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The European East India Companies

The European presence in India had become quite diverse by the time of Dean Mahomet's youth, with a variety of implications for the shape of Indian society and politics. European travelers and merchants had been journeying overland to India, or via the established Indian Ocean trading networks, for centuries. The Portuguese had discovered a direct sea route to India in 1497, three decades before the Mughal Empire established itself. As the cosmopolitan Mughal Empire grew, it simply accommodated the burgeoning European presence without radical dislocations: in Mughal eyes, Europeans were just another set of peoples, having different values and strengths, but ones with whom they could deal.

During the seventeenth century, northern European states chartered national trading companies: England (1600), Holland (1602), Denmark (1616), and France (1664). Each European company built warehouse bases (called “factories”) on the Indian coast with dependent factories inland. In Patna where Dean Mahomet grew up, satellite factories were erected by the English (c. 1650), Dutch (c. 1650), and French (c. 1720). Patna's production of saltpeter (essential for manufacturing gunpowder), indigo (a powerful dye for cloth), and opium (vital for the European trade with China) proved particularly attractive to these European merchants. To Dean Mahomet's family and others like them in Patna, the various European companies may not have seemed threatening to their order at first. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the expanding presence and aggressive policies of the competing European companies had began to dislocate and reorient trade and culture at all levels in India.

European companies vied with each other, and with private European merchants, for control over production, trade, and—increasingly—political influence. The English East India Company proved the most successful of the European powers but it felt continually threatened by French operations in Europe, Africa, and Asia, especially by the French diplomatic and military presence in the courts of many of the Indian rulers. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 had as one major objective a threat to the British in India. Indeed, the French and the British remained almost continuously at war until 1815 (when Dean Mahomet was fifty-six years old and had been living in Europe for over thirty years).

While other European companies in India at times proved annoying to the English, they did not present the same military threat as did the French. The English fought one brief war with the Dutch in 1759, the year of Dean Mahomet's birth, and subsequently reduced the Dutch Company to a limited role in India. In Travels, Dean Mahomet blamed the Dutch Company's remaining factory in Bengal for the extensive and—in his view—immoral trade in opium from India to China. Dean Mahomet did not explain that the English Company monopolized opium production, collection, and sale in India or that the importation of opium into China remained mostly in British hands. Even the English Company's Directors in London recognized the stigma of this trade, writing in 1781: “Under any circumstances it is beneath the Company to be engaged in such a clandestine trade; we therefore, hereby positively prohibit any more opium being sent to China on the Company's account.”[3] The English Company's officials in India, however, responded that the economics of purchasing tea in China made this “not a matter of choice but necessity,” since they had little else the Chinese would buy.[4] The Company's face-saving solution was to auction its opium in India to other merchants, including Dutch and private English traders, who then exported it to China.

The Danish Company, with a factory near Calcutta (the English capital in India), also remained an irritating commercial rival—but not a substantial danger—to the English. Indeed, the Danes in India remained in an uneasy state of dependence, relying on purchases of cotton cloth, saltpeter, and other goods controlled by the English. Therefore, a variety of European companies and private merchants interacted, always in competitive—and often in hostile—ways.

From the mid-eighteenth century on, the English Company sought enhanced political influence with India's regional rulers (including the Nawab of Bengal) so as to extend both its own special exemptions from their judiciary and also tariff privileges for its trade—and for the private trade of its European employees. This led eventually to a transformation in the commerce in Bengal and Bihar, at the cost of established Indian merchants. In particular, the English Company reshaped the region's extensive cotton hand-weaving industry around its demands and requirements, a major factor in the English Industrial Revolution.

In Patna and elsewhere in north India, many prominent families declined under these trying circumstances and their own infelicitous choices of allegiance and commitment. Other families, such as that of Dean Mahomet, managed to take advantage of the unstable situation. Over time, the most successful families were those which oriented themselves toward commercial, administrative, or military service to the English Company, acting as intermediaries between the British and the other peoples of India. Since Dean Mahomet and his family chose to serve the English Company's Bengal Army, and since Travels tells us so much about life within that army from an Indian perspective, it will be useful to examine this army's origins and early development.


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