What are Mughal Artefacts Doing in a Castle in the Welsh Marches?
(The following is an excerpt from historian William Dalrymple’s ‘The Anarchy’, published with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing. ‘The Anarchy’ is set to hit stores on 10 September. The sub-headings are not a part of the original text, and have been added by The Quint.)
One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late eighteenth century, when it suddenly became a common term across Britain.
To understand how and why it took root and flourished in so distant a landscape, one need only visit Powis Castle in the Welsh Marches. The last hereditary Welsh prince, the memorably named Owain Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, built Powis Castle as a craggy fort in the thirteenth century; the estate was his reward for abandoning Wales to the rule of the English monarchy. But its most spectacular treasures date from a much later period of English conquest and appropriation. For Powis is simply awash with loot from India, room after room of imperial plunder, extracted by the East India Company (EIC) in the eighteenth century.
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More Mughal Artefacts in a Welsh Mansion than Even in Delhi’s National Museum
There are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display in any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi. The riches include hookahs of burnished gold inlaid with empurpled ebony; superbly inscribed Badakhshan spinels and jewelled daggers; gleaming rubies the colour of pigeon’s blood, and scatterings of lizard-green emeralds.
There are tigers’ heads set with sapphires and yellow topaz; ornaments of jade and ivory; silken hangings embroidered with poppies and lotuses; statues of Hindu gods and coats of elephant armour. In pride of place stand two great war trophies taken after their owners had been defeated and killed: the palanquin Siraj ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, left behind when he fled the battlefield of Plassey, and the campaign tent of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore.
Forced Into an Act of ‘Involuntary Privatisation’
Such is the dazzle of these treasures that, as a visitor last summer, I nearly missed the huge framed canvas that explains how all this loot came to be here. The picture hangs in the shadows over a doorway in a wooden chamber at the top of a dark, oak-panelled staircase. It is not a masterpiece, but it does repay close study. An effete Indian prince, wearing cloth of gold, sits high on his throne under a silken canopy. On his left stand scimitar- and spear-carrying officers from his own army; to his right, a group of powdered and periwigged Georgian gentlemen.
The prince is eagerly thrusting a scroll into the hands of a slightly overweight Englishman in a red frock coat. The painting shows a scene from August 1765, when the young Mughal emperor Shah Alam, exiled from Delhi and defeated by East India Company troops, was forced into what we would now call an act of ‘involuntary privatisation’.
The scroll is an order to dismiss his own Mughal revenue officials in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, and replace them with a set of English traders appointed by Robert Clive – the new governor of Bengal – and the directors of the Company, whom the document describes as ‘the high and mighty, the noblest of exalted nobles, the chief of illustrious warriors, our faithful servants and sincere well-wishers, worthy of our royal favours, the English Company’. The collecting of Mughal taxes was henceforth subcontracted to a powerful multinational corporation – whose revenue-collecting operations were protected by its own private army.
Circa 1765: East India Company Transitions Into a Colonial Power
The Company had been authorised by its founding charter to ‘wage war’, and had been using violence to gain its ends since it boarded and captured a Portuguese vessel on its maiden voyage in 1602. Moreover, it had controlled small areas around its Indian settlements since the 1630s. Nevertheless, 1765 was really the moment that the East India Company ceased to be anything even distantly resembling a conventional trading corporation — dealing in silks and spices — and became something altogether much more unusual.
Within a few months, 250 company clerks, backed by the military force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers, had become the effective rulers of the richest Mughal provinces. An international corporation was in the process of transforming itself into an aggressive colonial power.
By 1803, when its private army had grown to nearly 200,000 men, it had swiftly subdued or directly seized an entire subcontinent. Astonishingly, this took less than half a century. The first serious territorial conquests began in Bengal in 1756; forty-seven years later, the Company’s reach extended as far north as the Mughal capital of Delhi, and almost all of India, south of that city, was by then effectively ruled from a boardroom in the City of London. ‘What honour is left to us?’ asked a Mughal official, ‘when we have to take orders from a handful of traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms?’
India’s Transition to Colonialism Took Place Under a For-Profit Corporation
We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that began seizing great chunks of India in the mid-eighteenth century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by a violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator – Clive.
India’s transition to colonialism took place under a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors. At the height of the Victorian period in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a strong sense of embarrassment about the shady, brutal and mercantile way in which the British had founded the Raj. The Victorians thought the real stuff of history was the politics of the nation state. This, not the economics of corrupt corporations, they believed was the fundamental unit of study and the real driver of transformation in human affairs.
Moreover, they liked to think of the empire as a ‘mission civilisatrice’ : a benign national transfer of knowledge, railways and the arts of civilisation from West to East, and there was a calculated and deliberate amnesia about the corporate looting that opened British rule in India.
This Time, A ‘Different’ Balance of Power
A second picture, this one commissioned from William Rothenstein to be painted onto the walls of the House of Commons, shows how successfully the official memory of this process was spun and subtly reworked by the Victorians. It can still be found in St Stephen’s Hall, the echoing reception area of the Westminster Parliament.
The painting was part of a series of murals entitled The Building of Britain. It features what the Hanging Committee at the time, regarded as the highlights and turning points of British history: King Alfred defeating the Danes in 877, the parliamentary union of England and Scotland in 1707, and so on. The fresco in this series that deals with India, shows another image of a Mughal prince sitting on a raised dais, under a canopy. Again, we are in a court setting, with bowing attendants on all sides and trumpets blowing, and again an Englishman is standing in front of the Mughal. But this time, the balance of power is very different.
The Supreme Act of Corporate Violence in World History
Sir Thomas Roe, the ambassador sent by James I to the Mughal court, is shown before the Emperor Jahangir in 1614 – at a time when the Mughal empire was still at its richest and most powerful. Jahangir inherited from his father Akbar, one of the two wealthiest polities in the world, rivalled only by Ming China. His lands stretched through most of India, all of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, and most of Afghanistan. He ruled over five times the population commanded by the Ottomans – roughly 100 million people – and his subjects produced around a quarter of all global manufactures.
Jahangir’s father Akbar had flirted with a project to ‘civilise’ India’s European immigrants, whom he described as ‘an assemblage of savages’, but later dropped the plan as ‘unworkable’. Jahangir, who had a taste for exotica and wild beasts, welcomed Sir Thomas Roe with the same enthusiasm he had shown for the arrival of the first turkey in India, and questioned Roe closely on the oddities of Europe. For the committee who planned the House of Commons paintings, this marked the beginning of British engagement with India: two nation states coming into direct contact for the first time.
India-Britain Ties Began With a Trade Mission, Not Diplomacy
Yet, as the first chapter of this book shows, British relations with India actually began not with diplomacy and the meeting of royal envoys, but with a trade mission led by Captain William Hawkins, a bibulous Company sea dog who, on arrival in Agra, accepted a wife offered to him by the emperor, and merrily brought her back to England. This was a version of history the House of Commons Hanging Committee chose to forget.
In many ways, the East India Company was a model of commercial efficiency: one hundred years into its history, it had only thirty-five permanent employees in its head office. Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.