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.