The Last Days of Dacca as Capital of Bengal


For the moment the English profited little by the departure of Shaista Khan. Aurungzeb, intent upon his wars in the south, had just now turned aside for a moment to wreak vengeance upon the men who had harassed his fleets, fortified Madras and Bombay in spite of prohibitions, and finally entered into an alliance with his life-long enemies, the Mahrattas. In a fit of passion he had issued orders that the English should be extirpated from his dominions. When the order reached Dacca Shaista Khan had already laid down the viceroyalty, and Bahadur Khan, who was acting temporarily in his place, at once proceeded to carry out the Emperor’s commands. The Company’s agents in Dacca, as well as Messrs. Eyre and Braddyll, two members of Council who had been despatched to Dacca to negotiate peace, were flung into prison, and orders sent to Hooghly to drive the English once and for all from their settlements at the head of the Bay.

But the orders came too late. The English Company, after much deliberation, had finally resolved of its own accord to evacuate Bengal. A few months before, to add to its troubles, had arrived the erratic Captain Heath, a hot-headed swashbuckler, in whom the Court of Directors had unaccountably put their faith to bring about harmony and a final settlement of their troubled affairs in the Bay. Upon Job Charnock and the other servants of the Company, already distracted by dangers and difficulties on every hand, Captain Heath descended like a whirlwind. The days that succeeded his arrival passed in the true manner of comic opera. Arriving at Hooghly on September 20, 1688, in command of a fleet of ten or eleven ships, he at once announced that he had sole authority over the Company’s affairs, and that his orders were to convey the whole of the Bengal establishment to Chittagong. Surprised and alarmed by this unexpected news, they were still further distracted by the announcement that they must be ready packed up and all their affairs settled by November 10. Then, hearing that Bahadur Khan at Dacca was fitting out an expedition against the King of Arracan, the irresponsible Heath sent a truculent offer of help, provided that the Viceroy would confirm all the privileges already granted to the Company and further allow them to build a fort, otherwise the English would shake the dust of Bengal off their feet, refusing to stay there longer to trade ‘in fenceless factories.’ Finally, however, blustering and impatient, without even waiting for a reply, he set sail two days before the time he had himself appointed, leaving the Company’s servants in Dacca to their fate. Thereafter for nearly four months, with the whole Bengal establishment on board, he went ‘tripping from port to port ‘in the Bay, until at last he finally landed Job Charnock and his much-tried Council in Madras on March 4, 1689.

Bengal for the moment appeared lost to the Company as a centre of trade and commerce. Only its agents in Dacca and a few other outstations, dispossessed and in prison, represented the English in the Province. Meantime Captain Heath swaggered at Madras, full of reasons for his ill-success, while Job Charnock waited with what patience he might, during fifteen weary months, for the coming of the opportunity that his experience of the strange turns of Eastern politics led him to anticipate.

Aurungzeb’s sudden burst of anger cooled as swiftly as it came. The main object of his life at that time was the conquest of the Mahrattas, and he was not slow to find that it was better to number the English among his allies than among his foes. Not only when open war was declared did the English fleet practically clear the Mughal ships off the Malabar coast and stop his merchants’ trade with Arabia, and the pilgrims on their way to Mecca, but the pecuniary loss from exactions he had levied upon English trade was by no means inconsiderable. Aurungzeb swiftly inclined to milder measures, and early in 1690 terms of peace were drawn up in his camp at Vijapur in the Deccan between him and the English Commissioner sent from Bombay by Sir John Child.

The result of this peace was a farman from the Emperor to Ibrahim Khan, whom he had recently appointed Viceroy of Bengal. It is dated April 23, 1690, and reads quaintly in the light of other days: ‘You must understand that it has been the good fortune of the English to repent them of their irregular proceedings, and that, not being in their former greatness, they have by their vakeels petitioned for their lives, and a pardon for their faults, which, out of my extraordinary favour towards them, I have accordingly granted. Therefore upon receipt hereof, my Phirmaund, you must not create them any further trouble, but let them trade freely in your government as formerly and this order I expect you to see strictly observed.’

Ibrahim Khan at once endeavoured to give effect to Aurungzeb’s orders. He was a man of peace, a strange figure, as he sat buried in his books and deciphering his Persian manuscripts, undisturbed in the midst of the stirring events of his time. Utterly unambitious of military glory, he bore no enmity to the English, and was eager to promote the interests of industry and commerce. He at once released the Company’s agents in Dacca, restoring to them their factories and all their goods which had been sequestrated in Bengal. Further, he sent letters to Job Charnock at Madras, and after some natural hesitation the veteran representative of the Company returned and once more anchored off Sutanati on August 7, 1690. It was a memorable day in the annals of the English in Bengal. With an escort of only thirty soldiers, the Chief of the English Factories began the difficult task of once more reconstructing from the beginning the whole fabric of the Company’s settlement in the Bay. But from the small establishment at Sutanati, which was all that Charnock could at first attempt, was destined to rise in after years the great city of Calcutta. Job Charnock lived only two-and-a-half years after his return, but, though he knew it not, he left behind him the small beginnings which in later days were destined to become the second city in the empire. Under a huge mausoleum in St. John’s churchyard the veteran servant of the Company, his thirty-eight years of loyal service done, sleeps his last sleep, not yet forgotten by those who follow in the paths that he made straight.

The strong hand of Shaista Khan once removed, it was not long before disturbances arose in Bengal. In 1696 Sabha Singh, a Hindu zemindar, having a grievance against the Raja of Burdwan, and securing the help of the Afghans in Orissa, who were ever ready for the fray, attacked and killed the Raja and all his family with the exception of one son. This son, Juggut Rai, fled to Dacca and implored the help of the Viceroy. But Ibrahim Khan, immersed in his books, paid little heed, and contented himself with a hasty order to the military governor of Jessore to punish the rebels. It was this supineness of Ibrahim Khan that gave the Company at last the chance it had so long awaited. The rebels, rapidly advancing, took Hooghly, and the English, left to their fate by the local Mughal governor and with no hope of help from the Viceroy at Dacca, were forced, with the rebels at their very gates, to take measures for their own defence. Ibrahim Khan, still unwilling to bestir himself, responded to their call for aid only with vague orders to them to defend themselves. The English at Sutanati, the French at Chandernagore, and the Dutch at Chinsura liberally interpreted these orders and hastily raised fortifications round their factories. Thus for the first time the English undertook military works on Mughal territory. It was a far greater step in advance than they themselves at the time were aware. It was an admission that the Mughal power was no longer able to protect them, that in future they must provide for their own defence. The rise of the ramparts of Fort William was a notable landmark in the history of the English in Bengal.

It is said that Aurungzeb first heard of the rebellion through the newspaper, so careless had Ibrahim Khan been even to report the disturbance to his imperial master. The Emperor, indignant at his Viceroy’s neglect of duty, at once appointed his own grandson, Azim Oshan, to the united government of Bengal, Behar, and Orissa. The brief reign of Ibrahim Khan, in striking contrast with that of Shaista Khan, was over. His son, Zubberdust Khan, was left in command until his successor could reach Bengal, and being, unlike his father, a keen soldier and energetic administrator, he undertook a vigorous campaign against the rebels, which he continued with eminent success until the arrival of the new Viceroy.

It was in 1697 that Azim Oshan arrived in Bengal. The first three years of his viceroyalty, during which he made his headquarters at Burdwan, were spent in subduing the western portions of the province. It was not until the year 1700, after having restored peace throughout the kingdom, that he sent for the state boats that Sultan Shuja had built sixty years before, and prepared to make his triumphal entry into Dacca. Once installed there he had leisure to turn to the affairs of the English. The struggle between the two Companies, the Old and the New, was at its height, and Azim Oshan, ever ready to do anything for money, took bribes impartially from both. For 14,000 rupees he was willing to make any number of promises to the New Company, while in July 1698, for 16,000 rupees he had given the English letters patent to purchase from the existing holders the right of renting the three villages of Calcutta, Sutanati, and Govindpur, where they had finally made their headquarters on the Hooghly. The historic ramparts of Fort William, so named in compliment to the reigning monarch, rose rapidly round the English factory in the months that followed. Two years later the final settlement of disputes and the amalgamation of the two Companies enabled the English henceforth to turn a united front to their enemies in Bengal.

Meanwhile the closing scenes in the story of Dacca as the capital of Bengal were taking place. Azim Oshan’s chief care was the amassing of wealth, and he looked with envy upon the large amount made annually in trade by the European factories. The idea suddenly dawned upon him that he might become the sole merchant of all European and foreign goods brought into Bengal. He therefore attempted to form a company of his own, despatching agents to all the ports to purchase forcibly the cargoes of all ships that arrived, and afterwards to sell the goods at a profit. This suicidal form of trade he called Sondai Khas and Sondai Aam, special and general traffic. But there were newspapers, it appears, even in those days, that threw a fierce light upon the doings of authority even in these far-off provinces of the empire, and Aurungzeb read of this new form of trade. ‘It is not Sondai Khas (special traffic),’ he said scornfully, though the originator of it was his own grandson, ‘it is Sonda Khas (special madness).’ He wrote peremptorily that it must cease, and reduced the military escort of the Prince by five hundred horse to mark his displeasure. Baffled in one source of gain, Azim Oshan turned to another. There were at that time many wealthy Hindus in Dacca, men who, in spite of the oppression and taxation that had fallen heavily upon them through centuries of Muslim rule, had amassed large fortunes. Desiring to ingratiate himself with these, with his own ends in view, the Viceroy himself took part in the celebration of their holidays. It is related that he even put on yellow and rosecoloured garments, and entered personally into the performance of their festivals. This, too, came to Aurungzeb’s ears, and he wrote to his grandson with his own hand a letter of scathing reprimand and contempt. ‘A yellow turban and rose-coloured garments,’ ran the old Emperor’s scornful message, ‘suit ill with a beard of forty-six years’ growth.’

It was doubtless these follies that induced Aurungzeb to send a man after his own heart to take charge of the Dewani, or revenue administration of Bengal, in the person of Murshid Kuli Khan. The rise to greatness of this prince is another of the many romances of Mughal annals. Born the son of a poor Brahmin, he was purchased by a Persian named Haji Shan, who took him to Ispahan, where he educated him in the Muslim faith. At the merchant’s death he received his freedom, and leaving Persia sought his fortunes in the Deccan, where he succeeded in obtaining employment under the Dewan of Berar. Even at that early age he showed his skill in accounts and all matters of finance. His worth once proved, his promotion was rapid, and it was not long before he was brought to the notice of Aurungzeb, who appointed him to the important office of Dewan of Hyderabad. In 1701, dissatisfied with the financial administration of his grandson, Azim Oshan, in Dacca, he appointed Murshid Kuli Khan Dewan of Bengal. In this province, Aurungzeb’s practice had been to keep the military and revenue branches of the government distinct. The Nazim or Viceroy was the representative of the Emperor. His duty was to defend the country from outside attack and to maintain peace and order within. The duties of the Dewan were less prominent, but scarcely less important. His it was to collect the revenue and undertake full financial control of the province. In the days of the great Viceroys the office of Dewan was an entirely subordinate one. The Nazim had the power to send written orders for government expenses to the Dewan, with which the latter was forced to comply. The Dewan, in fact, hitherto had been little more than the collector of taxes and treasury officer of the Viceroy. But with the coming of Murshid Kuli Khan, strong in the Emperor’s favour, the office of Dewan grew in dignity and influence. Murshid Kuli Khan soon found that, during the years of peace under Shaista Khan, Eastern Bengal had thriven and developed into a rich agricultural province. But the revenue, carelessly collected, had been dissipated under the weak rule of Ibrahim Khan, and appropriated to his own use by the avaricious Azim Oshan. The new Dewan was a reformer of the most energetic type, and he at once set himself to abolish abuses and restore order. Much of the land had been made over to military jagirdars as the reward of past services or in payment of services still rendered, thus withdrawing it from all control of the exchequer. The consequence was that, though the revenue of Bengal should have amounted to a crore (10,000,000) of rupees, it had fallen far short of that amount, and had become insufficient even to pay the expenses of the Viceroy and his administration. Murshid Kuli Khan succeeded in obtaining the cancellation by the Emperor of all the iagirs except the stipends of the Nizamut and the Dewani, most of which were transferred to Orissa, where the revenue was still badly collected and the military jagirdars might be trusted to restore some semblance of order. Thus the whole of the zemindars of Eastern Bengal were brought under the direct control of the exchequer, and their rents were largely increased, the revenue consequently rising far beyond its recent limits. Within a short time Murshid Kuli Khan was able to despatch royal revenue to Delhi to the amount of one crore and thirty lacs, the greater part in specie, escorted by a guard of three hundred cavalry and five hundred infantry. To the Emperor and the chief ministers he also sent presents, ‘hill horses, antelopes, hawks, shields made of rhinoceros hide, sword-blades, Sylhet mats, Dacca muslins and Cossim bazaar silks, filigree work of gold and silver and wrought ivory.’ A Dewan who could transmit such a huge accretion of revenue naturally found favour in the sight of his imperial master.

But it was otherwise with Azim Oshan, the Viceroy. Hitherto it had sufficed for him merely to write an order for money required, and the Dewan had submissively provided it. Now, Murshid Kuli Khan claimed control over all pecuniary transactions, and Azim Oshan’s power of enriching himself and his unbounded extravagance received a severe check. Even his escort of five thousand cavalry had been abolished by the new Dewan on the plea that cavalry were of no use in a river-locked district like Dacca. The peculations of all the courtiers were also at an end, and Murshid Kuli Khan was soon the most unpopular man in Dacca at the viceregal court. But, strong in the Emperor’s favour, he was unassailable. Azim Oshan, enraged beyond measure, finally resorted to violence and intrigue.

It was a dramatic scene that took place in the streets of Dacca in the early days of the year 1702, a scene that led to the final abandonment of the city as the capital of Bengal. Abdul Wahid, the commandant of a corps of horse, known as the Nukedy, devoted to the person of the Viceroy, had willingly listened when Azim Oshan unfolded a plan for ridding himself of his obnoxious Dewan. Murshid Kuli Khan, too wise to flout openly the authority of the Viceroy, was punctilious in attending his court and paying his respects. Azim Oshan held his court in the Tooshtah, a residence now long since decayed, that once stood on the river-bank. Thither Murshid Kuli Khan was accustomed to go in his state palanquin, surrounded by his escort, whenever the Viceroy held court. It was on the way there, in the crowded streets of the bazaar, that Abdul Wahid hoped to catch him at a disadvantage. In a narrow lane not far from the palace he placed his troops to waylay the Dewan. Endeavouring to surround his palanquin as he approached, they clamoured for some arrears of pay which they said were overdue. But Murshid Kuli Khan, well versed in the tortuous ways of Eastern politics, had not failed to arm himself and his escort, and pushing his way through the hostile soldiers reached the palace in safety, surrounded by his guards. There, seeing that the end of all peaceful relations between them had come, he openly accused Azim Oshan of complicity in the design of Abdul Wahid and upbraided him with his treachery. ‘If you desire my life,’ he is reported to have said, laying his hand upon his dagger, ‘here let us try the contest.’ But Azim Oshan was no warrior and refused, taking refuge under his viceregal dignity. Then, proceeding to the Hall of Audience, Murshid Kuli Khan called Abdul Wahid, and, after inquiring into the alleged arrears of pay, gave him a settlement in full and dismissed him and his troops from the imperial service.

Azim Oshan, a coward at heart, was thrown into great fear by the failure of this attempt, knowing that his relationship to Aurungzeb would not spare him from that potentate’s wrath. Murshid Kuli Khan, returning home, drew up an account of the morning’s proceedings and despatched it to Aurungzeb. Then, deeming that he was no longer safe in Dacca, he left the city that same day, accompanied by all his followers and the whole machinery of the Dewani. He departed without paying his respects to the Viceroy. Azim Oshan, from his palace on the river, saw the state barge of his rival pass by with its attendant fleet, and, fearful of the issue of an open contest, made no effort to stop his going. It was well for Murshid Kuli Khan that he had previously disbanded the Viceroy’s bodyguard of seven thousand horse.

As the fleet sailed slowly down the Dullasery, carrying with it all the revenue machinery of the province, it tolled the knell of the greatness of Dacca. Murshid Kuli Khan chose Murshidabad as his residence, and it was there and at Rajmahal that the closing scenes of the Muslim Empire in Bengal were finally enacted. Shortly afterwards ‘there arrived in Dacca the Emperor’s orders in response to the protest Murshid Kuli Khan had sent to him. His near relationship to the Emperor did not save Azim shan, and Aurungzeb’s anger fell upon him in full force. He was ordered to leave Dacca forthwith, and to proceed immediately to Behar. Though he left his son Farrukh Siyar behind him to act as his deputy, it was only for a brief period, and the appointment was apparently never ratified. “With Azim Oshan’s departure the end had come. Though leaving in disgrace he was still Viceroy, and his love of display led him to depart with all the splendour due to his position. From the landing-stage near his palace, the Pooshtah, taking with him eight crores of rupees as the spoils of his term of office, he embarked, to the sound of cannon and the roll of drums, in the state barge that had been built years before by the ill-fated Sultan Shuja, himself so great a lover of display. With him departed all the public officers, the immense following that gathers round an Eastern Court, and all signs of authority, embarked in a great fleet that covered the river for many miles. Slowly the long procession passed from sight, and Dacca was left strangely quiet and deserted, with its interests dwindled suddenly and become purely local, no more to be the city to which all eyes turned, and from which all orders issued for the whole Province of Bengal. The hundred years of its greatness had passed. The next Viceroy who should tread its streets was destined to be one of that race which, ignorant of future empire, was still struggling manfully against great odds, and suffering many indignities at the hands of Mughal emperors and princes, in its endeavour to gain for itself a trading footing at the head of the Bay. So strange are the turns of the wheel of fate !

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