A 19th century engraving of Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama (1460 - 1524), paying homage to the Zamorin of Calicut and opening up direct trade between Europe and India, 1498.(Getty Images)
By discovering the sea trade route to India, Vasco da Gama inadvertently laid the foundation of what would become the Raj, three centuries later. That this foundation was laid not on land but at sea exposes the lack of imagination of the mighty Mughals, who left the coast vulnerable to skirmishes among traders and pirates. In hindsight, a protected coastline could have delivered an altogether different nation-state to this landscape. But that was not to be.
Popular history has painted Vasco da Gama as a noble seaman. In reality he only pursued Portuguese interests in ruling trade over half the world as divided by the Pope – the western half for the Spanish and the eastern hemisphere for the Portuguese. Embedded within this directive was the command to establish contact with what were believed to be the Christian Empires of the east. Consequently, crew members proclaimed that ‘Christians and spices’ brought them to the coast of India. With a long history of conflict with Islam, the newly-opened trade route was a conduit to establish Christian supremacy. With a powerful navy at their disposal, the Portuguese inflicted mass casualties on dissenters. Francis Xavier supervised mass conversions in Goa and converted over 10,000 villagers in south Malabar. Trade and conversion sailed in alliance.
Author Roy Moxham transports readers back to the times when the Portuguese were engaged in fierce encounters with the Dutch, the English and the French, all of whom wanted to plunder India. Based on published memoirs and eyewitness accounts, The Theft of India highlights the terrible sufferings inflicted on Indians by Europeans during the tumultuous three centuries of coastal onslaught. Caught in the crossfire between invading traders, local rulers were trapped. Limited resistance by the Marathas and the Zamorins could only delay the inevitable to a point. Colonialism emerged from this opportunistic churning and resultant sharing of power between opposing forces.
The Theft of India
The question worth asking is whether it could have gone the other way. It could have, had the 10 month siege of Goa in 1570 been successful under the united Muslim rulers. Buoyed by their victory, the Portuguese fortified their factories, enforced a monopoly on the spice trade, and built large garrisons. But all this was set to change with the arrival of the Dutch and the British, who scrambled for the same resources. With deceit, corruption, forgery and brute force being the leitmotif, human nature was at its worst. The ongoing wars between the European nations influenced how they dealt with each other in India.
Moxham’s research shows how European traders created windows of opportunity through agreements with local traders and rulers, only to betray them at an opportune moment. After all, they had come to India to swindle its resources and not to build relationships. The Theft of India is loaded with anecdotal accounts of political intrigue, ruthless genocide and mindless plunder. It was typical of an era when life was nasty and brutish, and loyalties were traded for survival.
The English were late to arrive on the scene but were quick to violate the decree that the East India Company would insist on trade and not attempt colonization or conquest. Robert Clive, who arrived as a company clerk in 1744 rewrote the script a decade later. Not only did he acquire large shares in the company, he capitalized on the political void created after the decline of both the Marathas and the Mughals. In the 13 years after the Battle of Plassey huge sums of money were transported to Britain. Shockingly, the first 13 years of British rule did more damage to the people of India than the depredations of all the other European invaders of the centuries before. The Bengal famine of 1770 was the worst manifestation of this plunder.
Moxham paints a dire picture of the organized loot. The pain it inflicted on the local population was immense. Several hundreds were put to sword, and millions starved to death. Life under the Mughals may not have been rosy, but at least Mughal spoils were generally retained in India. The rest, as Moxham concludes, is history.
Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic