In the 17th century, Surat was a bustling port city. The streets were full of people from far-flung lands, its traders had business links in the Arab world and many local merchants had become wealthy beyond measure. It was these riches that had drawn foreigners, first the Dutch and then the English, both of whom had set up factories after getting permissions from the Mughals in Delhi and local Sultans.
Attracted by its reputation, the Maratha chieftain raided Surat in 1664. His forces defeated the small, local Mughal force and sacked the city. Jadunath Sarkar, in his Life and Times of Shivaji, writes in some detail about the plunder by Shivaji’s forces. The city was never the same again.
By then, the Dutch had moved on and only the Portuguese and English survived; the East India Company, which had initially made Surat their base, too, began to look at alternatives. Within less than 25 years, the Company shifted to a small group of swampy islands they had acquired recently on a long lease from Charles II, who had received them in dowry when he married the Portuguese princess Catherine da Braganza.
Thus began Bombay’s rise and Surat’s decline.
Moin Mir, in his highly readable book Surat – Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince, does not mention the attack on the city by Shivaji, but it is important to know this back story. The Company kept a post there which, as time went by, became a political force that began to meddle in local affairs, as happened in the rest of Hindustan.
That’s where Mir’s story begins. It is an intriguing saga, in which devious company officials, crafty and sometimes ineffectual nawabs, British MPs and even British royalty play a role. At the centre of it all is the eponymous prince – His Highness Meer Jafar Alee Khan Bahadoor of Surat, to give his full name – also the nawab of the tiny principality of Kamandiyah, who sets out on an audacious task of fighting the mighty East India Company through the British parliamentary system.
The story begins in the late 18th century when Tegh Bakht Khan, a soldier of fortune who reaches Surat along with his soldiers and is welcomed by local merchants who desperately yearn for a strong ruler who can bring order and stability to a chaotic city. He builds palaces and gardens and allows business to prosper, but after his death, a succession of nawabs take over and gradually Surat reverts to its old ways. The Company, always aware that control of Surat would be beneficial and bring revenue, defeat Moyeen-ud-Deen, Tegh’s son-in-law.
An arrangement is reached and the company emerges supreme. “Having established themselves as the crowning authorities in Surat the Company flooded the city wither their officials-military, naval and administrative,” writes Mir. They had come to trade and by the mid- 18th century were clearly becoming the undisputed power, and not just in Surat, egged on by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who had an insatiable “passion for acquiring land, cities, forts, palaces and territories”. India was a prized possession indeed. His military victory against Tipu Sultan boosted him enormously – Surat would be an easy walkover.
Learning that the last nawab had died without a male heir, Wellington applied an early version of the Doctrine of Lapse. A deal was worked out, offering the ‘Nabob’ a sum of Rs 1 lakh annually and the power to try his servants, family, peons etc. The city would be run by the Company. Even that arrangement was to be violated by the Company.
In the 1830s, Jafar, whose family traced its lineage back to the Madud Chishti, the founder of the Chishti order and through him to the Prophet, married a daughter of the then nawab of Surat, Afzal-ud-Deen who hoped that the Company would accept his son-in-law as the successor. It didn’t and withdrew the assurance of giving the lifelong pension of Rs 1 lakh. Jafar saw the inheritance of his daughters disappear – he had to do something about it.
How he managed to fight for it, appealing against the perfidious Company to the British parliament and enlisting clever British politicians and legal brains for his cause, is the crux of the fascinating story. No Indian prince had managed to take on the Company, that too on its home turf. But this victory did not come without much hardship, not the least of which was living in an alien land, away from home, with depleting finances, alternating between hope and utter despair.
Mir paints an evocative picture of Britain in the mid 19th century – or at least of the upper crust of British life – where Jafar attends theatre performances, horse races, banquets and other social occasions, resplendent in his Indian finery and with his attendants in tow. Indian feudalism is on full display here – Jafar’s fight is for himself and his family, the people of Surat and Kamandiyah do not enter the picture.
Meanwhile, he manages to fall in love with an actress and brings her back to India, an India that was in the throes of a revolt by Indian soldiers. The Company was soon to be sent packing and in 1858, the crown took over the running of Hindustan.
Mir brings it all alive, though the writing is a bit staid and dignified, perhaps in keeping with the subject. In his telling, Jafar is a man of tremendous personality, wisdom, kindness, astuteness, bravery and vision; a perfect hero who can do no wrong. While reading, it bears remembering that Mir is a descendant of the clan and is a scion of the ‘nawab of Surat’ poised to succeed his father as the darbar of Kamandiyah. The story is very much told from the Jafar point of view.
Nonetheless, it is a book that brings to light an unknown chapter of history; we have read several stories of the manner in which the East India Company took over one kingdom after the other, but here’s the tale of how an Indian prince managed to fight back and regain what he felt was rightfully his.
It also tells us that while the Company was going berserk in India and spreading its influence almost unchallenged, there were enough powerful figures in Britain who loathed it for a variety of reasons, not the least for the its greedy ways and the unprincipled manner in which it was looting India and giving the country a bad name. Not for nothing was it called a ‘state in disguise as a merchant’.
But though the Company reneged on its promises, changed the rules arbitrarily, was full of venal officials and had superior fire power, could it have happened without dissolute kings, pleasure-seeking nawabs obsessed with form rather than substance and rulers who did not have the welfare of their own people uppermost in their minds? The book reminds us of that question again.