External Affairs

Leo Varadkar is the Newest Link in 350 Years of India-Ireland Connections

Nearly three and a half centuries ago, Irishman Gerald Aungier laid the foundation for what was to become the city of Bombay.

Leo Varadkar. Credit: Reuters

Leo Varadkar. Credit: Reuters

India has come to Ireland. On Friday, June 2, 2017, Leo Varadker, the son of an Indian-born doctor – Ashok Varadker – from Mumbai, became the leader of the largest political party in Ireland. He is now set to become our prime minister (or ‘Taoiseach’). Celebrating Varadker’s Indian origins and the fact he is openly gay, the Irish newspapers are carrying the headlines: ‘Prejudice has no hold in this Republic’.

This is an important moment for Ireland but also for India. Thanks to the fact that Ireland’s was England’s oldest colony and India’s was its largest, our histories have been connected for nearly 350 years.

Bombay’s founding father, Gerald Aungier, takes Irish interaction with India back into the late 17th century when Ireland served as a colonial prototype for the early colonisation of early India. Between 1669 and 1677 Aungier was the governor of Bombay and president of Surat and while scholars of India and of the British Empire have acknowledged his importance none have paid attention to his Irish provenance, nor assessed how this might have shaped the formation of Bombay, which in 1669 became a British colony under the aegis of the East India Company.

Aungier was born in Dublin during the later 1630s. The family were active colonists and agents of Anglicisation in Ireland, having settled there during the early seventeenth century. One of Aungier’s grandfathers was the Protestant archbishop of Dublin and the other a skilful lawyer from Cambridge, who played an active role in the plantation of Ulster by redistributing land expropriated from native Catholics to Protestant immigrants.

In India, Aungier worked hard to make Bombay ‘an English colony’. He spent a month on the island in 1670 and then lived there for three years, between June 1672 and September 1675. He placed great emphasis on the importance of plantation and Anglicisation, the latter a policy that historians associate more with mid-nineteenth century India than with these years. Aungier aimed to eliminate the use of Portuguese, which had become the lingua franca of the island. He insisted that the inhabitants of Bombay use English weights and measures, be governed by English law, and speak English. Aungier built a mint, the first British one in India. He gave the coins English names ‘for in this and in all things else we endeavour to entice people to and teach them the English tongue’. In many respects Aungier strove to recreate in Bombay the world into which he had been born and one where his grandparents had acted as sub-imperialists intent on making Ireland English.

Defending Bombay from external attack was, however, Aungier’s immediate priority. Under Aungier’s guidance the original Portuguese fort was extensively remodelled as a new style trace italienne artillery defence with bastions and horn works until it became ‘the strongest in India’ and a ‘terror to all people’. Nearby outworks and bulwarks, some still visible today especially at Worli, aimed to secure the island and surrounding waterways. Security concerns posed by other European maritime powers, by Malabar pirates, and by fleets loyal both to the Mughal emperor and to Shivaji Bhonsle (1630-80), the local Maratha leader, led Aungier to outfit and arm a small flotilla, a force that later developed into the Bombay Marine.

During his term as Governor, Aungier fortified Bombay

During his term as governor, Aungier fortified Bombay

Schooled in legal imperialism in Ireland, Aungier’s ‘next great work’ was to establish English law in Bombay and thereby secure the legitimacy of his administration. The first English civil codes dated from 1670 and 1672 and today Aungier has been credited as being the ‘architect of the judicial system’ in Bombay. The sheer volume of business together with the cosmopolitan composition of Bombay explains why Aungier also established panchayats. Though virtually nothing is known of how these operated, this sort of accountability, along with the ideal of representation and acknowledgement of local custom, represented innovative rule of the highest order. Aungier’s actions provided precedents for later imperial policy in India and elsewhere in the British Empire.

In Bombay Aungier put in place a stable government and a complex economic infrastructure that allowed for trade and manufacture, especially of textiles. He invested his own capital in developing Bombay and exploring the possibility of opening new trade routes with China, Siam, and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as developing fresh markets in Western India. He helped to finance regional trade, especially with the Deccan and neighbouring princes, and sent out small ships, laden with English and local goods, and in return asked merchants to secure aloes, cotton, cotton yarn, opium oil, corn and other provisions.

With an ‘improving’ mindset and an eye to business, Aungier also sought during the 1670s to increase Bombay’s agricultural output, to reclaim wastelands that were flooded by the sea, and to exploit other natural resources. He experimented (unsuccessfully) with the cultivation of pepper for export. In an effort to generate revenue for the island Aungier supported the growth of other industries: fishing, ship building, saltpetre and soap manufacture, the distillation of arrack, and the production of toddy from the sap of palm trees. Aungier also encouraged, with some success, diamond merchants from Goa and Surat to relocate to Bombay. Above all, Aungier did everything possible to develop the textile industry. He encouraged cotton and silk weavers from nearby Thana, Chaul and Bhiwandi to make Bombay their home, providing free looms. In 1674, 6,000 weavers relocated after a major fire in Chaul. Though the quantity and quality of the textiles produced in Bombay was initially inferior and the costs higher, by the 1680s ‘Bombay stockings’ were in demand.

As the migration of the diamond merchants and textile weavers illustrates, Aungier provided incentives to encourage migration to the island, which ensured that Bombay’s population quickly grew. John Fryer, who worked closely with the governor during the 1670s, estimated that the town increased significantly from between 10,000 and 20,000 inhabitants to 60,000 in 1675 (Dublin had a population of c.70,000 in 1680). The population comprised a multi-cultural body: Armenians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Parsis, and those of mixed race (‘blacks’), mostly of Portuguese provenance, cohabited alongside the indigenous inhabitants. People settled in Bombay because they could worship freely, were secure from external attack and persecution, enjoyed access to justice, and secured favourable trading privileges.

In a nutshell, Aungier laid the foundations upon which Bombay’s later success was grounded.

The person of Aungier linked Ireland and India in the 17th century, just as the person of Varadker connects us today. The contexts are, of course, very different but the connections remain very real. It fell to W.B. Yeats to capture the essence of these links in his introduction to Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali (1912). There Yeats noted the ‘strangeness and familiarity’ of Tagore’s poetry, adding:

A whole people, a whole civilisation, immeasurably strange to us, seems to have been taken up into this imagination; and yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image.

Jane Ohlmeyer is Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin, the Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity’s research institute for advanced study in the Arts and Humanities and Chair of the Irish Research Council. She is currently working on a study titled ‘Gerald Aungier in the wider context of Colonial Ireland, Colonial India.’