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How Subedar of Bengal, Bihar & Odisha enlisted East India Company’s help to keep out Germans

As far as the Germans were concerned, they were simply not welcome in Bengal. The EIC did everything to discourage their attempts to trade.

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In Bengal, John Company and the Crown were also wary of other foreign businesses and communities besides the French. The relationships were complicated. 

As far as the Germans were concerned, they were simply not welcome in Bengal. The Company did everything to discourage the Germans from the time they made attempts to trade in 1751. They met ‘determined hostility from the English,’ notes Long. And it appears that the British had all the encouragement they needed from Alivardi, the subahdar of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. 

A revealing letter from Alivardi dated 19 August 1751 actively demands the Company’s intercession to prevent the passage of German ships on account of their marauding of vessels that answered to the nawab—an example of their outright aggression to belatedly muscle in on the Asian mercantile game of their European neighbours. To go by this letter’s translation and record with the Company, for all of Alivardi’s professed push for non-aggression between European powers along the Ganga–Bhagirathi–Hugli, it was all a matter of expediency—if something worked for the state, it worked. It isn’t idle speculation, therefore, to wonder what the busy minds of the Company, and that of other European companies, might have been thinking. Self-serving policy worked both ways. If they needed the subahdar, the subahdar also needed them—until the domino effect of European politics and Siraj’s ire upset the edgy but relatively cosy geopolitical and geo-economic applecart of Bengal.

Also read: East India Company to World War: How Brahmaputra river was militarised

Here’s Alivardi’s letter in translation: 

To the first of merchants my friend Mr Dawson 

My Friend,—have heard from Hooghly some time past news that Mr. Acton and Mr. Mills, both English under the protection of the Germans, are coming with three ships of war that hoist German colors from the Franks country to Hooghly, and design to lay in the road, to stop the river and seize the Musselmen ships; on this account I have already sent Perwannahs to you and the other European nations which by this time must be arrived with you, since which I have received your arrived act by which I find my intelligence is true; but what you will, that the company have ordered you not to make war in these parts with any European nation is very wrong, for in time past in Sujah Cawn’s [Murshid Quli’s son-in-law, the nawab Shuja-ud- din Muhammad Khan’s] time, the English and Dutch chiefs both entered into methods for destroying the German chief and engaged him to join with you, on which account the German chief absconded; now you will write me so different a story, it is not right or reasonable. If the Germans come here, it will be very bad for all the European, but for you the worst of all, and you will afterwards repent it, and I shall be obliged to stop all your trade and business, and shall get an order from the king for so doing. It will be proper for you now to consider of your trade from Patna and Bengal how if these troubles happen, you are to carry it on; therefore, take care that these German ships do not come into the road [Balasore Roads, a gathering point for ships off the coast of Orissa before entering the mouth of the Hugli] or stop the way; do you act in such a way, and such a manner as to punish them before they arrived in the road.

Also read: How the nexus of business and state gave birth to the East India Company

Long notes that Adam Dawson, Drake’s predecessor at Fort William, ordered the Company’s pilots on the Hugli to ‘on no account to take charge of or show the way to any Allaman’, and hoped that the French and Dutch would also uphold this blacklisting of the Germans. ‘God forbid that they should come, but should this be the case, I am in hopes they will be either sunk, broke or destroyed.’ 

The boycott would be cemented in a few short years with London’s imprimatur. In 1757, the Court of Directors sent an order to the effect that there would be no ‘commercial dealings of any kind’ with German ships. 

This excerpt from Plassey: The Battle that Changed the Course of Indian History by Sudeep Chakravarti has been published with permission from Aleph Book Company.

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