal to another “under the care frequently of one, two or three peons only.”For Ghulam Hussain Khan, as for many members of the court, there was only one cloud on the horizon: Aliverdi Khan’s grandson and heir apparent, Siraj ud-Daula

Not one of the many sources for the period—Persian, Bengali,Mughal, French, Dutch or English—has a good word to say about Siraj: according to Jean Law, who was his political ally, “His reputation was the worst imaginable.”

This young man of average height, aged about 24 or 25 years old . . . was noted for indulgence in all kinds of debauchery and for his revolting cruelty. The women of the Gentiles [Hindus] are in the habit of bathing in the Ganges. Siraj was informed by his henchmen of those who were of some beauty. He would send his henchmen in small boats to carry them off while they were still in the water.

He had been seen many times, when the river was in flood, to intentionally ram the ferry boats to jolt them, or make them spring a leak, in order to experience the cruel pleasure of frightening a hundred or more people—men, women and children—many of whom would not know how to swim and would be certain to perish by drowning.

If it was necessary to get rid of some minister or noble, Siraj would volunteer his services. Aliverdi Khan, who could not bear to hear the cries of those being executed, would in the meantime retire to some garden or house outside the city. People trembled at the mere mention of his name. Such was the dread he inspired . . . This thoughtless young man had no real talent for government. He ruled only by inspiring fear, but at the same time he was known to be the most cowardly of men.

He was by nature rash, but lacking in courage, was stubborn and irresolute. He was quick to take offense, even at the most minor infractions, and sometimes for no apparent reasons. He displayed all the fluctuations which a tumult of opposed passions can produce in a weak temperament, was treacherous at heart, rather than in spirit, without faith or trust in anyone, and with no regard for the oaths which he swore and violated with equal facility.

The only excuse that can be offered in his favor was that, ever since his infancy, the prospect of sovereignty had always been held out to the young man. With scant education, he learned no lessons that could have taught him the value of obedience.

The most damning portrait of him, however, was painted by his own cousin, Ghulam Hussain Khan, who had been part of his staff and was profoundly shocked by the man he depicts as a serial bisexual rapist and psychopath: “His character was a mix of ignorance and profligacy,” he wrote. “The grandees and commanders had already conceived a dislike to the prince on account of his levity, his harsh language and the hardness of his heart”:

This Prince . . . made a sport of sacrificing to his lust almost every person of either sex to which he took a fancy, or else he converted them without scruple into so many objects of the malignity of his temper, or the frolics of his inconsiderate youth . . . He neglected and daily insulted those ancient commanders that had served so faithfully and so bravely Aliverdi Khan, so that intimidated now by his grandson’s character and foul language, they did not dare to open their mouths, or even take breath in his presence.

Most of them, shocked at the dishonorable expressions made use of in speaking to them, and incensed at the insolence of the upstarts that had taken possession of his mind, were so far from offering advice upon the posture of affairs that they were generally ill-intentioned and wished to see his downfall, while he made it a point not to ask anyone’s opinions.

As for himself, Siraj was ignorant of the world, and incapable of taking a reasonable line of action, being totally destitute of sense and penetration, and yet having a head so obscured with the smoke of ignorance, and so giddy and intoxicated with the fumes of youth and power and dominion, that he knew no distinction between good and bad, nor betwixt vice and virtue.

His imprudence was so great that, in the middle of a military expedition, he would set daggers in the hearts of his bravest and ablest commanders by his harsh language, and his choleric disposition. Such usage naturally rendered them regardless, and utterly neglectful . . . In time he became as hated as Pharaoh. People on meeting him by chance used to say, God save us from him!

Siraj’s most serious error was to alienate the great bankers of Bengal, the Jagat Seths. The Seths’ machinations had brought Aliverdi to power, and anyone who wanted to operate in the region did well to cultivate their favor; but Siraj did the opposite to the two men of the family who were now in charge of the banking house, Mahtab Rai, the current holder of the title Jagat Seth, and Swaroop Chand, his first cousin, who had been accorded the title “Maharaja” by Aliverdi Khan.

In the early days of his rule, when he wished to arm and equip a force to take on his cousin in Purnea, Siraj ordered the bankers to provide Rs30,000,000; when Mahtab Rai said it was impossible, Siraj struck him.

According to Ghulam Hussain Khan, “Jagat Seth, the principal citizen of the capital, whom he had often used with slight and derision, and whom he had mortally affronted by sometimes threatening him with circumcision, was in his heart totally alienated and lost [to Siraj’s regime].”It was an easily avoided mistake, and one that he would later come to regret.

Yet for all this, Siraj had a strange hold on his grandfather. The old man had had no sons of his own, only three daughters, and after the death from smallpox of his only other grandson, Siraj’s elder brother, all his hopes rested on the survivor. The two men could not be more different: Aliverdi Khan was wise and disciplined, while his grandson was an ignorant debauchee; yet still Aliverdi’s love knew no bounds.

The old Nawab’s final days were spent watching cockfights and giving advice to his grandson to follow where possible the path of conciliation.

According to Ghulam Hussain Khan, even when Siraj had revolted against Aliverdi in 1750 and seized the town of Patna, the fond grandfather had insisted on forgiving him, writing to him “in the terms of an impassionate lover, who has supplicated the favor of his shewing once more that beloved face of his to an alienated old man, whose sole delight in his old age centered in that enjoyment.”

For some time there was hope that Aliverdi Khan might see sense and appoint as successor his generous and popular son-in-law, Nawazish Khan, who was married to his eldest daughter, Ghasiti Begum, and who according to the consensus of the court would have been the perfect choice; but instead, in 1754, Siraj was formally named his heir.

By 1755, this had become a matter of real concern, for it was clear to everyone that the 80-year-old Nawab, stricken with dropsy, was nearing the end. The Company was especially anxious about this as they had failed to cultivate Siraj and instead concentrated on befriending Nawazish Khan and his wife, who Siraj had now come to hate.

The French, in contrast, had played their cards more cleverly and Jean Law hoped that this might give them a distinct advantage in Bengal when Aliverdi finally died. The English were “convinced by the violence of Siraj’s character, and the hatred which he inspired, that he would never become Subedar.”

They never approached him, nor had they ever petitioned for his assistance in their affairs. On the contrary they had avoided all communication with him. It was well known that on several occasions they had refused him entry to their factory at Kassimbazaar, and their houses in the countryside.

Siraj ud-Daula, rowdy and ignorant, was known to smash furniture, if it pleased him, and carry off whatever caught his fancy. But Siraj was incapable of forgetting any injury or slight which he might have received. So long before the death of Aliverdi Khan, it was well known that Siraj ud-Daula was annoyed with the English.

On the other hand, he was rather partial towards us [the French]. As it was in our interest to humor him gently, we had always received him at our factory with a thousand courtesies, far more than he merited, and we sought his intervention in all important matters. This was achieved by sending him presents from time to time. This helped in maintaining cordial relations between us.

In March 1756, Aliverdi Khan’s health worsened markedly, and he lay half paralyzed with a severe attack of dropsy. It was around this time that the old Nawab received a report from visitors from the Mughal south of how the Europeans had behaved in the Carnatic Wars five years earlier. In particular he had been told about the way they had turned from being useful tools in the hands of the Mughal Nawabs of the Carnatic to overmighty puppet masters, creating and discarding rival rulers at their whim.

The news “made a great impression on his mind,” wrote Ghulam Hussain Khan, “for he knew with how sparing a hand Providence had bestowed on Siraj ud-Daula his share of knowledge and prudence; and he was full sensible of the manner in which he would govern and on what bad terms he already was with the military officers and how prone he seemed to be to fall out with the English of Calcutta. He used to assure in full company that as soon as he should be dead, and Siraj ud-Daula succeed him, the hat-men would possess themselves of all the shores of India.”

So when reports came in, shortly afterwards, that the EIC had been caught red-handed making unauthorized repairs, and in some places completely rebuilding the walls of Calcutta, Aliverdi summoned Siraj and determined to write to both the English and the French, telling them both to dismantle their fortifications completely. The French sent back a tactful reply, and by distributing bribes to the Mughal officials at Chandernagar were able to get around knocking down their substantial new walls.

But Governor Drake, whose fortifications were in reality much more modest, only managed to make matters worse by writing back to the Nawab what was taken to be an insolent and defiant reply, questioning the ability of the Nawab to protect his subjects and suggesting that the English were preparing to carry into Bengal their wars against the French that had already wreaked so much havoc in the Carnatic: “We cannot think of submitting to a demand of so unprecedented a nature,” wrote Drake.

For this century past we have traded in his [the Nawab’s] dominions, and have been protected and encouraged by the several subahs, always have paid obedience to their orders, that it gave us concern to observe that some enemies had advised his Excellency, without regard to truth, that we were erecting new fortifications . . .

He must have been acquainted of the great loss our Company sustained by the capture of Madras by the French, that there was an appearance of a war between our nations, that, therefore, we were repairing our walls which were in danger of being carried away by the river [floods], and that we were not otherwise erecting new works.

In response, Aliverdi turned one last time to diplomacy, and sent as his agent Narayan Singh, who he tasked with talking Drake into proper obedience and to explain to him the place and status of merchants in a Mughal kingdom, and to outline the consequences if the Company were to continue defying his will.

The old Nawab’s final days were spent watching cockfights and giving advice to his grandson to follow where possible the path of conciliation: “As the prosperity of the state depends on union and cooperation,” he said, “and its ruin on quarrel and opposition, if your rule is to be based on agreement and obedience, it is necessary that you should remain firm in following my manners and ways, so that to the end of your life you will remain safe from the dominance of your enemies. But if you take the path of quarrel and hostility, it is very likely that this state will so decline from its good name that for a long period grief and regret will prevail.”

Aliverdi Khan died on April 9th, 1756, at 5 a.m. He was buried that day, next to his mother in the Khushbagh. That same evening Siraj ud-Daula attacked the palace of his aunt Ghasiti Begum, killed or disarmed her household troops and seized all her money and jewelry.

The following month, on May 22nd, Siraj was marching towards Purnea with thousands of men and 500 elephants to attack a cousin he saw as another potential rival, when he met his grandfather’s agent, Narayan Singh, who was returning from his mission to Calcutta angry and humiliated. He told the new Nawab that Drake had had him seized and expelled from the city without so much as an audience.

“‘What honour is left to us,’he asked, ‘when a few traders, who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms, reply to a ruler’s order by expelling the envoy?” Siraj ud-Daula, on hearing such words, with a vast force, turned back and in one night’s march came and alighted at the back of the English factory at Kasimbazar.”

The EIC factory closed its gates and primed the cannon on the battlements with grapeshot; for several days there was a standoff, with the factory first blockaded then besieged, and the factors divided on whether to offer military resistance with the few troops and limited weaponry they had at hand, or to meekly submit to Siraj ud-Daula.

Initially, there were only 300 Mughal cavalry ringing the factory, but every day the number of troops increased until, on June 3rd, Siraj appeared in person with a body of troops that the anxious factors estimated at 30,000. They in contrast numbered only 200. Eventually, William Watts, the Chief Factor, after receiving advice from various friends in the Bengal court that the Nawab would be magnanimous if offered unconditional surrender, decided upon the latter course.

According to an English eyewitness report, “Upon Mr Watts’ going before the Nabob, with his hands across and a handkerchief wrapt round his wrists, signifying himself his slave and prisoner, he [Siraj] abused him very much.”Watts was made to hug the Nawab’s feet, and cry: “Tomar ghulam, tomar Ghulam”—“I am your slave, your slave.”

Upon opening the Factory gates, the enemy immediately entered in great numbers, and demanded the keys of the godowns [warehouses] both publick and private; they no sooner took possession of the arms and ammunition, but they behaved in a most insolent manner, threatening the gentlemen to cut off their ears, slit their noses and chabuck [whip] them, with other punishments, in order to extort compliance from them . . .

Then he [Siraj] ordered all the Europeans out of the Factory, and put them under a strong guard. All the prisoners were sent to Murshidabad Cutcherry [gaol], and put in irons, where they remained.

Among those captured, plundered and shackled was a young, 24-year-old apprentice factor named Warren Hastings. The commander of the surrendered garrison, Lieutenant Elliott, rather than endure such insults, humiliation and imprisonment, chose instead to blow out his own brains.

On May 28th, during the middle of the siege, Siraj ud-Daula had sent off an Armenian intermediary to Calcutta with a last series of demands for Drake, telling him, “if the English are contented to remain in my country they must submit to having their forts razed, their ditches filled in, and trade upon the same terms as they did in the time of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan; otherwise I will expel them entirely out of the provinces of which I am Subah [Governor] . . . I am fully determined to reduce that nation to the above mentioned conditions . . .”

What Siraj wanted was for the British to behave as the Armenians had done for centuries: to trade in the province as a subject merchant community, relying not on their own fortifications but on the protection of the Mughal governor.

Drake did not even bother to reply, so the day after the surrender of Kasimbazar factory, Siraj ud-Daula marched off with his army, now 70,000-strong, to conquer Calcutta, and bring its overmighty merchants to heel.

William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple is the bestselling author of In Xanadu, City of Djinns, From the Holy Mountain, The Age of Kali, White Mughals, The Last Mughal and, most recently, Nine Lives. He has won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award, the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for Literary Reportage, the Hemingway Prize, the French Prix d'Astrolabe, the Wolfson Prize for History, the Scottish Book of the Year Award, the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, the Asia House Award for Asian Literature, the Vodafone Crossword Award and has three times been longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. In 2012 he was appointed Whitney J. Oates Visiting Fellow in Humanities at Princeton University. He lives with his wife and three children on a farm outside Delhi.





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