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A place to settle
Aryans and Alexander
Mauryans and Guptas
11th - 16th century
16th - 17th century
18th century
     The Moghuls after Aurangzeb
     Europeans in the empire
     Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan

To be completed

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The Moghuls after Aurangzeb: 18th century

When the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb is in his eighties, and the empire in disarray, an Italian living in India (Niccolao Manucci) Predicts appalling bloodshed on the old man's death, worse even than that which disfigured the start of Aurangzeb's reign. The Italian is right. In the war of succession which begins in 1707, two of Aurangzeb's sons and three of his grandsons are killed.

Violence and disruption is the pattern of the future. The first six Moghul emperors have ruled for a span of nearly 200 years. In the 58 years after Aurangzeb's death, there are eight emperors - four of whom are murdered and one deposed.


This degree of chaos has a disastrous effect on the empire built up by Akbar. The stability of Moghul India depends on the loyalty of those ruling its many regions. Some are administered on the emperor's behalf by governors, who are members of the military hierarchy. Others are ruled by princely families, who through treaty or marriage have become allies of the emperor.

In the 18th century rulers of each kind continue to profess loyalty to the Moghul emperor in Delhi, but in practice they behave with increasing independence. The empire fragments into the many small principalities whose existence will greatly help the British in India to gain control, by playing rival neighbours off against each other.


In the short term, though, there is a more immediate danger. During the 1730s a conqueror in the classic mould of Genghis Khan or Timur emerges in Persia. He seizes the Persian throne in 1736, taking the title Nadir Shah.

Later that year he captures the stronghold of Kandahar. The next major fortress on the route east, that of Kabul, is still in Moghul hands - a treasured possession since the time of Babur. Nadir Shah takes it in 1738, giving him control of the territory up to the Khyber Pass. Beyond the Khyber lies the fabulous wealth of India. Like Genghis Khan in 1221, and Timur in 1398, Nadir Shah moves on.


In December 1738 Nadir Shah crosses the Indus at Attock. Two months later he defeats the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammed Shah. In March he enters Delhi. The conqueror has iron control over his troops and at first the city is calm. It is broken when an argument between citizens and some Persian soldiers escalates into a riot in which 900 Persians are killed. Even now Nadir Shah forbids reprisals until he has inspected the scene. But when he rides through the city, stones are thrown at him. Someone fires a musket which kills an officer close to the shah.

In reprisal he orders a massacre. The killing lasts for a day. The number of the dead is more than 30,000.


Amazingly, when the Moghul emperor begs for mercy for his people, the Persian conqueror is able to grant it. The killing stops, for the collection of Delhi's valuables to begin.

Untold wealth travels west with the Persians. The booty includes the two most spectacular possessions of the Moghul emperors - the Peacock Throne, commissioned by Shah Jahan, and the Koh-i-Nur diamond. Nadir Shah is able to send a decree home from Delhi remitting all taxes in Persia for three years. In addition to the jewels and the gold, he takes with him 1000 elephants, 100 masons and 200 carpenters. The parallel with the visit of Timur, 341 years previously, is almost exact.


Europeans in the fragmenting empire: 1746-1760

The raid by Nadir Shah is the greatest single disaster to have struck the Moghul empire, but a more serious long-term threat soon becomes evident. In 1746 open warfare breaks out between European nations on Indian soil, when a French force seizes Madras from the British.

In the south, where Aurangzeb spent his last years trying to impose imperial control, French and British armies now march against each other in shifting alliances with local potentates. India begins a new role as a place of importance to the European powers, and in particular to Britain. The development does not bode well for the Moghul emperors in Delhi.


Both the French and the English East India Companies, to advance their commercial interests, offer military support in dynastic struggles within powerful Indian states. Helping a candidate to the throne opens a new region of influence, a new market.

The death in 1748 of the Moghul viceroy in Hyderabad is followed by French and English assistance for rival sons of the dead ruler. Soon the two European nations are also fighting on opposite sides in a war of succession in the Carnatic (the coastal strip north and south of Madras).


The French candidate succeeds in Hyderabad, and the English favourite prevails in the Carnatic. But the most striking event in either campaign is a dramatic intervention by Robert Clive in 1751. With 200 British and 300 Indian soldiers he seizes Arcot (the capital of the Carnatic) and holds it through a seven-week siege.

His action, and his subsequent defeat of a French and Indian force in battle, wins the throne for his candidate. It also has the effect of diminishing the prestige in Indian eyes of the French army. Until now the French have had the better of the British in India (most notably in their capture of Madras in 1746).


France and Britain remain rivals in southern India for the rest of the century. It is in the north that the balance changes significantly in Britain's favour, after a disaster of 1756. In that year the nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, overwhelms the British settlement in Calcutta and locks some of his captives overnight in a room of the fort. The details of precisely what happened that night are obscure, but the event becomes known to the British as the Black Hole of Calcutta.

To recover Calcutta, Clive sails north from Madras in October 1756. The fort is back in British hands by January 1757. But Clive now decides to intervene further in the politics of Bengal.


He aims to place a more compliant nawab, Mir Jafar, on the throne of Bengal, and he achieves his purpose after defeating Siraj-ud-Daula at Plassey in June 1757. For the next three years Clive virtually rules the rich province of Bengal, using Mir Jafar as his political puppet. In doing so he establishes the pattern by which British control will gradually spread through India, in a patchwork of separate alliances with local rulers.

In 1760 Clive returns to England, the possessor of vast and rapidly acquired wealth. Here too he sets a pattern, this time an unmistakably bad one. He is the first of the 'nabobs', whose fortunes derive from jobbery and bribes while administering Indian affairs.


Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan: 1761-1799

The main threat to British interests in India in the late 18th century remains in the south. It centres on Mysore where two rulers, father and son, use to their advantage the rivalry between the intruding European powers, France and Britain. The British East India Company fights four wars against Mysore between 1767 and 1799.

The Company's first opponent is Hyder Ali, a Muslim officer in the Mysore army. In about 1761 Hyder seizes the Hindu raja and makes himself ruler in his place. In subsequent years he overwhelms several neighbouring states. A campaign against him in 1767-9, by British troops in alliance with the ruler of Hyderabad, results in a peace treaty and a promise of British aid if Mysore is attacked.


In 1771 the British fail to live up to this promise, and by the end of the decade Hyder Ali is making efforts to secure French support. In a second and much more destructive war (1780-84), there is considerable French involvement on Hyder's side. But when Hyder dies, in December 1782, the advantage of the campaign is with the British.

Hyder's son Tipu makes peace with the East India Company in 1784 and is rewarded with recognition of his title as Tipu Sultan. In subsequent years he becomes as uneasy as his father with a British alliance and makes unsuccessful attempts to win French support. But in 1789 he provokes a third war with the Company when he attacks their ally the raja of Travancore.


For two years Tipu proves himself a match for the British, keeping them at bay in a brilliant campaign. But in March 1792 he is forced to come to terms. In his main fort, Seringapatam, he agrees to the terms of a treaty by which he surrenders half his territories.

This humiliation intensifies Tipu's search for foreign allies. Emissaries go to Afghanistan (a major power in the region since the time of Nadir Shah), to Istanbul, to Paris and to Mauritius. They achieve little success except with the revolutionary authorities in the French colony of Mauritius. A small French force arrives from Mauritius early in 1799.


To greet his allies Tipu throws himself into the spirit of French revolutionary symbolism. A tree of liberty is planted and Tipu, now styling himself Citoyen Tipou, exchanges his turban for a cap of liberty when receiving French representatives.

The French find themselves in a highly flamboyant court. Tipu sees himself as the tiger prince, fearless in the cause of Islam (and on one occasion responsible for the forced circumcision of several thousand Indian Christians), and this self-perception is reflected in an obsession with the tiger. Images of the animal feature on a wide range of objects at his court, and there is a living menagerie of tigers in Seringapatam.


No doubt one tiger is shown with particular delight to Tipu's French guests. It is a lifesize toy in which the animal stands over a prostrate officer of the British East India Company. The victim's arm rises and falls in his terror, while his groans are imitated by a hidden mechanical organ.

Tipu's flirtation with the French gives the East India Company good reason for a fourth attack on his kingdom. This time, after a campaign of just three months, Seringapatam is stormed, in May 1799, and Tipu is killed in the fighting. One of the Company's spoils is 'Tippoo's Tiger', which is still today in working order (in the Victoria and Albert Museum).


This History is as yet incomplete.


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