Helmed by wealthy and canny Englishmen driven by ambition and greed, the British East India Company was little more than a corporate raider that plundered the subcontinent for its fabulous resources for around 200 years. It is therefore almost impossible to imagine those swashbuckling Englishmen in their stuffed shirts and starched egos prostrating themselves before a Mughal emperor, begging to be forgiven. Yet there it is, the little-told story of Child’s War, the First Anglo-Indian War that the British summarily lost.
This humiliating defeat has its roots in the early 17th century, which was marked by much churn on the subcontinent. Mughal power had begun to gradually wane after the death of Emperor Shah Jahan and local tribes and communities such as the Marathas, Jats and Rohillas were on the rise. During this time, many European powers too, such as the Dutch, French, Portuguese and the English, were battling each other for supremacy over trade and commerce, on both land and sea.
But the English were a little late to the party. Until then, they had been restricted to trading from only some parts on the Western coast of India, that too, under the watchful eye of the Mughals. Now they wanted to secure a stronger foothold in India.
Taking a cue from their Portuguese counterparts, who had made a fortune on the East coast of India, specifically on the Hooghly, the Company sent William Hedges to meet the Mughal Governor of Bengal, Shayista Khan (Aurangzeb’s maternal uncle), in 1682. They wanted the Governor to issue an imperial directive granting the British trading privileges across the Mughal Empire. That was not all. Hedges also wanted the Mughal Governor to cancel a new tax on imported bullion, with which the Company had to pay for its Indian export.
However, the matter was hotly debated at the Company’s headquarters in London, and the Company’s Governor in London, Sir Josiah Child, who was also the Governor of Bombay and President of Surat at the time, stepped in. Taken aback at the arrogance of the request, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb broke off negotiations.
Child was not used to being rebuffed and decided to wage war against Aurangzeb. A couple of years later, in 1685, the British started to plunder Mughal ships, both merchant vessels as well as those carrying pilgrims to Mecca. The pompous and arrogant Child even threatened Aurangzeb, saying he would “blow him away from the wind of his bum”.
But this was only the beginning. The Company sent Admiral Nicholson along with Job Charnock to capture the port of Chittagong, placate the zamindars (wealthy and influential land owners) there, establish a mint and forge a treaty with the ruler of Arakan, from whom Chittagong had been seized by the Mughals. Nicholson commanded a formidable armada with plenty of firepower, 600 English soldiers and 400 Native soldiers from Madras.
Their arrival in the Hooghly greatly alarmed Shayista Khan, who at once offered to negotiate with the English. Once again, fate intervened and the talks broke down. A skirmish had broken out between three English soldiers and Mughal officials in a marketplace in Bandel, prompting Nicholson to order his troops to open fire on the local community. Around 500 houses were destroyed and burnt, and there were many casualties.
Negotiations dragged on and the Mughals, stronger on land than at sea, used the time to assemble and fortify their naval fleet. In the meantime, Charnock, now in command of the Company’s fleet, retired to the island of Ingelee (mouth of the Ganges) along with his troops. He lost half his men to an epidemic that broke out in the deadly swamp.
In 1688, English ships continued to taunt and attack Mughal vessels in the Arabian Sea, and this time, Captain Heath arrived at Balasore. He bombarded the city and destroyed it. He also attempted to bombard Chittagong but failed as it was adequately fortified. Heath retreated to Madras.
It was the moment Aurangzeb had been waiting for. He ordered the confiscation of all British possessions on the subcontinent and the only property left with the East India Company were its trading posts in Bombay and Madras.
Aurangzeb closed in for the kill and, in 1689, ordered his Siddi Admiral at Janjira, Siddi Yaqut Khan, to besiege the British fort of Bombay. It was a double whammy for the British – the blockade lasted a year and then a famine broke out, claiming hundreds of lives.
The Company finally threw in the towel and surrendered. In utter humiliation, it sent its envoys to prostrate themselves before Aurangzeb, asking for forgiveness and offering a large sum as an imperial fine. They also promised to be better behaved in future!
As we all know, humiliation taught the Company no lessons. In 1690, Charnock went on to establish the city of Calcutta and, in 1757, the British seized control of Bengal after the Battle of Plassey. With every turn of events that gave the Company more and more control over the subcontinent, victories were glorified and embarrassing details like Child’s War were erased from public memory.
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