Dacca under British Rule

CHAPTER VIII

A new day was dawning for the city that had seen so many vicissitudes. The old scenes of lawlessness and disorder, of treachery and intrigue, of murder, rapine, and licence, that had stained her annals, were things of the past. The old typical Eastern unrestraint, and the unchecked play of passions, slowly began to give way to a strange unwonted spirit of law and order which the city even in its best days had never before known.

It was unavoidable that much of the romance should pass with the old rule. The men who were henceforth rulers of Dacca, men for the most part of strict honesty and impartiality, busy with the administration of justice, the punishment of wrongdoing, and the collection of the revenue, and content with the reality, cared little for the show of power. Their factories and offices, their courthouses and jails, rose up scornful of architectural pretensions, hideous and unsightly, built by a company of traders solely for use, with a fine disregard for appearances. Plain, blunt Englishmen, with a touch of Puritanism in their blood, Oriental splendour and magnificence made to them but little appeal. With their advent, the picturesque-ness of the old court life at Dacca rapidly disappeared. Jusserat Khan still ruled nominally as Naib Nazim until his death in 1781, but from the year 1765, when Lieutenant Swinton, long remembered among the people as Sooltin Saheb, came to Dacca to take over charge of the revenue after the famous treaty of 1765 had given the English the Dewani of Bengal, Behar, and Orissa, all power gradually passed into the hands of the Company. Jusserat Khan vacated the palace in the Fort, which had been a residence of the rulers of Dacca since Ibrahim Khan built it a hundred and fifty years before, and withdrew to the Bara Katra temporarily, until the Nimtoli Kothi, the new residence which was being prepared for him, was completed. At the Nimtoli Kothi, Jusserat Khan and his descendants lived for three-quarters of a century, holding their mock court, shorn alike of its state and its authority. It was a pathetic lingering of the old regime, a mockery of the splendour that was past, paper and tinsel where once there had been vellum and gold. Opposite the eastern gateway, half guard, half escort, was quartered a detachment of the Company’s Sepoys, a constant reminder, if such were needed, that the power of the Mughals was a thing of the past. Of this last of the palaces of the Naib Nazims nothing now remains save portions of the western gateway and the Baradari, the large hall where they held their diminished court and jealously preserved the few outward symbols of authority that still remained. Close by, in the Hossaini Delan, lie buried the last four Naib Nazims of Dacca: Nusrut Jung and Shams-ud-dowlah, grandsons of Jusserat Khan, Kumr-ud-dowlah, and Ghaziuddin, on whose death, childless, in 1843, the Company at last took full and complete possession.

Innumerable difficulties faced the English when first they assumed control in Dacca. Every department of the State showed unmistakable signs of the corruption and decay that had overtaken the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century. The famous Mahomed Eeza Khan was in charge of the office of Dewan at the time, and an inspection of his accounts revealed the fact that the revenues of Eastern Bengal had fallen to twenty lacs of rupees as compared with thirty-eight lacs in 1722. The lands originally allotted for the maintenance of the Nawara, the fleet, had amounted to over seven lacs, but of this only half a lac was found to be recoverable. The abuses that sprang from the absolute power of the Naib Nazims as to life and death shocked beyond measure the inherent sense of justice of the law-abiding servants of the Company. The Dak, or posting department, is described as being ‘involved in a labyrinth of obscurity, without check or system,’ and the delays and peculation beyond belief. Of the hundred and ten prisoners in the Dacca jail, it is recorded that ninety-five were employed at work upon the roads in irons, ‘whose guilt had never been established,’ and many of whom ‘had been so circumstanced for nine years.’ Encouraged by the weakness of the local government, dacoits infested the rivers, waylaying travelers and seizing valuable merchandise, well nigh totally disorganising trade and commerce. Eaiding the villages on the river-banks, they laid waste whole tracts of country, robbing and murdering the unfortunate cultivators without mercy. So bold did they become that they even set upon and murdered a Government officer, one Captain Holland, while on his way from Dacca to Calcutta. Crime of every kind was rife, and no man went secure in life or property.

These must have been busy days for the first English administrators. Their powers ill-defined, and an infinity of difficulties awaiting their solution, it was no easy task that they had to face. With wise caution they proceeded slowly, tentatively trying method after method of dealing with the colossal work that lay before them until they found the instrument most suited to their need. Step by step, with due order and precision, they gathered up the threads from the tangled skein that little by little fell within their grasp. There was nothing that savoured of revolution. Quietly the servants of the Company stepped into the place of the Mughal administrator and made use at the outset of the much-abused forms of government they found to hand. In 17G9 Mr. Kelsall was appointed the first Supervisor of the Eevenue, and the great work began in earnest. Everywhere the revenues had fallen, eaten away by wanton extravagance and peculation, and one of the first cares that demanded the attention of the new Supervisor was the reduction of expenditure. The Nawara, the famous fleet, which had been for so long the pride and glory and safety of Dacca as it rode at anchor in the Buriganga, had seen its day, and in the new regime it had no place. It was summarily abolished and the ships sold, the lands that were still recoverable of those that had been granted for its maintenance being taken over by the Company. To check the abuses of the Naib Nazim’s Courts, prompt measures were adopted. Every sentence of death passed by the Naib Nazim needed confirmation by a representative of the Company before it could be carried into effect, while a European officer was deputed to attend the Adaulat Courts to see that justice was properly administered. But Mr. Kelsall had only four English Assistants at the outset, and it was impossible for a little band of five Englishmen, unversed in the methods of Oriental cunning and intrigue, to make great headway against the mass of corruption and confusion that confronted them. The great wonder is that they were able to do what they did. They make a striking picture, those five Englishmen set in the midst of a vast and alien province, struggling through heat, discomfort, and intrigue to bring order out of chaos, and to lay the foundations of an administration of honesty and integrity that should confer untold benefits upon a harassed and exhausted people, and upon many generations yet to come. Average level-headed Englishmen, in no wise distinguished above their fellows, their very names long since forgotten, they yet played their part in the foundation of a great empire, unostentatious to the end, writing their epitaphs in deeds, not words. In the midst of a newly conquered people whose great traditions had not yet become a memory, they had little but their own prestige, then only in its first youth, to place against overwhelming numbers. The force at their disposal was absurdly small, a mere handful of men in the midst of the teeming population of the great capital which but a few years before had sent out its orders to exterminate them root and branch. Mr. Grewber, appointed to be Supervisor with the new title of Collector in 1772, found only two companies of Sepoys, ill-trained, unproved men from a corps at Chittagong, as the sole defence of English authority in Dacca. It was a strange turn in the wheel of fate that the proud city which had seen great armies contending for its possession should settle down, striking no single blow for independence, under so small a force, led by a little company of Englishmen. The peaceful acquisition of the Eastern Province is one of the most remarkable features in the English annals in Bengal.

It was to face no organised resistance that the Collector was forced in 1773 to ask for an augmentation of the military forces at his command. They were inadequate even for the duties of police. Dacoities and murders were still of everyday occurrence. So weak had become the local Mughal authority in its last days that whole companies of banditti roamed the countryside or infested the great rivers, bent on plunder and rapine. It is said that as many as ten thousand sunyassees were collected in one part of the district alone, compelling the wretched inhabitants to pay tribute and driving them in terror from their homes. A detachment of Sepoys sent out against them, completely outnumbered and overwhelmed, met with a severe defeat, and the English officer falling into their hands was brutally murdered. In the following year a regiment of Militia was raised to augment the force, consisting of six companies, each one hundred strong, commanded by an English Captain and a Subaltern, with a native adjutant and a full complement of native officers. The troops thus raised played in those first days many parts. They guarded the Katcheries and the Treasury, they acted as excise officers to prevent the smuggling of salt, they escorted treasure on long and dangerous journeys by land and river, they executed decrees of the Provincial Courts, and they made their way into remote and unknown corners of the district to seize and bring in refractory zemindars who refused to pay their rent or otherwise disobeyed the orders of the Courts. Ten years later the Militia was disbanded and a Provincial Corps raised in its stead.

Eeforms in the local administration quickly followed. In 1772 the Company assumed charge of the office of Dewan in place of Mahomed Keza Khan, and a Court of Dewani Adaulat was instituted under the Collector as President, who, with the assistance of a native Dewan, tried all civil suits. Two years later the Provincial Council was established, with the famous Mr. Barwell as chief, but, an experiment in local government, it was abolished in 1781, and Mr. Day was appointed first Magistrate and Collector, while a Court of Judicature was established, of which Mr. Duncanson was first Judge.

It is during these early years of British supremacy that two famous names figure for a brief space in the annals of Dacca. William Makepeace Thackeray, sixteenth child of Dr. Thackeray, Headmaster of Harrow and grandfather of the future novelist, had arrived in India as a Writer in the Company’s service in June 1766, at the age of seventeen. For the first five years he was employed in Calcutta, for some time as secretary to Mr. Cartier, who became Governor of Bengal in 1769, and it was during this period that he was joined by two of his sisters, Jane and Henrietta, who were doubtless glad to escape from the overcrowded household at home to the wider outlook that India afforded. Both these ladies, as well as their brother, were soon destined to become intimately connected with Dacca. It was there that Mr. Cartier had spent a large portion of his earlier service, and he had good cause to remember how great were the advantages it offered to a young civilian in the way of private trade and emoluments. Desirous of doing his best for his protege before leaving India, he appointed him factor and fourth in Council at Dacca, and there Thackeray, accompanied by his sisters, arrived in 1771. It was still the time when large fortunes were to be made by the Company’s servants in Bengal, and though great changes were impending from the following year when Warren Hastings assumed office as Governor-General, Thackeray in the years that followed found unlimited opportunities, which were regarded as perfectly legitimate, and of which he made good use, of amassing considerable private wealth. He remained only a year in Dacca, being appointed, under Warren Hastings’s new system of administration, the first Collector of the neighbouring frontier province of Sylhet in 1772. As virtual ruler of this wild, unexplored country, new opportunities opened out before him, and although he only held the Collectorship for two short years, he associated himself so closely with the district that he has become known for all time as ‘Sylhet ‘Thackeray.

It must have been a fascinating life for a young man of only twenty-three. Though nominally under the control of the Council at Dacca, he was practically in supreme authority over a vast district, untouched as yet by British influence, and waiting to receive the impress of the strong rule that should evolve law and order out of chaos. A free hand and a wide scope gave full play to the young Collector’s individuality. The infinite variety of his work is astonishing. First and foremost he was the Collector of the revenue, and so long as the full tale of it in cowries, the local currency, reached the Treasury at Dacca the Council there evinced but little further interest in the Province. Those were the days before the writing of voluminous reports, the laborious making of petitions and appeals, and constant references to higher authorities; and Thackeray was left unhampered in the control of his district, save only in so far as he did not touch the revenue interests of the Company. The summary administration of justice, the making of roads and bridges, the trapping of wild elephants, the building of jails, the control of the Treasury, the organisation of famine relief, the control of the police, the establishment of schools and dispensaries, and the introduction of experiments in agriculture, these were but a few of the subjects with which the young Collector of the district was called upon to deal.

In 1774 Thackeray was back again in Dacca as third in Council, but so profitable had proved his two years’ tenure of office in Sylhet that he was already able to turn his thoughts towards retirement. On January 31, 1776, he married Amelia RichmondWebb, a reigning beauty of the day in Calcutta, and shortly afterwards sailed for home. During just over nine years’ service, the most important and lucrative half of which had been spent in Dacca and Sylhet, he had amassed a fortune, which, though not comparing with those of many of the ‘nabobs ‘among his contemporaries, was by no means inconsiderable. William Makepeace Thackeray and his bride, a young man of twenty-six and a girl of eighteen, returning from India with a competence large enough to maintain them in comfort for the rest of their lives, present a sufficiently striking contrast with the changed conditions of modern days.

Meanwhile, both the Thackeray sisters had played important roles in Dacca. Henrietta, the younger of the two and the beauty of the family, had created a great impression on her arrival in the up-country station where ladies were few, and in the following year she had married her brother’s chief, Mr. James Harris, head of the Council in Dacca and of the Company’s affairs in Eastern Bengal. Reaching India in 1758, Mr. Harris had put in the whole of his district service in Dacca and to such good effect that already in 1772, at the time of his marriage, he was contemplating retirement. The Eastern Capital, with its many opportunities of private trade, had always been one of the prizes of the service. Even in the days of the ‘Pirate ‘Pitt, it had been a coveted post. Writing to a friend in May 1701, the latter says: ‘I hope you may go to Dacca, which I take to be as advantageous a post as most in the Company’s service,’ and it had not lost its reputation during the sixty years that had intervened. Mr. James Harris had exploited its possibilities to the full, and, retiring with a large fortune early in 1773, he settled down in England, living for many years in the typical nabob-like style of the retired Anglo-Indian of the eighteenth century.

Jane Thackeray, the elder sister, spent a considerably longer time in Dacca, and through her famous husband became much more intimately associated with it. In 1772 she was married to Major James Eennell, the distinguished scientist and geographer, whose name occupies so honoured a place among the worthies of the Eastern Capital. His is an interesting figure, that of a man of science and devoted to the arts of peace utterly untouched by the petty rivalries and ambitions of the society in which his lot was cast, yet forced by the exigencies of the times to play his part in the stirring events that accompanied the consolidation of British rule. Early engaged in scientific research, he was appointed Surveyor of the Company’s dominions in Bengal on his arrival in India as an ensign in 1764, at the age of twenty-two; and under his personal superintendence the thorough exploration of the Eastern Province was for the first time taken in hand. The services rendered by him to the Company, in penetrating into hitherto unknown regions and adding to its knowledge of the country over which it had just been called to rule, were incalculable. Extraordinary ignorance prevailed in the early days among the Company’s agents as to the geography of Bengal outside certain well-known limits, and James Eennell, by clearly defining the extent and characteristics of the Province by means of his maps and surveys, immensely facilitated the work of government.

The story of his labours gives a vivid glimpse of Eastern Bengal in those first days of British suzerainty. It was a wild, turbulent country, lawless and unsettled, on the eve of the final break-up of Muslim authority while as yet the new authority had not had time to make its power felt. The natural difficulties alone with which Eennell had to contend were appalling. Boads there were none, while dense jungle covered the land wherein tigers and herds of wild elephants roamed at will, a constant source of danger at every camping-place. Most of the travelling was done by river, but even here dangers were to be encountered. The rivers themselves, with their swift undercurrents, were treacherous, and sudden storms drew annually a heavy toll in human life. Still more dreaded were the gangs of marauders which infested all the large rivers, rendering life and property unsafe within their reach. James Eennell himself suffered much from their attacks, and again and again he was able to pursue his labours only at the point of the sword. On one occasion, in 1766, he was set upon by a band of river pirates, some eight hundred strong, and though they were driven oft at the first encounter, thanks to the loyalty and discipline of his native escort, they lay in wait for him on the following day and literally cut him and his little troop to pieces. So seriously wounded was he that his life was despaired of. His right shoulder blade was cut through, ‘laying him open for nearly a foot down the back, cutting through or wounding several of the ribs.’ His left arm was also slashed, and a blow on the hand carried off a finger. More than three hundred miles away from the nearest surgeon, his condition was pitiable, and it was due solely to the devotion of his native servants that he survived the terrible journey by boat down the river to Dacca. For months after reaching the station his life hung in the balance, but, recovering, he was promoted to be Captain of Engineers and Surveyor-General of Bengal, and once more resumed his difficult task. On another occasion, five years later, he was again called upon to disperse a company of marauders who were oppressing the people and interfering with his own survey operations. It was a difficult journey of three hundred and twenty miles from Dacca, but, in spite of the heat, he accomplished it in fifteen days and freed the neighborhood of the dacoits once and for all. But tasks such as these, in a climate which, he himself wrote, ‘proved so prejudicial to European constitutions that scarce one out of seventy ever returned to his native country,’ seriously affected his health; and his thoughts, too, turned towards what, in his case at least, was well-earned retirement. He sailed from India in 1777, to continue at home his scientific researches, to reap every possible scientific distinction, and to be laid to rest at last, at the age of eighty-seven, among the dead whom England honours in Westminster Abbey.

But in spite of the energy with which such men as these entered upon the task of reform, abuses and customs sanctioned by long usage died hard. The zemindars in the remote parts of the district still lived much as they had done before, petty despots on their own estates and a terror to the countryside. Many of them did not disdain to share their spoils with bands of dacoits who were in reality armed retainers in their pay. Slavery still existed, and even seventy years after the English had taken possession, slaves were still bought and sold in Dacca, a male slave for 150 rupees and a female for 100 rupees. Refractory rayot s were confined in irons, and the most loathsome forms of torture practiced to force from them their rent to the uttermost farthing. It was impossible that the first little company of administrators in Dacca, with the limited means at their disposal, could at once enforce their principles of law and justice in far-off districts where no white man had j^et been. Everywhere there was the meeting of the old and the new, the old spirit of lawlessness, tyranny and disorder gradually giving way and disappearing under the strenuous new rule of justice and integrity. The mock court of the Naib Nazims representing centuries of tradition, and all that was past, still existed side by side with the Katcheries of the Magistrate and Collector, typical products of a modern regime and symbolic of the new era that was dawning for India and the Indian people.

At the very outset of their rule the English, inexperienced and beset with difficulties, were called upon to deal with one of those great natural calamities with which, unfortunately, they have become but too familiar in after years elsewhere. Eastern Bengal, a land of rice-fields, fertile and well watered, has known little of the horrors of famine in recent times. But when the land was still unsettled and whole tracts had been laid waste by dacoity, tyranny, and oppression, the unfortunate inhabitants were constantly reduced to the very margin of subsistence, and a partial failure of the crops meant disaster. Three of the worst famines that have ever been visited upon Eastern Bengal occurred in the early years of British rule. Scarcely had Mr. Kelsall been appointed the first Supervisor in Dacca when he was called upon to deal with the terrible famine of 1769-70. Sudden and prolonged inundation destroyed a large proportion of the crops, and a period of great heat and drought following, robbed the unfortunate cultivators of their harvest. Though the distress here was small compared with what it was elsewhere, many of the poorest classes were reduced to great straits.

The famine of 1784 was even more disastrous to Eastern Bengal. A sudden rise in the rivers destroyed whole villages, the mighty force of the swollen currents sweeping away all within their path, houses, people, cattle, and trees, a ghastly wreckage tossed on their whirling eddies. So great was the scarcity that rice, though lately selling for 160 seers to the rupee, fell as low as 16 seers. ‘The distress of the inhabitants,’ writes Mr. Day, the Collector, ‘exceeds all description. The country is in a great measure deserted, and scarcely a cultivated spot is to be seen.’ It grew worse as the month of October drew to an end, and it became evident that the winter crop must also fail. The poorer people in Dacca and its neighborhood, goaded by hunger, grew rayot ous, and the Collector found it necessary to employ the Sepoys to protect the bazaars from the starving crowds that surrounded them clamouring for food.

But it was left for the third of these terrible visitations to surpass anything that had gone before in horror and severity. In 1787 the rains began unusually early in March and continued without intermission until, in July, the rivers had risen to a height unrecorded in the annals of Dacca before or since. Though the streets of the city stand ordinarily well above high-water mark, they were so completely inundated that boats sailed over them, in fact, it was necessary to go by boat from house to house. All round the city in the low-lying districts the people had to desert their houses, and either erect machans or live in floating huts hastily constructed on rafts. The early crops completely failed, and, mindful of the former years of famine, those who possessed a stock of grain hoarded it against the coming season of distress. Prices rose 300 to 400 per cent., and rice fell to four seers to the rupee, and even at that excessive rate but little could be obtained. In July, 1787, the famine began, and continued far into the following year. The poor, homeless and penniless, crowded into Dacca, and though ten thousand of them were fed daily by subscription, these formed but a fraction of those who stood in need. Hundreds died of starvation in the streets of the city, until Dacca became a scene of horror unparalleled even among all its many vicissitudes. To increase the misfortunes of the stricken people, a fire broke out in the city, and no less than seven thousand houses were burned to the ground. Large quantities of grain, for want of which the people died, caught fire before their eyes, and a hundred people perished in the flames, many of them burned in the mad rush to save the grain that to them meant life itself. Mr. Day, the Collector, did what he could to arrest the famine, but in those days, when the means of communication were still imperfect and organisation was not yet complete, the difficulties were great. He applied to Government to ask Collectors in Behar to send down rice to the starving districts in Eastern Bengal, but it was not until August, 1788, that the first consignment came. Even then it only amounted to 7,250 muns , and that was little when divided among the tens of thousands upon whom famine had fallen. Even when the floods at last subsided the people were in dire distress. Their houses washed away and their cattle drowned, they had nothing wherewith to start life afresh, and it was many years before Dacca and the neighbouring districts returned again to their former prosperity.

But the result of the famine of 1787-88 went much further than mere temporary distress. It left its permanent mark in the acceleration of a great change that had already begun to make itself felt in Eastern Bengal, forming one of the most striking features of the early years of British rule. It was by a strange irony of fate that the coming of a trading company should have coincided with the rapid decline of manufactures and a sudden movement in favor of agriculture and the extension of cultivation. Until the middle of the eighteenth century spinning and weaving had been the main sources of the prosperity of Dacca. The chief interest had centered in the city itself. Ever since its foundation it had drawn the people from the countryside, who had crowded into its many streets and bazaars where highly paid labour was always to be obtained. So great had been the influx that the town of Dacca is said in the days of its greatest prosperity to have extended fourteen miles inland from the bank of the river, while its population numbered nine hundred thousand souls. Outside, in the district nearby, vast tracts of land still lay uncultivated, much that had been cultivated in the days of the kingdom of Sonargaon having fallen back again into waste and jungle. The same tendency to desert rural occupations for town life observable in England in the latter half of the nineteenth century had been exhibited in Dacca two centuries before. Even Capassia and Sonargaon, famous of old for their manufacture of muslins and fine cloths, sent their best workmen to swell the population of the overcrowded city. Agriculture, conducted on the crudest principles, was at the best anxious and unprofitable labour, and in the unsettled condition of the time, when dacoity was rife and zemindars oppressed at will, there was no certainty that he who sowed would ever know the joy of harvest.

A succession of events, however, in the last decades of the eighteenth century wrought a sudden change. The famine of 1787-88 left the land desolate, having swept whole villages and homesteads, and in many instances the cultivators themselves, out of existence. There was an urgent demand for labour in the years that followed. Landholders found themselves in possession of large estates with none to cultivate them, and they were driven to offer every inducement to draw the labourer back to the land. The abolition of the export duties on corn and the introduction of indigo came to their assistance, while the Permanent Settlement, whatever its merits or demerits, gave for the time being a feeling of security among the agricultural classes hitherto unknown. Eapidly a return back to the land set in. Under the new government, which every day made its influence more firmly felt in the greater security of life and property, the cultivator began to see that he might carry on his labour with every hope in due time of reaping its reward. The country districts speedily revived, and cultivation extended far beyond its former limits, converting swamps and jungle, in the years that followed, into the fertile rice-fields of Eastern Bengal. To such an extent did the agrarian revolution affect the distribution of population, that Dacca, which had once boasted well nigh a million inhabitants, could only muster some fifty thousand in the early part of the eighteenth century.

But the greatest impetus to the agrarian revolution was undoubtedly to be found in the marked decay of commercial and industrial prosperity. Even in a land of rapid changes this sudden decline is startling. A number of events seemed to have combined to ruin the great industry for which the city had been so long famous. In 1781 the weaving of muslins was introduced into England, and on the expiry of Arkwright’s patent and the introduction of mule twist in 1785, the manufacture of cotton goods increased by leaps and bounds. From two millions in 1781 their value sprang to seven and a half million in 1787, no less than five hundred thousand pieces of muslin being manufactured in one year. They were not muslins of the quality and texture for which Dacca was so well known, but they were of a kind that met with a ready demand. The Mughal Imperial and Provincial Courts, which had entirely monopolised the finest and most costly of the muslins that Dacca had produced, were no longer in a position to make large purchases, and the high prices of the best muslins were prohibitive to any but the richest classes. The old days of luxury and splendour were over, and the change told heavily on the Dacca weaver. Eobbed of the demand for their most expensive muslins, they found themselves at the same time called upon to meet the influx of English machine-made cloth, which, owing to its cheapness and durability, at once found a ready market. All classes of the inhabitants were further affected by the introduction of English-made thread, which quickly superseded that locally prepared. The rapid decline of manufactures was the inevitable result.

In 1787 muslins to the value of thirty lacs of rupees were exported to England. But the flourishing state of the English cotton trade during the last twenty years of the eighteenth century, fostered as it was by the prohibitive duty of 75 per cent, and aided by mechanical device and invention of every kind, was the death-blow of the industry in Dacca. In 1807 only eight and a half lacs’ worth found a market in Great Britain, and the total fell again in 1813 to three and a half lacs, while so low had it fallen in 1817 that the Company abolished its commercial Kesidency in Dacca altogether. An apparently trifling order of the Sultan of Turkey is given as the cause of the death-blow that yet another industry in Dacca received later in the third decade of the nineteenth century. In 1835 hashida cloths embroidered in Dacca were sold in Calcutta to the value of four lacs of rupees. In the following year the sales only amounted to two and a half lacs, in 1837 to one and a half lacs, and in 1838 to one lac only. It is said that the majority of these embroidered cloths had been exported to Turkey, where they were used as turbans for the Sultan’s troops. But the Sultan issuing an order changing the uniform of his army, the demand from that quarter for the Tcashida cloth altogether ceased, with disastrous results to the industry in Dacca.

In almost every other direction, however, Dacca benefited greatly during the years that followed the assumption of authority by the Company. The condition of the city itself during Mughal times is almost unimaginable from a sanitary point of view to an Englishman of the nineteenth century. Undrained and unswept, the lanes and alleys of the great city of nearly a million inhabitants were foul and pestilent beyond description, and it is small wonder that sickness was prevalent and mortality extraordinarily heavy. In the earlier days large portions of the bazaar, lightly constructed with a view to that end, were burned down every year, a drastic measure of sanitation rendered necessary by months of neglect. Accidental fires, too, were of such common occurrence that people kept their valuables buried under the ground, or placed in boxes on wheels, ready at a moment’s notice to be drawn away. Some attempt was made under Mughal rule to care for the poor and sick, a grant from the crown lands for the purposes of a Langar Khana, or refectory for the poor, being set aside for the purpose, but it was too small to have been able to deal at all adequately with the amount of poverty and sickness that must have existed. ‘Hospital charges and black doctor with medicines to attend the poor sickly people, 1,578 rupees 10 annas,’ ‘allowance to lame and blind, 3,600 rupees,’ together with a few other items, amounting in all to something under nine thousand rupees, were apparently all that was found existing in the way of official charity in 1769. The Emperor Jehangir’s orders for the construction of hospitals and refectories appear to have become a dead letter in Eastern Bengal, like so many other imperial rescripts in the last days of Mughal rule. A hospital was soon started by the Company, and a bequest, at a later date, by Mr. Mitford, once Collector and afterwards judge of the Provincial Court of Appeal in Dacca, to the extent of some eight lacs of rupees for charitable, beneficial, and public works, gave to the city the fine hospital now known by its donor’s name.

But it was in the peace and quietness and settled order that the establishment of its rule gave to a distracted province that the English Company’s chief claim to gratitude lay. The nineteenth century was the most peaceful that Dacca and Eastern Bengal had ever known. Undisturbed by wars and rumours of wars, and secure in the possession of their own, the people have led for the most part peaceful lives, engaged in agriculture and the growing of indigo and jute, gradually bringing vast tracts of hitherto untouched soil under cultivation. Crime, it is true, was rife in the earlier years, but isolated cases of robbery and dacoity were small evils compared with the ravages of pirates and roving banditti of earlier days, who plundered and murdered and laid waste whole villages unchecked. Excessively prone to litigation, and much given to local disputes among themselves, the people of Eastern Bengal but seldom showed concern in wider interests and the political questions of the day. It was under the English Company as under Hindu and Muslim rule. The bulk of the population, accepting the fact of a ruling race, cared little who their overlords might be. The spirit of fatalism, inherent among the majority of the people of Eastern Bengal, precluded all thought of rebellion against authority. It had been ordained that they should be governed. It therefore mattered little who their governors might be. If good, so much the better; if evil and tyrannical and oppressive, they must needs submit and wait until the tyranny was overpast. Only very occasionally, as in 1810, when a measure was passed that touched them too closely, have they shown any attempt at resistance. In that year a house-tax was imposed upon the city of Dacca, and the inhabitants rose in a body and presented a petition at the government katchery, which[1] stood in the old Fort, on the site where the jail now stands. The Collector refused to receive the petit inn from so turbulent a mob. It contained, however, the signatures of nine thousand of the most respectable householders in Dacca, and, apart from the angry crowd that presented it, could not be altogether overlooked. It petitioned not only for the repeal of the house-tax, but also for the abolition of the stamp duty. On the Collector’s refusal to receive the petition there was danger of the mob looting the katchery, but a company of Sepoys being called out it speedily dispersed, and the petition was quietly presented on the following day by delegates appointed by the signatories.

An interesting glimpse of Dacca in the first quarter of the nineteenth century has been left on record by the pen of a contemporary writer. Reginald Heber, one of the most famous names on the roll of Calcutta Bishops, visited Eastern Bengal in the course of one of his episcopal visitations in 1824. Setting out from Calcutta on June 15 in ‘a fine sixteen-oared pinnace,’ accompanied by his domestic chaplain, Mr. Stowe, he reached Dacca by leisurely stages on July 3. ‘As we drew nearer,’ he writes, ‘I was surprised at the extent of the place and the stateliness of the ruins, of which, indeed, the city seemed chiefly to consist.’ He was the guest of Mr. .Master, the judge of the district, and of his eighteen days’ stay he has left a full account. ‘Dacca is merely the wreck of its ancient grandeur,’ he writes, acknowledging Mr. Master as his informant. c Its trade is reduced to the sixtieth part of what it was, and all its splendid buildings, the castle of its founder Shahjehanguire, the noble mosque he built, and palaces of the ancient Nawabs, the factories and churches of the Dutch, French, and Portuguese nations, are all sunk into ruin and overgrown with jungle. Mr. Master has himself been present at a tyger-hunt in the court of the old palace, during which the elephant of one of his friends fell into a well overgrown with weeds and bushes. The cotton produced in this district is mostly sent to England raw, and the manufactures of England are preferred by the people of Dacca themselves for their cheapness.’

Bishop Heber was struck by the smallness of the English community in this important outpost of the Company. ‘Of English there are none,’ he writes, ‘except a few indigo planters in the neighborhood and those in the civil or military service.’ There were, however, no less than ten companies of infantry stationed in Dacca at the time; and a small flotilla of gunboats, said to be on its way to guard the Burmese frontier, was also there temporarily. The Hindu and Muslim population, though less than in the prosperous days of Shaista Khan, was still considerably more than in the present day. Mr. Master estimated it at three hundred thousand, while in the last census returns the population is given as less than one-third of that figure. ‘The climate of Dacca Mr. Master reckons one of the mildest in India,’ writes the Bishop, ‘the heat being always tempered by the vast rivers flowing near it,’ and it is curious at the present day to read that ‘the neighborhood affords only one short ride at this season, and not many even when the ground is dry, beiDg much intersected by small rivers and some large and impenetrable jungles coming pretty close to the north-east of the town.’ Of the Nawab Shams-ud-Dowlah, Bishop Heber gives an interesting account. It is with something of surprise that one reads of him as ‘fancying himself a critic in Shakespeare.’ The grandson of Jusserat Khan, it was only two years before that he had succeeded his brother, Nusrut Jung, as Nawab. Previous to that he had spent several years in Calcutta, where he had been kept in honourable confinement for the part he had played in a conspiracy against the Company. But in 1822 he was considered so harmless that he was allowed to succeed to most of his brother’s empty honours. Though denied the State palanquin, the sign of authority, he was granted an allowance of ten thousand rupees a month, with the title of Highness, and was permitted to maintain a Court with a company of guards of his own. His is a pathetic figure. Shorn of all power, life from the outset had little to offer him. From beginning to end it was nothing but a puppet-show. All that he could hope for was to succeed to the empty honours that his brother held. It is small wonder that in his youth he was led into joining a conspiracy that offered him a chance of breaking the bonds and playing a man’s part in life. Inheriting much of his grandfather’s astuteness and ability, he had no chance to show his worth. In his younger days he is described as a man of 1 vigorous and curious mind, who, had his talents enjoyed a proper bent, might have distinguished himself.’ But, incentive being lacking, it is not to be wondered at that, when in after days Bishop Heber met him, he had become ‘infirm and indolent, more and more addicted to the listless indulgences of the Asiatic prince: pomp so far as he can afford it, dancing girls and opium, having in fact scarce any society but that of his inferiors, and being divested of any of the usual motives by which even Asiatic princes are occasionally roused to exertion.’

Dacca, in 1824, must have been a curious meeting-place of the old order and the new. In Bishop Heber’s account of his visit of ceremony to the Nawab they seem strangely to mingle. ‘In the afternoon,’ he wrote on July 8, c I accompanied Mr. Master to pay a visit to the Nawab, according to appointment. We drove a considerable way through the city, then along a shabby avenue of trees intermingled with huts, then through an old brick gateway into a sort of wild-looking close, with a large tree and some bushes in the centre, and ruinous buildings all round. There was a company of Sepoys drawn up to receive us, very neatly dressed and drilled, being in fact a detachment of the Company’s local regiment, and assigned to the Nawab as a guard of honour. In front was another really handsome gateway, with an open gallery, where the ” nobut,” or evening martial music, is performed, a mark of sovereign dignity to which the Nawab never had a just claim, but in which Government continues to indulge him. Here were the Nawab’s own guard, in their absurd coats and caps, and a crowd of folk with silver sticks, as well as two tonjons and chahtahs, to convey us across the inner court. This was a little larger than the small quadrangle at All Souls, surrounded with low and irregular but not inelegant buildings, kept neatly and all whitewashed. On the right hand was a flight of steps leading to a very handsome hall, an octagon, supported by Gothic arches, with a verandah round it, and with high Gothic windows well venetianed. The octagon was fitted up with a large round table covered with red cloth, mahogany drawing-room chairs, two large and handsome convex mirrors, which showed the room and furniture to considerable advantage, two common pierglasses, some prints of the King, the Emperor Alexander, Lords Wellesley and Hastings and the Duke of Wellington, and two very good portraits by Chinnery of the Nawab himself and the late Nawab, his brother. Nothing was gawdy, but all extremely respectable and noblemanly. The Nawab, his son, his English secretary and the Greek priest whom he had mentioned to me, received us at the door, and he led me by the hand to the upper end of the table. We sate some time, during which conversation was kept up better than I expected: and I left the palace a good deal impressed with the good sense, information, and pleasing manners of our host.’ It is the last glimpse of the old rdgime. Within less than twenty years even the very name and symbol of Muslim authority in Dacca had passed away.

The mutiny of 1857 touched the mass of the people not at all. They watched the short drama that was played out in the Lalbagh as something apart, an interesting spectacle, in which they had no share save as spectators. But for the English in Dacca those few anxious months in 1857 were the most exciting moments of its history throughout the nineteenth century. There were only two companies of the 73rd Native Infantry, numbering no more than two hundred and sixty, with the artillery, stationed in the city at the time. Upon the arrival of news of the outbreak of the mutiny at Meerut a spirit of unrest took possession of the Sepoys, alarming their officers for the safety of the small European community, which lay practically at their mercy. Upon advices being sent to Calcutta, a company of a hundred men of the Indian navy was at once ordered up. It was a small force, but it was the most that could be spared at that critical time, and the station put itself in what state of defence it could by enrolling all the European and Eurasian residents as volunteers. They numbered some sixty, all told. Mr. Davidson was Commissioner of Dacca at the time, Mr. Abercrombie, Judge, and Mr. Carnac, Magistrate and Collector.

All through the rains the Sepoys continued in a state of disquiet, eagerly waiting for the news that filtered down, diluted with many exaggerations, from up country. At last, on November 21, boatmen coming up the river brought the news that the Sepoys at Chittagong had mutinied. Wild stories were soon afloat in the bazaar. It was confidently asserted that the treasuries there had been looted, and three lacs of rupees carried off in triumph by the mutineers. The head officials of the station held a hurried consultation with the officers of the two companies of Sepoys, and it was resolved that the troops should be disarmed if possible by surprise early on the following morning. At five o’clock on Sunday morning, November 22, 1857, in the cold, misty half-light of a winter dawn, thirty European volunteers and the hundred marines formed up in the open space in front of what is now the Victoria Park. From there a small company marched to the treasury, which stood on the site at present occupied by the Central Jail. There they found about thirty of the Sepoys, some on guard, some off duty, and all were disarmed without difficulty. The Sepoys quietly laid down their arms, protesting that they had not merited this disgrace, and that they had had no intention of mutinying.

The treasury secured, the sailors were at once marched to the Lalbagh, where the main body of the Sepoys were quartered. But here news of the disarming of the treasury guard had been before them, and the Sepoys were prepared to resist. As the sailors entered the Lalbagh enclosure through the broken wall near the southern gateway the sentry fired into their midst, and one man fell. The Sepoys, committed to resistance, fired a volley, and the guns which had been placed in front of Peri Bibi’s tomb were turned upon the sailors as they advanced. Most of the Sepoys had gathered on the ramparts to the left, and it was soon evident that, deprived of their officers, disorder and confusion reigned among them. Led by Lieutenant Laws, the sailors and volunteers charged the ramparts and drove the Sepoys before them towards their quarters, where they were driven from house to house till at last they reached the turret in the angle of the wall, where they made a stubborn resistance, many of them being driven over the edge of the parapet and falling to the ground, fifty feet below, on the other side. Mr. Mays, a midshipman, at the head of eight men, had meanwhile pluckily charged down upon the guns, which were taken and spiked, a deed which won for him the Victoria Cross. The Sepoys were utterly routed, and the majority of them fled, leaving forty of their number dead upon the field. Among the sailors and volunteers the casualties were few. One man had been killed by the sentry’s bullet at their entrance into the fort, and nine were severely injured, of whom four subsequently died. Dr. Green, the civil surgeon, while attending to one of the injured men, was himself wounded in the thigh, and Mr. Bainbridge, the Assistant Magistrate, fell from the ramparts and sustained severe injuries. But these were small calamities in comparison with the dangers that had threatened. Dacca had been entirely at the mercy of the mutineers, and it was largely due to the prompt action taken by the officials that all danger was averted.

The diary of Mr. Brennand, who was Principal of the Government College at the time, throws some interesting sidelights on the Dacca of 1857. Though the danger was real, and there was an undercurrent of excitement and alarm throughout the station, outwardly the daily social round went on much as in more peaceful times. In fact, from an English point of view, Dacca was probably gayer than it had ever been before. The arrival of fresh troops considerably augmented station society and in spite of the anxiety and danger social amenities were not neglected. On October 12, we learn from Mr. Brennand’s diary, the Cavalry Volunteers gave a ball to the Infantry, and on November 9 the Infantry Volunteers gave a dinner to the station. It came off in Mr. Brennand’s own house, and was one of the largest parties that had ever been given in Dacca. No less than seventy were invited and over fifty sat down to dinner. This was only twelve days before the eventful 22nd when the Sepoys were disarmed and the fight took place in the Lalbagh Fort. Exciting as this event was, however, so little did it affect the official life of Dacca that on the following day Mr. Brennand records that ‘everything was quiet again and we were going on with our work as if nothing had happened.’ The social life of Dacca was at its height in the months that followed. Even the hot weather and rains seem to have failed to damp its energy. ‘The station is very gay ‘is the entry in Mr. Brennand’s diary of the 12th of July. ‘A ball at Gunny Mean’s, a station ball at Carnegie’s, and a bachelor ball after that.’ And again on the 15th of August: ‘The station is very gay. Three balls in succession.’ Six balls in Dacca in a little over a month during the rains ! One can only marvel at the energy of a past generation of Anglo-Indians and the transformation that has taken place in the social life of Dacca during the past fifty years.

Great changes were impending in the city which had already seen so many vicissitudes. The marvellous progress in almost every branch of life, that seemed to keep pace with the advancing years of the nineteenth century, was about to rouse even this far-off city of the long sleep. As yet it knew nothing of railways and telegraphs: and it still stood as isolated in the midst of its network of rivers as it had done in the earliest Muslim days. But in 1858, that year of momentous change in India, the long days of Dacca’s isolation were ended and the city was brought into close and immediate touch with the headquarters of the British power in the East. On the 18th of October, we read in Mr. Brennand’s diary, telegraphic communication between Dacca and Calcutta was completed, and how great an advance that implied in the slow-moving Eastern city it is difficult to realise in these days of still more wonderful inventions. Owing to the difficulties presented by the many rivers that surround Dacca the question of a railway was less easy of solution, and the line of rail between Calcutta and Dacca is still today broken by a six hours’ journey by boat.

The last and most important entry in Mr. Brennand’s diary was made on the 5th of November 1858. ‘The Proclamation of the transfer of the Government of India to the Queen,’ it runs, ‘was read in English and Bengali on Monday last, in the space in front of the College. The military were drawn up in line and the European residents were upon a platform erected for the purpose. Between two and three thousand people present. Some of the houses were lighted up in the evening in honour of the occasion, and there was a dinner given by the civilians and the military to the station.’

So with its great traditions and wonderful memories the old East India Company ceased to be, and a new Empire rose on the foundations it had laid with so much labour, courage, and persistence.

[1] Photography: Dinner-Time In The Dacca Jail and 2 Prisoners At Work In The Dacca Jail

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