Friday, April 14, 2017

Human nature at its worst

Colonialism emerged out of the opportunistic churning and the resultant sharing of power between the opposing forces.

By discovering the sea route to India for trade and commerce, Vasco da Gama had inadvertently laid the foundation of what would become the Raj three centuries later. That this foundation was to be laid not on the land but at sea exposes lack of imagination on the part of the mighty Mughals, who left the coast vulnerable to petty skirmishes among traders and sea pirates. In hindsight, a protected coastline could have delivered an altogether different nation-state to this landscape. But that was not to be, as history had other design to it. 

Popular history may have painted Vasco da Gama as a noble seaman; while in reality he had only pursued the Portuguese interests in ruling trade over second half of the world as divided by the Pope – the western half for the Spanish and the eastern hemisphere for the Portuguese. Embedded within this directive was to establish contact with what were believed to be the Empires of Christian in the east. Consequently, when accosted by coastal settlements that ‘what brought you here’ the cruise members would conveniently respond ‘Christian and Spices’. The motive was loud and clear. With a long history of conflict with Islam, the newly opened trade route had equal intention of establishing Christian supremacy. With powerful navy at their disposal, the Portuguese inflicted mass casualties on dissenters and forced the gullible into conversion from Goa to Cochin. Francis Xavier was the chief architect who not only supervised mass conversions in Goa but converted over 10,000 villagers in southern Malabar. Trade and conversion had sailed in unholy alliance.      

A known Indian chronicler, Roy Moxham transports readers back to those times when Portuguese were engaged in fierce encounters with the Dutch, English and French in getting strong foothold for plundering the riches from India. Based on published memoirs and eyewitness accounts, The Theft of India highlights the terrible sufferings inflicted on Indians by the European powers during the tumultuous three centuries of coastal onslaught. Caught in the crossfire between invading traders, the local rulers were often trapped between the devil and the deep sea. Often working at cross purposes, limited resistance by the Marathas and the Zamorins could only delay the inevitable to a point. Colonialism, it seems, emerged out of this opportunistic churning and resultant sharing of power between the opposing forces. 

A 19th century painting of  Vasco Da Gama  paying homage to
the Zamorin of Calicut for opening up direct trade
between Europe and India, 1498.
The question worth asking is whether it could have gone the other way. It could have, had the ten-month seize of Goa in 1570 been successful under the united Muslim rulers. Buoyed by this victory, however, the Portuguese fortified their factories, enforced a monopoly on spices trade, and had built large garrisons. But all this was set to change with the arrival of the Dutch and the British, who scrambled for the same resources that the Portuguese were trying to monopolize. With deceit, corruption, forgery and brute force being the leitmotif of the marauding traders, human nature was at its worst in the pursuit of wealth. Part of how they dealt with each other had to do with the ongoing wars between their respective countries. 

Moxham research labels each of the European traders deft in creating windows of opportunity by drawing agreements with local traders/rulers, and then betraying them at another opportune moment. Afterall, they had come to India for swindling resources and not for building relationships. The Theft of India is loaded with anecdotal accounts of political intrigue, ruthless genocide and mindless plunder. In a way, it is reflective of the times the world was passing through. Life was nasty and brutish; loyalties were worth trading for survival.

The English were the late to arrive on the scene but were quick to violate the decree that the East India Company would insist on trade, and not attempt colonization or conquest. Robert Clive, who arrived as a clerk in the company in 1744, was to rewrite the script a decade later. Not only did he acquire large shares in the company, Clive saw opportunity in capitalizing on the political void created following the decline of both the Marathas and the Mughals. In the thirteen years since the Battle of Plassey huge sums of money were transported to Britain. The shocking fact, however, is that the first thirteen years of the British rule did  more damage to the people of India than by all the other European invaders of the centuries before. The Bengal famine was the worst manifestation of this plunder. 

Moxham paints painful picture of the organized loot that the Indians had to go through. The pain it inflicted on local population was beyond the realm of imagination. Several hundreds were put to sword, and millions had starved to death. The life under the Mughals may not have been rosy, but at least the Mughal spoils were generally retained in India. 

The rest, as Moxham concludes, is history!

The Theft of India
by Roy Moxham
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 252, Price: Rs 399 

This review was first published in The Hindustan Times dated April 15, 2017.  

No comments:

Post a Comment