East India Company’s Plundering of Indian History (and why that matters today)

This is Benjamin West’s famous painting of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam handing over the rights to collect taxes in Bengal to Robert Clive and the East India Company (1765). A little over 100 years ago, Aurangzeb had nearly evicted the British, but in the 1760s the scrappy East India Company (EIC) was on the verge of drowning Aurangzeb’s precious empire and emerging as the new power in the subcontinent. If you look at the painting closely, you will see how the British and their allies are cast in the light, while most Indians are in the shadow.

West was a romantic and a patriot. He liked painting famous scenes from history like The Death of Nelson or Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky. The painting above was recording the birth of British India and the British Empire at large. India was to be the goose that laid the golden eggs.

Casting a Shadow over Bengal

Ironically, in his painting, West wasn’t wrong to paint Indians in the shadow because with the handing over of the Diwani to the EIC, a dreadful shadow did indeed fall over Bengal. Within five years, the Company’s exploitative business practices ruined the local economy and compounded a natural disaster that led to the terrible famine of 1770. 10 million people died during this time – 1/3rd of the total population in the province.

To give you some perspective, Covid has caused approximately 6.5 million deaths globally over nearly 3 years. The famine cost 10 million lives in just one province that covers modern day West Bengal, Bangladesh, parts of Odisha and Bihar. Entire generations were effectively wiped out.

To their credit, the world took notice. While descriptions of the famine shocked the English back home, the English were even more outraged when they started seeing Company officials coming home millionaires (the outrage stemmed more from envy, I suspect, than moral uprightness). Robert Clive, the central figure in West’s painting (receiving the scroll from Shah Alam), and considered the founder of the British Empire in India reportedly came back to India with “£1,200,000 in cash, bills, and jewels.” In today’s value, that is £286,400,000 (£286 million). This was one individual’s earnings. There were many other Company millionaires who made their millions by looting India.

In the end, Robert Clive’s career took a nose-dive. In England, he faced charges of corruption, brutality and profiteering. During his life time, he was much hated and he ended up killing himself at the age of 49 in the same brutal manner in which he had lived his life. Later, his story was scrubbed and rewritten by other British viceroys to justify their rule in India. But we won’t go there.

Our textbooks talk in great detail about the significance of the Battles of Plassey and Buxar, the rise of Clive and the Company and their hand in the famine that followed. It makes mention of the wealth that India had at the time and how, in a very short time, the British managed to strip it away.

But textbooks and classrooms do not have the time to fully illustrate what that wealth looked like, or even how it was plundered away, and what that really means in the present.

The Lucrative Career of a Plundering EIC Officer

Robert Clive’s eldest son, Edward Clive, followed in his father’s footsteps and was Governor of Madras as well as part of the wars with Tipu Sultan. He was present when Tipu Sultan was finally defeated and killed in battle. His wife Henrietta, wrote to her brother about the plundering of Srirangapatnam: “The plunder of Seringapatam is immense. General Harris will get between £1,50,000 and £2,00,000. Two of the privates have got £10,000 in jewels and money. The riches are quite extraordinary. Lord Clive has got a very beautiful blunderbuss (a short, large-bored gun) that was Tipu’s and much at Seringapatam. I should like to have the pickings of some of the boxes.”

“I should like to have the pickings of some of the boxes” she says!

Edward and Robert Clive’s collections are housed at Powis Castle in Wales. You can pay an entrance fee, explore the beautiful gardens, the enormous castle and the attached museum that was all funded by the Clive’s adventures in India. The Clive Collection – a collection of Indian items that is one of the biggest in the world – is bigger than the Delhi Museum even. It includes a grand palanquin that belonged to Siraj ud Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal who Clive defeated at the Battle of Plassey, and Tipu Sultan’s gold embroidered slippers, his guns, jewels, and even his battle tent.

The Clives also carried away two of eight finials that adorned Tipu’s throne. Finials are the decorative knobbly bits on the ends of thrones. The finial, like the one in the image above, is made of gold and set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds. One was sold in 2009 for over £3 million.

In 2003, Christies auctioned this 17th century Mughal emerald brooch. According to the listing details it is an “emerald of exceptional colour and clarity weighing 55.8 carats with superb Mughal carving of tulips on both sides”.

According to the note on its provenance, the brooch last belonged to the 10th Duke of Northumberland. It was passed down through the generations from his ancestor, the 3rd Duke of Northumberland, Hugh Percy. His wife was Charlotte Florentia, the daughter of Edward Clive, who stole the finial that we talked about earlier. Charlotte’s mother had wanted to “have the pickings” of Tipu’s treasure. Coming back to 2003, this brooch was sold for £1.2 million.

Whose History is it?

Today, the United Kingdom is working hard to make sure these treasures do not leave their borders.

I found a press release issued in 2021 on gov.uk titled “18th-Century Tipu Sultan Throne Finial worth £1.5 million at risk of leaving UK“. According to the release, an export bar had been placed on the finial (just like the one in the Clive collection) to allow time for a UK institution to purchase the piece, which might otherwise leave the country (UK). Why does the UK still want it?

The UK sees the finial as part of their history now. The release states that “Following his defeat, many objects from Tipu’s treasury arrived in Britain, where they influenced poetry (John Keats), fiction (Charles Dickens; Wilkie Collins), artists (J.M.W.Turner) and were received with huge public interest.” – “arrived” in Britain? Did they just arrive as if of their own volition? Were they looking for cooler climes?

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended that the export license application for the finial be deferred to 11 February 2022, or extended to 11 June 2022 to try and keep the finial in the UK because the Committee believed that “it is an important symbolic object in Anglo-Indian history in the last years of the 18th Century, with Tipu’s defeat having great historical importance to Britain’s imperial past and leading to a contemporary fascination with Tipu’s story and objects.”

Guess who else might think that Tipu’s defeat might be of greater historical importance? Where else might there be a greater contemporary fascination with Tipu’s story and objects? (India, of course!)

When I was younger I had heard arguments made by the Egyptians and the Indians about how the British had stolen our nation’s wealth. I had not really cared at the time. I didn’t have a concept of time or value of history and cultural identity.

However, if you were to zoom into the image of the finial or the emerald with it delicate tulips etched into it, it tells us a story of advanced Indian artistry and craftwork. There was nothing comparable to it in the world at the time. And it wasn’t even that long ago.

How many Indians, do you think, are aware of this rich history of art in India? Generations of Indian students are coming out of secondary school without fully understanding what the textbooks are telling them – about the wealth that the Mughals and other Indian monarchs commanded, about the quality of artistry, understanding of metallurgy and gems that our ancestors possessed – an understanding that might be more easily grasped with a visit to a well curated museum where the story comes to life.

Today, if I want to show my son, or my class, any of this, I will need to organize a trip to the United Kingdom because that is where the best samples are. We will need to buy tickets to see our own cultural heritage – a heritage that was literally stolen from us. And worse still, some of these items are not even in museums – they are being sold off to be part of private collections, where some rich woman will wear that 17th century brooch as a pendant of a string of pearls at a party. So not only did the treasure make a British person rich in the 18th century, it continues to make British people rich today.

If you want to read more about

Robert Clive, then this article by William Dalrymple on Robert Clive as a vicious asset-stripper

Also, check out this blog about the art in Tipu’s palace in Srirangapatnam.

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