Sunday, March 18, 2018

Of a port city lost and almost found

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Amrita Shah comes across an incredible story how Surat lost maritime trade stature and an intrepid Nawab helped wrest back some dignity.

As India's principal port after Akbar's annexation of Gujarat in 1573, Surat was a critical node in the Indian Ocean trade circuit. The East India Company set up its first trading post here in 1608, followed by the Dutch and the French. A century and a half later, however, the fabled port city had declined.

The historian Ashin Das Gupta attributes Surat's eclipse in the eighteenth century to a simultaneous weakening of three empires in the oceanic region - the Mughals, the Safavids and the Ottomans. Other contributory factors included the silting of the Tapi River, recurrent raids by the Marathas and the machinations of the East India Company.

The last mentioned factor is the significant strand explored in Moin Mir's Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince. Mir focuses exclusively on the East India Company's activities, marshalling evidence to show how the British wormed their way into a controlling position in Surat for the sole purpose of destroying the city to enable the rise of Bombay which they had acquired from the Portuguese in 1661. The Company took over Surat in 1800, signing a treaty with the local Nawab to pay a pension to him and his successors in perpetuity.

After the next Nawab died in 1842, however, the Company reneged on its promise, stopped the pension and seized the family's private estates. This was in keeping with the infamous 'doctrine of lapse' policy by which the Company gave itself the power to annex  a vassal state if the ruler was either "manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir". Thirty odd states would go on to be annexed under this policy.

Like their peers, the Surat Nawab's family made several representations to local Company officials but when they failed, the Nawab's son-in-law, Meer Jaffer Ali Khan, in an unusual move, decided to take the fight to London. The second half of the book describes this mission. In May 1844, Jaffer's delegation - his retinue included a linguist, a physician and a British personal secretary - landed up in England where Jaffer met the chairman of the East India Company and engaged in a hectic round of socialising.

His exotic looks, enhanced by resplendent robes and jewellery drew attention. Queen Victoria and Albert spotted him at Ascot and after listening to his case introduced him to a legal luminary, Richard Bethell. But the Company proved unresponsive and Jaffer's finances ran out, forcing him to return empty-handed to Surat.

In December 1853, Jaffer went back to London and, advised by Bethell and powerful lawyer-politicians, Erskine Perry and Fitzroy Kelly, decided to approach the Judicial Committee of Her Majesty's Council to sanction a Parliamentary intervention. Concern over the East India Company's doings had been rife since the trial of Warren Hastings half a century before, but it was still an immensely powerful corporation.

 The fight was tough - Kelly and Perry lobbied MPs to support the Nawab of Surat Treaty Bill. Jaffer  mobilised public opinion through pamphlets and the press. Eventually the House of Commons voted in Jaffer's favour and the East India Company was forced to make him a suitable offer.

It is an extraordinary story and Mir offers some fascinating sidelights as well, taking us through fashionable London haunts of the19th century such as the Royal Society of Arts, and letting us eavesdrop on Jaffer's staff. An amusing incident recounted in the book describes how a Christian missionary approaching Jaffer's numerous attendants with a view to proselytize, inadvertently turned the kitchen into a site of revelry instead.

 Mir, a scion of the Nawab family of Surat, is neither a professional historian nor a literary writer. His approach, which mixes research with a sentimental narrative style, often leaves the reader unpleasantly suspended between the real and the quasi-fictional. Nevertheless the book is an engaging read and sheds light on a neglected episode in India's eventful history.

The reviewer is a historian of Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
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