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This chapter rethinks the emergence of Madras, which has traditionally been depicted as an imperial acquisition developed as an English colony, apart from its turbulent Asian surroundings. Instead, as Company servants appropriated authority to themselves in the face of the collapsing corporate framework, they utilised their Asian networks, partnerships and patrons to establish a new settlement from which their interests could be protected and facilitated. Relying on Indian and Indo-Portuguese capital, Indian labour and materials, and in complete defiance of Company leadership, servants politically subordinated themselves to the Vijayanagara empire in exchange for a set of rights and privileges that would create the Company’s first substantial centre of power in Asia. In the face of metropolitan opposition, Company servants deepened their dependence on their Indian partners and masters, opening up new channels of credit, capital and demographic expansion. When the sultanate of Golconda annexed the Vijayanagara empire, Company servants learned to navigate the complex and shifting state formation process in southern India, adapting to their changing environment and ingratiating themselves with a new set of sovereign rulers and governing elites from whom they continued to acquire greater privileges to develop Madras into a transcultural commercial hub.
This chapter emphasises the significance regional variations had for the Company’s development in Asia, using Sumatra as a case study to demonstrate the limits to the Company’s political and economic enfranchisement by Asian rulers and elites. While powerful states such as the Mughal empire or the sultanate of Golconda could integrate, subordinate and utilise the Company’s presence, the demand of Company servants for sweeping powers and privileges in the smaller polities of Asia proved destabilising and destructive. On the West Coast of Sumatra, Company servants were reluctant to abandon the strategies of integration and subordination which had proved so successful on the subcontinent, and therefore struggled to establish a sustainable presence at places such as Bencoolen when these rights could not be acquired or mobilised. With limited economic resources, few opportunities for transcultural networks and a shifting state formation process in which multiple imperial powers sought to claim the West Coast as part of their own jurisdiction, Company servants repeatedly failed to acquire a durable foothold on the Coast, and Bencoolen struggled to develop into a vibrant city as both Madras and Calcutta had.
As Company servants struggled to maintain their expansive presence on the West Coast of Sumatra, they gradually judged it more expedient to maintain or acquire the powers they sought by dominating the newly transitioning and emerging polities on the Coast. In the absence of wider imperial frameworks of power and legitimacy, Company servants assumed imperial authority for themselves, placing the Company at the summit of local hierarchies. Company servants sought to re-arrange the West Coast of Sumatra as their own imperial domain, controlling local pepper production, breaking with local political traditions, assuming sovereign authority over fortified settlements and directly exercising suzerain rights over Malay subordinates. And while the polities of the West Coast found themselves increasingly shaped by the ambition of individual Company servants, they proved more than successful in resisting their subjugation, heavily circumscribed as Company servants were by East India House’s demand for fiscal and military retrenchment and the need to ensure the profitability of their pepper settlements. With little human or material resources to support their imperialism, Company servants found themselves locked in a cycle of incessant conflict and violence with the surrounding Malay communities, demanding obedience but unable to enforce this for any prolonged period through armed force. Ultimately, empire on the West Coast of Sumatra in the short-term proved unprofitable and unsustainable, and in the long-term ultimately impossible.
Following its incorporation as a permanent joint-stock in 1657, and the institutional and financial stability this brought to the Company, this chapter explores the corporate leadership’s attempts to re-centralise power in the Company and regain control over its servants and settlements in Asia. As the court of committees restructured the Company’s organisation, and sought to erect new regulatory frameworks in Asia that would more effectively realise metropolitan interests by dismissing refractory servants, disrupting transcultural networks and squeezing out private interests, the powerful confederacy of Anglo-Indian elites that controlled Madras violently rebelled against these centralising impulses and seized the city. Although the Company sent a powerful force to recapture Madras, nonetheless the coup de force exposed the reconstituted dynamic of the Company, in which the success of Madras was largely due to the integration of Company servants with surrounding economic and political constituents. The subsequent legalisation of private trade and the restoration of the rebels to their positions of power demonstrated the Company’s future willingness to accommodate the expansive transcultural networks of its servants and their Asian allies. The rebellion of Madras represented the complete decentralisation of the Company by the later seventeenth century, and the critical role played by Indian elites in driving the expansion of the Company.
It should perhaps seem strange to conclude a book which seeks to emphasise the Asian genesis of the British Empire with a focus on that most infamous of all colonial conquerors, Robert Clive, the ‘victor’ of Plassey. But whereas most have considered Clive the architect of the British Empire in Asia, even the actions of this avid imperialist can be reconsidered within the context of the powerful local forces which shaped the Company’s expansion beyond the mid-eighteenth century. For in many ways, Clive encapsulated the increasing tensions between these Asian forces and the resurgent British state. So while the settlement of Plassey was a conservative one, ensuring that the Company’s expansion remained within the existing framework of nawabi Bengal, it had nonetheless placed the Company at the top of the post-Plassey hierarchy. Writing to the Prime Minister, William Pitt, Clive worried that if the Company were ever to directly rule Bengal one day, ‘so large a sovereignty may possibly be an object too extensive for a mercantile Company’. Rather, he wondered whether ‘an income yearly of upwards of two millions sterling, with the possession of three provinces, abounding in the most valuable productions of nature and art, be an objective deserving the public attention’. Clive was in rather stunning terms outlining a potentially new form of empire, one in which the British nation-state would directly exercise rule over Bengal for the benefit of the national interest.
For almost a thousand miles, the deep Godavari River snakes its way across the breadth of subcontinental India. As it descends from the Eastern Ghats towards the Bay of Bengal, it splinters and breaks into a number of tributaries to form a sprawling river basin, second in extent only to the Ganges. In the seventeenth century, the Godavari delta was an affluent commercial region of the sultanate of Golconda, a great south Indian Muslim state centred on the Deccan. The Qutb Shahi dynasty that had carved out its domain here in the early sixteenth century ruled over a culturally, politically and religiously diverse land that included a Hindu population speaking the native Telugu, governed by an Islamic Persianate elite, perhaps best illustrated by the adoption of a bi-lingual administration, with royal documents issued in both Persian and Telugu.
The Anglo-Mughal War of 1686–1690 is the focus of Chapter 5, which seeks to challenge traditional understandings of the war as the result of a more capable and belligerent Company seeking to impose its will on the Mughal empire and expand its territory and rights by force, culminating in the acquisition of Calcutta. Instead, this chapter places the war within the context of the personal tensions and conflicts produced by the transcultural ties which bound Company servants and Mughal elites together. Some servants sought to renegotiate these increasingly one-sided relationships with a limited show of force, for which they were immediately expelled from Bengal by the Mughal government. Only after ten years of complex negotiations, in which new transcultural relationships were established with an entirely new Mughal regime, could the Company return and develop Calcutta as a settlement. Even then, its expansion relied on the Company’s utility to the new Mughal regime, to which they contributed men and money to uphold the nawab’s authority against several large-scale rebellions. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the Company transformed itself into a key client of the Mughal government which could be mobilised to consolidate the empire’s control of Bengal in exchange for greater rights and privileges.
This chapter depicts the failure of the English nation state to launch and sustain overseas enterprises in Asia in the early seventeenth century. It reveals that the East India Company was conceived as a mercantilist strategy of monopoly and force by the crown to acquire new markets and sources of wealth beyond the Cape of Good Hope. But a combination of fiscal–military weakness, unrealistic policies fostered on it by the state and a general economic and constitutional crises which engulfed England by the mid-century, all combined to undermine the Company’s attempt to establish itself at Bantam, Japan and on the Coromandel Coast in India. The result was the abandonment by Company servants on the spot in Asia of metropolitan policies in favour of realising their own local private interests of trade, power and transcultural immersion. As the Company teetered on the verge of collapse in England, it left a vacuum of authority and leadership within its factories in Asia, allowing Company servants to seize new opportunities to empower themselves and appropriate Company policies to suit their own interests. As investment, shipping and specie stopped flowing from Europe, Company servants insinuated themselves into pre-existing Asian networks of commerce and influence.
This chapter shifts the focus onto Bengal, and the various strategies adopted by the Mughal empire in accommodating and subordinating the Company’s growing presence in the province of Bengal. If the integration of Company servants into surrounding communities at Madras and their subordination to the sultanate of Golconda unlocked a range of rights and privileges which allowed them to expand their presence on the Coromandel Coast, the opposite was true in Bengal. The English experience in Bengal represented the Company at its most subordinate, pliant and, indeed, weakest, utterly subservient to the communities, elites and rulers whom they relied on. This situation was compounded by the growth of interloping communities, who were even more effective than Company servants in integrating themselves socially, culturally and commercially with Indian communities and elites, assuming many of the subordinate services that Company servants had traditionally fulfilled. Skilful Mughal governors played these groups off against one another, utilising interloping and Company networks for their own benefit, without needing to concede any substantial rights or autonomy to either. In maintaining a plural commercial environment, Mughal elites ensured their place at the top of local hierarchies of wealth and power.