Thursday, May 30, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

A tale of intrigue and international politics

Update : 18 Mar 2016, 06:42 PM

England in 1660, at the end of the Civil War and the Commonwealth, saw the cultural mores of the nation evolved from Puritan constraint. There was a distinct move towards what was to become known as the “Age of Enlightenment” dawning across Europe.

John Dryden, himself something of a Puritan, who was to become acknowledged as one of England’s greatest dramatists and poets, was appointed as Historiographer Royal in 1770, initiating a more disciplined approach to the study of history.

In fact, it may be reasonable to date the development of the Age of Enlightenment to at least a century earlier as some Europeans, especially the English, freed from the autocracy of the Roman Catholic Church, began to spread its wings, and certainly discovered in the Middle East, and then in the Indian sub-continent, cultural levels hitherto unknown in Europe since, arguably, the fifth century and the decline of Rome.

On the other side of the known world, in the Indian sub-continent, in which the English East India Company, first chartered as recently as 70 years earlier, was rapidly developing their trade in goods with consumer appeal, and, especially, munitions, with which to prosecute the increasing level of warfare, nationally and internationally within Europe, was slowly absorbing and sharing their experience of those lands of “The Great Mughal.”

Curiously, of course, the time of Aurangzeb, possibly also the most significant period in the history of the lands that are now Bangladesh, when by most measures the wealthiest, and perhaps most cultured part of the Mughal Empire, matched closely with the post restoration rise of English power and culture, which, following the death of Aurangzeb and the decline of the Mughals, was almost mirrored in the rise and fall of English power and affluence. No coincidence, perhaps.

Ascending to the Mughal throne in 1658 as, in England, Cromwell’s “regime” declined towards the 1660 Restoration, in which the monarchy was restored to England following the execution of King Charles I and the Commonwealth “republic” which followed -- Aurangzeb was to prove, perhaps, the last, and arguably the most effective of military rulers in South Asia.

Even today, academics argue about just how violent a monarch he proved, his somewhat extreme Islamic views certainly chiming at odds with those of his various predecessors.

He was, of course, also the Mughal monarch, arguably most influential in the history of today’s Bangladesh, described by modern literary commentators as “a moving drama of one of the most hated despots of India.”

In fact, that “moving drama” written by a dramatist who was largely a contemporary of the emperor, Dryden’s play, “Aurangzeb,” is certainly a moving story of forbidden love and patricidal and fratricidal conflict, reflecting all we know today of Aurangzeb’s story.

In fact, Aurangzeb’s reign needs to be appreciated as one of a difficult and dangerous period in what was, perhaps, the greatest empire in the world. And, certainly, an empire regarded, in awe, by Westerners. The “Great Mughal” was the most common reference to rulers and realm, with all its suggestion of awe for the oriental splendour of it all.

Interestingly, the play is said to have impressed the newly restored King of England, Charles the second, who had his own experiences of royal turbulence to live with.

Dryden saw the execution of the king’s father -- a move he probably sympathised. Certainly, his fame had begun to flourish in a period in which drama was much frowned upon, with a degree of religious extremism with which he also appears to have sympathised with.

Aurangzeb, with his unique connection with Bengal, and its client states of Bihar and Orissa, all of which were ruled from Dhaka should, today, be regarded as something of a monster is in a predominantly Hindu region, but there is little doubt, to judge from contemporary journals of Europeans, that he was held in some regard by them.

Until the disaster of Child’s War, from 1686 to 1690, it is evident from the journals of the East India Company people that the Mughal regime appears to have been, at least, both respected, and admired. It seems that the efficiency of the administration greatly facilitated the work of trade and commerce, and, perhaps, especially those cargoes of vital supplies of saltpetre and gunpowder.

The outcome of Child’s War, occasioned by a badly botched attempt by the English to seize the important port facility of Chittagong with a fleet of well-armed ships that also bore both a small military force, and two hundred cannon with which to bribe the Zamindari in the area around Chittagong, was, potentially, disastrous for the English. It resulted, in its complete fiasco of a failure, in emissaries, both commercial and diplomatic, actually prostrating themselves to the Emperor, and handing over sacks of gold to enable their trade to continue.

The war, of course, post-dated Dryden’s romantic work. What was made in London, not just of that humiliation, but one compounded -- five years later by the appalling act of piracy by the English renegade, Henry Every. He, in 1695, in one of the greatest acts of piracy on record, seized a Mughal fleet en route home from Haj, involving rape, murder, and the theft of a cargo valued today at around £52 million.

Aurangzeb’s fury, compounded by this second offence of English origins, certainly cost the East India Company, and the English government dear in order to return to business as usual, especially in the much valued cargoes of gunpowder for a nation at war.

From that period onwards, the focus of English literature and drama that involved the Indian sub-continent, seems to have concentrated, rather, on the influence of Indian experience on English leading characters.

The influence of the arts and culture of India may well have lingered, not least in such works as the fabulous Brighton Pavilion, today’s appearance of which, in what is described as “Indo-Islamic” architectural style, was completed by the famous John Nash, by 1822.

It was, perhaps, no coincidence that the period was certainly one greatly influenced by the return of the “nabobs,” the “fabulously” wealthy returning servants of the East India Company. Indeed, it may reasonably be speculated that East India Company wealth may well have found its way into financing the adulterous weekend hideaway of England’s Prince Regent, subsequently King George the fourth.

What view is taken, today, of the works of both the East India Company, and the subsequent Raj, would certainly not conform to most contemporary views complicit in the operations of both rulers. However, if it is true, as Dryden suggested, that mankind often sees just what it wants to see, then maybe even such horrors as fratricide and patricide may pale in the reflection of romance; especially when the horrors, and the romance, are located in places of legendary splendour. 

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