The Rise of Dacca


‘He had grown up with me from youth and was one year my junior,’ wrote the Emperor Jehangir of Islam Khan. ‘He was a brave man, of most excellent disposition, and in every respect distinguished above his tribe and family. Up to this day he has never tasted any stimulants, and his fidelity to me was such that I honored him with the title of Earzand (son).” Such in his master’s eyes was the Founder of Dacca, the new Capital of all Bengal.

It was no easy task that awaited Islam Khan on his appointment to the Viceroyalty of Bengal in 1608. The province, torn by the long struggle between Afghan and Mughal, lay exhausted and disorganized. Such cohesion as it had known under its independent kings was gone. Petty chiefs, freed from immediate control, gave full vent to their inherent love of lawlessness and independence. The Afghans, defeated again and again, yet clung stubbornly to their last footing on the outskirts of the province. Established in Orissa and the furthest limits of Eastern Bengal they were a constant menace to the empire. Not even the strategy of Raja Todermal or the brilliant generalship of Man Singh had altogether succeeded in completing the conquest that had been so brilliantly begun. Only the timely death of the great Afghan chief Kutlu Khan in Orissa had at length freed the recently established Mughal power from a danger that at one time threatened its extinction in Bengal. But Osman Khan, the son of the great chief, still lived, a source of much anxiety to Islam Khan in after days. Petty Afghan chiefs, driven back on Eastern Bengal, still held the forts of Gonakpara, Gauripara, and Dumroy on the Bunsi river, finding in the Bhowal jungles a secure and safe retreat. The whole of the ancient kingdom of Sonargaon lay practically at their mercy, Mughal authority never as yet having been fully imposed upon it. Islam Khan, seeing on his accession that Central Bengal had settled down peacefully under the new rule, resolved to take up his headquarters in the midst of Eastern Bengal, which so urgently required the grip of a strong hand.

But there was yet another and more urgent reason that induced Islam Khan to move his capital eastwards. A new danger had arisen in Eastern Bengal, threatening to lay waste its fertile rice fields and drive its peaceful inhabitants in terror from their lands. Taking advantage of the general confusion and the weakness of the central government, consequent on the struggle between Afghan and Mughal, the Mughs had boldly sailed up the great rivers and robbed and plundered in every direction unchecked. A wild, turbulent people, pirates and adventurers by nature and profession, they swarmed up from their homes in Chittagong and Arracan as news spread of the plunder to be obtained from this rich and unprotected land. Along the river-banks they swept like locusts, leaving desolation in their wake. Of mercy and honor they knew nothing, and every form of cruelty and oppression was practiced upon the unfortunate inhabitants of Eastern Bengal who fell within their reach. Buddhists by religion, they had fallen far from the high ideals of that great faith. A chronicler of the time quaintly records the Emperor Jehangir’s impression of them when some prisoners of their race were produced before him. Their customs, it seems, appeared to his Majesty ‘very reprehensible,’ as he was informed ‘that they ate animals of every kind, married their half-sisters, and that their religion was of the greatest idolatry.’

Torn by dissensions from within and ravaged by the Mughs from without, Eastern Bengal presented a happy hunting-ground to yet other adventurers who had lately appeared upon the scene. The century that had just closed had seen the Portuguese at the height of their fame. Bold seamen and skilful navigators, they had eagerly pressed forward at the head of the nations of the West in the search for new lands beyond the sea. As early as 1517 a little company of four ships, flying the Portuguese flag, had sailed up the Bay of Bengal and entered the Ganges, first in the field here, as in the new world in the West. Twenty years later the unfortunate Mahomed Shah, pressed by the Afghan in his capital of Gaur, had sent an urgent appeal for help to Nuno de Cuna, the Governor-General of the Portuguese settlements in India. In response a squadron of nine ships had set sail from Goa, but the journey was long, and they arrived only after the surrender of the city. The Portuguese, however, had made the first armed entry of a European force into Bengal, and they were not the men to let slip an advantage that offered them so much. Here was a land of promise, rich and unexplored. A people of the sea, the great rivers of Eastern Bengal made to them special appeal, giving as they did full scope to their love of navigation and all that appertained to ships and shipping. Many of them had already settled in Chittagong and Arracan, and a small company sailing up the Meghna established themselves at Serripore, only twenty miles south of Sonargaon itself.

They were a strange crew, from all accounts, these first Portuguese adventurers in Bengal. Francois Bernier, the celebrated French traveler, writing of them in the seventeenth century, speaks of them as men who had been forced to flee from the older and more law-abiding Portuguese settlements to the south. ‘They were such as had abandoned their monasteries, men that had been twice or thrice married, murtherers.’ They were a desperate, buccaneering crew, ready for any adventure, and rivaling in recklessness and daring the wildest heroes of romance. ‘Such as had deserved the rope were most welcome and most esteemed there.’ It needs no great stretch of imagination to believe that the life they led, unchecked by any of the restraints of civilization, was ‘very detestable and altogether unworthy of Christians, insomuch that they impunely[?] butchered and poisoned one another, and assassinated their own priests, who sometimes were not better than themselves.’ Bernier’s description of them is delightfully graphic and realistic. ‘Their ordinary trade was robbery and piracy,’ he continues. ‘With some small and light gallies[?] they did nothing but coast about the sea, and entering into all rivers there about, and often penetrating even so far as forty or fifty leagues up country, surprised and carried away whole towns, assemblies, markets, feasts, and weddings of the poor Gentiles, and others of that country, making women slaves, great and small, with strange cruelty; and burning all they could not carry away. This great number of slaves, which thus they took from all quarters, behold what use they made of. They had boldness and impudence enough to come and sell to that very country the old people which they knew not what to do with; where it so fell out, that those who had escaped the danger by flight and by hiding themselves in the woods, labored to redeem today their fathers and mothers that had been taken yesterday.’

It was not surprising that the King of Arracan at first looked upon these turbulent adventurers with suspicion and distrust. In fact, so great a source of danger had they become that at the beginning of the seventeenth century he determined to extirpate them from his dominions. But his plans miscarried, and many of them, escaping from Chittagong, made their home on the islands at the mouth of the Ganges, where they continued their acts of piracy undisturbed. The year before Islam Khan was appointed Viceroy, Futteh Khan, the local Mughal governor of that country, had at length attempted to suppress them; but, miscalculating their strength, he had suffered a complete defeat, he himself, with the greater part of his troops, having been killed, and his fleet annihilated.

Such was the position of affairs that confronted Islam Khan on his appointment as Viceroy in 1608. In order to cope with the danger that beset Eastern Bengal, he at once resolved to take up his headquarters there, at the very centre of the scene of disturbance. Quitting his capital of Rajmahal, with all his court, he set sail for the eastern province, and the Afghans evacuating their fort of Gonakpara, on the Bunsi, at his approach, he halted there with the intention, it is said, of making it his capital. But finding the land too low-lying, and the Bunsi river prone to overflow its banks, he quitted it and moved on down the Dullasery and Buriganga, in search of a more convenient site. Arriving opposite the spot where Dacca now stands, Islam Khan was struck with its strategical position and the facilities offered by the wide stretch of high ground that lay beyond it, and at once determined to build his capital there.

What Islam Khan found on the site of his future capital at his first arrival is a matter of considerable uncertainty. So shrouded in doubt is its previous history that it is almost impossible to state with any definiteness whether a town of considerable importance or merely a collection of insignificant villages was formerly in existence there. Several attempts have been made to identify this site with the city mentioned by European travelers and in Muslim chronicles as Bengalla. Tradition says that in pre-Mughal days there existed here fifty two bazaars and fifty three streets, and the town, from this circumstance, acquired the somewhat unwieldy name of ‘Bauno Bazaar and Teppun Gulli.’ One of these fifty two bazaars, known as Bengalla, is said to have been the most important of them all, and its fame as a centre of trade was well known throughout the neighboring district. It is possible that, from the importance of this bazaar, its name was accepted by travelers in place of the more cumbrous one of ‘Bauno Bazaar and Teppun Gulli.’ The identification of Bengalla with Dacca is strengthened by the fact that no traveler or chronicler ever mentions them both. The traveler Methold, in the sixteenth century, speaks of Rajmahal and Bengalla as fine cities, making no mention of Dacca. Mandelslo, who visited Bengal about the same time, mentions Dacca, Bajmahal, and Satgaon in his book, but in his map he has written Bengalla making no mention of Dacca. If Bengalla is not to be identified with Dacca, its site remains a mystery. Had it met the fate of Serripore, and completely disappeared from sight, washed away by the river, it would assuredly have left some tradition in the neighborhood where it once stood. But none such remains.

How Dacca acquired its name is almost as great a mystery, and the endeavour to explain it has been fertile in many inventions. One story is that it derives its name from ancient pre-muslim times, when Ballal Sen, having found the image of the goddess Durga concealed in the jungle, raised a temple to the ‘Hidden Goddess,’ the Dhaka Iswari, by which name the city that gradually sprang up round it came to be known. Another story is that the town takes its name from the dhak tree (Butea frondosa), which is said in ancient times to have covered the whole of the river-bank where the town now stands. Yet another tradition associates the name with ‘dhak,’ the Bengali term for a drum. The story runs that when Islam Khan first landed to inspect the site which he had chosen for his new capital, he found a party of Hindus performing one of their ceremonies to the accompaniment of drums and music. Struck by the noise of the drums, a whim seized him, and he ordered the musicians to stand on the river-bank and beat their loudest. Then, sending out three of his attendants, he ordered them to proceed two in either direction along the riverbank, and one inland as far as they could within sound of the drums. Where the sound ceased, they were ordered to place flagstaffs, and here Islam Khan erected boundary pillars, and fixed the limits of his capital.

It seems probable, however, that the name Dacca was in use before the time of Islam Khan, as that of one of the numerous local bazaars that went to form the town. In tracing the history of Indian towns it is repeatedly found that, owing their origin to a collection of small villages which gradually expanded and united, they eventually took their name from the largest of these villages, or from some famous shrine or temple in their midst. The villages themselves often retain their own individual names long after they have become known collectively under a common appellation. Dacca itself today is a striking example of this retention of local names still used to distinguish the different quarters of the town. It is probable that the fame of the Dhakeswari temple, or the fact that Islam Khan first resided in that quarter, accounts for its having given its name to the new capital. Islam Khan, in compliment to the Emperor, gave the city the official name of Jehangirnagar, by which name it is generally known in Muslim annals.

Established in his new capital, Islam Khan at once set himself to check the incursions of the Mughs and Portuguese. A new and entirely unexpected change had recently taken place in the relations of these two peoples, threatening a still greater danger to Eastern Bengal. From the deadliest of enemies they had suddenly become allies, intent on driving the Mughal out of his newly acquired province. Elated with their victory over the local Mughal governor, the Portuguese had elected a chief from among themselves, a common sailor named Sebastian Gonzalez, and under his leadership they seized the island of Sundeep, with the intention of making it the headquarters of a permanent settlement in Bengal. The adventures of Sebastian Gonzalez read like a mediaeval romance. A bold adventurer, of limitless ambition, unscrupulous, roistering, always spoiling for a fight, he yet possessed many of the qualities of a born leader of men. Putting a thousand Muslims[1] to the sword, he established himself in Sundeep, wringing a servile recognition from the terrified Hindu population. Thither, drawn by the fame of his exploits, came adventurers of every sort from all directions, until Gonzalez numbered among his adherents no less than a thousand Portuguese, two thousand Indian soldiers, two hundred cavalry, and eighty sail, well mounted with cannon.

It was towards this force that the Raja of Arracan turned envious eyes. Always closely watching the fortunes of the Muslim Empire, which had for so long loomed, a powerful and dangerous neighbour, on the border of his kingdom, he saw in the accession of the Mughal conquerors, and the removal of the capital of Bengal to the easternmost limits of the province, a new menace to his independence. Desiring to strike while the new capital was still in its infancy, and while Islam Khan was engaged in a last struggle with the Afghan in Orissa, the Raja of Arracan looked upon the Portuguese in a new light. With their skill as seamen they would be the most desirable of allies against the Mughal, and the Raja, sending messengers to Sundeep, quickly concluded a peace with Gonzalez and solicited his help. The terms of an alliance being agreed upon, it was arranged that the Portuguese should sail up the river while the Arracanese marched by land, and, forming a junction below Dacca, should make a combined attack upon the capital. Victorious, they would proceed to divide Bengal between them. But they had to reckon with Islam Khan. Learning their plans, he sent out a large body of cavalry, which caught the Mughs before their junction with the Portuguese and defeated them with great slaughter. Gonzalez, having no desire to measure forces with the Mughal viceroy unaided, withdrew to Sundeep. Mutual recriminations ensued between the allies, and for a time Eastern Bengal had rest from their designs.

After a rule of only five years, Islam Khan died at Dacca in 1613. But before his death he had had the satisfaction of seeing his labours everywhere crowned with success. By his efforts the invasion of the Mughs and Portuguese had been repelled, and his armies had robbed the Afghans of their last semblance of power in Bengal and Orissa. The year before his death he had seen his victorious general, Shujat Khan, make the first triumphant entry into his new capital, bearing in his train the son and brother of Osman Khan, the Afghan, with a crowd of elephants and a howdah full of jewels as the spoils of war. So, in peace and honour, passed Islam Khan, the first Viceroy of Dacca.

As a mark of the esteem in which he held Islam Khan, the Emperor appointed his brother, Cassim Khan, to succeed him as Governor of Bengal. But the new Viceroy had little of his brother’s ability, and after five years, during which the chief interest centred in the renewed activity of the Mughs and Portuguese, he was recalled from office. Between the Raja of Arracan and Sebastian Gonzalez a bitter feud had soon succeeded their brief alliance, and during the whole of Cassim Khan’s reign they had made common cause only in their hostility to the constituted Mughal authority in Bengal. After many years of extraordinary success, Gonzalez’s adventurous career at last came to an end. Failing in an attack on Chittagong, he was forced to fall back on the island of Sundeep, and being pursued there by the Arracanese, he was overwhelmed by numbers, and finally defeated and slain. The Mughs, once more victorious, established themselves in Sundeep, and again had leisure to renew their incursions into Eastern Bengal.

In the third Viceroy, Ibrahim Khan, the strong hand was once more apparent in Dacca. Though he owed his position at Court to the fact that he was the brother-in-law of the Empress Nur Jehan, he had already earned for himself the title of Yictorious in War. For four years, under the strong rule of Ibrahim Khan, Eastern Bengal had rest. Trade and commerce revived, and agriculture, encouraged by the cessation of war, was greatly extended. The weaving of muslins, for which this part of the country had long been famous, now, under imperial patronage, received fresh stimulus. At the Mughal court the Empress, Nur Jehan, intent on enhancing her loveliness in Jehangir’s eyes, was introducing many new fashions in adornment, and all the finest products of the weavers were bespoken in Dacca and despatched to Delhi. It was the dawn of the brief period of Dacca’s greatest industrial and commercial prosperity and success.

But the years of peace were few, and again the shadow of imperial affairs fell darkly upon the Province of Bengal. Nur Jehan, who bore no son to Jehangir, was intriguing to secure the throne for Shariar, the Emperor’s fourth son, whom she had married to her own daughter by her first husband, Sher Afgan. But Shahjahan, the Emperor’s third son, seeing his father’s health decline, determined to make sure his own succession, and, openly taking up arms, marched with his army upon Delhi. Jehangir, however, ill though he was, would brook no rival while he lived. Eising from his sick bed in anger at his son’s unfilial conduct, he advanced to meet him at the head of all his troops. Defeated, Shahjahan fell back upon the Deccan, and there resolved to seize the government of Bengal, considering it the most favourable province whence he might later make good his claim upon the Empire. The Viceroy Ibrahim Khan, loyal to his master, hastened from Dacca to meet his master’s rebellious son, but he was defeated and slain in the famous Teliagharia Pass, the Gateway of Bengal. Shahjahan rapidly pursued the advantage he had gained, and made good his hold on Bengal. Collecting all the boats that were available in the neighborhood, he hastened down the river, with all the pomp and circumstance that he could muster, towards Dacca. Arrived there, he found the gates thrown open to receive him. Ibrahim Khan’s nephew, who had been left in charge of the city, finding himself powerless to oppose his entry, came out to meet him, and delivered to him all the elephants and state property of his late uncle, together with forty lacs of treasure from the Government treasury.

From the first, Shahjahan looked upon Dacca and Bengal only as stepping-stones to greater things, and his stay in the eastern capital was brief. Again the gates of the city were thrown wide, and a splendid cavalcade rode forth as Shahjahan set out on his way to make his second bid for empire. Darab, son of Khani Khanan, Chief of the Nobility, his favourite courtier, was left as governor of Bengal, but Shahjahan had learned to trust not even his dearest friend, and he carried Darab’s son with him in his train, half honoured guest, half hostage. Shahjahan’s march, begun with so much pomp, continued for a time in triumph. The governor of Patna fled at his approach and the city opened its gates. Daunted by his success, the governor of Bhotas gave up to him the keys of that magnificent fortress. But defeat soon followed at the hands of the imperial army, and Shahjahan barely escaped with his life back to Ehotas, where he had left his family in safe retreat. Thence he sent urgent messages to Darab Khan in Dacca to advance to his help with what force he could. Darab Khan, however, proved a broken reed. In spite of the fact that his son was in the hands of Shahjahan, he treacherously betrayed his master when his fortunes seemed to be on the wane, and falsely sent word that the zemindars and people all round Dacca had risen in arms, and prevented him leaving the city. His son paid the penalty of his father’s perfidy in Ehotas when the news came. But vengeance speedily overtook Darab Khan, and when he surrendered to the victorious army of the Emperor, expecting to be met with honour, he met instead the fate that he deserved, and his head was sent to Delhi, that all men might see the end of traitors.

On Shahjahan’s flight from Bengal, his father, Jehangir, appointed Khanazad Khan to be governor. But his rule was short, and nothing noteworthy is recorded of him, save the fact that he remitted to Delhi no less than twenty-two lacs of rupees in specie, being the surplus revenue of the province. That it was possible for such a sum to be remitted when Dacca had recently been occupied by a rebel army speaks much for the wealth of Bengal. Then followed Mukurrum Khan, who ruled for only six months. His reign, though brief, was one of great magnificence and splendour. Never before had such pageants been seen upon the river as those arranged by Mukurrum Khan. He is reported to have been passionately devoted to aquatic sports and pageants of every kind, and the city by night, illuminated along the bank and on the river, with hundreds of boats of every description, made a veritable fairy scene. It was an ill fate that this man, who so loved the river, should perish by it. He had been Viceroy for scarce six months when, hearing that a farman[2] conferring fresh favours upon him was on its way from the Emperor, he organised a great procession of boats upon the river to go out to meet it with every token of honour and respect. All day they sailed up the river, the state barges a gorgeous sight in gala dress, and the white sails of the escort fleet gleaming in the sun. It grew to evening, and the messenger tarried on the way. At the hour of prayer, when the muezzin’s voice rang out across the stillness of the water, the Viceroy gave orders for the fleet to put ashore. The state boat that he had chosen for himself was long and narrow, a swift-going boat usually propelled by oars, but upon which a sail had been hoisted. A strong current was running, and in endeavouring to turn towards the bank the boat capsized in a sudden squall of wind, and the Viceroy and several of his courtiers who were in the state-room, unable to escape, perished miserably in sight of the whole fleet.

Then for a year Fedai Khan ruled as Viceroy, but on the Emperor Jehangir’s death, Shahjahan, who some time before had made his peace with his father, appointed Kassim Khan, a favourite of his own, to the coveted viceroyalty. Kassim Khan was a zealous Muslim , and the worship of the Christians seems to have excited the same repugnance in him that it had in Mumtaz Mahal, the beautiful wife of Shahjahan, when a few years previously she had lived in Bengal. Evil days were at hand for the Portuguese, who, since their first settlement at Hooghly in the Bay in 1575, had flourished there and prospered. Here were the better class of traders, having but little in common with the pirates of their name and race who, in alliance with the Mughs, had so harassed the Mughal governors. At Hooghly they had established themselves with every hope of permanence, building a church and a ring of forts that might place them in a strong position of defense. But Kassim Khan viewed their increasing strength with suspicion and alarm. He complained, with some justification, that they had arrogated to themselves sovereign rights and levied tolls from all the boats that passed down the river, administering their own rough justice upon the neighboring people, and committing many acts of violence upon the Emperor’s subjects. They had already drawn all trade away from the royal port of Satgaon. Dark stories, besides, were whispered of their doings. It was said they had kidnapped Muslim children and sent them away to Goa to be educated in the Christian faith, and daily within the handsome church that they had raised in their midst the mystic service of the Catholic Church created wonder and alarm. The images that decorated the interior seemed, to zealous Muslim s like Mumtaz Mahal and Kassim Khan, sure signs of the idolatry of the worshippers.

When the report of their doings reached the imperial court, the Portuguese could expect little sympathy from Shahjahan. A few years before, when his fortunes were at their lowest, he had appealed to Michael Eodriguez, the Portuguese governor of Hooghly, for help, and it had been denied him in no courteous terms. Shahjahan, remembering these things, and with his empress at his side urging him to exterminate the idolaters, sent an order to Dacca that the Portuguese should be driven from Bengal.

Accordingly, in 1631, a great expedition set sail from Dacca to carry out the Emperor’s commands. Kassim Khan planned the campaign with consummate skill. Three armies concentrated upon the doomed city, closing it in on every side, and for three and a half months Hooghly knew all the horrors of a siege. Day after day the defenders held out, hoping for the help from Goa that never reached them. Finally, the besiegers blew up the largest bastion of the fort, and the end came. A thousand of the Portuguese were killed, and over four thousand taken prisoners, many of whom were sent in chains to Agra. So complete was their defeat that out of sixty-four large vessels, fifty-seven ‘grabs,’ and two hundred sloops which had been anchored opposite the town, only one 1 grab ‘and two sloops escaped. The church and all the symbols of their religion were ruthlessly destroyed. Kassim Khan rapidly rebuilt the fort and city, establishing it as the royal Fort of Bengal. But it was only a few months that he survived his triumph. That same year he died in Dacca, his death foretold, as the superstitious remembered, by a Portuguese priest who was slain at the altar of his church in the sack of Hooghly.

It was by a strange turn of events that only two years later, while Azim Khan ruled at Dacca, the English received their first permission to trade in Bengal. The farman granted by Shahjahan is dated February 2, 1634; but as the Mughal Government had seen the un-wisdom of allowing foreign traders to sail up the Ganges and establish themselves on its banks as the Portuguese had done, the English vessels were only allowed to enter the port of Pipli in Balasore, and it was there that they established their first factory in Bengal. It was perhaps as much due to Azim Khan’s indifferent and negligent disposition as to any other cause that the English obtained their first farman . Azim Khan, content with the pleasures of life at Dacca, felt no call to military glory or to fame as a ruler, and so lax was his rule that the Mughs and Assamese, quickly aware of the governor’s weakness, once more sailed up the rivers and resumed their old piratic depredations.

Azim Khan was soon recalled; but the fact that his daughter, destined in after days to meet with so tragic a fate, was married to Prince Shuja, the Emperor’s son, caused his weakness to be overlooked, and he was soon afterwards appointed to the less onerous post of governor of Allahabad.

Islam Khan, his successor, was a man of different stamp. An old and experienced statesman and soldier, he was eminently fitted to cope with the difficulties that beset the easternmost province of the empire. Scarcely had he made his state entry into Dacca than there sailed up the river a fleet of Mugh ships, the first that ever came this way on a voyage of peace. Makat Kai, the governor of Chittagong, having quarrelled with the King of Arracan, came to seek the protection of the Mughal governor. He was received in audience by Islam Khan in his palace by the river at Dacca, and there acknowledged himself a vassal of the empire. The name of Chittagong, out of compliment to the Viceroy, was changed to Islamabad. But Islam Khan was too much occupied elsewhere to press his advantage in this direction, and it was not till twenty-eight years later, under the greatest of Viceroys, Shaista Khan, that the sovereignty of the Mughal became more than a name.

This same year there came another fleet almost within sight of Dacca, this time on no peaceful errand intent. The Assamese, ever ready to take advantage of weakness at the Mughal court, and encouraged by the supineness of the late governor, had collected a huge fleet of five hundred boats to plunder and lay waste the fertile fields of Bengal, and make a dash for the eastern capital. For miles on either side of the Brahmaputra, as they advanced, they burned and looted the towns and villages, and the inhabitants, deserting their homes, fled in terror into the jungles to escape this new foe. But Islam Khan, hastily setting out from Dacca, turned his cannon upon them from the river-bank, and wrought havoc in the Assamese fleet. Many of their ships were set on fire, and the crews, forced to seek the shore, were mowed down by the Mughal cavalry. The wild, untrained levies of the ‘barbarian ‘were no match for the disciplined troops of the Mughal empire. Pursuing the ships that escaped into Assam, Islam Khan subdued the whole of Cooch Behar, and took possession of many of the frontier forts; but, baffled as all the previous invaders of Assam had been by lack of provisions and the difficulty of transport, he was forced on the approach of the rains to return to Dacca. There he found an order summoning him to court, to take up the office of vizier, and the Emperor’s second son, the ill-fated Sultan Shuja, was appointed to the viceroyalty of Bengal in his place.

For some reason not recorded, Sultan Shuja transferred the capital from Dacca to Kajmahal, where he built for himself a magnificent palace, and lived in luxury such as Eastern Bengal had not previously beheld.

But Dacca, deserted for a time, was a few years later to prove an asylum to the very man who had deserted it. The Emperor Shahjahan was growing old, and once more a struggle for the throne was about to disturb the peace of the empire from end to end. Shahjahan in his day had rebelled against his father; it was but the nemesis of fate that his sons should rebel against him in afterdays. Sultan Shuja, relying on his possession of Bengal, was the first to take the field, but his younger brother, Aurungzeb, had already forestalled him at Delhi. Seizing his father’s person and proclaiming himself Emperor, he advanced at the head of the imperial forces against Sultan Shuja as against a rebel, and inflicted upon him an overwhelming defeat. Shah Shuja was no fit match for Aurungzeb in generalship, and he was forced to fall back upon Tondah, the fortifications of which he hastily repaired. Defeated a second time, he made his escape, accompanied by his family, on swift rowing-boats, setting out on the long journey for the city which he had at first disdained as his capital. It was a humiliating entry into Dacca, such as no Viceroy had yet made. There were no signs of welcome. Even the honours due to a prince of the empire were omitted, for the city had no warning of the fugitives’ coming, and as Shah Shuja and his few faithful friends landed from their country-boats at the river ghat, only a great crowd of people, hastily gathering, watched them silent and open-mouthed. Defeat was stamped plain upon the faces of Sultan Shuja and all his party.

Among the small band of faithful courtiers who followed the drooping fortunes of Shah Shuja was Mahomed, Aurungzeb’s son. This youth had become Sultan Shuja’s son-in-law under the most romantic circumstances, while the war raged round Tondah. Before Shah Shuja and Aurungzeb took the field as rivals for their father’s throne, the latter’s son, Mahomed, had been betrothed to Shah Shuja’s daughter, the fame of whose beauty was said to rival even that of her grandmother, the famous Mumtaz Mahal. In the heat of the contest all talk of the marriage had naturally ceased, and Mahomed, at his father’s order, had accompanied the army which he despatched under Mir Jumla against Shah Shuja. At Tondah, while the armies lay encamped over against each other waiting until the rainy season had passed to resume hostilities, the daughter of Sultan Shuja, moved by her father’s misfortunes, wrote a touching appeal with her own hand to the man to whom she had once been betrothed, and who now, by a turn in the wheel of fate, had become her father’s enemy. She lamented this state of things in such pathetic terms that Mahomed, touched by the appeal, chivalrously resolved to relinquish all that his position as his father’s son might promise in order to go to her assistance. Secretly by night he crossed the river that lay between the two camps, hoping that a large portion of his army would follow at dawn. On the bank Shah Shuja, warned of his coming, received him with open arms, but the advantage that he hoped to gain from his accession to his ranks was not fulfilled. Through Mir Jumla’s prompt action, Mahomed’s troops did not follow him into the hostile camp. Yet, in spite of this, Aurungzeb’s son, even though he came alone, was no mean ally, and in Tondah the rejoicings were great, the marriage being celebrated with all the splendour that the besieged city could afford.

Fleeing with Shah Shuja after his defeat, the newly married couple took up their abode with him in Dacca. But Aurungzeb, furious at the conduct of his son, was not above resorting to artifice to withdraw so powerful an adherent from Shuja’s camp. Writing a letter addressed to his son, he sent it by a trusty messenger with instructions that he should allow himself, as if by accident, to fall into the hands of Shuja’s spies, and permit the letter, after a show of resistance, to be taken from him. The letter ran as follows:

‘To our beloved son Mahomed, whose happiness and safety are joined with our life. It was with regret and sorrow that we parted with our son when his valour became necessary to carry on the war against Shuja. We hoped, from the love we bear to our firstborn, to be gratified soon with his return, and that he would have brought the enemy captive to our presence in the space of a month to relieve our mind from anxiety and fear. But seven months passed away without the completion of the wishes of Aurungzeb. Instead of adhering to your duty, Mahomed, you betrayed your father and threw a blot on your own fame. The smiles of a woman have overcome filial piety. Honour is forgotten in the brightness of her beauty, and he who was destined to rule the empire of the Mughals has himself become a slave. But as Mahomed seems to repent of his folly, we forget his crimes. He has invoked the name of God to vouch for his sincerity, and our parental affection returns; he has already our forgiveness, but the execution of what he proposes is the only means to regain our favour.’

This letter, falling into the hands of Shuja as Aurungzeb had designed, was not calculated to increase the confidence between the prince and his son-in-law. Privately, Shuja sent for Mahomed and showed him the letter, but all Mahomed’s protestations failed to eradicate the suspicion that it had aroused in his father-in-law’s mind. Shuja, attracted at the outset by Mahomed’s chivalrous conduct, had since come to love him as his own son, and the very possibility of his treachery grieved him to the heart. Finally, calling together his council in the hall of audience in his palace by the river, he told Mahomed that it was impossible that the same love and trust could ever again exist between them, and with singular magnanimity in that age of violence he asked him to depart with his wife, and all the wealth and jewels that he had towed upon them. ‘The treasures of Shuja are open,’ he said, generous even in his grief and the mistrust that he could not conquer; ‘take therefrom what pleases thee. Go. lest him whom I have regarded as a son I must perforce count henceforward among my enemies.’

Bursting into tears and protesting his innocence, Mahomed cried out that he was willing to swear even by the holy temple of Mecca. But Sultan Shuja was firm, and Mahomed and his wife set out from Dacca in one of the Viceroy’s state boats, Sultan Shuja himself accompanying them to the landing-stage and bidding them farewell with every mark of honour. There were few princes of that day who would have allowed thus honourably to depart from their court one on whom the suspicion of treachery had fallen. It was this nobility and generosity of disposition that secured for Sultan Shuja his many friends, a faithful little company of whom followed him even to the end of his chequered and unfortunate career.

It was not long before Mir Jumla, having settled affairs in Western Bengal, set out in pursuit of Sultan Shuja to Dacca. The latter, hearing of the great army that accompanied the imperial general, recognized that he could not hope to hold out against it. He had withdrawn the troops and the greater part of the fleet from Dacca when he placed his capital at Kajmahal, and the city was ill calculated to stand a siege. With all the members of his family, and the wealth that still remained to him, mounted on elephants and escorted by a small body of cavalry, he left Dacca by the eastern gate, a fugitive as he had entered but a few months before. Crossing the river, he plunged into the wild hill country of Tipperah, hastening on towards the miserable fate that, after many adventures, awaited him at the hands of the Arracanese.

The English Company, which had begun its struggle for existence in Orissa six years before his accession, met with little opposition from Sultan Shuja. In 1633 a small band of Englishmen, sailing up the Bay, had established factories at Hariharpur and Balasore, and eighteen years later, by the favour of the Viceroy, they were allowed to settle at Hooghly, pushing their out-factories as far inland as Patna, Cossimbazaar, and Bajmahal. To account for the unusual favour shown to the English by Sultan Shuja, a story is told of a ship’s doctor and a princess quite in the typical style of Indian romance. Jahan Ara, the sister of Sultan Shuja, and the eldest and best-beloved daughter of Shahjahan and the beautiful Empress Mumtaz Mahal, while passing closely veiled along one of the corridors of the palace, by accident brushed against a lamp which stood there. Her light silken sari at once caught fire, but as ‘her modesty, being within hearing of men, would not permit her to call for assistance,’ she fled to her own apartments, and thus fanning the flames, was so severely burned that her life was despaired of. The Emperor, distracted at the misfortune which had befallen his favourite daughter, sent an urgent message to Surat, asking the English Company to send a surgeon to attend her. The Council at Surat, in reply, despatched Mr. Gabriel Broughton, a ship’s doctor, who was fortunate enough to cure the princess of her hurt. In consequence of this, Mr. Broughton was naturally in high favour at the imperial court, and a certain measure of the favour with which he was regarded fell upon his fellowcountrymen. For some time Mr. Broughton stayed with Sultan Shah Shuja in his capital of Rajmahal, and it may have been partly due to his influence that the English Company obtained its first authoritative nislian about the year 1651. The original of this grant is lost, but a copy has been preserved in the diary of Streynsham Master, who played so prominent a part in the affairs of the Company in the days that followed. The letters patent of the ‘great Emperor, whose words no man dare presume to reverse,’ decreed that ‘the factory of the English Company be no more troubled with demands of custom for goods imported or exported either by land or by water.’ After-events show with what ‘special care ‘these commands of the ‘great Emperor, whose words no man dare presume to reverse,’ were obeyed.

Mir Jumla, the victorious general who had driven Sultan Shuja from Bengal, was appointed as his successor in the viceroyalty. He was a native of Persia, and, like many of his fellowcountrymen before him, he had come east in search of fortune. Eecognising Aurungzeb as by far the most able of the four sons of Shahjahan, he had early attached himself to his fortunes. By Aurungzeb’s influence he had been appointed Vizier, with the command of 6,000 horse, and his military abilities meeting with quick recognition, he was shortly afterwards appointed generalissimo of the imperial army, with the high-sounding title of Khan-i-Khanan, the Chief among the Nobles. His success and loyalty to Aurungzeb in the war against Shah Shuja met with their due reward in the Viceroyalty of Bengal. Being at Dacca when the news of that appointment reached him, he resolved to restore the city again as the capital of the province, and from this time dates the second brief period of its greatest prosperity.

Mir Jumla’s short rule of three years in Dacca was almost wholly taken up with his wars in Cooch Behar and Assam. A soldier by profession, he was never so happy as when in the field at the head of his troops, and the desire for military glory was the guiding influence of his career. Cooch Behar, though often overrun and forced to pay tribute, had never been a part of the Mughal Empire except in name, and Raja Bim Narain, taking advantage of the struggle between Shah Shuja and Aurungzeb in Bengal, had seized upon the imperial district of Kamrup. Mir Jumla, once secure in Dacca, had an excuse immediately at hand to set out on a fresh campaign. Bound his standard gathered one of the largest armies that Dacca had yet seen. For miles the vast encampment stretched outside the northern gate of the city, while the river was crowded with a great fleet in the making. Embarking all his artillery and stores on board the boats, specially designed as the easiest mode of transport, Mir Jumla marched his army along the right bank of the Brahmaputra. By this route there was no made road, and it was often necessary to cut a way through the dense jungle that covered both banks of the river. It was a three months’ journey, and so great were the difficulties that, to encourage his men, Mir Jumla himself worked among them axe in hand. The proud Mughal cavalry, inspired by his example, followed suit, and, with the help of the three hundred elephants that formed his advance guard, the long journey was at length accomplished. The Raja Bim Narain, not expecting the enemy in this quarter, which he considered sufficiently protected by the impenetrable jungle, was taken by surprise and fled from his capital as the enemy approached. Mir Jumla entered Behar in triumph, and in compliment to the Emperor, renamed it Alumgirnugger. It was a dramatic scene that was enacted on his entry. Mir Jumla was a zealous Muslim , and the conquered province was one of the outskirts of empire where Hinduism still reigned supreme. In the chief temple in the centre of the city stood the celebrated image of Narain, the tutelary deity of the Raja and the people. Halting in his triumphal entry opposite the temple, Mir Jumla waited while the whole army formed up within view. Then, amidst a breathless pause, he entered, and, carrying out the idol, destroyed it with his own hands in the sight of all. Then, it being the hour of prayer, he ascended to the roof of the temple and himself acted as muezzin. For the first time in its history the Muslim call to prayer rang out from the chief temple in the city of the Rajas of Cooch Behar.

Nothing could well have appealed to the victorious Muslim army more than this dramatic triumph of their religion. In spite of the hardships they had already undergone, they were willing to follow Mir Jumla onwards to the conquest of Assam, to bring yet other lands within the Fold of the Faith. Save for his suppression of the Hindu religion, Mir Jumla suffered no other hardship to fall upon the conquered people of Cooch Behar. It was not until he had made provision for the good government of the conquered province that he set out, leaving fourteen hundred horse and seven thousand musketeers to guard what he had won. The revenues of Cooch Behar he fixed at ten lacs of rupees.

Mir Jumla’s march into Assam was destined to meet with the same disastrous results that had attended so many previous attempts on the part of Muslim governors to subdue that country. It was a wild, untamed land of immense extent, with no roads and a scattered population, with nothing to oppose to the huge invading army, yet fertile in resource to harass it on the march. The difficulties of the way would have appeared insurmountable to anyone but a general burning with the desire for military glory. Mir Jumla worked like the meanest among his soldiers, and they, ashamed, could not but follow where such a leader led. Yet often they progressed no further than a mile a day. Determined not to lose touch with the artillery and stores which he had placed in the safe keeping of the fleet, he marched close beside the river bank, which often entailed the cutting of a road through dense jungle. In Semyle the full strength of the Raja’s army awaited him, but before his cannon the fortress was unable to hold out, and Mir Jumla entered it in triumph, naming it Atta Allah, the Gift of God. The dry season of the year, however, was at an end, and he was forced to settle his troops in a huge encampment that stretched for seven miles along the river-bank to await the termination of the rains.

It was from here that, misled by his first triumph, he sent his famous despatch to the Emperor. He had opened, he proudly asserted, the road to China, and the next campaign, he foretold, would see the Mughal standards meeting those of the Tartar relatives of the Emperor, the descendants of Jengriez Khan, who had long since founded their kingdom in the farthest East. The Mughal Empire united should stretch from sea to sea. But Mir Jumla’s triumph was brief. He little knew the force of the rains in the upper reaches of the great rivers, and that year they exceeded all bounds. The country lay beneath a vast expanse of water, and food and fodder were almost impossible to obtain. The Raja, reappearing with a new force, harassed them on every side, and such dire sickness attacked the camp that scarce one man in ten was left untouched. Mir Jumla himself fell a prey to disease, and with the clearing of the rains the inevitable retreat began. Again the bright hopes that lay towards the East were relinquished, and the army, unconquered by the enemy, was yet forced to set its face towards the setting sun. At Gauhati fresh ill-news awaited it. The Raja of Cooch Behar had returned from Bhutan, whither he had fled at Mir Jumla’s first approach, and, the whole country rallying round him, had driven out the imperial troops. Baffled, robbed of his dreams of military glory, and worn out with disease, Mir Jumla hurried on towards Dacca, whence three years before he had set out with such high hopes. But he was destined never to see the city again. At Khijerpore, on the 2nd of Kamzan, 1663, he died, to the great grief of the whole army, which, even in the evil days that had befallen it, never faltered in devotion to the general who had so often led it to victory in the days gone by.

So influential and powerful a Viceroy was Mir Jumla deemed at the Mughal Court that the saying went that only on the day of his death did Aurungzeb become King of Bengal. The Emperor himself is said to have watched his exploits and his growing authority with jealous eyes. ‘You have lost a father,’ he said, turning to Mir Jumla’s son when they brought to him the news of the Viceroy’s death, ‘and I the greatest and most dangerous friend I had.’

[1] Brit wrote, Mahomedans

[2] Brit wrote, firman.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s