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British Bengal - 1757-1947

The province of Bengal was one of the most valuable acquisitions that was ever made by any nation. Its fertile soil produced every thing requisite for the food of man or animal; and in such abundance, that the crops of one year were sufficient for the consumption of its inhabitants for two. It was thereby enabled to supply all other parts of India with its superabundance; and to become the granary of the east, as Egypt formerly was of the west. In variety of fruits and animals it equally abounded; and yielded every other article requisite for the comfort, or even' luxury, of man. The ingenious inhabitants of Bengal, being well versed in all the arts of useful industry, require no assistance from other countries ; while their delicate and valuable manufactures are exported to every part of the world.

Including Assam, which, until the spring of 1874, was a part of Bengal, the area was 248,231 square miles, and the population 66,856,859. This great lieutenant-governorship, excluding Assam, contained one-third of the total population of British India, and yielded a revenue of £17,687,072, or over one-third of the aggregate revenues of the Indian empire. It was bounded on the N. by Assam, Bhutan, and Nepal; on the S. by Burmah, the Bay of Bengal, and Madras; on the W. by an imaginary line running between it and the adjoining lieutenant-governorship of the North-Western Provinces, and by the plateau of the Central Provinces; and on the E. by the unexplored mountainous region which separates it from China and Northern Burmah.

The territory teemed with every product of nature, from the fierce beasts and irrepressible vegetation of the tropics, to the stunted barley which the till-man rears, and the tiny furred animal which he hunts within sight of the unmelting snows. Tea, indigo, turmeric, lac, waving white fields of the opium-poppy, wheat and innumerable grains and pulses, pepper, ginger, betel-nut, quinine and many costly spices and drugs, oil-seeds of sorts, cotton, the silk mulberry, inexhaustible crops of jute and other fibers; timber, from the feathery bamboo and coronetted palm to the iron-hearted tal tree—in short, every vegetable product which fed and clothed a people, and enabled it to trade with foreign nations, abounded.

The word Bengal was derived from Sanskrit geography, and applied strictly, to the country stretching southwards from Bhagalpur to the sea. The ancient Banga formed one of the five outlying kingdoms of Aryan India, and was practically conterminous with the Delta of Bengal it derived its name, according to the etymology of the Pandits, from a prince of the Mahabharata, to whose portion it fell on the primitive partition of the country among the Lunar race of Dehli.

But a city called Bangala, near Chittagong, which, although now washed away, is supposed to have existed in the Muhammadan period, appears to have given the name to the European world. The word Bangala was first used by the Musalmans; and under their rule, like the Banga of old Sanskrit times, it applied specifically to the Gangetic delta, although the latter conquests to the east of the Brahmaputra were eventually included within it. In their distribution of the country for fiscal purposes, it formed the central province of a governorship, with Behar on the N.W., and Orissa on the S.W., jointly ruled by one deputy of the Dehli emperor.

Under the English the name did at different periods have very different significations. Francis Fernandez applied it to the country from the extreme east of Chittagong to Point Palmyras in Orissa, with a coast line which Purchas estimates at 600 miles, running inland for the same distance, and watered by the Ganges. This territory would include the Muhammadan province of Bengal, with parts of Behar and Orissa. The loose idea thus derived from old voyagers became stereotyped in the archives of the East India Company. All its north-eastern factories, from Balasor, on the Orissa coast, to Patna, in the heart of Behar, belonged to the "Bengal Establishment," and as British conquests crept higher up the rivers, the term came to be applied to the whole of Northern India.

The Presidency of Bengal, in contradistinction to those of Madras and Bombay, eventually included all the British territories north of the Central Provinces, from the mouths of the Ganges and Brahmaputra to the Himalayas and the Panjab. The term Bengal continued to be officially employed in this sense by the military department of the Government of India.

But the tendency to a more exact order of civil administration gradually brought about a corresponding precision in the use of Indian geographical names. The North-Western Provinces date their separate existence from 1831. Since that year they stood forward under a name of their own as the North-Western Provinces, in contradistinction to the Lower Provinces of Bengal. Later annexations added new territorial entities, and the northern Presidency was mapped out into four separate governments — the North-Western Provinces, Oudh, Panjab, and Lower Bengal.

Three of the provinces of the Lieutenant-Governorship of Bengal — namely, Bengal proper, Behar, and Orissa — consisted of great river valleys; the fourth, Chhota or Chutia Nagpur, was a mountainous region which separated them from the Central India plateau. Orissa embraced the rich deltas of the Mahanadi and the neighbouring rivers, bounded by the Bay of Bengal on the S.E., and walled in on the N.W. by tributary hill states.

Proceeding westward, the province of Bengal proper stretched along the coast from Orissa to British Burmah, and inland from the sea-board to the Himalayas. Its southern portion was formed by the united deltas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra; its northern consisted of the valleys of these great rivers and their tributaries. Behar lies on the north-west of Bengal proper, and comprises the higher valley of the Ranges, from the spot where it issued from the territories of the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provincea Between Behar and Orissa, but stretching further westward and deep into the hill tountry, lay the province of Chhota or Chutia Nigpur.

The Indian subcontinent had indirect relations with Europe by both overland caravans and maritime routes, dating back to the fifth century BC. The lucrative spice trade with India had been mainly in the hands of Arab merchants. By the fifteenth century, European traders had come to believe that the commissions they had to pay the Arabs were prohibitively high and therefore sent out fleets in search of new trade routes to India. The arrival of the Europeans in the last quarter of the fifteenth century marked a great turning point in the history of the subcontinent. The dynamics of the history of the subcontinent came to be shaped chiefly by the Europeans' political and trade relations with India as India was swept into the vortex of Western power politics. The arrival of the Europeans generally coincided with the gradual decline of Mughal power, and the subcontinent became an arena of struggle not only between Europeans and the indigenous rulers but also among the Europeans.

The Portuguese, in the days of Aurangzéb, were of so little account that the dealings between them and his government may be passed by. The struggle for the eastern maritime trade then lay between the English and the Dutch. But the Hollanders devoted their attention chiefly to the commerce with the Indian Archipelago and Spice Islands, keeping very quiet in their Indian factories. The small settlements on the coasts made by the French and Danes during the reign did not seriously concern the Mogul empire. The real trouble was with the English traders who began to assert themselves and to claim the right of fortifying their ‘factories’ or commercial stations.

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Page last modified: 23-05-2012 16:09:40 ZULU