blog 60 a business coup

The griffins naturally managed to find time to see the local tourist attraction: the Black Hole of Calcutta. It was part of the older Fort William off the old parade grounds. The moldering ruins had been kept to preserve the history of the event that triggered Clive’s conquest of the Nawab of Bengal. Thus a blunder changed history forever.

The griffins in my barrack razzed me about my lack of ‘patriotism’ when I insisted I needed to translate Sanscrit. “You pompous prig!” Apparently that was my new insulting name. It was bullying so I was about to snarl when I realized I had planned on seeing it so I trailed along with the gibbering jackals, my new insult for my infantile peers, inspired by the brazen jackals that ruled Fort William during the night.

The small semi-ruin was originally part of a larger wing and only a little remained of that besieged and later partly destroyed fort. One side featured the heavy arches of the veranda. The other side featured the wall with the small barred windows. There was a small guard house open to the veranda, a tiny barrack for the MP’s, and a tiny holding cell intended for MP’s to arrest drunks staggering though pickets or raucous brawlers during the day. The cell was designed to hold the occasional random miscreant until he could be turned over to the commanding officer to be dealt with.

The holding cell was around 24 by 18 feet. There was a window on either side and a door into the MP barrack. Unlike the airy arches of the modern Fort William, the arches were heavy, low, resting on squatty pillars, and the brick and plaster was moldering. Because of the heavy style of building and the veranda the small bared windows allowed little ventilation. Buildings were designed not to let in hot air but this older building also did not have the high ceiling and ventilators to circulate the air which the new buildings had. I guess the builder hoped massive walls would keep the place cool.

We peered through the window by turns as if expecting to see bodies but it was just a small cell. What did we expect to see. There was no placard or anything. Then we sat down on the open steps of the guard house and discussed the notorious incident. Most of the griffins gibbered incoherently and I was about to stalk away when one chap actually made an intriguing comment.

“This incident has always fascinated me. I mean it was used by Clive to attack the Nawab of Bengal. ‘John Company’ was all but beaten, against the ropes! The atrocity changed the course of history. I mean the Company was just building a larger fort to fight off any attack by the French. The two rival companies were competing for control of the European part of the Port of Calcutta. It had nothing to do with the teenaged Nawab. Nothing. But the French told the fool that the British were building a new fort to attack him. The French basically goaded the idiot into prematurely attacking the British.”

I sat down by the boy, I believe his name was Sammy, and listened now. “The Nawab was a swaggering young buck. Like us griffins. New on the throne. Eager to prove his stuff. Flattered by sycophants, manipulated by the French who had an agenda. If the French had won then today we would all be speaking French but believe me! The Nawab would still be deposed, a figurehead, a puppet — just a puppet of the French.”

“World Trade doomed a guy who only collected taxes on peasants” I said.

“That is what I think. Yes. The guy had a limited tax base. Just like the princes of India today. I mean the Muslim shippers and businessmen just sat on their rumps as the Dutch and French and British took over the ports and seized World Trade by the scruff of the neck. I mean! Do you see huge ships sailing around the world built and piloted and manned and financed by Muslims? No.”

“The Muslims for centuries from before Rome counted on the Red and Arabian Sea Silk Route Trade” I said. “Across from China, then across Persia to Lebanon or else down the Indus to their seaport which was trumped and replaced by Bombay. Then across the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea to Egypt. Then up to Venice. But once the West circumnavigated around Africa and South America then the Arab Muslim Monopoly was broken. The West took over the ports of the world and took over World Trade. The Arab Muslims just….”

“Sat on their rumps” Sammy said. The other griffins were getting bored but I found this fascinating.

“And the famous Wootz Steel had vanished. Production I mean. Iron and steel was plummeting. Indian metallurgy was dropping. No one has ever written why. I find that odd but not to digress! This guy, Sirai ud daulah the Nawab of Bengal was goaded into attacking the British by the French. The British were expecting the French but not the Nawab. They were not prepared. The Commander of the fort bungled it. A small bunch of soldiers, civilians, and businessmen offered to hold the fort to cover the retreat. That was damn heroic. That was the tragedy I think. Why the survivors were so damn mad. They covered the retreat and were left to twist in the wind.”

“But they were not hung” a griffin said.

“Metaphor you asshole” I snarled.

The Nawab went home to bed cocky as a rooster. Some of his solders herded the survivors of the rearguard action into that holding cell. Get it? Hold ie Holding Cell? Hole!” The griffins finally got it and nodded. “No one dared to wake the Nawab when he was asleep. That just was not done you understand. No one took responsibility. They were either foreign mercenary officers or native mercenary officers. It was not their job to worry. It was not their responsibility to take any action. And they knew. Some of the desperate gathered up pocket money and desperately tried to bribe soldiers to open the door or at least give them water. You can’t say no one know what was happening. It just was not their job. They were to stay there until the Nawab woke up and decided what to do.”

“Dictatorships do have drawbacks” I said dryly. Sammy nodded.

“Exactly! The next morning the Nawab woke up, had his coffee, dressed, and asked for a status report. The status report was that half of the men and women shoved into that holding cell were dead. During the suffocating night in the height of Hot Season, they suffocated, panicked, and died of heat stroke and stampeding to get to the two small windows, one on either side of the holding cell. The corpses were stiffening but still standing straight up! The corpses were thrown out for the vultures and jackals to dispose of. Normal protocol as you can see. Vultures and jackals rule the day and the night here. Clive later found and freed the survivors. Howell wrote his famous memoir much later. Clive used the actual event as brilliant propaganda to inspire the demoralized British to fight back.

The Nawab of Bengal had an army of semi-trained mercenary sepoys, French and Foreign military officers of dubious loyalty, relatives using him but eager to depose him, too many elephants who panic in battle and usually mess things up rather than help, and cannon that were not all that good compared to the British stuff. It was raining. The mercenaries did not give a damn. Fatalistic. Either Allah would win the day or not. So they did not bother to quite literally keep their powder dry.

Clive had a small army, ridiculously small, mercenary too. No one could imagine how he could be anything but defeated. But Clive led from the front and inspired his men. He displayed Sabit Jang: steadiness in battle. The result? Clive lost only 70 men and crushed the army of the Nawab of Bengal utterly. The Nawab’s generals ran away. Then the Nawab ran away on his camel. Then the army ran away. Why not? Everyone was running away. Even the damn elephants!

The outcome of the Battle of Plassey was that the Nawab of Bengal paid the British and Hindu businessmen of the port city of Calcutta 10 million rupees and forfeited his right to levy taxes on anyone —especially the Hindu businessmen of Calcutta. ‘John Company’ won the right to levy taxes which meant they now had the ability to….” Sammy pointed to me.

“To buy Indian goods for resale to Burma and China and the Pearls of the Pacific and Europe and America and Britain with rupees instead of sterling. The pound sterling went up in value and the rupee, no longer buttressed by the importation of pounds sterling, dropped in value. Britain went from a trade deficit to a trade surplus. And Calcutta consolidated it’s hold on textiles, indigo, opium, saltpeter, and cotton and later tobacco and tea which was transplanted into India. Capitalism: when private business controls both the instruments of production and distribution resulting in maximum profits with minimum governmental interference.”

Sammy clapped his hands together but the griffins looked bored.

The key native allies still stand today: Omichant Banking House and Jagat Seth Banking House. Go to Calcutta. See why a Nawab fell. It was Economics.”

“It was cowardice!” a griffin replied. “Those natives are cowards.

“It was Economics” Sammy said. “Clive bought a better army with the support of the businessmen of Calcutta who picked the wining side: ‘John Company’ who favored businessmen. The Nawab was Muslim and knew absolutely nothing about Economics except the concept of ‘taxing the inferiors to the breaking point because I am worth it!”

“It is amazing” I added. “To think that businessmen across the spectrum joined together and hired an army and deposed a prince. He was deposed finally and the Nawab of Bengal you see today is a hired puppet basically employed by the businessmen of Calcutta.”

“A business coup!” Sammy said. Instead of kings, it was businessmen and clerks making history. I wonder if any of us will make history. This is India! Here history is made by some of the most unlikely people….”

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