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Gifts, Sovereignty and Power: The British and French Trading Companies in Mughal India, 1735-65

Dons, souveraineté et pouvoir : les compagnies des Indes britannique et française en Inde moghole, 1735-65
Robert Ivermee

Abstracts

This article focuses on the gifts awarded by Indian powers to the British and French trading companies and their representatives in Mughal India in exchange for services rendered – notably the provision of military support. As the Mughal Empire disintegrated, Indian powers solicited the military backing of the British and French to secure their positions of power. When this support was delivered, the companies and their agents were handsomely rewarded with payments and gifts, the awarding of which was part of the performance of sovereignty by the rulers concerned. Beneath this appearance of sovereignty, however, real world power was increasingly vested in the British and French companies, which, confident of their military superiority, exercised more and more control over the rulers that they claimed to serve. What role did the gifts offered by Indian rulers to their European collaborators play in these changing power relations? What do the gifts reveal about how these relations changed? Can a distinction be maintained between gifts and payments? And can objects obtained coercively really be considered gifts? These questions are explored in relation to the political ascent of the British and French companies in the Carnatic and Bengal between 1735 and 1765.

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Introduction

  • 1 For a discussion, see Ladan Niayesh, ‘Oriental Gifts and the Commensurability Question’, Gifting th (...)

1Diverse forms of gifts contributed to the changing relationships of power between local rulers and the European trading companies in Mughal India. They included the objects presented by Europeans to secure permission to trade in the Mughal Empire, and the items offered in return by Indian courts when their foreign guests were accepted, legally and symbolically, into the Mughal polity and granted commercial rights. In contemporary sources, the former was often referred to using the Persian word peshkash – a present made to a ruler in recognition or anticipation of a privilege to be granted – and the latter as khilat: a gift presented by a ruler or another acknowledged superior to someone of a lower rank, closely associated with the public display of authority and munificence.1

  • 2 A useful overview is found in John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire: The New Cambridge History of Ind (...)
  • 3 The quote comes from William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: the relentless rise of the East India Company (...)

2This article focuses on a different type of gift awarded with increasing regularity by Indian rulers to the British and French trading companies and their representatives as the eighteenth century progressed: the gifts bestowed in exchange for services rendered – most notably the provision of military support. During the eighteenth century, the central power of the Mughal Empire collapsed and different provinces, from Bengal in the northeast to the Carnatic in the southeast, established their de facto independence from the Mughal Emperor at Delhi (though, as we shall see, Mughal structures of authority remained symbolically important).2 In claiming autonomy, however, regional powers were drawn into conflict with each other. To secure control of territories, they solicited the support of the British and French companies, whose military technology and small but highly trained armies were often decisive in local conflicts. First the French and then the British began renting their troops to Indian rulers, acting as mercenaries or “military entrepreneurs”, before developing expansionist aspirations of their own.3 With their military superiority confirmed, the companies exercised more and more control over rulers that they professed simply to serve and took advantage of their positions of strength to act as imperialist powers, claiming possession of territory and rights to revenue collection across large parts of the subcontinent.

3The significance of the processes of gift-giving and receiving in these changing relations of power between Indian courts and the British and French companies merits careful consideration. In return for their military assistance, the companies were offered new commercial privileges, grants of land, and bullion by local rulers. For their contributions to successful military campaigns, British and French figures were for their part showered with gifts, including valuable objects, bullion, and personal land grants. In what follows it is suggested that this munificence was part of the acting out of sovereignty by the rulers concerned, as they established their authority in different Indian regions with European help. As we shall see, however, such munificence contributed in no small way to the financial problems that those rulers then encountered and their growing indebtedness to the French and British companies, which in turn weakened their position vis-à-vis their supposed protectors. As the companies grew in power, their actions were such, it is argued, that the very notions of gift-giving and receiving are called into question. Awards of objects, bullion, and land frequently referred to in British sources as “gifts or “presents and in French records as “cadeaux or “dons” in fact resulted from extensive negotiations, highly transactional in nature, that blur the distinction between gifts and payments. Moreover, the degree of control established over certain Indian rulers by the French and, to an even greater extent, the British was such that questions of coercion and agency arise. Closely supervised by French and British officials, did rulers in different parts of India possess sufficient agency to make gifts to their European allies-turned-supervisors?

4Exploring these questions, our main focus will be the province of Bengal, where the authority of the British East India Company (hereafter East India Company) had been established by 1765, despite the continued pretence of the rule of the nawab (governor) of Bengal, nominally a vassal of the Mughal Emperor. We begin, however, in the Carnatic, the most southerly of the Mughal Empire’s provinces, where the European practice of lending military support to local Indian powers, followed by the establishment of control over those powers and acquisition of extensive territory and revenue-collecting rights, was pioneered by the French East India Company (hereafter Compagnie des Indes).

Gifts and conquest

5The East India Company and the Compagnie des Indes began life in India as commercial entities, establishing trading posts around the Indian coastline with the permission of Mughal authorities, to whom regular gifts and payments were made for the maintenance of commercial privileges. From the beginning, however, the companies were also armed entities, with troops to protect their trading posts on land, and warships to fend off aggressors at sea. Where circumstances allowed, they fortified their trading posts, with local instability and the threat of attack from rival European powers often cited as reasons for the construction of fortifications.

  • 4 See for example Joseph-François Dupleix, ‘Mémoire du 16 octobre 1753’ in Alfred Martineau (ed.), La (...)

6As the Mughal Empire disintegrated, consenting to the requests of Indian rulers for support in local power struggles was appealing for several reasons. First, it offered the opportunity to ensure that rulers sympathetic to French or British interests – and by extension less favourable to the interests of European adversaries – were in power in different regions. New trading permissions could therefore be extracted, while payments for military services made in bullion and grants of land were potentially lucrative alternative sources of revenue for the companies. Before long it was clear that the profits to be made from the business of war could be far superior to those that they were making from trade.4 The gifts made to representatives of the companies by Indian powers were also powerful personal incentives for employees from the French and British governors downwards to get their companies involved in supporting one Indian ruler against another, as we shall see.

  • 5 Vigié, Dupleix, pp. 169-71.

7Serving from 1735 to 1741, Pierre Benoît Dumas was the first governor of the Compagnie des Indes’ operations in India to go down this route. Within a year of his appointment, soldiers of the Compagnie stationed in its principal colony, Pondicherry, were lent to Maratha chieftain Shahji Bhonsle, who aspired to take control of the kingdom of Tanjore, some 150 kilometres to the south. Once installed on the throne with French help, it was agreed, the Maratha leader would grant the Compagnie the coastal port of Karikal, which fell within Tanjore territories, along with five surrounding villages considered valuable for the provision of cloth. When Shahji Bhonsle reneged on this agreement, an alternative alliance was struck with one of his rivals, Chanda Sahib, whose designs on Tanjore the Compagnie’s authorities at Pondicherry committed to supporting. In return, Karikal was captured from Shahji Bhonsle and confirmed as a French possession.5

8What Dumas had started was continued by his successor, Joseph-François Dupleix, and transformed under his direction into something far more ambitious. The first six years of Dupleix’s governorship (1742-1754) were dominated by conflict with the British, as the War of Austrian Succession raged between the European powers. The British colony of Madras was captured by French forces in 1746, and Pondicherry in turn besieged by the British two years later, before peace was agreed in Europe in October 1748. Just months later, however, Dupleix negotiated a fresh agreement with Chanda Sahib and a second Indian prince, Muzaffar Jang, who now sought to establish themselves in control of the Carnatic and the Deccan respectively. To appreciate the significance of this alliance, an understanding of the structure of the Mughal Empire is required. The province of the Carnatic, in which Pondicherry and Madras were located, was subservient in the Mughal system to the central Indian province of the Deccan; the nawab of the Carnatic was at least nominally appointed by the nizam (ruler) of the Deccan, who was himself appointed by the Mughal Emperor. It was therefore logical for Chanda Sahib and Muzaffar Jang to collaborate. The latter, once confirmed in power in the Deccan, would rubber stamp the former’s possession of the Carnatic.

  • 6 Joseph-François Dupleix, ‘Relation des faits principaux concernant le rétablissement de la famille (...)

9Under the terms of the agreement made with Dupleix, a corps of Compagnie troops would be lent to Chanda Sahib and Muzaffar Jang to support their joint invasion of the Carnatic, which was to be followed by an advance on the Deccan. In exchange, the Compagnie would be granted territories on the banks of the Adyar river at Villenour, just south of Pondicherry, adding an estimated 50,000 rupees per year to its revenues.6 The campaign was a success. In August 1749, the incumbent nawab of Carnatic, Anwar-ud-din, was killed in battle and his throne taken by Chanda Sahib. Sixteen months later, following a gruelling military campaign, the nizam of the Deccan, Nasir Jang, was also killed and Muzaffar Jang installed in his place. Following these successes, the Compagnie des Indes was awarded new territories in southern and central India far in excess of those promised in the terms of its alliance with Muzaffar Jang, becoming in the process a major territorial and revenue-collecting power.

  • 7 See for example the correspondence between Dupleix and his successor, Charles Godeheu, July-October (...)
  • 8 Henry Dodwell, Dupleix and Clive: the beginning of empire (London, Methuen & Co., 1920), p. 53; Vig (...)
  • 9 Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gentil, Mémoires sur l'Indoustan ou Empire mogol (Paris, Petit, 1822), p. 50.

10Most important for our purposes are the gifts – referred to as “dons or “cadeaux in contemporary French sources – that Dupleix and other Frenchmen received in the aftermath of these victories.7 First, the spoils of war were brought back to Pondicherry. Muzaffar Jang arrived in December 1750 with twenty chests of jewels and 12 million rupees in coin, seized from his deceased predecessor’s camp. An estimated 2 million rupees went to Dupleix personally, and a further 400,000 rupees was shared out among the French troops.8The treasury was opened for the gratification of the French,” wrote one eyewitness. “The officers each received sixty thousand rupees. Never had we seen so much gold at Pondicherry.”9 Dupleix and other high-ranking members of the French party, among them Louis Hubert de Combault d’Auteuil, the commander of the Compagnie’s troops, and Ananda Ranga Pillai, the governor’s chief courtier, were then awarded grants of land known in the Mughal system as jagirs.

  • 10 For an introduction to the Mughal military and administrative system, including the granting of jag (...)
  • 11 Vigié, Dupleix, p. 327.
  • 12 Hira Singh, ‘Colonial and postcolonial historiography and the princely states: relations of power a (...)
  • 13 Vigié, Dupleix, p. 326.

11This was a significant development for two key reasons. Firstly, with the award of the jagirs, Dupleix and other Frenchmen were integrated in the Mughal system, their position no longer one of outsiders to the Mughal polity. In a further indication of his new status as an insider, Dupleix was also awarded the honorific title of mansadbar, a mark of nobility conferring on him the right to keep 7000 horses and be escorted by twelve elephants.10 Secondly, possession of a jagir meant the right to extract revenue from the land and retain it personally. A large jagir was potentially very lucrative; the Tamil territory of Valudavur, which went to Dupleix, was estimated to yield an annual revenue of 150,000 rupees.11 Within the Mughal polity, conditions were usually attached to the possession of a jagir; jagirdars were expected to remit a portion of their revenue towards the imperial centre and could see their assigned lands removed from them. As such, it would perhaps be more accurate to consider jagirs grants than gifts, as one scholar has recently pointed out.12 However, there is nothing to suggest that Dupleix and his French colleagues concerned themselves with the obligations usually attached to possession of jagirs in the Mughal Empire. For Dupleix, the jagir was first and foremost an opportunity for enrichment and therefore differed little from the other gifts that he received from Muzaffar Jang at this time. They included a shield, a sword and a dagger that had once been given by Emperor Aurangzeb to the most illustrious of all the former nizams of the Deccan, Asaf Jah I (r. 1724-48).13

  • 14 Stringer Lawrence, ‘Narrative of the war on the coast of Coromandel, from the beginning of the trou (...)
  • 15 On these concessions and Muhammad Ali’s growing indebtedness to the British, see Peter Marshall, Th (...)

12From Madras, British authorities watched these events unfold with concern. After the killing of nawab Anwar-ud-din in 1749 they waded into the province’s succession struggle, offering military aid to the deceased ruler’s eldest surviving son, Muhammad Ali, who held territory around the city of Trichinopoly. European rivalry played a part in this decision: the British feared that if Chanda Sahib remained nawab for long, and French influence in the region continued to grow, they would soon be expelled from southern India.14 However, the material advantages to be derived from supporting Muhammad Ali, measured in terms of land grants and payments to the Company and gifts to its employees, were not ignored either. One of the first agreements between the prince and the British saw the revenues of Trichinopoly mortgaged to the latter, and in the years that followed revenue collection rights over a succession of other Carnatic districts were handed over to the Company. Generous gifts were meanwhile offered to the British governor at Madras, Thomas Saunders, and other members of his council.15

13Supported by their rival European backers, the conflict between Chanda Sahib and Muhammad Ali dragged on in the Carnatic until June 1752, when Chanda Sahib was captured and executed, and Muhammad Ali crowned nawab. Dupleix was then recalled to France by the directors of the Compagnie des Indes, who had begun to disown his expansionist and belligerent approach.

Sovereignty and power

14To consider further the significance of gifts in the changing power dynamics between Indian and European parties at this juncture, we must now shift our attention to Bengal, where the French and British policy of lending military support to local powers developed into – or was rather confirmed as – something quite different.

  • 16 Dalrymple, The Anarchy, pp. 99-135; Jon Wilson, India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the chaos of emp (...)
  • 17 Walter K. Firminger, Historical introduction to the Bengal portion of “The Fifth Report” (Calcutta, (...)

15The events of 1757 in Bengal are well known. Taking advantage of the start of the Seven Years’ War, which once again saw France and Great Britain on opposite sides, the British captured the French colony of Chandernagore before agreeing an alliance with opposition factions at the court of the nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daula, to remove the nawab from the throne. After the Battle of Plassey, which saw Siraj-ud-daula’s forces pitted against those of the British, this plan was enacted, and the noblemen Mir Jafar installed as nawab.16 We might be tempted to consider this Bengal “revolution”, as it later became known, a continuation of the approach pursued by the French and British in southern India of offering military support in a local power struggle, motivated by the promise of lucrative rewards and the prospect of a sympathetic ruler in power. What was different, however, was that from the outset the British intended to control the new nawab, establishing their de facto rule over Bengal. Before the removal of Siraj-ud-daula had even taken place, Mir Jafar was envisaged less as a sympathetic ruler than as a puppet or screen for British power, a “mere pageant” in whose name the Company intended to rule.17

  • 18 On this changing power dynamic between Dupleix and Chanda Sahib, see Vigié, pp. 351-65, and Cultru, (...)

16The seeds of this new approach had been sown in the south, where the French and British had increasingly attempted to exert control over their allies, Chanda Sahib and Muhammad Ali. As the conflict in the Carnatic turned against Chanda Sahib, Dupleix in particular sought to control his Indian partner, dictating what he should do to collect revenue and reverse the tide of the war. When Chanda Sahib failed to act on Dupleix’s suggestions, the French governor cut the nawab out of decision-making entirely, taking over the revenue collection of parts of the Carnatic and issuing orders directly to the French commanders in the nawab’s army. The growing indebtedness of Chanda Sahib was exploited by Dupleix to concentrate power in his own hands – in much the same way that Muhammad Ali’s indebtedness was taken advantage of by the British council at Madras.18

  • 19 Articles of agreement between Jafar Ali Khan Bahadur and the Honourable East India Company, 3 June (...)
  • 20 Clive to Watts, 19 May 1757, in Hill (ed.), Bengal in 1756-57, vol. 2, pp. 388-9. “The Committee ha (...)

17In the early months of 1757, the ease with which numerically inferior British forces inflicted a series of defeats on Siraj-ud-daula in Bengal offered proof of the superiority of European armies over their Indian counterparts, who could no longer count on support from the Mughal centre. The power dynamic between Europeans and Indians was now clearly weighted in favour of the former. The secret agreement which the British then concluded with Mir Jafar to prepare his installation as nawab reflected this imbalance, its terms far more generous than the comparable treaties of alliance struck by the French and British in the Carnatic. Not only would Mir Jafar, once confirmed as nawab, cede a large territory around Calcutta to the British and support the Company’s army from his own exchequer, but 10 million rupees would be paid to the Company and 5 million rupees to the European residents of Calcutta in compensation for “losses” sustained as a result of Siraj-ud-daula’s hostility towards them.19 On top of this, a “present” of 1.2 million rupees would be made by Mir Jafar to members of the British council at Calcutta and a further “present” of 4 million rupees to members of the British armed forces in Bengal.20

  • 21 For these figures, see Wilson, India Conquered, p. 106; and Michael Edwardes, The Battle of Plassey(...)

18As the final preparations were laid for the removal of Siraj-ud-daula, William Watts, a member of the Calcutta council, was sent to Mir Jafar to make sure that these terms were respected. After the coronation of the new nawab, they were enacted, with the contents of the Murshidabad treasury loaded onto two hundred boats and shipped down the river Hooghly to the British headquarters at Calcutta. Robert Clive, the commander responsible for the British victory over Siraj-ud-daula, profited personally to the tune of 2 million rupees – the equivalent of £46 million today – and other members of the British council received up 700,000 rupees each. Like Dupleix before him, Clive was also awarded the mansadbar title of Mughal nobility and a jagir with an annual income of 300,000 rupees, becoming an insider in the Mughal system, and very wealthy.21

  • 22 For a discussion of the fiction of the sovereignty of the nawab, and therefore ultimately of the Mu (...)

19The processes of gift-giving and receiving involved in these exchanges require careful consideration. As we have noted, Mughal practices of gift-giving included the tradition of khilat – a present made by a ruler or another acknowledged superior to someone of a lower rank. The award of the gift was a display of authority and munificence on the giver’s part, the acting out and reinforcing of a ruler’s sovereignty. By extension, we might add, the reception of the gift involved an expression of gratitude, loyalty and submission by the recipient. Ostensibly, the awards made by Mir Jafar to Clive and other British officials were exchanges along these lines; the use of the term “present” in British sources implied voluntary and munificent acts of giving by the nawab to his faithful and subservient British subjects. As such, the pretence of the sovereignty of the nawab was maintained. Indeed, in a polity where Mughal structures and symbols remained important, despite the collapse of the centralised power of the Mughal Empire, the acts of gift-giving and receiving that followed the installation of Mir Jafar on the Bengal throne contributed to the construction of the fiction of the nawab’s sovereignty – a fabrication that was particularly important given the violent coup d’état and change of ruling dynasty involved in his ascension.22

20On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the awards made by Mir Jafar to Clive and his colleagues after Plassey were not voluntary acts of generosity on the nawab’s part but outlays for specific services rendered during his installation as nawab. As we have seen, the cash “presents” made to members of the British council and armed forces were negotiated with Mir Jafar in advance, which sets them apart from Muzaffar Jang’s earlier gifts to Dupleix and his officers at Pondicherry. A distinction between gift and payment is therefore very difficult to maintain. The “presents” awarded by Mir Jafar were in fact part of negotiated transactional exchanges.

  • 23 Bruce Lenman and Phillip Lawson, ‘Robert Clive, the “Black Jagir”, and British Politics’, The Histo (...)
  • 24 On the office of provincial diwan in the Mughal Empire, see Richards, The Mughal Empire, pp. 58-9; (...)
  • 25 Dalrymple, The Anarchy, p. 134.

21A related question concerns the nawab’s agency. If, as we have suggested, the relationship of power between Mir Jafar and the British was heavily weighted in the latter’s favour – a reversal of the power dynamic embedded in the practice of khilat – how much agency remained for the nawab? Does the act of gift-giving not require that such agency exist? In one of his more honest moments, Clive later admitted that his jagir had only been obtained from Mir Jafar through extensive pressure exerted on the nawab, a confession revealing of British motivations to profit personally from the regime change that had been engineered in Bengal.23 Alongside the permanent presence of a Company agent at his court, the main constraint on Mir Jafar’s ability to act independently of the British after 1757 was his indebtedness to them, a direct result of the concessions and “presents” agreed in the treaty preceding his installation. Over time, this indebtedness only worsened, as the Company claimed exemption from tariffs on trade in Bengal and assumed revenue-collecting rights over more and more of his kingdom, a process culminating in the granting to the British of the diwani or right of revenue collection over the whole of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa in 1765.24 As far as cash payments to the Company and its agents were concerned, meanwhile, Plassey was only the beginning. By 1765 an estimated 13 million rupees (the equivalent of £300 million today) had been transferred by Mir Jafar and his successor, Mir Qasim, to the Company and its employees.25 Further rounds of substantial cash “presents” to members of the British council had followed its decision to replace the bankrupt Mir Jafar with his son-in-law, Mir Qasim, in October 1760, and subsequent reversal of this act, with the return of Mir Jafar to the throne, in 1763.

  • 26 Joseph-François Dupleix, ‘Journal de ce qui s’est passé depuis la mort de Nazerjingue et pendant le (...)
  • 27 Lenman and Lawson, ‘Robert Clive, the “Black Jagir”, and British Politics’, p. 812.

22Throughout the period studied, French and British authorities in India downplayed the value of the gifts that they received from Indian courts, no doubt to mask the extent to which they as individuals were benefitting from the regime changes instituted in the Carnatic, the Deccan and Bengal. Dupleix, for example, had omitted details of the gifts awarded at Pondicherry by Muzaffar Jang from his account to the directors of the Compagnie in Paris of the latter’s ascension to the Deccan throne.26 As the fortunes made by British figures in Bengal were gradually remitted to Europe, however, the extent to which individuals had benefitted became impossible to deny. Clive, most notably, returned to England in 1760 with more than £300,000 (£48 million today), to which his annual jagir income was added.27 The fortune was sufficient for him to buy an Irish peerage and a seat in parliament, plus Powis Castle in Wales.

  • 28 For a detailed analysis of this discussion in Britain, which would continue up to and beyond the tr (...)
  • 29 See [anonymous (ed.)], The Debates and Proceedings of the British House of Commons, from April 1772 (...)
  • 30 Vigié, Dupleix, pp. 471-9.
  • 31 Lenman and Lawson, ‘Robert Clive, the “Black Jagir”, and British Politics’, p. 812.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 819.
  • 33 See Henry Strachey, Narrative of the mutiny of the officers of the army in Bengal, in the year 1766 (...)

23Concerns about the impact of this new money on British society, coupled with jealously, then directed attention to the “corruption” of British officials in India.28 A key question in parliamentary debates on the subject was to whom exactly Indian princes – Mir Jafar and Mir Qasim in Bengal, and Muhammad Ali in the Carnatic – had bestowed gifts. To British figures as private individuals or to the office held by them at the time? To the East India Company as a private corporation or simply to the nation? Should Clive, for example, be permitted to retain the income received from his Bengal jagir or did it belong to the Company?29 Separating out the finances of company and employee was often difficult, in France as in England, as the lengthy dispute between Dupleix and the directors of the Compagnie des Indes following his return to Paris in 1755 showed.30 What made the situation with Clive’s jagir even more complicated was that the land granted to the British leader lay in a territory in Bengal over which the the British company had subsequently acquired rights of revenue collection. If Clive was permitted to retain the jagir income, the Company was effectively acting as a revenue collector for one of its former employees.31 In the House of Commons, the nature of Mir Jafar’s “gift” to Clive was argued over and reinterpreted before a compromise was found: Clive would be permitted to retain the jagir income for the next ten years (later extended to seventeen years). In exchange, he agreed to return to India to finish consolidating British control over Bengal.32 By this point, both the British and French companies had issued orders prohibiting their employees from accepting jagirs and other presents from Indian rulers without their directors’ permission. One of greatest ironies of the period is that Clive – as governor and commander-in-chief of the Company’s Bengal Presidency from 1765 to 1767 – was responsible for attempting to enforce these orders, provoking in the process a mutiny of British officers resentful that their right to receive presents was being taken away.33

Conclusion

24By 1765 the East India Company had established a large degree of de facto control over the two Indian provinces considered in this article, the Carnatic and Bengal. The nawabs in these territories, who nominally continued to rule on behalf of the Mughal Emperor, were closely supervised by the British, particularly in Bengal, where the Company had also assumed the right of collecting the province’s revenues.

25The processes of gift-giving and receiving examined in this article offer a fresh perspective on the changing relationships of power between Indian rulers and the European trading companies that culminated in this British ascendancy. In 1735, when the Compagnie des Indes began renting its army in the Carnatic to rulers involved in local power struggles, those rulers appeared more powerful than the European guests in their territories. The rewards bestowed on the Compagnie and its officials in return for their support – land, bullion, titles and valuable objects – were in keeping with existing Mughal practices for the exercise of sovereignty. Over the years that followed, however, these rewards became something quite different. Though the terms “gift, present, cadeau and “don” continued to be used by British and French parties, the processes of giving and receiving that they referred to became highly transactional in nature, with a specific reward demanded in return for a service rendered. The distinction between gift and payment was all-but dissolved, a fact most strikingly illustrated by the British demand for cash “presents” from Mir Jafar before his installation as nawab of Bengal. Ultimately, the gifts and payments demanded of Muhammad Ali in the Carnatic and Mir Jafar in Bengal were a major factor in their indebtedness to the British, and therefore exacerbated their positions of subservience to the East India Company. In 1763, when Mir Jafar was restored as nawab in Bengal, his position was so weak that he no longer possessed the agency that we might reasonably expect of a gift-giver. The new round of gifts and payments demanded of him at this moment should rather be framed as extortion.

26The history of the British and French trading companies in Mughal India reminds us of the importance of studying the relationships of power within which processes of gift-giving and receiving take place, along with related questions of agency and coercion. It illustrates that, when deployed indiscriminately or in a deliberately obfuscating way, the terms “gift” and “present” tend to conceal power imbalances and mask the processes involved in their transmission. Over recent decades, scholars of colonialism have devoted significant attention to the impact of unequal power relations on aspects of economic and cultural exchange. They should now consider processes of gift-giving and receiving through the same lens.

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Marshall, Peter, The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America c. 1750-1783 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007).

Niayesh, Ladan, ‘Oriental Gifts and the Commensurability Question: Starting with the Terminology’, Gifting the East, 26 February 2021 <https://mhma.hypotheses.org/715> [10 November 2022].

Richards, John F., The Mughal Empire: The New Cambridge History of India 1.5 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Roy, Kaushik, Military Manpower, Armies and Warfare in South Asia (London, Pickering & Chatto, 2015).

Singh, Hira, ‘Colonial and postcolonial historiography and the princely states: relations of power and rituals of legitimation’ in Ernst Waltraud and Patia Biswamoy (eds), India's Princely States: People, Princes and Colonialism (London, Routledge, 2007), pp. 15-29.

Strachey, Henry, Narrative of the Mutiny of the Officers of the Army in Bengal, in the year 1766 (London, T. Becket, 1773).

Vigié, Marc, Dupleix (Paris, Fayard, 1993).

Wilson, Jon, India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire (London, Simon & Schuster, 2016).

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Notes

1 For a discussion, see Ladan Niayesh, ‘Oriental Gifts and the Commensurability Question’, Gifting the East, 26 February 2021 <https://mhma.hypotheses.org/715> [consulted 10 November 2022].

2 A useful overview is found in John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire: The New Cambridge History of India 1.5 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 253-81.

3 The quote comes from William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: the relentless rise of the East India Company (London, Bloomsbury, 2020), p. 134, a major recent study of the British East India Company’s transformation into a territorial power in India. See also Robert Ivermee, Hooghly: The Global History of a River (London, Hurst, 2020), pp. 83-8. On the earlier transformation of the French company, see Philippe Haudrère, La Compagnie française des Indes au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, Les Indes Savantes, 2005), vol. 2, pp. 707-50; Marc Vigié, Dupleix (Paris, Fayard, 1993), pp. 246-391; and Catherine Manning, Fortunes à faire: the French in Asian trade (London and New York, Routledge, 1996), pp. 195-220.

4 See for example Joseph-François Dupleix, ‘Mémoire du 16 octobre 1753’ in Alfred Martineau (ed.), La politique de Dupleix : d'après sa lettre à Saunders du 18 février 1752 et son mémoire du 16 octobre 1753 (Pondichéry, Société de l'histoire de l'Inde franc̜aise, 1927), pp. 99-135.

5 Vigié, Dupleix, pp. 169-71.

6 Joseph-François Dupleix, ‘Relation des faits principaux concernant le rétablissement de la famille de Chandasaëb sur le trône d’Arcatte’, [1749], AN COL C2/82 ff. 231-5. See also Prosper Cultru, Dupleix. Ses plans politiques. Sa disgrâce (Paris, Hachette, 1901), pp. 234-6, and Clarin De la Rive, Dupleix ou les Français aux Indes Orientales (Lille, Desclée de Brouwer, 1888), pp. 82-5.

7 See for example the correspondence between Dupleix and his successor, Charles Godeheu, July-October 1754, AN COL C2/84 ff. 171-315.

8 Henry Dodwell, Dupleix and Clive: the beginning of empire (London, Methuen & Co., 1920), p. 53; Vigié, Dupleix, pp. 325-6.

9 Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gentil, Mémoires sur l'Indoustan ou Empire mogol (Paris, Petit, 1822), p. 50.

10 For an introduction to the Mughal military and administrative system, including the granting of jagirs and the role of mansadbar, see Richards, The Mughal Empire, pp. 58-78. The distributing of mansabs to leaders of supportive mercenary armies had been a Mughal practice ever since the Mughal expansion out of central Asia in the sixteenth century. See Kaushik Roy, Military Manpower, Armies and Warfare in South Asia (London, Pickering & Chatto, 2015), pp. 45-70.

11 Vigié, Dupleix, p. 327.

12 Hira Singh, ‘Colonial and postcolonial historiography and the princely states: relations of power and rituals of legitimation’ in Ernst Waltraud and Patia Biswamoy (eds), India's Princely States: People, Princes and Colonialism (London, Routledge, 2007), pp. 15-29, on p. 22.

13 Vigié, Dupleix, p. 326.

14 Stringer Lawrence, ‘Narrative of the war on the coast of Coromandel, from the beginning of the troubles to the year 1754’, in Richard Owen Cambridge (ed.), An Account of the War in India. Between the English and French, on the Coast of Coromandel, from the year 1750 to the year 1761 (London, T. Jefferys, 1762), pp. 1-100, on p. 6.

15 On these concessions and Muhammad Ali’s growing indebtedness to the British, see Peter Marshall, The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America c. 1750-1783 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 138-45. Marshall notes that Muhammad Ali was “lavish in gifts and promises of gifts to Company servants” (p. 145).

16 Dalrymple, The Anarchy, pp. 99-135; Jon Wilson, India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the chaos of empire (London, Simon & Schuster, 2016), pp. 82-120.

17 Walter K. Firminger, Historical introduction to the Bengal portion of “The Fifth Report” (Calcutta, R. Cambray & Co., 1917), pp. xiv, clix.

18 On this changing power dynamic between Dupleix and Chanda Sahib, see Vigié, pp. 351-65, and Cultru, Dupleix, p. 273.

19 Articles of agreement between Jafar Ali Khan Bahadur and the Honourable East India Company, 3 June 1757, in S.C. Hill (ed.), Bengal in 1756-57, a selection of public and private papers dealing with the affairs of the British in Bengal during the reign of Siraj-Uddaula (London, Murray, 1905), vol. 2, pp. 383-5.

20 Clive to Watts, 19 May 1757, in Hill (ed.), Bengal in 1756-57, vol. 2, pp. 388-9. “The Committee having taken the oath of secrecy upon the Bible, have agreed that Meer Jaffier’s private engagements be obtained in writing to make them a present of 12 lack of rupees, and a present of 40 lacks to the army and navy over and above what is stipulated in the Agreement.”

21 For these figures, see Wilson, India Conquered, p. 106; and Michael Edwardes, The Battle of Plassey and the conquest of Bengal (London, B. T. Batsford, 1963), p. 157.

22 For a discussion of the fiction of the sovereignty of the nawab, and therefore ultimately of the Mughal Emperor, in Bengal after 1757, see Nicholas B. Dirks, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Harvard, Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 167-207.

23 Bruce Lenman and Phillip Lawson, ‘Robert Clive, the “Black Jagir”, and British Politics’, The Historical Journal, 26:4 (1983), pp. 801-29, on p. 812.

24 On the office of provincial diwan in the Mughal Empire, see Richards, The Mughal Empire, pp. 58-9; and on the British takeover of the diwani in northeast India, Wilson, India Conquered, pp. 108-16.

25 Dalrymple, The Anarchy, p. 134.

26 Joseph-François Dupleix, ‘Journal de ce qui s’est passé depuis la mort de Nazerjingue et pendant le séjour du seigneur Mouzaferjingue dans la ville de Pondichéry’, [1751], AN COL C2/82 ff. 355-64.

27 Lenman and Lawson, ‘Robert Clive, the “Black Jagir”, and British Politics’, p. 812.

28 For a detailed analysis of this discussion in Britain, which would continue up to and beyond the trial of Warren Hastings later in the century, see Harry Liebersohn, The Return of the Gift: European History of a Global Idea (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 9-26.

29 See [anonymous (ed.)], The Debates and Proceedings of the British House of Commons, from April 1772 to July 1773 (London, J. Almon, 1774), pp. 1-50 and 240-85.

30 Vigié, Dupleix, pp. 471-9.

31 Lenman and Lawson, ‘Robert Clive, the “Black Jagir”, and British Politics’, p. 812.

32 Ibid., p. 819.

33 See Henry Strachey, Narrative of the mutiny of the officers of the army in Bengal, in the year 1766 (London, T. Becket, 1773).

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References

Electronic reference

Robert Ivermee, “Gifts, Sovereignty and Power: The British and French Trading Companies in Mughal India, 1735-65”Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXIX-3 | 2024, Online since 10 June 2024, connection on 22 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/12343; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/11vhf

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About the author

Robert Ivermee

LARCA UMR 8225 / Institut Catholique de Paris

Robert Ivermee is maître de conférences in British civilisation at the Institut Catholique de Paris. His research focuses on the British Empire, particularly in India, and wider European colonialism in South Asia. He is an associate member of LARCA and the author of Hooghly: The Global History of a River (2020). 

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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