The Consolidation of Mughal Authority, 1610–1704
With Islam Khan’s arrival, the Mughal era of Bengal’s history effectively began. Upon reaching the delta, the new governor first moved the imperial provincial capital from Rajmahal, in the far northwest, where all previous Muslim capitals had been located, to Dhaka, deep in the Bengal hinterland. In this way, regions that had hitherto remained beyond the reach of North Indian rulers, and had been only lightly touched by the sultans of Gaur, were directly exposed to the epicenter of Mughal culture and authority. From 1610 to 1715, the Mughals would use Dhaka as a base for integrating diverse peoples into their social and bureaucratic system and for transforming into arable land the vast stretches of forest that still covered most of “Bhati,” or the eastern delta. Moreover, as Dhaka was connected to the Padma-Ganges river system at a point midway between the Bay of Bengal and older seats of Muslim power in the Gaur-Tanda region, the city would serve as an ideal entrepôt for riverine trade between East and West Bengal, between Bengal and Upper India, and between Bengal and the wider world beyond the bay. Since the overland ascendancy of Mughal influence in Bengal’s eastern hinterland occurred just as Portuguese, Dutch, and English commercial interests entered the region from overseas, this formerly isolated backwater was now simultaneously integrated into two cosmopolitan and expanding political economies, the Mughal and the European.
Islam Khan could not have foreseen the long-term implications of his planting the provincial capital in the heart of East Bengal. His immediate concern, after all, was to subdue refractory elements that had long eluded imperial authority. An iron-willed man, who demanded of his subordinates an unquestioning submission both to himself and to the Mughal cause, with which he fiercely identified, Islam Khan governed only briefly, dying in office in 1613. Yet it was he who, in a bloody battle in the hills of Sylhet in 1612, defeated and killed ‘Uthman Khan, thereby extirpating the last credible remnant of Afghan resistance to Mughal power in the delta. And it was he, too, who established the political ties that would bind local potentates to the Mughal cause. Three factors helped the Mughals consolidate their power in the delta: their more effective use of military force, the diplomacy of Islam Khan, and the financial backing of Hindu merchant-bankers.
Some historians have argued that gunpowder technology played a decisive role in the expansion and consolidation, not only of the Mughal empire, but of those of their Safavid and Ottoman contemporaries, and have even labeled these three polities “gunpowder empires.” But how critical was the use of gunpowder in the Mughal conquest of Bengal? Mirza Nathan, a junior Mughal officer who accompanied numerous campaigns during the governorship of Islam Khan and his successors, remarked that “cannon, cross-bows, rockets and other fire-arms of this type…are the aggressive firearms of India.” This officer evidently associated gunpowder weapons with “India,” that is, Mughal Hindustan, as opposed to Bengal’s extreme northeastern frontier (in which context the remark was made), whose peoples lacked such firepower. These weapons included not only the type of heavy cannon that the Mughals brought with them to Bengal as early as Mun‘im Khan’s invasion of 1574, but smoothbore muskets and, by the early 1600s, lightweight cannon that could be transported on the shoulders of foot soldiers and fired by cannoneers from horseback.
There are problems, however, with characterizing the Mughal state as a “gunpowder empire.” First, the Mughals did not introduce cannon or the musket to India; both had been found in North India and the Deccan since the second half of the fifteenth century, nearly a century before the Mughal age. Second, the Mughals’ use of firepower did not immediately spell the end of mounted archers. Used in combination with musketeers and artillery, archers continued to play a decisive role in Mughal warfare. In the ten major imperial campaigns waged between 1608 and 1618—the most important decade for the consolidation of Mughal power in the delta—the Mughals always deployed a mixed force structure, averaging for each campaign 4,000 musketeers, 2,100 mounted archers, and 300 war boats. On the other hand, the Bengal rulers, like the sultans of Delhi, relied on war elephants as the principal arm of their military. A European visitor once noted that Sultan Nasir al-Din Nusrat Shah maintained a stable of 914 war elephants “trained to fight with swords fixed to their tusks and to throw javelins from their trunks; they can kill and wound many people in this way.” At the battle of Tukaroi (1575), during the Mughals’ first serious drive into the Bengal hinterland, Sultan Daud’s elephants did indeed produce havoc among the imperial cavalry. But the imperial armies eventually won that battle, and they owed their triumph not to gunpowder but to their superior use of mounted archers.
Moreover, whatever advantage the Mughals may have enjoyed with their superior firepower was at least partially neutralized by the diffusion of gunpowder technology among their adversaries. In 1584 ‘Isa Khan deployed artillery and muskets in naval battles with the Mughals, and ‘Uthman Khan regularly used artillery (tūp o tufang) in naval and land battles. When Raja Pratapaditya of Jessore capitulated to Islam Khan in 1609, he agreed to surrender twenty thousand infantry, five hundred war boats, and a thousand “maunds ” (41 tons) of gunpowder. Possession of supplies in such quantities implies a rather thorough integration of gunpowder technology in armies opposing the Mughals. By contrast, tribal or semi-tribal peoples living along the fringes of the delta, especially in the extreme north, seem initially to have lacked gunpowder technology. Warriors of Kamrup were described simply as archers, while those of Kuch Bihar used poisoned arrows. Yet by about 1612 even these outlying peoples were reported firing cannon and crossbows (tūp o ṣandūq o tīr-hāyi takhsh) from stockades in rebellions against Mughal rule.
Perhaps of greater significance for consolidating Mughal rule were Islam Khan’s adroit policies vis-à-vis the “twelve chieftains” and other locally entrenched zamīndārs. For in many engagements the actual use of guns, as opposed to their ostentatious display, was obviated by a diplomacy carefully calculated to win over local leaders. Typical was Islam Khan’s policy toward Raja Satrajit, the raja of Bhusna, located about twenty miles southwest of Faridpur on the border of modern Jessore. Mirza Nathan notes that the governor sent one of his generals to negotiate with this powerful chieftain, instructing him that “if luckily Satrajit submitted, then he should be given the hope of the grant of his territory as Jagir and should be brought before Islam Khan in accordance with this covenant; otherwise he should have only himself to thank for the consequences of his acts, and his country should be left as a prey to the horse of the imperial Karoris (revenue-collectors).”
Here was a judicious combination of carrot and stick. From the raja’s perspective, the inducement to submit was his integration into a far wider field of activity than the territory of Bhusna could ever offer, even while he retained his former domains in the form of a jāgīr, or revenue assignment. As an imperial jāgīrdār (“holder of a jāgīr”), he would continue to collect land revenues from his former subjects, except that those revenues would now be used to maintain troops available for state service, and in numbers fixed by imperial officers in Dhaka. Vis-à-vis his former subjects, the imperial jāgīrdār would still preside over the ritual ceremonies befitting a raja, though he would have to present himself and his troops to the governor at any time the latter wished. If the raja agreed to this new political role, the “covenant” between him and the government would be solemnly ratified by his personal appearance before the governor. But if he resisted and were defeated, imperial revenue officers would assess and collect the land revenue in his territory, while he himself, if he survived the conflict, would face imprisonment.
In general, the more important the chieftain, and the sooner he capitulated, the more inducements Islam Khan was prepared to offer in exchange for submission to Mughal rule. This is well illustrated in the governor’s dealings with Raja Pratapaditya of Jessore, one of the most powerful of Bengal’s “twelve chieftains.” “Islam Khan,” wrote Mirza Nathan, “for the sake of drawing the attention of other Zamindars, and also in consideration of the high position held by the aforesaid Raja among the Zamindars of Bengal, bestowed honours upon him beyond measure, and consoled and encouraged him.” Aware that lesser chiefs were looking to bigger chiefs such as Pratapaditya for leadership, or at least for direction, the governor promised this chieftain not only his own former possessions as jāgīr but other lands far to the east. To seal the covenant, the governor conferred on him a stunning array of Mughal regalia: a sword, a bejeweled swordbelt, a camphor-stand, five high-bred horses, three elephants, and an imperial kettledrum.
On the other hand, the Mughal regime tolerated no sign of perfidy on the part of a newly created jāgīrdār. Despite his formal submission, Pratapaditya failed to provide Islam Khan with his armies as promised, and to punish him, the governor sent a substantial army and navy into Jessore. After defeating Pratapaditya’s forces, the governor imprisoned the raja and annexed his territories. The province’s chief fiscal officer was then sent to the raja’s former domains in order “to make due assessment of revenue of Jessore and to bring the rent-roll (nuskha) to the government record-office” in Dhaka. Clearly, by resisting imperial rule the raja forfeited his chance of keeping his former domains as jāgīr, while the fields of his former subjects were reassessed by Mughal revenue officers. Had Pratapaditya not resisted, he would have continued levying and collecting taxes through his own agents.
An even bigger prize was the submission of Musa Khan, a son of ‘Isa Khan. Known by the regal title of Masnad-i ‘ālī , “Exalted Throne,” Musa Khan had inherited his father’s position as the principal ruler of Bhati. Although the Bengali ruler possessed a huge fleet of 700 war boats, many of them armed with cannon, the Mughals met him with their own fleet of 295 war boats, manned by twelve thousand sailors, and compelled him to submit. When Musa Khan rebelled and was again forced to submit, the governor placed him under detention in Dhaka. In 1613, however, when Qasim Khan succeeded to the governorship, the Bengali chieftain was granted his freedom and allowed to participate in major expeditions along the northern and eastern frontiers. Against the raja of Tippera, in fact, he was entrusted with the co-command of an army of five thousand musketeers and fifty elephants, and participated in the capture of the raja, personally bringing the captive king to Dhaka. By the time of Ibrahim Khan’s governorship (1617–24), Mirza Nathan spoke of “Musa Khan and the Twelve Bhuyans of Bhati” being engaged in Mughal expeditions throughout eastern Bengal, indicating that by this time all the formerly independent chieftains had become integrated into imperial service.
At the center of all this political activity was Dhaka, or “Jahangirnagar,” as it was officially known, which in the seventeenth century attained a peak of power and influence. Fray Sebastião Manrique, who was there in 1640, described the place as a “Gangetic emporium,” with a population of over two hundred thousand. Recalling that the population of Gaur had been estimated at only forty thousand at the height of the sultanate’s power around 1515, one sees how rapidly the Mughal capital must have grown in the thirty years since Islam Khan’s arrival. Manrique was especially impressed with the city’s wealth. “Many strange nations,” he wrote,
Manrique’s reference to wealthy Khatris (known today as Marwaris, because they came from Marwar in Rajasthan) points to the prominence of this caste of Hindu merchants, bankers, and moneylenders, who had accompanied their Mughal patrons to wealth and success.
resort to this city on account of its vast trade and commerce in a great variety of commodities, which are produced in profusion in the rich and fertile lands of this region. These have raised the city to an eminence of wealth which is actually stupefying, especially when one sees and considers the large quantities of money which lie principally in the houses of the Cataris [Khatri], in such quantities indeed that, being difficult to count, it is usual commonly to be weighed.
In fact, the Marwaris and Mughals collaborated in the conquest of Bengal. Where the Mughals provided the Marwaris with the political security essential for transacting business, the latter provided the Mughals with financial capital obtained through their networks of fellow caste-members residing all over northern India. In theory, imperial officeholders spent only the cash raised from their assigned jāgīrs, or territorially defined revenue units, to finance their military operations. In fact, though, officers often needed more money than could be derived from their revenue assignments, and in such cases turned to moneylenders. For example, around 1621 Mirza Nathan, whose jāgīr provided him with revenue sufficient to support around one thousand cavalrymen, obtained from the “merchant-princes [mullak-i tujārān] of Jahangirnagar” the substantial loan of Rs. 100,000 for the purpose of purchasing or hiring boats to transport troops and supplies in northern Bengal. Somewhat earlier, and for a similar purpose, he had borrowed Rs. 30,000 from Hindu lenders in Gilah, a Mughal outpost in the Kuch country far to the north. This indicates that such banking houses followed Mughal arms even to the remotest frontiers of imperial expansion. Moreover, Nathan’s casual air in relating these transactions suggests their routine nature. It also indicates that the close collaboration between Hindu merchant bankers and Mughal officers so characteristic of the first half of the eighteenth century extended back to the earliest days of the Mughal connection with Bengal.