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