Aurangzeb vs. the East India Company

According to my middle school textbook, the British first arrived in India in 1605 and then 6 pages later were declaring Victoria Empress of India. It gave me the impression that the British rose to power overnight, and that Indians had simply given way to them – accepting them as militarily and culturally superior from the get-go. This is, of course, so far from the truth that it made me wonder what I had been doing during history class all those years ago.

For nearly 2 decades I had thought that Indians had just handed our country over to the English. It isn’t true, of course. (Photo credit: Royal Collections Trust)

It was only recently, as I prepared a lesson plan for my history class, did I realize that those six pages covered nearly two hundred and fifty years worth of history. During those two and a half centuries, I found it hard to believe that the British always had the upper hand. But apart from the Rebellion of 1857, the narrative of the East India Company never really includes stories of serious threats posed to its rise and continued success in the subcontinent.

One evening, as I was doing the dishes and listening to William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy audiobook, I heard of an incident when Aurangzeb nearly changed history when he came close to kicking the British out of India. Why? Because he didn’t care to do business with pirates.

So, I did a little extra reading that night, and here is the story:

In 1695, the Mughal’s largest ship, the Ganj-I Sawa’I, was carrying things that would make a pirate’s mouth water. The ship was carrying Rs 52 lakhs worth of gold, 80 cannons, 400 muskets and pilgrims returning to Indian from Mecca. Also on board were relatives of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

During this time, pirates were not uncommon. Unfortunately the Ganj-i-Sawa’i came across a particularly nasty one – the dreaded Henry Avery. Avery and his crew captured and boarded the Ganj-I Sawa’I, looted the ship, and killed most of the men on board. Many women flung themselves into the sea to save their honour.

Woodcut of Avery loading his ship with treasure (Image credit: History.com)

When the few survivors made their way back to Surat and reported their tale of horror to the locals, the news spread quickly. A mob gathered around the East India Company’s trading factory, seeking revenge. Around the same time, courtiers informed Aurangzeb of the ship’s fate. When he heard the news, Aurangzeb was understandably outraged. Under his orders, officials of the British East India Company were rounded up and thrown into dark Mughal dungeons.

The Emperor Aurangzeb Carried on a Palanquin (c. 1705-1720) Picture Credit: The Met

“It wasn’t us!” the company men pleaded, but Aurangzeb and his courtiers had their doubts. The officials in the port of Bombay were inexplicably well to do. The East India Company’s trading business could not possibly explain the wealth that they displayed. There had to be another source of income, and the Mughals suspected that it was piracy.

Eventually, Aurangzeb said he would allow the East India Company to resume trade if they found Avery and his crew. Clearly, the English took his threat very seriously.

A Proclamation for apprehending Henry Avery (Photo credit: Pinterest(

Fortunately for Avery, he managed to escape capture. However, most of his crew were caught and held accountable. This seemed to satisfy Aurangzeb and the English picked up where they left off.

It was only close to 100 years later, that Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey and laying the groundwork for what would later become the British Empire. But there was this moment when the East India Company had very nearly lost India.

Three things strike me about this story. One is that Indians weren’t always subservient to the Europeans. We weren’t always afraid, lacking in confidence, or being outwitted by the English.

Second, is that there was this precarious moment when world history might have turned out to be very different. Had Aurangzeb thrown the East India Company out of his empire, what would the world look like today? History is full of moments of decision, moments pregnant with possibility that no one in that time could have foreseen. What does that tell us about our present moment and the significance of our own decisions right now?

Aurangzeb (Photo credit: Pinterest)

Finally, it takes time, patience and good fortune to become history’s super villain (a role that the British Empire played with great finesse – note the legacy of discord in the Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, Ireland). It is an oddly reassuring thought.


Resources:

  1. The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple
  2. The highjacking of the Ganj-i Sawaʼi: A major diplomatic incident in 1695 British Library Blogs
  3. The Real Thugs of Inglistan Live History India
  4. How an English pirate nearly sunk the fortunes of the East India Company The Hindu

How India Saved the Lions of Gir

With all the attention that tiger conservation has received in recent years, we tend to forget her shaggier and more sociable cousin, the lion. When I told my class about India’s Asiatic lions, a few younger children were surprised. “Aunty, we have lions?” one asked. We certainly do. India is the only country in the world that is home to both lions and tigers.

A lion cub in Gir. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Once I started thinking about lions, I started seeing them everywhere. They were on currency, on Indian government seals on official documents, on ancient temple walls and pillars, on murals in urban centres and historical monuments, at the family altar (where Durga rides on a lion) and even as people with fierce last names like Singh, Sinha, and Simhan.

Lions show up everywhere in Indian iconography and language because it looks like they actually were almost everywhere. Their range extended from Greece in Europe to the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent.

Today, the poor Asiatic lion is found in the little blue dot in Gujarat – the Gir National Park. What happened to the lion?

We did. First, we took away their homes by converting their grasslands and forests into farmland, towns and villages. Later, our upper classes decided that hunting lions would be a great sport. In the Middle East and India, hunting lions was seen as a rite of passage for young men seeking power. It was a way to show off your prowess and courage. And for good reason; from the numerous Mughal paintings, like the one below, it is clear that hunting lion was not for the faint hearted.

Mughal Miniature of a Prince on a Lion Hunt (Photo Credit: Christie’s)

The ruling classes all around the world have always been obsessed with hunting. The Mughals and Rajputs were no different. But I was unprepared for the sheer volume of kill. According to one record that I read, between March and May 1610, Jehangir and his companions killed seven lions and 203 other birds and animals. By the time he was fifty, Jehangir claimed to have hunted more than 17,000 animals.

During Jehangir’s time, lions were found in forests across modern day Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and even parts of Bengal. I could not find any information on when they disappeared from the Deccan plateau, but by late 19th century, lions were hunted to extinction in most parts of India.

Tiger hunt by Lord Reading, Viceroy of India (before 1935) (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Enter the Nawab of Junagadh. (Well, actually three generations of Nawabs). In 1879, around the same time when the last lion near Allahabad and the last lion In Rajasthan were hunted down, Mahabat Khan, the sixth Nawab of Junagadh, banned all hunting without special permission in his territory. The Nawab was alarmed by the dwindling numbers of lions and wanted to protect those that remained in his kingdom.

Sir Muhammad Rasul Khanji Babi, Nawab of Junagarh (1858-1911) with heir and council 1903 (Photo credit: Royal Collection Trust)

His son, Nawab Rasulkhanji, ascended the throne in 1892, and immediately instituted firmer laws – protecting more animals. The Gir Forest was within Junagadh borders, but Rasulkhanji was frustrated to find that the British and neighbouring Rajas kept pestering him with requests to go hunting for lions in his territory. If he did not allow it, hunters would tie baits just outside Junagadh’s borders to tempt the lions out of Junagadh where they could be hunted without consequence.

Rasulkhanji’s son, Nawab Mahabatkhanji, carried his grandfather and father’s legacy and fought to protect his lions until October 1947, when he acceded his kingdom to the Government of India and moved to Pakistan (with his 200 dogs but without any of his wives!). When he left, he left his lions unprotected.

After Independence, we seemed to have forgotten about the lions in Gir. We had Partition and a whole impoverished country to establish. It is somewhat understandable that we lost track of the lions for a while. In 1964, the Gir forests were home to 285 lions. Five years later, there were only 166 left.

Fortunately, the Indian Forest Service (the unsung hero that has stepped in to rescue so many animals from the brink of extinction in India) took notice. They set up a wildlife conservation programme for Asiatic Lions in 1965 and made the Nawab’s beloved Gir a Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Indian Forest Department has an all female team of guards protecting the lions around the clock. (Photo credit: Times of India)

At the start of the programme, India had around 177 lions. In 2005, we had 359. In 2020, we are up to 674. We talk so much about the saving the Tiger that we often forget to acknowledge our efforts with lions. If earlier, we were worried that we had too few lions, now we worry that we have too many lions squeezed into a rather small park. The Forest Department is looking some place to relocate a part of the lion population. I do not know very much about conservation and animals, but it sounds like this is a far better problem to have than having too few lions.

There is a story buried here somewhere – the story of our Forest Department and its extraordinary efforts to protect our wildlife heritage. I didn’t realise we had so many national parks dedicated to protect animals close to extinction.

At the end of the 20th century, there were around a hundred Nilgiri Tahrs in the wild. The Nilgiri Tahrs can only be found in India. They are like a cross between a goat and a sheep, and used to live in the mountains of the Western Ghats, from Maharashtra, down to Kerala. Today, there are close to 3,000 Nilgiri Tahrs in the wild. Isn’t that remarkable?

On a recent Safari through B.R. Hills, the forest department official explained that the morning safari had been cancelled because their staff will be busy carrying out a census. When I told him that we saw a pack of dhol (wild dogs) on our drive to the camp, his eyes grew wide in child like excitement. “Where?” he asked. He must have seen wild dogs many, many times in his years in the forest, and yet here he was nearly as excited as we were about our sighting.

When you read the story of the lions of India, you can read it as the tragic tale of a big cat that fell prey to human greed and cruelty. But, if you read on, you can also read it as a story of hope, vision and determination. It is a reminder that while we are capable of immense cruelty and destruction, we are also capable of immense compassion and regeneration. Starting from the late 19th century, when the Nawabs identified the threat to the lion till today, when the Forest Department and local communities have united to protect the big cats, the Asiatic lion has gone from being just a symbol to an actual creature we can visit on vacation.

Lion Safari (Photo Credit: Gir National Park Website)

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Resources:

1. Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal
2. Mughal Emperors and The Imperial Hunt (Samyukta Ninan) https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/history-daily/mughal-hunt/
3. The Naturalist with a Hint of Cruelty https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/VP1pnZYhc8q2s6A3U42QzI/The-naturalist-with-a-hint-of-cruelty.html
4. Untold Story of How an Erstwhile Princely State Saved Gir’s Lions from Extinction
https://www.thebetterindia.com/235146/world-lion-day-gujarat-gir-national-park-nawab-junagadh-british-rule-india-nor41/