Bengal: The British Bridgehead

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General editor GORDON JOHNSON

Director, Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Selwyn College

Associate editors C. A. BAYLY

Smuts Reader in Commonwealth Studies, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of St Catharine’s College

and JOHN F. RICHARDS Professor of History, Duke University

Although the original Cambridge History of India, published between 1922 and 1937, did much to formulate a chronology for Indian history and de- scribe the administrative structures of government in India, it has inevitably been overtaken by the mass of new research published over the last fifty years. Designed to take full account of recent scholarship and changing concep- tions of South Asia’s historical development, The New Cambridge History of India will be published as a series of short, self-contained volumes, each dealing with a separate theme and written by a single person. Within an overall four-part structure, thirty complementary volumes in uniform format will be published during the next five years. As before, each will conclude with a substantial bibliographical essay designed to lead non-specialists further into the literature. The four parts planned are as follows:

I The Mughals and their Contemporaries. II Indian States and the Transition to Colonialism. III The Indian Empire and the Beginnings of Modern Society. IV The Evolution of Contemporary South Asia.

A list of individual titles in preparation will be found at the end of the volume.

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ter ee: se! : - +.

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Ir-2 Bengal: The British Bridgehead

Eastern India 1740-1828



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© Cambridge University Press 1987 First published 1987

British Library cataloguing in publication data Marshall, P.J. Bengal: the British bridgehead: Eastern India 1740-1828.—

(The New Cambridge History of India)

1. India, Northeastern— History

I. Title 945'.1029 DS483

Library of Congress cataloguing in publication data

Marshall, P.J. (Peter James) Bengal: the British bridgehead. (The New Cambridge History of India) Bibliography. Includes index. 1. Bengal (India)— History. 2. India—History—18th century. 3. India—History—19th century. I. Title. IL Series, DS485.B48M36 1986 954'.14029 86-9719

ISBN 0 521 25330 6

Transferred to digital printing 2004

Frontispiece: The East India Company’s Resident at the Court of the Nawabs of Bengal c. 1785.


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General editor’s preface page vii Preface ix Maps xii-xv 1 The setting for empire 1 2 Late Mughal Bengal 48 3 The crisis of empire, 1740-65 70 4 The new regime 93 5 Anew society? 137 6 Conclusion 180 Bibliographical essay 183 Index 189 Vv

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The New Cambridge History of India covers the period from the begin- ning of the sixteenth century. In some respects it marks a radical change in the style of Cambridge Histories, but in others the editors feel that they are working firmly within an established academic tradition.

During the summer of 1896, F.W. Maitland and Lord Acton between them evolved the idea for a comprehensive modern history. By the end of the year the Syndics of the University Press had commit- ted themselves to the Cambridge Modern History, and Lord Acton had been put in charge of it. It was hoped that publication would begin in 1899 and be completed by 1904, but the first volume in fact came out in 1902 and the last in 1910, with additional volumes of tables and maps in 1911 and 1912.

The History was a great success, and it was followed by a whole series of distinctive Cambridge Histories covering English Literature, the Ancient World, India, British Foreign Policy, Economic History, Medieval History, the British Empire, Africa, China and Latin America; and even now other new series are being prepared. Indeed, the various Histories have given the Press notable strength in the publication of general reference books in the arts and social sciences.

What has made the Cambridge Histories so distinctive is that they have never been simply dictionaries or encyclopedias. The Histories have, in H.A.L. Fisher’s words, always been ‘written by an army of specialists concentrating the latest results of special study. Yet as Acton agreed with the Syndics in 1896, they have not been mere com- pilations of existing material but original works. Undoubtedly many of the Histories are uneven in quality, some have become out of date very rapidly, but their virtue has been that they have consistently done more than simply record an existing state of knowledge: they have tended to focus interest on research and they have provided a massive stimulus to further work. This has made their publication doubly worthwhile and has distinguished them intellectually from other sorts


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of reference book. The Editors of the New Cambridge History of India have acknowledged this in their work.

The original Cambridge History of India was published between 1922 and 1937. It was planned in six volumes, but of these, Volume 2 deal- ing with the period between the first century A.D. and the Muslim invasion of India never appeared. Some of the material is still of value, but in many respects it is now out of date. The last fifty years have seen a great deal of new research on India, and a striking feature of recent work has been to cast doubt on the validity of the quite arbitrary chronological and categorical way in which Indian history has been conventionally divided.

The Editors decided that it would not be academically desirable to prepare a new History of India using the traditional format. The selec- tive nature of research on Indian history over the past half-century would doom such a project from the start and the whole of Indian his- tory could not be covered in an even or comprehensive manner. They concluded that the best scheme would be to have a History divided into four overlapping chronological volumes, each containing about eight short books on individual themes or subjects. Although in extent the work will therefore be equivalent to a dozen massive tomes of the traditional sort, in form the New Cambridge History of India will appear as a shelf full of separate but complementary parts. Accord- ingly, the main divisions are between I The Mughals and their Contem- porartes, I Indian States and the Transition to Colonialism, IIL The Indian Empire and the Beginnings of Modern Society, and IV The Evolution of Contem- porary South Asta.

Just as the books within these volumes are complementary so too do they intersect with each other, both thematically and chronologically. As the books appear they are intended to give a view of the subject as it now stands and to act as a stimulus to further research. We do not expect the New Cambridge History of India to be the last word on the subject but an essential voice in the continuing discourse about it.


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British territorial empire in South Asia began in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, the area chosen for this volume of the New Cambridge History of India. Over much of the area the British were in control by 1765, but to show something of the circumstances in which they gained power and of the inheritance which so powerfully shaped the early years of their rule, it seemed appropriate to include the reign of the last effective ruler of eastern India under the aegis of the Mughal empire. The starting point for this book is therefore 1740. The choice of 1828 asa closing date isa more or less arbitrary one. By the 1820s the new regime was firmly established in eastern India (except in the newly conquered Assam, which is excluded from this volume) and many of its enduring characteristics were becoming apparent. Certain developments towards the end of the decade - the founding of the Brahmo Samaj, the arrival of Lord William Bentinck, the failure of the great Agency Houses do, however, suggest that within an established framework British-Indian relations were entering a new phase. For some of these developments, 1828 has some significance for marking off the old from the new.

Entrusting this volume to a British historian with serious deficien- cies in his knowledge of the sub-continent inevitably means that its emphasis will be on the new colonial regime. I am, however, very conscious of the immense debt which I owe to the vigorous tradition of historical scholarship which flourishes in eastern India, especially in a now-divided Bengal. This has enabled me to mask some of my shortcomings by presenting the findings of others to those who have had neither the time nor the opportunity to seek them for themselves.

Other debts are more immediate. Dr Gordon Johnsonand DrC.A. Bayly have been indulgent and trusting editors. Dr Bayly’s sugges- tions have been especially helpful. My colleague at King’s College, London, Dr Friedhelm Hardy, has patiently answered questions. The British Academy gave me a grant to go to West Bengal and to

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Bangladesh in 1982. I received much help on that trip from friends in the universities of Dhaka and Calcutta.

The Frontispiece to the book is a gouache by an Indian artist, presumed to be after an original painted 1785-8 by George Farington. The central figures are the Resident, Sir John D’Oyly, and the Nawab, Mubarak-ud-Daula. For permission to reproduce it, I am grateful to the India Office Library and Records, and the British Library Board.


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Generally accepted modern spellings of place names are used throughout, except in quotations.

Abbreviations used:

Add. MS_ Additional Manuscript, British Library, London

IOL India Office Library (British Library), London IOR India Office Records (British Library), London PP Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons), London

Unless otherwise indicated, the place of publication of all works cited is London.


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Dharbhanga TIRHUT es






Ava WA

NADIA FARIDPUR & } Krishnanagar ‘>


Map 1 Eastern India, 1740-1828: places mentioned in the text xii xiii

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100 miles

Extent of annual inundations Vishnupur®

Passages navigable throughout the year I Chandetiasers x

Passages navigable only part of the year

Subsequent changes of river course Centres of weaving cloth for export Silk manufacture

Opium poppy cultivation

Indigo cultivation

Salt manufacture

Map 2 Eastern India, 1740-1828: economic

xiv XV

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Early in the eighteenth century the very diverse areas which now make up three states of contemporary India, West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, together with present-day Bangladesh, were loosely welded together under a single Governor to form the eastern wing of the Mughal empire. In 1765 authority over the Mughal provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa was formally transferred to the East India Company and by the 1820s these provinces had become the eastern wing of a vast new British empire in India. The chronological span of this volume of the New Cambridge History of India has thus been chosen to cover the replacement of Mughal rule by the first British regime in India.

Until fairly recently, such a choice of dates would require little explanation or defence. Contemporary Englishmen sometimes des- cribed the changes that took place in the middle of the eighteenth cen- tury in Bengal as a ‘revolution’, and later generations of historians tended to agree with them. The change from Mughal to British rule has commonly been seen as the beginning of a‘modern’ era, not only for the peoples of eastern India but for the whole sub-continent. For very good reasons, what happened in Bengal during the early years of British rule has become one of the classic case studies for those con- cerned with assessing the impact of foreign rule on conquered societies.

In recent years, however, the revolutionary consequences of the establishment of colonial rule have been called into question for many different parts of the world. The ability of Europeans to transform non-European societies, for better or for worse, over relatively short periods of time seems dubious. Assumptions that non-European societies left to themselves generally proved inert or that they changed significantly only under outside impulses are generally dis- credited. Colonial rule, with its vast detritus of written records easily accessible to historians, and the growth of international trade which usually accompanied it, may look like the most formidable agents of change, but in many cases they can be shown to be only one part ofa complex pattern of developments, other processes working at quite


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different speeds but often ultimately with much greater effect. A chronology which is determined by the rise and firm establishment of a colonial regime may thus prove to be a somewhat misleading one.

Such an approach to the modern history of eastern India has much to commend it. Whatever the ultimate significance of their rule, the British were by no means the only bringers of change. Even the con- figuration of the land was in flux in some areas. It has been said that ‘Both geography and history were remade in Bengal as the eighteenth century drew to a close, and... not less than six new rivers appeared on the scene, moulding Bengal’s economic history’.! The region’s greatest river, the Ganges, could change its course suddenly, washing away settlements as it ate into its banks with a noise that ‘might be compared to the distant rumbling of artillery, or thunder’, but in return creating highly fertile new islands of silt.? A recent article has put forward a powerful case for arguing that the economy of India in general and especially of regions like Bengal was not an unchanging landscape either, but was undergoing ‘important structural changes in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’, well before colonial rule.’ A similar case could no doubt be established for the mental landscape of the peoples of eastern India. For some, mostly a limited elite in Calcutta, close contact with Europeans brought about a profound change after the establishment of British rule; but it does not necessarily follow that language, culture or beliefs were in general resistant to change. Long-term patterns of evolution, which have pro- duced the modern cultural identities of the peoples of the region, clearly go far beyond the colonial period.

In the history of eastern India the fall of the Mughals and the coming of the British are only episodes in a much longer play whose principal actors inevitably remain anonymous: pioneers who settled new lands, merchants who organised handcrafts, Vaishnavite teachers, guardians of Muslim shrines and even the rivers and the Azopheles mosquito. Nevertheless, the easily identified actors, the last Nawabs and the British merchants and administrators had roles which are extremely important. The Nawabs, and to a much greater extent the British, had

1 Radhakamal Mukerjee, The Changing Face of Bengal (Calcutta, 1938), p. 7. 2? R.H. Colebrooke, ‘On the Course of the Ganges through Bengal’, Asiatick Researches,

VII (1801), 15-16. 3 FE. Perlin, ‘Proto-industrialization and Pre-colonial South Asia’, Past and Present,

XCVIII (1983), 56.

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at their disposal instruments with a high potential for altering the societies over which they ruled. They operated a system of taxation which tried to extract a large proportion of the resources of the mass of the population and whose workings had a crucial effect on the dis- tribution of local power throughout the provinces. Through British dominance eastern India’s role in international trade was greatly developed, with important consequences for merchants, cultivators and artisans.

Later chapters of this book try to chart the effect of Mughal and British rule on the peoples of eastern India. At every point, however, the work of the agents of both the old and the new imperial regime was likely to be guided, modified or even stultified by the human and physical environment within which they had to operate. This chapter attempts to indicate something of that environment and of its own patterns of change, which evolved over a much longer period than the seventy-five years with which this volume is concerned.

An area whose western extremity is a segment of the Gangetic plain that extends across northern India, and whose eastern extremity is in the rain-forested hills along the Burmese border, contains many dif- ferent physical and human environments. Most of Bengal receives. a high level of rainfall and much of it is irrigated by the flooding of its great rivers. So it is primarily a land of rice cultivation. But there were marked differences in the eighteenth century between old areas of often highly concentrated settlement, predominantly in western and central Bengal, and those parts of the north and the east of the prov- ince which had been colonised relatively recently. Ecologically most of Bihar is very much part of the north Indian plain and its economic and cultural links were to the westward rather than with deltaic Bengal. It is a drier land than Bengal and its agricultural patterns were more varied, rice being supplemented by other food grains. It too had areas of old concentrated settlement, mostly to the south of the Ganges, and areas of expanding new settlements, mostly to the north. Orissa consisted of deltaic rice plains, fringed, as the whole area was, by uplands in which so-called ‘tribal’ peoples extracted a living from the forests or by cultivating clearings.

During the period covered by this volume a shift in the balance be- tween western and eastern Bengal, which was to become very apparent by the mid nineteenth century, seems to have been well


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under way. Settlement was expanding in the east and agricultural out- put was increasing. In parts of the west growth seems to have stopped and decline may even have set in. These changes were a consequence of shifts in the river system. Over a long period the western half of the delta that constitutes much of Bengal was becoming ‘moribund’, while the eastern half remained ‘active’. This difference was caused by the fact that the main volume of the water brought down by the Ganges no longer found its way to the sea down the western arms of the delta, which tended to silt up, but carved out channels ever further to the east, which carried most of the water. This process gathered speed in the later eighteenth century, when the chief sufferer was beginning to be the Hooghly, the river in western Bengal which had apparently become the main channel for the Ganges in the previous century and on which the region’s major ports, Calcutta, Chander- nagore and Hooghly itself, had been established. The advantages which the Hooghly ports had once enjoyed of easy access both to the sea and to the main course of the Ganges and therefore to upper India, were diminishing in the second half of the eighteenth century. Neither the Bhagirathi nor the Jalangi, the rivers which link the Hooghly to the Ganges, could be relied on to provide sufficient depth of water to en- able river boats to use them all the year round. In 1824 Bishop Heber reflected with astonishment that only fifty years before a great warship had been able to get up to Chandernagore, a little above Calcutta; that this was now inconceivable was striking ‘proof of the alterations which have taken place in this branch of the Ganges’.*

The declining volume of water in its rivers was to have other malign effects on western Bengal. It was‘a well known fact’ by 1833 that lands flooded every rainy season by the Hooghly ‘preserve their original fer- tility’ because of the silt spread on them, and can be cropped every year. The ‘higher soils’, however, which were not flooded, are ‘gradually and rapidly impoverishing’ and certain crops could be raised on them only ‘at intervals of three or four years’. The proportion of land in western Bengal which is regularly flooded has diminished in modern times, and it seems likely that the productivity of agriculture was beginning to be adversely affected in the period covered by this volume. Another consequence of the declining flows through the

* R Heber, Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Provinces of India (2 vols., 1849 edn), I, 63.

5 H. Piddington, ‘On the Fertilising Principle of the Inundations of the Hugli’, Assatic Researches, XVII (1833), 224-5.


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western arms of the Ganges delta also seems to have been making itself felt. As the rivers became more stagnant, malaria-bearing mos- quitoes bred more freely. The district of Murshidabad, taking its name from the Nawab’s capital on the Bhagirathi river, was once regarded as healthy, but ‘a sad reverse’ took place early in the nineteenth century; ‘almost everywhere there is in that part of the country a severe autum- nal epidemic’ of ‘fever’.© However, although the area which they regularly irrigated was declining, the rivers of western Bengal were still capable of sudden flooding, breaking the thousand miles of embank- ments which the British were thought to have inherited,’ and inun- dating vast areas, as in 1801, with catastrophic effects on cultivation and heavy loss of life.*

Bengal’s agriculture was dominated by rice growing. A good water supply was crucial for the success and quality of the crop. In low-lying areas assured of abundant flood water the main crop in western Bengal, as elsewhere, was the high yielding aman rice which was har- vested in the winter to produce fine quality rice. Poorer cultivator’ grew aman tice not for their own consumption but for sale. In higher areas, where prolonged immersion could not be guaranteed, the autumn aus rice was the staple. This produced a lower yield of poorer quality grain, which was eaten by ‘the lower classes of the inhabitants’. Dry areas, like the northern part of the district of Nadia, were largely dependent on aus rice.’ In favourable conditions the avs autumn har- vest could often be followed by another crop of winter rice trans- planted as seedlings. Good quality land used for aus rice would be clear for the winter sowings of crops like cotton and oil seeds, especially mustard, whose oil was used in all cooking, for lighting and for anoint- ing the body. Pulses, such as lentils and peas, an almost universal item of diet, and the coarse grains like millet, the food of the poor and of animals, were either grown interspersed with rice or as another winter- sown crop. Sugar cane took up ground for the best part of the year. Mulberry cuttings could be expected to produce leaves for feeding to silk worms for up to seven years. Those who cultivated mulberry usually reared silk worms as well. Sugar cane and mulberry, like cotton

6 F. Buchanan, cited in B.B. Chaudhuri, ‘Agricultural Growth in Bengal and Bihar, 1770-1860’, Bengal Past and Present, XCV (1976), 328. 7 J. Rennell, ‘An Account of the Ganges and Burrampooter Rivers’, Memorr of a Map of

Hindoostan (31d edn, 1793), p. 350. 8 There is much historical material on floods in H.L. Harrison, The Bengal Embankment

Manual (Calcutta, 1875). ° IOR, Bengal Board of Revenue: Grain, 3 Nov. 1794, Range 89, vol. 27.


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and the higher quality pulses and oil seeds, needed to be grown on land above the flood level and required laborious cultivation with much watering and manuring; rice was not usually manured at all. A wide variety of vegetables were grown in small garden plots. Ploughing by bullocks was the basic method of cultivation for every crop. The num- ber of bullocks, together with cows and buffaloes kept for their milk, seemed prodigious to the Europeans; one was prepared to guess that there might be 200 million head of cattle in Bengal in the 1790s.” The quality of the stock was, however, thought by English observers to be very poor.

Rural society in western Bengal, and indeed in the whole area covered by this volume, can be analysed from two points of view: who was engaged in cultivating the land and who appropriated the portion of the produce of the land that the cultivator was obliged to surrender in the name of the state’s taxation. The vast majority of the population cultivated the land and paid tax but most of the wealth and power in rural society came not from direct cultivation but from rights to par- ticipate in the taxation system (the ‘revenue’, as the British called it). These rights gave their holders both a proportion of what was col- lected and some degree of authority over the cultivators. Holders of revenue rights constituted a very complex hierarchy. At one extreme were great zamindars, who were responsible for levying taxation from hundreds of thousands of cultivators; at the other extreme were village maliks in Bihar, who were lords of a small part of a village. The nature of revenue and of the right to collect it are examined in relation to late Mughal and early British rule in Chapters 2 and 4. This chapter is concerned with agriculture and with the people who cultivated the land and made the payments on which the revenue-collecting hierarchy and the empires of the Mughals and the British ultimately depended.

By virtually any definition, those who cultivated the land in eastern India in this period were peasants. The family was the basic unit of pro- duction. There is, however, much evidence to suggest that there were many gradations within peasant society from deep poverty to relative affluence. Almost all such evidence comes from the British period and much of it is derived from certain districts of northern Bengal, which may not have been typical. Nevertheless, there are indications which

© [H.T. Colebrooke and A. Lambert], Remarks on the Present State of the Husbandry and Commerce of Bengal (Calcutta, 1795), p. 141.


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suggest that these divisions between richer and poorer peasants were fairly general throughout Bengal, if less marked in the east, and that they were of long standing, predating British conquest.

At the lowest level were men without any land at all, who made their living by working on the land of others for wages. Such men certainly existed in some numbers: in a district in northern Bengal, called Dinajpur, 18 per cent of the rural population were classed as krishans, or labourers, early in the nineteenth century.'! But the great majority of the rural population seem to have been cultivators in some degree; the totally landless were the exception. Even in Dinajpur, ‘the inhabi- tants in general’ were described as ‘settled cultivators and house- holders’.!? The main division in rural society was not between the landed and the landless, but between those who were able to cultivate enough land for a living and those who were not.

That very many of the rural population of Bengal were not able to cultivate enough land to support themselves does not seem to have been due either to any absolute shortage of land or to an excessive pressure of numbers on the land. In 1753 Robert Orme wrote that every part of Bengal, ‘if duly cultivated, would produce exceedingly more than its occasions’, but he thought that ‘no part of the province is cultivated in proportion to the wants of the inhabitants who reside onit’." Francis Buchanan, by far the most persistent and perceptive of early inquirers, reported some sixty years later that, even in heavily populated districts with many very small holdings, ‘a very large portion of excellent land is unoccupied’.'* What seems to have deter- mined the size of a man’s holding was not the availability of land but his ability to command the wherewithal to clear and cultivate it, that is the extent of what Europeans called his ‘stock’. Bullocks for plough- ing were the main item of stock. A pair of oxen could normally keep between three and six acres under cultivation.’ A poor cultivator, able to command only one or two pairs of bullocks, would thus be most unlikely to be able to grow enough to sustain his family and pay

" S, Taniguchi, ‘The Structure of Agrarian Society in Northern Bengal’, Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Calcutta University, 1977, p. 249.

Cited in Taniguchi, ‘Agrarian Society’, pp. 220-1.

BR. Orme, Héstorical Fragments of the Mogul Empire (1805), pp. 404-5.

‘* On Rangpur, in M. Martin, History, Antiquities, Topography and Statistics of Eastern India @ vols., 1838), III, 482.

'S See estimates by Buchanan, ibid., by G. Harris, Evidence, 21 May 1830, PP, 1830, VI, 307; and by W. Ward, Account of the Writings, Religton and Manners of the Hindoos (4 vols., Serampore, 1811), IV, 81.

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his taxes. He and his family would almost certainly have to supple- ment their income by working for wages. He might be able to work for a share of the crop on the land of others (sharecropping seems to have been very widely practised) or to work for wages in cash or kind, especially at harvest time. His wife might earn wages from spinning cotton or husking rice. In addition the poorer cultivator would almost certainly have to borrow. Borrowing could take the form of cash advances, for the purpose of purchasing oxen or paying tax demands, or, very commonly, of receiving grain either for seed corn or for feed- ing one’s family between harvests. For making repayments the poorer cultivator had no assets except his future labour or his future crops. Both might be mortgaged almost permanently.'* It was commonly said that for each measure of grain borrowed at sowing or before the harvest, a measure-and-a- half would have to be paid back after the har- vest. In Nadia repayment of loans of seed corn was said to be ‘generally double the amount of the advance’.'’ A well-documented case near Calcutta in 1770 showed that those who advanced money to cultivators to be repaid at harvest expected a return of 100 to 150 per cent.'* Once cultivators had got into debt they were likely to become ‘the mere servants of the corn-merchants’, surrendering their crop to them every harvest time in return for enough to keep their families alive and to pay their taxes.”

By the beginning of the nineteenth century it was thought that ‘the great body of the Bengal farmers’ had been reduced to the state of being ‘servants’ of grain dealers. More precise estimates, based on sur- veys of parts of northern Bengal by Buchanan and others, suggest that ‘more than half of the peasantry’ were ‘lacking in sufficient agricultural stocks to cultivate the minimum size of agricultural holding’. The earliest survey, one for a village in Rangpur in 1770, showed 70 per cent to be below self-sufficiency.”

The ‘middling farmer’, at least in northern Bengal, was said to be one who could keep three, four or five ploughs at work, presumably with his own family and some hired labour.’! ‘Rich and respectable

‘6 Buchanan described how a cultivator who borrowed Rs. 6 in Rangpur would be required to work for a year to pay off the principal and to do additional months for the interest (Survey of ‘Ronggopur’, IOL, MS Eur.D.75, book IV, p. 112). |

IOR, Bengal Board of Revenue: Grain, 3 Nov. 1794, Range 89, vol. 27.

Calcutta High Court Records, Mayor’s Court, Young v. Gopaul Sircar.

9 Ward, Account of the Hindoos, IV, 80.

20 Taniguchi, ‘Agrarian Society’, pp. 241-50.

21 Buchanan in Martin, Eastern India, Il, 904.


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husbandmen’ in the twenty-four Parganas near Calcutta ‘employ from four to ten servants or labourers from time to time as necessary, and cultivate the land in the proper season’. The poor were largely limited to growing rice or coarse grains, since they could not afford the outlay on potentially profitable crops. Only the more affluent could afford to plant cash crops. In Burdwan in the west, those who grew sugar cane ‘being rich, can generally afford to bestow proper labour and manure on their cane grounds, so as to return them constantly an abundant crop’.” Above the ‘respectable’ farmers were the positively rich who might cultivate a hundred acres or more. The interests of such men were likely to extend far beyond the profits which they derived from their own farming to include profits from lending out stock and money to many poorer cultivators who virtually worked for them, either as formal sharecroppers or by handing over the greater part of their harvest as repayment for loans. Many large farmers were also money lenders and dealers in grain. Their power was often bolstered by holding offices such as that of mandal, or headman of the village, and they often crossed the line between cultivators of the land and those who profited from the collection of the revenue, becoming under-collectors for their villages.

At least in the west and the north then, Bengal society seems to have been divided between a broad base consisting of some landless labourers and a very large number of poor cultivators, most of whom were probably also engaged in sharecropping or wage labour, and a narrower apex of clearly self-sufficient or prosperous peasants. The extent to which caste reinforced economic divisions in Bengal at this

_ period is uncertain. ‘Dominant cultivating castes have been identified for parts of western Bengal as being the Kaivartas, the Sadgops or the Aguris.”* Low caste Hindus or ‘tribal’ peoples from the western hills occupied the lowest rungs of the hierarchy of the cultivators or the landless in the same areas.”

The rural population of western Bengal in this period also included many artisans: men who processed sugar cane or oil seeds, potters, smiths and metal workers, spinners of cotton yarn and silk winders,

22 Radha Kanta Deva, ‘An Account of the Agriculture of the 24 Parganas’, Transactions of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India, 1 (1829), 50.

2 [J. Prinsep], Bengal Sugar (1794), p. 82.

4 R. Ray, Change in Bengal Agrarian Soctety, c. 1760-1850 (New Delhi, 1979), pp.

52-3. 4 RK. Gupta, Economic Life of a Bengal District: Birbhum 1770-1856 (Burdwan, 1984),

pp. 282-4, 288-90.

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weavers and those engaged in other crafts associated with making cloth. For instance, in one large village near Calcutta, a survey of the inhabitants according to caste for 1788-9 produced the following figures for artisan castes and their families: out of 3,018 Hindu men, women and children, there were 19 coppersmiths, 66 carpenters, 40 silversmiths, 41 oilmen and 180 weavers.” A large proportion of what many rural artisans made must have been intended for strictly local consumption. For instance, smiths are described as being scattered throughout the villages of Bengal in ones or twos, making the agricultural implements or fish hooks required by their neighbours.’ The extent to which artisans in Bengal were tied to the service of cultivators in return for rewards in kind or allocations of land, a system which has come to be known as jajmanz, is unclear. Some village craftsmen were said to give ‘without reward a portion of their labour for the benefit of the public or the service of their superiors’.”*

In parts of the countryside of western Bengal, however, artisans -were concentrated in numbers far beyond any strictly local needs. They were working for distant markets, either in Bengal itself, or in other parts of India, or overseas. They dealt not with local patrons but with the representatives of merchants from the towns or with pro- fessional brokers. Iron ore deposits, for instance, in the western dis- trict of Birbhum had led to a concentration there of mining operations and small forges.” The production of salt took place on a very large scale on the coastal belt from the mouth of the Hooghly to the border of Orissa and also in the Sundarbans area. During the salt-making season several thousand boilers were employed either by merchants or by local zamindars in an elaborate process of evaporating sea water. The manufacture of silk was concentrated in certain areas where mul- berries were grown. Silk worms of the highest quality were thought to be available around Kasimbazar, close to Murshidabad, and they were also reared in other parts of western Bengal. The cultivators of mul- berry either reeled silk from their own cocoons or sold the cocoons to be reeled by professional silk winders called nacauds, who worked in their own houses but increasingly by the end of the period in large workshops.

26 ‘Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the Village of Seebpore’, LOL, MS Eur.F.95, fo. 64. 27 Ward, Account of the Hindoos, IV, 107-8.

[Colebrooke and Lambert], Remarks on Bengal, pp. 46-7.

*? R.K. Gupta, ‘Iron Manufacturing Industry of Birbhum’, Journal of Indian History, LVIII (1980), 93-108.


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Weaving of relatively coarse cheap cloth for local needs was carried on in most Bengal villages, but colonies of weavers were also grouped in certain areas where they specialised in making particular types of high quality cloth for export, either overland to northern India or by sea from the Hooghly ports. In western Bengal the cloth for export was usually woven in villages close to the Hooghly or to the Ganges, the obvious route to northern India. The weavers needed a supply of cotton, and this was partly grown locally and partly imported by sea from western India or overland from the Deccan. Raw cotton was spun by an army of women working in their homes. Once the cloth had been woven, it required ‘finishing’ by other craftsmen, such as bleachers, dyers and embroiderers. Although certain areas specialised in particular types of cloth, concentration of production into large units, like the silk reeling workshops, was rarely attained. Weavers had some organisation of their own, based on caste councils or panchayats, but essentially they seem to have worked as individual households.”

The extent to which artisans formed a ‘manufacturing’ or even an ‘industrial’ sector separate from agriculture is a matter for dispute.*! The general view of Europeans was that what they had come to recognise as the ‘division of labour’ hardly existed: artisans cultivated land and agriculturalists were also employed part of the time in other pursuits, the implication being that inefficiency was the inevitable consequence of lack of specialisation. That relatively few people were completely separated from agriculture in this period seems to be irrefutable. There seems to have been a kind of continuum: poor cultivators, seeking means of eking out their meagre earnings from the land by their own occasional labour as coolies or by their wives’ spinning, were at one end; the highly skilled weaver working virtually full time on cloth for export, while his plot of land was cultivated by hired labour, was at the other end.** However, the fact that nearly all artisans had some connection with the land does not necessarily imply

30 D.B. Mitra, The Cotton Weavers of Bengal (Calcutta, 1979); H. Hossain, ‘The East India Company and the Textile Producers of Bengal, 1750-1813’, Unpublished D. Phil thesis, Oxford University, 1982.

31 Tf an ‘industrial’ sector can be shown to have existed, the concept of ‘deindus- trialisation’ in the nineteenth century becomes more plausible. For a recent statement, see M. Vicziany, ‘The Deindustrialisation of India in the Nineteenth Century’, and A.K. Bagchi, ‘A Reply’ in Indian Economic and Social History Review, XV1 (1979), 105-61.

32 This was noted by Buchanan, see Martin, Eastern India, II, 978; G. Harris described weavers in east Bengal as ‘little landlords’ (Evidence, 21 May 1830, PP, 1830, VI,



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that artisan production was inefficient or that there could not be major shifts of emphasis as men were encouraged either to spend much more time on the craft side of their employment or, conversely, to spend much less time on it, as the demand for their skills diminished.

The divisions of wealth and status which marked those who cultivated the land were in part reproduced among those who also worked off the land. At the bottom of the pile were the coolies and porters who laboured in the towns or who did such work as embank- ing, together with the great armies of boatmen, whose physically debilitating work seems to have been very ill rewarded, and the very industrious ‘poor and illiterate’ fishing people.’ Those village craftsmen who were tied to the service of the cultivators were presumably also in a weak position. Some other groups, such as the mulang? salt boilers, were tied to their employment by rigorous con- ditions. The situation of the skilled artisan, working in a more or less specialised way for a wider market than his village could provide, is less clear. There were no doubt some individuals who worked at their own inclination, eventually taking their finished articles to the local market, where they could bargain for what they thought an appro- priate price. But the evidence, at least from the British period, strongly suggests that most skilled artisans were in fact working to the orders either of the agents of merchants or of brokers who earned a commission on what they resold to merchants. Such artisans usually received ‘advances’ before beginning work, that is they were given their raw materials, such as cotton thread, silk cocoons or other equivalents of the peasant’s seed corn, or they were paid cash, de- ducted from the final price of the finished goods. It has recently been argued that the system of