Once the armada had been beaten back by Elizabethan seamen, The English adventurers could turn their eyes toward India. Throughout the 17th century, a handful of Englishmen struggled to tap the riches of the East for their employer, The East India Company. Their early trading posts were precarious footholds on the edge of a subcontinent wracked by conflict between the expanding Mughal empire and the established Hindu rajahs. At times, the traders efforts seemed hardly likely to reap the rewards promised by the allegorical painting above, commissioned for the Company’s headquarters after success was achieved. By the beginning of the 18th century the company had at last sown the seeds of Britain’s Indian Empire.
On December 31st 1600, Queen Elizabeth I set the Great Seal to the charter forming the East India Company. On its face, merely the Royal Assent to an enterprise, the charter was to lead to the establishment of the British Empire in India. But there had been no thought of empire in the minds of the 80 merchants from the City of London who had formed themselves into this company. Their aim was to tap the wealth of the Indies, not by conquest, but by sea trade, gems, indigo, camphor, sulphur and above all - spices.
The trade with the Indies had been pioneered, in the 15th century by the Portuguese, who were set on breaking the Moslem monopoly of the overland spice trade. Sailing around Africa to India, the Portuguese had spread their trading settlements to the spice islands of the Indonesian archipelago, and themselves became monopolists. At Lisbon the merchants were obliged to pay the Portuguese whatever they chose to ask.
The demand for spices nevertheless remained high for a simple and compelling reason. From autumn to spring, the Elizabethans, at least those who could afford it, ate a great deal of salt meat. Even when fresh meat appeared on their tables in summer it was poor in quality and taste. Such pallid food could only be enlivened again solely by the rich, with spices.
All had been well until 1580, up to that time, the Dutch, who handled most of the spice trade in northern Europe, had been able to collect their supplies at Lisbon, but that year Spain annexed Portugal, and the Dutch, then in rebellion, against their Spanish overlords, were no longer able to buy at the Portuguese capital. The Dutch fleet set out in 1595 returning 30 months later with a large cargo of spices and other exotic merchandise. The Portuguese monopoly, so long the dominant force in European spice trade had been broken.
In 1583, four Englishmen set off overland to India, one, Ralph Fitch, returned. Then in 1588, the defeated Spanish Armada, removed the greatest obstacle to the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1591, three ships left Plymouth for the East Indies, only one returned. On the way it was shattered by a storm. Some of the crew survived including the captain, James Lancaster, who returned to England in 1594. It was to Lancaster that the Governor and Merchants of London, trading into the East Indies turned to command their first expedition. Lancaster again set sail in 1601 for Sumatra. He carried in his five little ships, £30,000 in gold and silver coin, iron, tin and lead and a large supply of famous English broadcloth. In 1603 Lancaster set out to return with a cargo of spices worth more than £1 million the venture was a success. Al the ships returned fully loaded. Lancaster was knighted and the company authorised a second voyage.
On August 24th 1608, the first English ship to reach an Indian port anchored off the town of Surat, about 170 miles north of Bombay. It was a seaport frequented by many ships from the Malabar and all parts and was not owned by the Portuguese, who still considered the India trade their exclusive monopoly.
The emperor’s stables contained 1000 elephants, 30,000 horses and all kinds of exotic animals. As for the markets, they were “a great resort of merchants from Persia, and out of India and very much merchandise of silken cloth and precious stones, rubies, diamonds and pearls.”
Hawkins it seemed would have to tread carefully for what he had to offer so rich a monarch. In addition to his concerns about establishing trading relations with the Mughal Empire, Hawkins had to be extremely careful of the Portuguese. There had been several attempts on Hawkins’ life, once he was cornered on the seashore by a band of Portuguese and his life was saved only by the intervention of a Mughal officer, and once his men had to repel a force of some 30 to 40 ruffians who besieged his house.
When Hawkins arrived at the court of Jahangir in the Mughal capital, he was well received and appears to have caught the Emperor’s fancy, at least temporarily perhaps because he spoke Turkish, the native tounge of the Mughals. He was invited to stay at court and offered a woman from the palace, Insisting only that she be a Christian, Hawkins accepted and was given an Armenian girl, whom he later married. He was made a court official also and awarded a large salary. Unfortunately, a combination of scheming by the Portuguese, and Hawkins own lack of finesse and resulted in his falling out of favour.
One thing at least was clear, the English would not be able to trade at Surat until they had decisively defeated the Portuguese at sea, thus showing the Emperor that they were men to be reckoned with. The following year they did just that. A Portuguese fleet attacked two English vessels, The Red Dragon and the Ozeander, off Surat. The Dragon upped anchor, sailed between two enemy vessels and loosed off a broadside at each, she then drove three other galleons onto a sandbank, whilst the speedy Ozeander “so danced the hay about the others”. This was the first of a series of defeats in minor actions that were finally to end the Portuguese dominance.
The English victories impressed the governor of Surat and via him, the court at Agra. The powerful and grand Mughal Empire was weak cat sea, indeed the Emperor regarded naval warfare as a degrading pastime. The English were allowed to set up a factory (Trading post) in Surat in 1613 an advance rapidly reinforced by the despatch of the first ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe whom, the merchant traders in London, thought would breed “regard” for the English and bring about a trade treaty.
Roe’s unbending sense of his own importance as an ambassador impressed the court. “One Portugal will beat 3 Hindus” Jahangir was reported to say “One English will beat 3 Portugals”. Regardless of the fact that they might be faring better in India, the English were losing ground in their original market of the Spice Islands. In Europe, English and Dutch were allies against Spain and Portugal but in Asia they were rivals. The Dutch, in greater force and in better ships dominated the seas.
“It was war” Roe warned “You must speedily look to this maggot”. The matter finally came to a head with the massacre of Amboyna in the Moluccas. The Dutch believed that there was an English conspiracy in this Dutch centre for the spice trade, even although there were only about 20 English there manning a small trading post. The unfounded suspicions of the Dutch came to a head when, in 1623, 10 Englishmen and 9 Japanese workers were executed for conspiring to assassinate the Dutch governor. In London the Merchant company maintained they could not continue to trade in the East Indies unless the Dutch paid retribution and punished those guilty ones. This was not forthcoming and slowly the English withdrew from trade in the Spice Islands.
In 1765, the Moghul ruler of Bengal died. His grandson Siraj-ud-Duala succeeded and went to was against the British, capturing Calcutta, where, 123 British prisoners died, incarcerated in the BLACK HOLE OF CALCUTTA. The companies administrator, Robert Clive, defeated first, Siraj’s allies, the French and then Siraj himself, and replaced him. In turn the British puppet was ousted by Mir Kasim who hated the company for milking Bengal. War came in 1763 and Mir Kasim was beaten in five battles.
As the Moghul Empire disintegrated, and the French, British and various Indian princes battled for the remains, Emperor Shah Alam had granted the British East India Company the diwani (revenue authority) of Bengal
Although the word ‘thug’ is a now familiar synonym for any violent criminal, the original meaning was far more sinister. The Thugs, whose name derives from the Sanskrit word for deceiver, were a secret brotherhood of stranglers who had terrorised travellers for centuries. It was not until 1826, however, that the British revealed the startling facts about Thuggees, as the sect was called. Continued below contents table)
Despite their traditional enmity, both Hindus and muslims embraced Thuggee as a fraternity ordained by the Hindu goddess Kali. According to Thug mythology, Kali once encountered a man-eating demon. She cut the monster in half with her sword, but a new fiend sprang from every drop of his blood. Faced with an ever renewing horde, the goddess miraculously created two warriors from her perspiration and gave to each of them a yellow rhumal - a strip of cloth - with which to strangle her foes. Kali then ordered her warriors to perpetuate from generation to generation the secret work of destroying in this way those who were not their kindred.
In 1826, Col. William Sleeman, who had devoted years to gathering scraps of information about Thuggee, was given the task of suppressing the cult in Jubbulpore, north-east India, where he was civil administrator. He faced formidable problems. The thugs lead outwardly respectable lives, operating far from home to avoid recognition. They preserved meticulous security with bribery and threats, initiated only their sons into the fraternity, and never selected victims - like Europeans - who could be traced to their home villages.
To break through the Thuggee veil of secrecy, Sleeman painstakingly compiled bits of information gleaned from villagers, officials and captured Thugs. As his records built up, he was able to work out Thug family trees and draw up maps with which to trace Thugs and spot likely scenes of future murders. He was constantly amazed at what he discovered. One thug claimed 931 murders and added with considerable pride “Sahib, there were many more, but I ceased counting when sure of my thousand.
As Sleemans campaign gained momentum, Thugs continued to operate in their traditional way. When the rainy season drew to a close, Thugs - some of them sepoys on leave from the East India Company’s army, took to the roads in pursuit of their prey.
At first Sleeman was blocked by the Thugs proud belief that their work was a predestined religious duty. Over 400 of Sleemans captives went calmly to death by hanging rather than betray their religion. But gradually, some began to believe that Sleeman was an instrument of Kali sent to punish them for some imagined failure. Bowing to divine will they turned informers. Success followed rapidly. In 1835, Sleeman was charged with the suppression of Thuggee throughout al India. By 1848, he had captured over 4000 Thugs and except for isolated cases, the menace was ended.
When a group of travellers was found, the Thugs would ask to join them - “for protection” - and their conversation, singing, and storytelling soon ingratiating themselves with their new companions. A strangler thug and two assistants would lure travellers to a selected place. Then at a given signal, the murderers seized the victims arms and legs, jerked the rhumals round their necks and in seconds it was over. The bodies were then stripped of valuables, cut open and buried. It was a swift and efficient operation which, in the two centuries the British had been in India, accounted for some two million murders.
When later, Hawkins arrived, he was advised that for permission to trade, he would have to apply to the Governor, who was headquartered at Cambay, 100 miles to the north. When Hawkins messenger returned from Cambay, he brought with him permission for the English to sell goods but also that only the Emperor himself could grant the right to set up a trading establishment . Hawkins had no alternative, he would have to go to Agra, the capital himself,. Hawkins already knew something of the Mughal emperor, Jahangir and his vast dominions, travellers had reported the great wealth and power of the Empire, which then controlled most of the northern part of India and was still expanding towards the independent Hindu states of the south.