The Road to Empire - The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Road to Empire

The shift in power to the north of Europe left some unable to compete and keep up. In the Ottoman world, for instance, the number of cities with populations of more than 10,000 remained broadly the same between 1500 and 1800. There was no pressure to intensify agricultural production to service growing demand - which meant that the economy remained sluggish and static. Tax collection was also inefficient, partly a result of tax farming, which incentivised individuals to make quick gains at the expense of the state’s long-term income.1

Ottoman bureaucrats had proved to be highly skilled administrators, adept at centralising resources and managing the distribution of the population to ensure that harvests and supplies ended up where they were most needed. As the empire swallowed up more territory in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this had worked efficiently and smoothly. When the momentum of expansion slowed, however, the fragility of the system became apparent, under pressure from the cost of sustaining military action on two fronts - in Europe in the west and with Safavid Persia in the east - but also as a result of climatic change that had a particularly severe impact on the Ottoman world.2

The social structures in the Muslim world, which developed along very different lines to those in western Europe, also proved to be an important factor. Islamic societies generally distributed wealth more evenly than their Christian counterparts, largely thanks to very detailed instructions set out in the Qurimageān about legacies - including principles that were positively enlightened by the standards of the day when it came to the share women could and should expect from the estates of their father or husband. A Muslim woman could expect to be much better looked after than her European peer; but this came at the expense of allowing large-scale wealth to remain within the same family for a long period of time.3 This in turn meant that the gap between rich and poor was never as acute as it became in Europe because money was redistributed and recirculated more widely. These values to some extent inhibited growth: as a general rule, teaching and stipulations about legacies meant that families found it hard to accumulate capital over successive generations because inheritance was progressive and egalitarian; in Europe, primogeniture concentrated resources in the hands of one child, and paved the way for great fortunes to be built up.4

For some, the fact that Europe - or rather north-western Europe - had never had it so good was a cause of anxiety. Calvinist priests in the Low Countries preached with terrifying conviction about money being the root of evil and about the perils of indulging in luxury.5 Similar sentiments could be found in England, where men such as Thomas Mun, a particularly angry commentator of the early seventeenth century, bemoaned the ‘mis-spending of … time in idleness and pleasure’, warning that material wealth would bring poverty of knowledge and ‘general leprosie’ of body and soul.6

Of course, the benefits of growth were not shared evenly. Rising rents were good for landlords, but less good for tenants; exposure to larger markets meant that there was considerable price pressure as domestic production of wool, textiles and other goods was exposed to more competition.7 The fall in moral standards that came with economic and social upheaval was enough to encourage some to take drastic action. The time had come to establish new pastures, concluded the more conservative, to find a place where it would be possible to practise a simple lifestyle that prioritised religious devotion and spiritual purity - a place for a fresh start, and a return to basics.

The Puritans who settled New England did so in protest against the changes that had accompanied Europe’s rise and against the affluence that followed. They were reacting to the strange stream of new ideas and goods that made the world seem a very different place - where Chinese porcelain was appearing on household dining tables, where marriage of people with different skin colour to Europeans was giving rise to questions about identity and race, and where attitudes about the body were prompting what one scholar has recently termed the ‘first sexual revolution’.8

To escape, the answer was to head across the Atlantic. The destination of choice was not the Caribbean, where many had gone to turn the land into sugar plantations using slave labour, but the virgin lands of New England where emigrants could lead an idealised existence of devout simplicity. The only difficulty, of course, was the native population, who ‘delight to tormente men in the most bloodie manner that may be; fleaing some alive with the shells of fishes, cutting of the members and joynts of others by peacemeale and broiling on the coles, eat the collops of their flesh in their sight whilst they live, with other cruelties horrible to be related’.9 But even this lot were worth risking; it would still be better than the world they had left behind. It is easy to forget that the feast of Thanksgiving, first celebrated by Pilgrim Fathers to mark their safe arrival in a land of plenty, was also a commemoration of a campaign against globalisation: it was not only hailing the discovery of a new Eden, but triumphantly rejecting the paradise at home that had been destroyed.10

For those of a different bent, who were not interested in building a bastion of austerity and religious conservatism, but wanted to discover the new, to benefit from and share in the attractions and tantalising delights that were on offer in the world, there was an alternative: go east and head for Asia. Building a platform to enable England to make connections with Asia in a structured and organised way was a slow and often frustrating process. The East India Company (EIC), which was granted a royal monopoly on trade with all lands east of the Cape of Good Hope in 1600, managed to displace the Portuguese from Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf and Surat in north-west India through force, thereby establishing footholds that hinted at future opportunities. Nevertheless, competing against the all-powerful Dutch East India Company (VOC) was a challenge.11 Volumes of trade back to England did begin to grow; but the supremacy of the Dutch was such that in the middle of the seventeenth century, they were shipping around three times as much by value as the English.12

The relationship between the English and the Dutch was a complicated one. For one thing, the Low Countries provided customers and credit for English goods, so while there was commercial rivalry between the EIC and the VOC, their successes were not mutually exclusive. For another, the Spanish provided a common enemy and grounds for military and political co-operation between the two staunchly Protestant states. Some leading English figures took great heart from major Dutch naval successes against Spain in the English Channel in 1639 and not long afterwards at Itamaracá off the coast of Brazil, with the result that the pompous Oliver St John, leading one of the many delegations sent to The Hague to cement ties, even made the radical proposal that the two countries should ‘enter into a more intimate alliance and nearer union’ - in other words, that they should merge into one.13

The unpredictability of the European powers was such that, barely a year after proposing a confederation, England and the Dutch were at war. The casus belli was the passing of the Navigation Act shortly after the St John delegation’s return home, when Parliament enacted a law requiring that all cargoes bound for England be carried into English ports by English ships. Although there was unquestionably a commercial motivation behind this legislation, namely to drive revenues towards an economy that had been ravaged by domestic fighting, it was also significant that there was a growing, vocal and apocalyptic lobby in England that insisted that the Dutch were motivated only by profits, were too materialistic and lacked religious conviction.14

The Act was an indication of England’s sharpening aspirations. Just as rhetoric about the Spanish a century earlier became increasingly poisonous, so too did criticisms of the Dutch, especially when intense fighting broke out at sea as the Dutch sought to keep the sea lanes open to their own ports through the Channel and the North Sea. This provoked nothing less than a maritime revolution in England. The navy had been well funded even during Tudor times; now, however, it was systematically overhauled. In the course of the second half of the seventeenth century, considerable resources were lavished on a large-scale shipbuilding programme. Expenditure on the navy rose so sharply that it soon consumed nearly a fifth of the entire national budget.15 The process was overseen by Samuel Pepys, whose very personal diaries give little sense of the military and geopolitical shift that was taking place - or of the scale of the change running through shipyards up and down the country.16

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Pepys gathered the most up-to-date manuals by Dutch specialists - including that of Nicolaes Witsen, the master theorist of shipbuilding - and set about applying rigour and discipline to everything from setting up schools that taught the ‘art of navigation’ to commissioning written doctrines that set out the latest techniques for an ambitious and well-funded new generation of designers.17

The maritime revolution was based on three separate observations. The first was that specialised, heavy vessels were more effective than light cruisers. Success hung on being able to deliver concentrated firepower - and being able to resist it. Ship design was modified accordingly, with the emphasis on large, powerful ships that were like floating castles. The second observation was that experience could teach better lessons. Encounters with the Dutch fleets in the 1650s and 1660s resulted in devastating losses, both in terms of ships lost or captured and in terms of senior officers and captains lost in battle: in 1666, nearly 10 per cent of the navy’s senior commanders were killed in a single engagement. As a result of such bruising encounters, naval tactics were systematically re-evaluated. Training manuals such as Fighting Instructions by Admiral Blake, one of the great naval leaders of the age, were disseminated and digested. Sharing knowledge and learning from the past was crucial in making the navy the best in the world: between 1660 and 1815, combat fatalities among English (British) captains fell by an astonishing 98 per cent.18

The third and no less important observation was how the navy functioned as an institution. In order to become a lieutenant, it became necessary to spend three years at sea and to pass an exam conducted by superior officers. Subsequent promotions were based strictly on ability rather than on patronage, which meant not only that the ablest rose to the top, but that they did so with the endorsement of their peers. The incentivising transparency of this meritocratic system was further enhanced by a system that rewarded those who had served for longest in the most important capacities. It was broadly identical to the organisation put in place in the earliest days of Islam and which had proved so effective during the Muslim conquests. In England now too, spoils were shared according to a pre-set allocation, with officers and sailors rewarded in proportion to seniority and length of service. This made promotion highly desirable and lucrative, which again served to propel the most able to the top, especially as the process was overseen by the Admiralty board, whose aim was to filter out favouritism and partiality. These were optimum labour contracts, in other words, designed to reward and incentivise performance; furthermore, they were fair.19

It was not long before the reforms brought rewards. Heavy investment in the navy extended England’s reach substantially, giving it the chance to take advantage of any European rivalries, outbreaks of war or other openings in the Caribbean and elsewhere that presented themselves.20 It also dovetailed with the long and slow process of trying to build up a stronger trading position in Asia, where the fruits of hard work were finally ripening. As well as Surat, the East India Company established an important centre in the south-east of the subcontinent at Madrasapatnam (now Madras), where in the first half of the seventeenth century a concession was negotiated with the local ruler to trade free of customs. As modern corporations would quickly recognise, generous tax breaks were a major boon, enabling long-distance rivals to be undercut - and, in due course, locals too. And as modern corporations would also recognise, as settlements became larger and more successful, the Company was perfectly placed to renegotiate better and better terms. Over the course of seventy years, Madras was transformed into a thriving metropolis. The pattern was replicated in other locations, most notably in Bombay and Calcutta, the jewel of Bengal, and the fortunes of the East India Company rose steadily upwards.21

As was the case with the VOC in Holland, the lines between England’s government and the EIC were blurred. Both companies had the right to behave as a quasi-branch of the state - granted the right to mint coins, form alliances and not just maintain armed forces but also use them. Taking service with these highly commercialised organisations, which benefited from both government protection and very powerful investors, made for an attractive career path. Men were drawn from all over England and indeed from other parts of the world too - including the bastion of conservatism that was New England. There were rich rewards for the ambitious and the quick-witted who rose through the ranks of the Company.22

Typical was a man born in Massachusetts in 1649, who moved with his family back to England as a small boy before entering the service of the East India Company. Initially holding the lowly position of writer, he eventually rose through the ranks to become governor of Madras itself. He did well for himself there - too well, in fact, for he was removed from his position after five years, with rumours swirling about how much he had gained personally during his tenure. That he returned home with five tons of spices, large quantities of diamonds and innumerable precious objects suggests that the accusations were well founded - as does his own epitaph in Wrexham in North Wales where he was buried: ‘Born in America, in Europe bred, in Africa travell’d and in Asia wed … Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all’s even and that his soul throu’ mercy’s gone to Heaven.’ He spent his money liberally back in England, though he did not forget the land of his birth: towards the end of his life, he gave a generous sum to the Collegiate School of Connecticut, which recognised his gift by renaming itself after a benefactor who might make further donations in the future: Elihu Yale.23

Yale had been in the right place at the right time. In the 1680s, the Qing court in China lifted its restrictions on foreign trade, leading to a surge in exports of tea, porcelain and Chinese sugar. As a result, ports like Madras and Bombay were not only important trade centres in their own right, but became staging posts in a new and vibrant global trading network.24 The late seventeenth century marked the start of a new era of contacts between Europe and China. These were not confined to commerce. The mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, who developed the binary system, was able to hone his ideas thanks to texts about Chinese arithmetic theories sent to him by a Jesuit friend who had gone to live in Beijing towards the end of the seventeenth century. Those who were in a position to take advantage of the new commercial or intellectual connections that were being made could do very well for themselves.25

By the time of his endowment, Yale himself was sensitive to the way that the east and India in particular were being increasingly seen as a short cut to great wealth. ‘You must not be impatient in your progress nor make haste for riches,’ he wrote to his godson, Elihu Nicks; ‘my fortune cost me near 30 years’ patience.’26 As one of the first wave of Englishmen to fill his boots, it was a bit rich to be giving such stern advice to the next generation. And as it happened, the prospects of becoming unfeasibly rich in Asia were just about to get even better. The Golden Age was dawning in England.

That an island in the North Atlantic came to dominate international affairs, to be the heart of an empire that controlled a quarter of the globe and had influence far beyond, would have astonished historians and empire-builders of the past. Britain was an inhospitable place, wrote one of the great historians of late antiquity, where the air was so poisonous in some places that it could kill if the wind changed direction.27 It was inhabited by Britons - whose name, speculated one author not long afterwards, came from the Latin brutus, that is, irrational or stupid.28 Separated from the rest of Europe by the Channel, it was distant, isolated and peripheral. These weaknesses now became formidable strengths - and underpinned the rise of one of the greatest empires in history.

There were many reasons for Britain’s ultimate success. Scholars have noted, for example, that levels of social and economic inequality were lower than in other countries in Europe, and that the bottom tiers of the population had noticeably higher levels of calorie consumption than their continental peers.29 Recent research has also emphasised that changes in lifestyle played a role, as work rates and efficiency rose sharply thanks to the rewards on offer from the growing economy. Britain’s surging success also owed much to the fact that it was home to so many innovators.30 Fertility levels, which appear to have been lower in Britain than in most other European countries, also had an important correlation with per capita incomes, as resources and assets passed into fewer hands than on the continent.31

But the trump card that proved unbeatable was that of geography. England - or Britain after the union with Scotland in 1707 - had a natural barrier protecting it from its rivals: the sea. This was helpful in terms of dealing with military threat, but it was a godsend when it came to government expenditure. With no land frontiers to defend, Britain’s military expenditure was a fraction of its continental rivals’. It has been estimated that, while England’s armed forces were approximately the same size as those of France in 1550, by 1700 the French had almost three times more men in service. These needed equipment and pay, meaning spending was proportionately far greater in France than in England; revenues were also proportionately lower in France as soldiers and sailors - each a potential generator of taxable income and indirect taxes through consumption - were removed from fields, factories and other employment to serve their country.32

It was as though Britain was vaccinated from the contagious problems of Europe that saw seemingly never-ending warfare as states on the mainland squabbled and fought in almost every possible permutation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The British learnt to intervene judiciously, taking advantage of circumstances that were in their favour, but staying out of it when the dice were loaded against them. It was also becoming clear that what happened in Europe could determine one’s fate on the other side of the world. Intense arguments about who would inherit the throne of Austria could have consequences that led to fighting and exchanges of territory in European colonies all over the world: the issue of the legitimacy of Maria-Theresa’s succession in the 1740s provoked outbreaks of fighting from the Americas to the Indian subcontinent that lasted nearly a decade. The result when matters were finally settled in 1748 was that Cap Breton in Canada and Madras in India changed hands between the French and the British.

This was just one example of how competition between European powers had effects on the other side of the world. Towns in India were handed to the French by the Dutch at the end of the 1690s as a result of the settlement of the Nine Years’ War in Europe; islands in the Caribbean changed hands between Britain and France as part of peace settlements two decades later after further intense fighting in Europe; while huge swathes of North America were swapped between the British and French when disputes over the Spanish throne were settled.

Marriages could also deliver vast territories, strategic bridgeheads or great cities - such as Bombay, handed over to England as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married King Charles II in the 1660s. It was an act of generosity that, as the city’s Portuguese governor accurately predicted, spelt the end of Portugal’s power in India.33 Activities in bedchambers in Europe, hushed mutterings in palace corridors in its capital cities concerning potential brides or assumed slights by flighty rulers who were quick to have their egos piqued had implications and ramifications thousands of miles away.

On one level, such intrigues were of little concern to those in the east, who cared little if the Dutch, British, French or others held the upper hand. In fact if anything, the rivalries in Europe seemed merely to generate increasingly lavish benefits. Throughout the seventeenth century, rival delegations could be found heading to the Mughal Emperor, to the rulers of China and of Japan to curry favour and have new trading concessions granted or old ones reconfirmed. This elevated the importance of intermediaries - such as Muqarrab Khan, a port official in Gujarat, who oiled the wheels with the Emperor Jahangir in the early seventeenth century - who did well for themselves as a result.34 In Khan’s case, the goods he bought in 1610, made up of ‘Arabian horses’, slaves from Africa and other luxuries, took more than two months simply to clear customs.35

The British in Asia operated, as one historian has put it, on the principle that ‘everything and everyone had a price’.36 This provoked extravagant gift-giving - but also protest from some who condemned the covetousness of those who were courted. The Mughal Emperor Jahāngīr, for example, had a particular soft spot for being given ‘overgrown elephants’ - and perhaps dodos too - as gifts, and was said to have a heart ‘so insatiable, as that it never knows when it hath enough; being like a bottomless purse, that can never be fill’d, for the more it hath, the more it covets’.37

Dutch envoys brought coaches, suits of armour, jewels, fabrics and even spectacles to Beijing in the 1660s in a bid to win favour following the loss of their position in Taiwan shortly beforehand.38 An account of another extravagant Dutch delegation, this time to Lahore in 1711, shows the tremendous effort that went in to flattering and winning valuable contacts, as do glorious images made of their reception in Udaipur as the embassy made its way north. Laquerware from Japan, elephants from Ceylon and horses from Persia were taken as gifts, as were spices from the Dutch colonies, alongside European goods: cannon, telescopes, sextants and microscopes. Nothing was left to chance, even though on this occasion circumstances contrived to leave the envoy’s request to renew trade concessions unresolved.39

It took a long time for the fuller implications of the shifting sands in Europe to work their way through to the east. To all intents and purposes, the more merchants arriving to trade and the bigger the ships they came in the better: this meant more gifts, more rewards and greater volumes of trade. As it was, Mughal emperors such as Akbar, Shah Jahān and Awrangzīb (ruled 1658-1707) were partial to having themselves weighed on their birthdays, with gems, precious metals and other treasures being repeatedly loaded on to the scales until they were balanced - hardly the best incentive to maintain a trim waistline.40

Then there were the bribes payable to middlemen who demanded money to ‘escort’ travellers and merchants to their destination, much to the frustration of some who felt that the principle, as well as the amount, was annoying. English merchants who had their goods impounded at Rajmahal in 1654 felt there was no option other than to bribe the governor and his officials - just as the Dutch always had to do.41 Complaints about lack of fairness could reach the Mughal emperors, who sometimes punished those who had lined their pockets too well: apparently, one judge accused of not being impartial was made to stand in front of the ruler and be bitten by a cobra; on another occasion, gatekeepers were whipped after a musician complained that he would have to hand over a portion of a stipend awarded to him by the Emperor on his way out of the palace.42

Funds coming in to India continued to fuel the artistic, architectural and cultural blossoming that had accompanied the enormous injections of capital since the early sixteenth century. Increasing sums percolated into Central Asia, partly as a result of tribute paid by rulers like Awrangzīb to secure peaceful relations to the north, but also as a result of horse-buying on a massive scale from breeders whose herds grazed on the steppes. As many as 100,000 horses were being bought in the markets of northern India each year - and at sky-high mark-ups if some sources are to be believed.43 Even greater numbers of livestock were also sold to merchants from India, as well as from Persia, China and increasingly Russia, leading to further wealth flowing into the region. Cities such as Khokand (in modern Uzbekistan) flourished, with accounts talking rapturously of the quality of the rhubarb, tea, porcelain and silk that could be bought at cheap prices and in considerable quantities.44

Despite the rise of European trade, the networks crossing the spine of Asia were still very much alive and kicking. This is shown by the records of the VOC that note that tens of thousands of camel-loads of textiles were being sent each year from India to Persia via the old routes through Central Asia. English, French, Indian and Russian sources likewise provide information about continued overland trade and give some idea of its scale in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: travellers in Central Asia talk consistently about large volumes of goods being sold in markets, about enormous numbers of horses being reared and brought to places like Kabul, an ‘excellent trading centre’ where caravans converged from all over Asia to buy and sell a wide range of textiles, aromatic roots, refined sugars and other luxuries.45 Increasingly important in this continental trade were the minorities who helped lubricate commercial exchange, thanks to shared customs, family ties and the ability to create credit networks that worked over long distances. In the past, the Sogdians had played this role. Now it was Jews and above all Armenians who did so.46

Under the surface, powerful currents were swirling unseen. European attitudes to Asia were hardening, shifting from seeing the east as a wonderland filled with exotic plants and treasures to a place where the locals were as limp and useless as in the New World. Robert Orme’s attitudes were typical of the eighteenth century. The first official historian of the East India Company, Orme penned an essay whose title ‘On the effeminacy of the inhabitants of Indostan’ reveals much about how contemporary thinking had toughened. A bullish sense of entitlement was rising fast.47 Attitudes towards Asia were changing from excitement about profits to be made to thoughts of brute exploitation.

This outlook was captured perfectly in the ‘nabob’, the term given to East India Company officials who did absurdly well for themselves in Asia. They behaved like hoodlums and loan sharks, lending money locally at exorbitant rates of interest, using Company resources for their own benefit and creaming outrageous profits off transactions for themselves. It was the Wild East - a prelude to similar scenes in the west of North America a century later. Go to India, the memoirist William Hickey’s father told him, and ‘cut off half a dozen rich fellow’s heads … and so return a nabob’. Serving the EIC in India was a one-way ticket to fortune.48

The path was not without hardship or danger, for conditions in the subcontinent were not easy, and disease could put a swift end to ambitions. As far as the evidence allows us to ascertain, although mortality levels dropped thanks to improvements in sanitation and hygiene, as well as in medicine and healthcare, the numbers of those sent home or deemed unfit for service rose steadily.49 Experiences could be traumatic, as the merchant sailor Thomas Bowrey and his friends found out when they paid sixpence for a pint of ‘Bangha’, an infusion of cannabis, in India in the late seventeenth century: one ‘sat himself down upon the floor and wept bitterly all afternoon’; another, ‘terrified with fear … put his head in a great jar and continued in that posture for four hours or more’; ‘four or five lay upon the carpets highly complimenting each other in high terms’, while another ‘was quarrelsome and fought with one of the wooden pillars of the porch until he had little skin upon the knuckles of the fingers’.50 It took time to get used to other parts of the world.

On the other hand, rewards were astounding - so much so that it became commonplace for playwrights, the press and politicians to mock the newly rich. There were howls of contempt about the boom in tutors being hired to teach gentlemanly pursuits like fencing and dancing, about the nervousness in choosing the right tailor, about knowing the right things to talk about at dinner.51

Hypocrisy was everywhere. It was grotesque, William Pitt the Elder told fellow MPs in the late eighteenth century, that ‘the importers of foreign gold have forced their way into Parliament by such a torrent of private corruption, as no private hereditary fortune could resist’.52 There was no need, he felt, to note that his own grandfather had brought back one of the world’s great gemstones, the Pitt diamond, from his spell in India and used the wealth he had accumulated during his spell as governor of Madras to buy a country estate - and the parliamentary seat that came with it.53 Others were also outspoken. It was awful, a furious Edmund Burke told an inquiry in the House of Commons not long afterwards, that ‘nabobs’ were destroying society - by throwing their wealth around, becoming MPs and marrying the daughters of the gentry.54 Getting angry about such matters had little effect, however: after all, who would not want an ambitious and rich young buck for a son-in-law, or a generous spouse for a husband?

The key to unlocking these great fortunes lay in the transition of the East India Company from a mercantile operation ferrying goods from one continent to another into an occupying power. The shift into both drug-dealing and racketeering was seamless. Opium was grown in increasing volumes on plantations in India to fund purchases of silk, porcelain and above all tea from China. Imports of the latter soared, with official figures that chart a rise from 142,000 pounds of tea bought in 1711 to 15 million pounds eighty years later - figures which conceal further shipments that must have been smuggled to avoid tax. In a neat mirror image, rising addiction to luxury goods in the west was effectively being traded for - and soon matched by - rising addiction to drugs in China.55

Making money in other dubious ways was no less lucrative. Although protection had been offered to local rulers in India in the eighteenth century on an increasingly regular and large scale, the decisive moment came in 1757 when an expedition led by Robert Clive was sent to Calcutta to intervene following an attack on the city by the Nawab of Bengal. Clive was soon being offered enormous sums to provide support for rival local candidates wanting to assume power. In no time, he found he was granted control of the diwani - the tax take of the region - and was able to help himself to the revenues of one of the most populated and economically vibrant parts of Asia, home to a textile industry that was responsible for more than half of all Britain’s imports from the east. Almost overnight, he became one of the richest men in the world.56

A House of Commons Select Committee that was set up in 1773 to look at the aftermath of the conquest of Bengal revealed the staggering sums taken from the Bengali purse. Over £2 million - tens of billions in today’s terms - had been distributed as ‘presents’, almost all of it finding its way into the pockets of EIC employees locally.57 The outrage was compounded by disgraceful and shocking scenes in Bengal itself. By 1770, the price of grain had been driven higher and higher, with catastrophic results as famine kicked in. The death toll was estimated in the millions; even the governor-general declared that a third of the population had died. Europeans had thought only of enriching themselves as the local population starved to death.58

The situation was entirely avoidable. The suffering of the many had been sacrificed for personal gain. To howls of derision, Clive simply answered - like the chief executive of a distressed bank - that his priorities had been to protect the interests of shareholders, not those of the local population; he deserved no criticism, surely, for doing his job.59 Things were to get worse. The loss of manpower in Bengal devastated local productivity. As revenues collapsed, costs suddenly rose sharply causing panic that the golden goose had laid its last egg. This prompted a run on the shares of the EIC and pushed the Company to the brink of bankruptcy.60 Far from its directors being superhuman administrators and wealth-creators, it turned out that the practices and culture of the Company had brought the intercontinental financial system to its knees.

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After desperate consultation, the government in London concluded that the EIC was too big to fail and agreed a bail-out. To fund this, however, cash had to be raised. Eyes turned to the colonies in North America, where taxes were substantially lower than in Britain itself. When Lord North’s government passed the Tea Act in 1773, it thought it had found an elegant solution to pay for the EIC rescue, while also bringing at least part of the tax regime of the American colonies closer into line with Britain’s. It provoked fury among settlers across the Atlantic.

Leaflets and pamphlets were widely distributed in Pennsylvania that described the East India Company as an institution ‘well versed in Tyranny, Plunder, Oppression, and Bloodshed’. It was a symbol of all that was wrong with Britain itself, where the highest levels of society were in thrall to the greedy, self-serving interest groups enriching themselves at the expense of the common people.61 Ships carrying tea were turned back as a united front among colonists refused to bow before the demands of a government that did not allow them representation in the political process. When three vessels put in to Boston harbour, there was a tense stand-off between the locals and the authorities. On the night of 16 December, a small group of men dressed as ‘Indians’ boarded the boats and tipped the tea into the harbour; they would rather it went to the bottom of the sea than be forced to pay taxes to London.62

Seen from an American perspective, the chain of events that led to the Declaration of Independence of the United States had a very American context. But from a wider vantage point the causes can be traced back to the tentacles of British power extending ever further in search of new opportunities, and from the efficacy of the Silk Road that had caused disequilibrium by pumping back too much too quickly. London was trying to balance competing demands on opposite sides of the world, and attempting to use revenues generated by taxes in one location to fund expenditure in another, leading to disillusionment, dissatisfaction - and revolt. The pursuit of profits had been relentless, which in turn had spurred a growing sense of self-confidence and arrogance. The East India Company, Clive told inquisitors on the eve of its collapse, was an imperial power in all but name. It ruled over countries that were ‘rich, populous, fruitful’, and was ‘in possession … of twenty millions of subjects’.63 As those in the American colonies recognised, there was ultimately little difference between being a subject in one territory controlled from Britain rather than another. If Bengalis could starve to death, why not those living in the colonies, whose rights seemed no better or greater? It was time to go it alone.

The American War of Independence provoked much soul-searching in Britain as to how it should treat the regions where it had built up trading positions that were not just commercially lucrative but had real political clout too. The effective conquest of Bengal marked a signal moment in so far as it changed Britain from being a country that supported colonies of its own émigrés to becoming a domain that ruled other peoples. It was a steep learning curve to make sense of what this meant and how to balance the desires of the centre of the empire with the needs of its extremities. Britain found itself administering peoples who had laws and customs of their own, and having to work out what to borrow from new communities, what to lend - and how to build a platform that was workable and sustainable. An empire was being born.

Its genesis marked the end of a chapter. The passing of most of India into British hands ensured that the overland trade routes were starved of oxygen, as buying and spending power, assets and attention were decisively diverted to Europe. The decline in the importance of cavalry in the face of yet more improvements in military technology and tactics, particularly relating to firepower and heavy artillery, also played a role in depressing the volumes passing along the roads that had criss-crossed Asia for millennia. Central Asia, like southern Europe before it, began to fade.

The loss of thirteen colonies in North America was a humiliating setback for Britain and underlined how important it was to keep British possessions secure. And in that sense, the appointment of Lord Cornwallis as governor-general of India was an eye-opener: it was Cornwallis who had played a prominent role in the debacle across the Atlantic and who had surrendered Yorktown to George Washington. Perhaps the idea was that painful lessons had been learnt, and those who had learnt them were best placed to make sure that the same thing did not happen again elsewhere. Britain might have lost the United States, but it would never lose India.