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Rulers, Townsmen and BazaarsNorth Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion 1770-1870$

C.A. Bayly

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780198077466

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198077466.001.0001

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The Crisis of the North Indian Political Economy, 1825–45

The Crisis of the North Indian Political Economy, 1825–45

(p.318) Chapter 7 The Crisis of the North Indian Political Economy, 1825–45
Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars

C. A. Bayly

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the crisis in the political economy of north India during the period from 1825 to 1845. It suggests that the most striking fact about the downturn of the 1830s in north India was the way in which a wide range of adverse climatic, ecological, and monetary conditions converged. It explains that this crisis resulted from a disturbance of the links between state, commerce and agrarian society which had been established after 1740. It also argues that the decline of princely consumption and agrarian patronage in the intermediate economy magnified the disruption caused by a political assault on the north Indian monetary system and the collapse of the false commercial economy which had remitted its Europeans' political perquisites to Britain. This was not a crisis of modernisation, it represented the impact on the Indian localities of imperialism.

Keywords:   political economy, north India, commerce, agrarian society, agrarian patronage, commercial economy, princely consumption, Indian monetary system, imperialism

THE AIM OF the last two chapters has been to demonstrate that the system of Indian states was not a passive victim of British expansion but that, though constrained, it continued to develop along existing lines. The buoyancy of many trades, towns, merchant communities and areas of high farming can be attributed to the continuing growth of consumption, and even investment, by the elites to which the ‘successor states’ of the eighteenth century had given rise. The emergence of the new pattern had been a violent and uneven process, of course. Trade and agriculture suffered during the three Maratha wars, and turbulence in the Punjab several times interrupted the process of consolidation. Rohilkhand outside Rampur took two generations to recover from the war of 1774. The British conquest also caused some immediate disruption. In the Doab, the Cession and the withdrawal of Awadh influence brought about a definite, if temporary, slump in the trade in the ‘finer articles of produce’, the silks and spices which had been consumed by the Nawab’s luxurious soldiery.1 Military industries also felt a chill wind. The British Peace reduced the ‘excellent sword industries of Farrukhabad’ and the musket-makers of Bareilly, by beginning to close off the possibilities of mercenary service to (p.319) Rohilla and Rajput alike.2 That great employer of mercenaries, Amir Khan, submitted to the British in 1817, and his domain was speedily transformed into the peaceable central Indian state of Tonk. All the same, the crucial changes were only beginning to work through as much as a generation after the British had assumed formal control of the region. The decline of the military aristocracies of the principalities within the Company’s control was a slow-moving process.

For the first quarter of the century, the growth of political stability in the Punjab, the Maratha states, the Jat lands and Awadh supported the long-distance luxury economy and towns associated with it. Over these years, the Company’s revenue policy was relatively indulgent to the notables within the North-Western Provinces whose local pomp and display helped to maintain employment in the intermediate economy of military, artisan and transport services. In Awadh and even in territories under more direct British influence, magnates continued to found fixed markets which offset the centralisation of new imperial facilities on the large cities. New areas to the north and south of the Great Valley were brought within the domain of the money economy, while unstable and declining areas to the west were recolonised by merchant capitalists and marketing farmers. The rising agricultural export economy in cotton, indigo and opium combined with this buoyancy of the intermediate economy and the pressure of the heavy revenue-demand to speed up the pace of agricultural exchange. Henry Newman, Collector of Government Customs at Farrukhabad and later Superintendent of Resources, wrote of the ‘great increase in the number of interior marts’ in the province between 1810 and 1826.3 As Asiya Siddiqi has shown, clear patterns of regional agricultural specialisation were becoming more apparent before 1830, with the riverain areas producing cash crops for export, and the inner districts feeding them with grain and pulses.4 (p.320)

After about 1825, however, this pattern began to fragment throughout north India. The 1830s saw a disruption of demand at both the luxury and intermediary levels of the economy. This was accompanied by decline in the rate of town growth and political turbulence in many Indian states, both independent and formally dependent. The crisis of the 1830s involved a complex set of changes which had wide repercussions throughout Indian social and economic life, but thus far, only some aspects of the transformation have received adequate coverage. That the Gangetic area and western India suffered a virtual depression which derived from acute problems of liquidity is generally accepted. The acreage under export cash crops, and especially indigo, had been kept artificially high because they were used as a channel of remittance for Indian profits and salaries to Great Britain. The collapse of some of the major European houses of agency in 1827 and 1828 brought about a general disruption in the flow of cash and credit which began in the export sector but rapidly affected internal trade also.5 Once the bubble had burst in Calcutta, a whole commercial house of cards in the west of the North-West Provinces came tumbling down. Around Farrukhabad alone, indigo houses and Indian bankers failed to the extent of Rs. 30 lakhs, the total revenue of the territory for one year. But this was only the beginning.6

Eastern India was also facing a deeper if less dramatic decline in export performance which has attracted little attention. Taking the period 1830–60, agricultural produce exported from the region met increasing competition in foreign markets as other areas within and outside India began producing the cotton, indigo, opium, silks and saltpetre which had given rise to the heady but narrow growth after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Problems of long-distance transport, quality control and supply which derived from the relative inefficiency of the peasant and petty mercantile economy of Hindustan made its products more and more uncompetitive. Only in the case of specialist (p.321) products where European-controlled capital could make a quick killing (tea and jute, for instance), or where a change in tariff policy gave a massive stimulus (the sugar of eastern Hindustan, for instance), would islands of high-income commercial farming for export expand. And even here, there was no guarantee that the mass of the peasant economy would benefit very much. In the midst of these difficulties, the Gangetic area suffered in the 1830s from the sort of cycle of weather instability and problem of subsistence which was reminiscent of the 1780s and 1800s: an ancient pattern of distress on the Indian scene. Famine, migration and internal plunder revived on a small scale conditions which had been typical of the unstable areas during the last third of the previous century. Indeed, it was those areas and sections of the population which had fared worst in earlier periods which suffered most again in the 1830s. Theoretically, Indian traders and peasants should have been able to ride out such conditions of famine, and agricultural incomes should have recovered in the medium term. But in the midst of these other difficulties, recovery was not general before 1845, and some of the less favoured areas remained depressed for a generation or more.

Finally, at a deeper level, a more important transformation was occurring whose social consequences were to persist beyond the Great Rebellion itself. This could be described as a general crisis of the Indian political system. Having survived for a generation or more in uneasy symbiosis with the East India Company, the societies of the local and regional kingdoms in British territory and outside its borders were beginning perceptibly to crumble. The political leading edge of these changes was the British diplomatic offensive against the Indian states symbolised by the famous ‘Policy of Lapse’ and the anti-taluqdar settlements of the 1830s and 1840s in the North-Western Provinces. The new official generation had finally cast off the inheritance of prudence and enlightened tolerance of the Indian political order which had characterised the humbler orientalists of earlier years. The magnates and revenue entrepreneurs who had acquiesced in, or even provided conditions for the British expansion, were now regarded as extravagant parasites on a peasant economy straining to transform itself into a society of progressive yeoman farmers. But there were (p.322) subtler and slower processes moving below the surface. British standardisation of the economy slowly eliminated the local taxation, local mints and ‘idle consumption’ which had been the hallmark of the rajwari societies, besides enticing away the mercantile capital which supported them. The dispersal of the armed bands and retainers of the regional states and local magnates profoundly affected the artisan and service economies, not only in the Indian states, but in the British territories themselves.

It was earlier stressed that luxury production and consumption were the life blood of the pre-colonial order and that they had a social and ritual value which cannot easily be conveyed by the glib term ‘luxury’. Indian social philosophy was acted out in forms of relationship between orders of people, and gift-giving, feasting and display were the outward expressions of this philosophy. The progressive atrophy of the Indian state system which became apparent in the 1830s had deep and long-term reverberations. Indeed the rebellion of 1857 was merely one of the later indications of dislocation. Yet it seems likely that the change would have been less severe if the decline of employment—virtually the decline of social function—for soldiers, artisans and service people had not been compounded by the onset of a high laissez-faire philosophy within the Company’s government. For the 1830s saw a cutback too in the meagre Company expenditure on military and civil government; a withdrawal of its embarrassed patronage of Hindu and Muslim places of worship; and a curtailment of the Company’s residual trading functions. Taken together these setbacks and changes of policy represented a considerable deflation of the north Indian economy. But the word deflation cannot carry the full implications. To Indians the Company was failing to fulfil its duty as ruler, though evidently exercising with even greater determination its right to revenue. The cry was heard: ‘Company ke amal men kuchh rozgar nahin’ (‘under Company rule there is no employment’).7 The British were in fact facing a crisis of legitimacy which derived from their failure to follow the implications of the exercise of power within Indian society. But this decline of the princely economies not only (p.323) strained relations between the foreign government and its subjects; it also changed the balance between the constituent elements of the old social order. Later chapters will show how the decline of aristocracy and gentry and the altered position of the merchant classes opened new fissures between the Hindu and Islamic corporations of town and qasbah. Thus it was the moral and social effects of the dislocation of the 1830s which persisted after the economy had revived. Trade along the Ganges basin was considerably greater in 1850 than it had been in 1800; new consumers had arisen in the rich commercial cities to replace the failing demand of the military aristocracy. But the disruption of statuses was not so easily repaired.

Each district economy reacted in different ways to the gathering economic problems; some indeed emerged more or less unscathed. Yet there were deeper connections under the surface. For instance, the deflation of the economies of the Indian states contributed to the problems of liquidity which affected the export economy because the great Indian firms tended to operate in both. Thus the Collector of Aligarh remarked in 1832 that one of the general causes of the Depression was the ‘decline of the Indian ruling powers whose seats of government had formed the principal centres for the consumption of luxury goods’.8 In the same way, one of the contributing causes of the money and credit famine of the early 1830s was the decision to close the local mints of Farrukhabad, Saugor and Benares. This political act was a conscious attempt to reverse the decentralisation of the economy, the origins of which can be traced back to the 1730s. It had severe if temporary repercussions not only on the export traders but also for the broad agrarian economy. On the other hand, it is not fortuitous that the British decision to cut away many of the privileges and powers of Indian notables should have occurred at a time when the early growth of the colonial economy was running out of steam. While the economy was expanding, strains between the paramount power and the Indian states were reduced. But agrarian standstill or decline raised the question of who was to control the resources. (p.324) ‘Misgovernment’ in Awadh or among the Bundela rajas seemed more acute because economic change was putting strains on the internal government of the Indian states. In turn political conflicts between the ruling groups speeded the migration of merchant capital from independent to British territory, and so helped further to undermine their regimes.

Of all the changes introduced by the British in India, the ending of the ‘chaos and anarchy’ of the eighteenth century was the one of which they were most proud. Yet even within the rolling passages of imperial exultation written by Tod, Sleeman or Malcolm, we find signs of doubt. Why was it that trade in Rajasthan in 1820 was less than it had been in 1770? What were the transitional consequences for the artisan and service classes, for the moral economy of north India, of the ending of warfare and the erosion of courtly Indian society? Contemporary comment and figures on individual trades show that there was widespread disruption in patterns of consumption as the old military and political systems began to crumble faster in the late 1820s. This adversely affected some towns, trade routes and areas of specialist agriculture, deflecting developments which had originated since 1740. Of course this does not mean that the expenditure of elites was permanently reduced either in absolute or relative terms. ‘New men’, both landed and mercantile, came to compensate for the decline of sections of the aristocracy. Consumption of dutiable goods per head in Mirzapur was twice as high as that in the Rohilla centres as early as 1817, and there is later evidence of rich merchants building stone houses even during the bad days of the 1830s. Yet there was a widespread view that traders and other nouveaux riches concentrated their resources on food rather than artisan products, and that their restricted life-style created relatively little employment. Against this background the slow-down of the 1830s and early 1840s was significant. The rate of land-revenue per acre reached its highest point of the century in real terms,9 while the value of agricultural produce fell. The embarrassment of the old military and service classes was reflected in the accelerated sale of land-rights, especially in the Doab.

(p.325) Just as the consolidation of consuming aristocracies in the independent states had contributed to the stability of British territories before 1825, so after that date the reduction of their armies and great towns adversely affected the economy of the Ganges valley. During the heyday of the Maratha states the great warlords had held as many as 150,000 men poised on the southern perimeter of the Gangetic plains. Their consumption continued to maintain those north–south trade routes which had been so buoyant during the last quarter of the previous century. The disbanding of the Maratha armies acted as a considerable deflation of the urban and bazaar economy of the Deccan, and its effects can also be traced in Hindustan. In the case of Nagpur, the decline of military and court retainers after 1825 brought about a ‘sudden reduction in the amount of population of the city and environs’.10 Demand for agricultural produce was also curtailed for ‘the dispersion of these hordes on the introduction by us [the British] of order and good government, necessarily diminishes the consumption of produce as of the land as of the loom’.11 There was a sharp decline in the import of fine products from Agra, Benares and Mirzapur between 1825 and 1830 because nearly 75 per cent of the fine muslins, kinkhabs and shawls imported had previously been purchased by the Maratha court itself, though later redistributed to soldiers and retainers.12 The disappearance of this demand had indirect effects also. It caused the closure of mercantile kothis which pushed up the cost of remaining imports and thus choked off further demand. Artisan producers, wholesale traders, insurance firms and transport specialists all suffered. The decline of its southern trade was one condition restraining the urban growth of Benares and Mirzapur which had been tied to Maratha fortunes since 1700 or before. Both cities also found their Punjab commerce in difficulties in the 1830s, and were forced to depend more and more on the fickle trade in raw (p.326) cotton. This had itself begun to bleed away with the opening of regular transport west to Bombay in the late 1830s.

The main impact of these changes of the 1830s on the Indian elites came from four types of measures. First, between 1803 and 1830 there appears to have been a substantial increase in the real revenue collected by the colonial government. This reduced the disposable income of the great zamindars and cut off the large variety of perquisites which had formerly filtered back into local society through the ‘expenses’ of the great revenue-farmers. Secondly, a large number of old princely families, such as those of Benares, Farrukhabad or Hatras, were pensioned off on allowances or fixed stipends. These began as only small proportions of the original income of the darbars, and within a generation they had generally been minutely subdivided by the laws of inheritance among numerous descendants, none of whom was wealthy enough to live in adequate style.13 The records of the Governor General’s Agent in Benares, which was a seat of many of these dispossessed princelings, reveal that by the 1830s the bulk of government pensions were being paid directly into the hands of the mercantile creditors of the aristocratic families, the thrifty mahajans of the Benares bazaars.14 Thirdly, even those rulers and zamindars who retained some control over their domains were being slowly deprived of the estimated 10 per cent of income which they had formerly derived from transit duties, bazaar duties, cesses and other gifts. These were generally assimilated into the state’s own revenue as settlements of land-revenue became more meticulous. Finally, of course, military lineages lost the substantial income which they had gained from mercenary service outside their territories.

The important point about these changes was that they had a differential effect on sections of the population. Some elements of (p.327) the mercenary gentry, artisan groups or old merchant communities were able to adjust to the changes and to find employment and openings for trade in the narrow and more specialised sector linked to the export economy. As Brodkin has pointed out, this was the case with some of the Rohilla gentry.15 In Rohilkhand, the sugar boom of the 1820s saved some of the military families from decline. Landholding groups in and around Bareilly profited from rising sugar prices and some got a grip on warehousing, transport and marketing.16 But success in this transition was dependent on some capital and physical access to nearby large markets. Many old families in Rohilla townships, such as Aonla and Pilibhit, had already declined too far. Fortified with a military tradition and a history of opposition to British rule, they were, as Bishop Heber noted in his travels, a distinct threat to colonial control in northern Hindustan.17 By contrast, the aristocracy of Rampur, where the Nawabi itself remained a monopolist and entrepreneur in the production of sugar, generally preserved itself despite constant British pressure to cut away areas of additional income from transit and other dues.

British inroads into the political economies of the Indian states varied in intensity. There were cases like that of the central Indian state of Jalaun where the British virtually abolished the local raj, setting off a lengthy and costly revolt by the Bundela Rajputs which further disrupted trade and agriculture between 1842 and 1858. Here the end of the Indian state may have had some minor effects in freeing the cotton trade route from ‘vexatious dues’, but it also spelled further decline for the commercial and agrarian economy of Bundelkhand which was already suffering from the withdrawal of the Company’s huge Rs. 40 lakhs investment in cotton. A whole network of moneylending and luxury trading houses centred on the towns of Kunch and Jalaun (p.328) disappeared;18 Bundelkhand which had prospered on its moist soils and princely expenditure throughout the eighteenth century became an area of permanently depressed agriculture—a stagnant backwater of Hindustan.

A serious change of fortune also overtook the Jat states south and west of Agra which had enjoyed relative prosperity since the 1720s, with an interval of disruption during the imperial resurgence under Najaf Khan. The decline of local cotton and indigo production after 1827 affected the local elites. But it was the disappearance of ‘service’ which created the greatest hardship. As late as 1816, the small Jat principalities may have supported as many as 25,000 well-equipped regular soldiers. But Sleeman, who visited the tract in the 1830s, gave a vivid account of the consequences of the decline of the courts of Deig and Bharatpur. This last state was particularly hard hit. Bharatpur forces had halted the conquering army of Lord Lake in 1806, and the British were only too happy to expel the Raja and impose a severe treaty of subsidiary alliance when a violent succession dispute broke out there in 1826. Demilitarisation was particularly abrupt in Bharatpur. The Company saddled the new ruler with a large indemnity at the very point when the Darbar also lost Rs. 1 lakh of its Rs. 4 lakhs annual income when, under Regulation 16 of 1829, the British excluded Bharatpur salt from the North-Western Provinces, so curtailing customs income and closing the salt pans.19 Trade in the territory remained stagnant until after 1850.20 Some Bharatpur troops were replaced by Company sepoys; but most were discharged as the Darbar got deeper into financial trouble. Sleeman noted:

There was a general complaint among the people of the town of the want of ‘rozgar’ (employment) and its fruit, subsistence; the taking of Bharatpur had, they said, produced a sad change among them for the worst… ‘what are we to do who (p.329) have nothing but our swords to depend on, now that our chief no longer wants us, and you won’t take us?’21

This had particular force against the background of traditions of fidelity and service to rulers which was a feature of the warrior kingdoms. Ziegler, for instance, has shown that for Rajput princes the necessary power to conquer and rule was thought to derive from devotion and service to a tutelary god (thakur). Service performed by lesser rulers and warriors for the greater had become an act of religious devotion in itself. It ensured them their own lesser sovereignties, and either salvation through death on the field or material reward for fidelity.22 But besides acting as a profound shock to the values and subsistence of soldiers, retrenchment also disrupted the networks of merchant people and artisans. These had also been incorporated into the principalities by systems of household provisioning which were held to be varieties of ‘service.’

Sleeman noted that the political upheaval affected not only the military aristocracy but also the shopkeepers and merchants ‘who provided these troops with clothes, food and furniture, which they can no longer afford to pay for’. The manufacturing, trading and commercial industry that provided them with comforts was thrown out of employment, and ‘the whole frame of society becomes, for a time, deranged by the local diminution in the demand for the services of men and the produce of their industry’.23 In a situation where occupational boundaries remained strong, and physical mobility had become less easy, there was little question of such men moving into employment in the cotton towns. Instead, they tended to become bandits, drifting labourers or religious mendicants, fostering an ‘unquiet transition spirit’ calculated to give anxiety to settled government. Thus it was often the nature of pre-colonial military arrangements which determined the fate of the soldiery in the colonial period. Where (p.330) soldiers had been supported on grants of rental income made under one of the large numbers of ‘military tenure’ loosely called jaidad they were more easily absorbed back into agricultural society as managers or even cultivators. But eighteenth-century armies in the north had also included large numbers of freelance mercenaries who had no toehold in agrarian society, as well as persons of high dignity who would not touch the rent-roll, let alone the plough. It was such men whose indigence swelled the numbers of genteel poor in the towns and unquiet wanderers in the countryside.

The practical, rationalistic policy of the enthusiastic empire builders of the 1830s and 1840s was also reflected in the famous anti-taluqdari settlements of Thomason and Bird. These sought to deprive the little kings of the locality of a large proportion of their revenue-engaging rights, and put in their stead a variety of village magnates who were perceived as ‘ancient owners of the soil’. In some areas the taluqdars fought back with success, using links with sympathetic British officials, the power of the courts, and their own local pre-eminence. Yet as Metcalf shows,24 these settlements did substantially alter the social map of the Gangetic valley, and especially its western tracts. The landlords and large owners of Agra, Etawah and Mainpuri Districts were permanently weakened. Over a period of twenty years, many notables spent large sums in fighting law suits. Some permanently lost a large part of their income. The Raja of Mainpuri, for instance, found his income reduced from Rs. 80,000 per year to Rs. 30,000, and in the upper Doab the great majority of notables were heavily in debt by the late 1840s.

These administrative changes coincided with the collapse of the indigo boom and the scarcities of the 1830s so that in the short run no prosperous and viable village landlord element emerged to fill the landlords’ local economic role.25 When finally the pace of agricultural (p.331) production, population growth and trade began to pick up after 1842, the landed collateral given by the notables to their moneylenders during the crisis began to acquire extra value. Moneylenders foreclosed on debts and revenue rights came onto the market in a great rush. Contemporary settlement officers regarded these large holders as no more than a burden on agricultural production, and later commentators have queried the effects of the transfer of rights over land through auction sales. Nevertheless, the notables and their consumption had a significant local economic role, and their disappearance entailed dislocation and even agricultural decline.

In the Trans–Jamna tracts of the Allahabad and Mirzapur Districts, the Maharaja of Benares and the Rajas of Bara, Meja and Daiya had all, despite their ‘fraudulent’ land transactions during the first settlements, put a great deal of capital into improvements, clearing and petty town-building in the first years of the century.26 After 1830 this development came to a halt. Heavy assessment and inadequate capital resources continued to plague the area until the 1880s.27 Several intermediate market centres such as Khairagarh and Shankargarh lost their vitality in the same way as similar places in Awadh ceased to be centres of consumption when local politics were tamed after the Mutiny.28 In the west there were similar unhappy consequences of the anti-taluqdar policy. Eric Stokes has noted how the small taluqdars of the Aligarh region had helped put in irrigation in this unstable tract: ‘not until the British had dismantled many of these smaller taluqs in the later 1830s and early 1840s, and the number of wells fell off alarmingly in consequence, did (p.332) they come belatedly to appreciate how important the magnate role had been’.29 On the other side, the acquisition of land-rights by the merchant community as a result of foreclosure on indebted magnates in these years was by no means an unmixed blessing for them. The immobilisation of capital and managerial problems it created formed an important turning point in the transition of a substantial number of Hindustan’s merchant families from the merchants of earlier days to the ‘stagnant entrepreneurs’ of the later part of the century, when rentier income had come to replace trade and agricultural investment.

British attempts to standardise and regulate the local economy were particularly significant in the realm of fiscal policy. The closure of the Farrukhabad mint (1824) and the Benares mint (1829) contributed to the ‘lack of money’ which precipitated the Depression.30 But the effect on the agricultural economy was also evident. Rural credit had always been tied up with the trade in precious metals, and purchase of silver and gold ornaments was an important form of investment for peasant families. Local mints provided a key service here. In bad seasons, or simply in the course of the purchase of seed, stock or tools for everyday use, peasants could sell their ornaments for near their intrinsic value to sarrafs (money dealers) who could always make a profit by having them coined in the local treasury. So there had always been ‘speculators in bullion … who carried on a thriving, and to the public a beneficial trade thro’ the existence of the Farrukhabad, Benares and Saugor mints’.31 Smaller mints in the Rajput and Jat states of Bundelkhand and Rajasthan provided a similar facility. The decline of these mints, therefore, spread ‘ruin thro’ the native mercantile community of upper India’ and deepened the liquidity problems created by the collapse of the agency houses.32 Poorer people (p.333) in the towns and countryside felt the changes most severely during the bad seasons of 1833 and 1838. Official reports showed that between 1827 and 1832 grain prices had fallen in the Aligarh region compared with silver by not less than 30 per cent, while in Rohilkhand, the stoppage of the bullion trade as a result of the abolition of the Farrukhabad mint had dealt a severe blow to the once-thriving grain trade.33 Boulderson, the Collector of Bareilly, estimated that at least 8 per cent of the price fall had resulted from the abolition of the mints. But whereas the ‘shortage of specie’ had put pressure on peasant families who still had to pay their revenue in silver, the absence of mint facilities had absolutely the opposite effect when silver was disgorged onto the market with a great rush in 1833 and 1838. In Agra during the later famine year, ‘the value of silver ornaments is far below their intrinsic worth and no purchasers are to be found because there are no means of exporting the bullion or converting it into specie’.34

A whole range of changes in the late 1820s and 1830s thus represented a conscious British policy of centralising Indian society and economy. Indian states and elites came to be seen as anachronisms or parasites whose ‘idle consumption’ held back beneficial change. Meanwhile the vigorous adoption of laissez-faire principles withdrew the East India Company from the cotton market and encouraged the abolition of internal town and transit duties. All these measures restricted the viability of small, local centres of trade, production and consumption. However, some of the developments of these decades were not the results of conscious British policy so much as the unforeseen consequences of the new centralisation of trade on the cities of the Gangetic valley, and ultimately on Calcutta itself. The prudence of merchant and peasant farmer encouraged investment in ‘safe’ British provinces so that local economies were slowly leeched of labour, capital and skills which had been redistributed to the smaller centres during the Mughal decline. (p.334)

Traditional economic geography assumed that any movement of capital regarded as profitable by individuals would be the optimal distribution for the economy as a whole, given the type and difficulties of transport. But in the early nineteenth century, protection and security still acted as quite arbitrary factors inhibiting such rational allocation of resources. Merchants who were highly averse to risks to their ‘credit’ and persons might easily decide to opt for a much lower return on capital by investing in safe British territories. When merchant wealth found its way to growing British centres of commerce, this does not necessarily mean that the economy as a whole was benefiting from the decline of local economies because these new investments created faster growth. On the contrary, the local economies may well have been losers to the extent of an essentially arbitrary premium put on safety.

The flight of capital to safe havens was particularly evident in the case of Awadh, and here the pressure of British demands was itself a major reason for the new sense of insecurity. In this case the largely unreciprocated transfers of resources had begun with the huge tribute paid to the British by the nawabs after 1764. But the rule of Saadat Ali Khan (who died in 1814) had been the Indian summer of the dynasty of Awadh, now constituted a monarchy.35 Lucknow’s great palaces of saracenic baroque were then being raised, and considerable expenditure by the British residents and a growing European business community which fed the court with luxuries had offset the effects of the partial dispersal of the large army which had been maintained at Lucknow between 1740 and 1802. Up to about 1830, there was evidence of local agricultural expansion, ganj-construction and the emergence of viable local taluqdari economies in the districts.36 But the economic foundations of Awadh and the peculiar type of late Islamic kingship which it supported were perceptibly weakening.

The cession of more than half of the nawabi territory to the British in 1802 had not only deprived the centre of massive revenues but had (p.335) also tended to turn Awadh into a commercial backwater, far removed from the Gangetic economy. Many of the Lucknow families which had served as bankers to the nawab’s revenue officers had withdrawn from the Ganges cities before 1810, or opted to remove themselves and as much of their capital as they could extricate into British territory. Either way the Lucknow financiers and traders lost their stake in the developing part of the region’s economy.

The kingdom gave a false appearance of stability in the years 1810–30. Serious strains were building up which were ultimately to vitiate the performance of agriculture itself. Awadh had to pay the Company a heavy ‘subsidy’. In order to overawe local notables and collect sufficient revenue, the ruler needed to maintain a large and expensive standing army which stood at 70,000 men and 5,000 bullock drivers in the early 1830s.37 But much of the revenue collected appears to have found its way into the hands of high officials who sought to protect themselves against future dismissal and disgrace by investing it in safe havens.

Factional conflicts between ministers was deepened by intrigue between the British residents, dependants of the East India Company who resided in Awadh and members of the royal family.38 So by the early 1830s the pressure of the fiscal machine on local society appears to have reached a critical point. Wealthy people who might have supported a high level of taxation had ‘almost disappeared from the land’. Conflict at the centre had encouraged the revolt of zamindars and taluqdars even in the rich Crown lands such as Baiswara. In November 1832 the Resident remarked to the King that ‘formerly the only part of the kingdom which was remarkable for disorder was Durshun Sing’s Talook, but now … you seem to have Durshun Sings in all directions’.39

Newsletters of 1832 recorded the closing of large sections of western Awadh by revolts around Mianganj, which had once been closely (p.336) controlled under Almas Ali Khan. Mokhum Singh, the zamindar of Bilgram, ‘plunders the bankers daily’40 and the price of grain and other commodities rose in Lucknow as a consequence. By the autumn of 1832 the authority of royal officials in Baiswara had been permanently undermined. The court in its desperate search for new sources of revenue required the amils’ attendance in Lucknow and extorted from them extra payments ostensibly to ‘confirm’ their appointments. When the officials returned to their districts and attempted to recoup their losses from the zamindars disturbances increased. Finally the court was forced to the expedient of abandoning direct management of this crucial revenue-bearing zone and farming Baiswara to a Tiwari banker.41

The events of this short period mark a milestone in the transition of the Baiswara region from the rich agricultural tract of the late eighteenth century to the overpopulated and relatively impoverished district of the mid-nineteenth century. Much of the very recent deterioration noted by Butter in 1838 was probably due to the depression and agricultural hardship of the era. In 1837, for instance, the ‘calamitous season’ was adduced as a reason why royal income was likely to decline over ‘the next few years’.42 Some deterioration also appears to have been a consequence of deforestation and the consequent drying out of the soil. But as in the case of the much grander cycle of the Mughal decline itself, these ecological disasters only became critical in the context of a disruption of the links between state and agriculture. The loose, corporate nature of the successor state could not support an ever increasing revenue demand. The capacity of local merchants and magnates to finance agricultural expansion was extinguished by the blanket of state revenue demand, and Awadh began to disintegrate as a political society. Large bodies of peasant colonists settled by pre-colonial lords began to drift across the southern and eastern boundaries into British territory.43 Merchants faced with (p.337) heavier dues resorted to closure (hartals) and increasingly withdrew their capital from the kingdom.44 Most seriously, the great revenue entrepreneurs moved their fortunes into safer pastures.

Large amounts of Awadh capital were withdrawn and invested in Kanpur and Farrukhabad Districts between 1830 and 1850. In one estimate, Awadh investment in Kanpur alone amounted to Rs. 15–20 lakhs in the early 1840s.45 The beginning of the flood came in 1831 when an ex-chief minister of Awadh, Mutumad-ud Daulah, moved to Kanpur, followed in the next few years by an increasing number of merchant and notable families. The amounts of money brought into Kanpur were so great that they ‘tended to a greater circulation of money in the city’, and enriched the local mercantile community which had begun to invest in land-rights in the district. This inflow of Awadh capital was thought to have made it possible for an unusually heavy land-revenue to be levied on Kanpur. The figures of Lucknow residents’ investment in government bonds and promissory notes, reproduced by William Hoey in the 1870s, tells a similar story. Between 1833 and 1843 nearly Rs. 48 lakhs were transferred from Awadh to Calcutta in the form of loans, and a further Rs. 48 lakhs were raised in 1854 and 1855, immediately before Cession.46 When we consider that Hoey reckoned the total amount of money invested in Lucknow and its environs in the form of loans amounted to only Rs. 30 lakhs in the 1870s, it can be seen that this outflow represented a startling immobilisation of local capital. Hoey himself reckoned that one reason for the decline of trading and artisan production in central Awadh had been this enormous outflow of local resources. Government loans bore a low (if secure) rate of interest, while British expenditure in Awadh in the form of sepoys’ wages and residency expenses were paid for out of the Awadh subsidy—that is, out of the nawab’s own pocket. (p.338)

This indirect deflation of the princely economies was also evident, for instance, in Rajasthan which had proved an important trading partner for western Hindustan in the late eighteenth century. Up to 1770, peasant farmers in Jaipur and Udaipur had profited from growing demand for opium throughout India and the Middle East, while ‘western merchants’ had brought down Rajasthani opium to Hindustan and Bengal. After 1770, the British sought gradually to exclude Rajasthan opium from its eastern and western markets to benefit the production which they directly controlled. By the 1820s, Tod was inveighing against the Company’s monopoly stranglehold which he considered was largely responsible for the mercantile decline of the princely states.47 But it was once again the 1830s which proved the particularly bad decade. A growing exodus of Marwari businessmen from Jaipur and Shekhavati was both a cause and consequence of the commercial stagnation. There was a dramatic fall-off in trade through central Rajasthan between 1822 and 1838, and this affected the major entrepôt towns of Ajmer and Nyanagar. There were a number of causes for this. Warfare, the decline of the Rajput armies, and the opening of a new northerly route by Charun and Palli Brahmin traders played their part. So did the customs system introduced by the British when they annexed the Ajmer District in 1825. But at the same time, the Commissioner of Ajmer and the famous Fatehpuri Seths, who were the most powerful merchants of the area, complained of a general ‘diminution of credit’ in recent years.48 This may have reflected the disruption of the old north Indian bullion market which had once linked the Jaipur mint with those of Benares and Farrukhabad.

Most of the developments which tended to deflate the local rajwari economies during the 1830s were in some ways connected. But there were also events which occurred more or less fortuitously to deepen the crisis. Luxury trades which had shown remarkable resilience even during the 1780s came under severe pressure from failures both in supply and demand. Uncertainty in foreign export markets such as (p.339) Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia and Nepal tended to trim the profits of merchants in shawl goods, horses, drugs and spices which had been the staples of the old north-western routes. In 1835–6 came a series of savage epidemics in Kashmir, compounded by political turmoil, which sent weavers fleeing down into the Punjab where the famous shawl wool was difficult to obtain. Shawl imports into the British territories were slashed by more than 75 per cent in two years, and in 1836, the Hardwar Fair, which was essentially a great shawl market, failed for the first time on record, and to the tune of about Rs. 2 lakhs.49 The Rohilla towns which had escaped the worst of the bad seasons from 1833–4 were badly hit by the stagnation of these north-western trades.

As the authority of the Indian states was reduced and their resources widely dissipated, substantial numbers of fixed market centres in the small towns dwindled or stagnated. This is most evident in the Jat territories and Bundelkhand, but urban life in parts of Rajasthan and Awadh appears to have suffered a similar setback. British rule had already initiated some changes which curtailed that intermediate level of centres between the village hath and the large city which had been so buoyant in the eighteenth century.50 The Permanent Settlement had put pressure on zamindari incomes in Bengal and Bihar in the first generation after 1793; as many as 15,000 fixed rural markets had disappeared before 1790, according to Colebrooke. In the western provinces and Benares, ganj-foundation by revenue officials and new markets for export cash crops had more than made up for the decline of some older qasbahs, though it was often a gain for the environs of the large towns at the expense of more remote tracts. After 1830, (p.340) however, the local decline of small towns went ahead with some speed because income from service of the rajas tended to disappear at the same time as the export economy ran into difficulties. The new British subdivisional establishments supported by a few policemen and peons had nothing like the same impact on agrarian society as the amils’ headquarters or warrior lineage centres of the earlier days. Many small centres, then, were suffering a relative decline in ‘urban’ population well before the coming of the railways in the 1850s assimilated a further range of their break-of-bulk functions to the large towns, and increasingly to one centre alone, Kanpur.

Geographers and development economists have noted that in India substantial centres between the large city and the village periodic market seem to be relatively few in number, that the urban hierarchy seems rather ‘flat’ compared with that of other great agrarian countries. Nineteenth-century developments may well have exaggerated this phenomenon. Political organisation had always been crucial in creating and maintaining this intermediate level of small towns. In Japan, for instance, small castle towns provided a buoyant intermediate level of this sort. ‘Country places’ sustained by the demand of rural elites for silks and metal work were a significant indicator of Japan’s rapid pre-industrial development. By contrast, British centralisation in India was partly responsible for the attenuation of this type of centre. The consequence for rural society was probably a restriction of access to markets, credit and employment outside agriculture. In Bundelkhand, Rajasthan and Awadh, mid-nineteenth-century Indians may have been more the classic peasant than their forebears a century earlier.

One theme throughout has been the importance of spending by the political authorities for employment in the intermediate economy. This gave buoyancy to small town economies and parts of agrarian society. Broadly, the deflation of this type of demand by changes in the Indian states in the 1830s and 1840s was not made up by any large-scale spending by the British authorities; this did not come until after 1860. On the contrary, the ‘Age of Reform’ was a period of retrenchment in civil expenditure and stagnation in military expenditure. The great expansion of the Anglo-Indian bureaucracy had not yet begun to compensate for (p.341) the decline of employment in the princely economies.51 Despite stirring pronouncements, the growth of public works programmes had hardly begun before the Rebellion of 1857, and even expenditure on the great Ganges Canal was only just beginning to grow in the last few years of Lord Dalhousie’s rule.52 One observer reckoned that total British expenditure on public works during this period over the whole Bengal Presidency was rather less than that of an average central Indian raja. In truth, the ‘Age of Reform’ was more an age of hiatus.

Only the British army continued to afford salaries and contracts to the people of Hindustan, and even here the great boost to town-building and employment afforded by the Bengal army between 1780 and 1825 began perceptibly to slacken. This is not to say that there were no longer fortunes to be made. Despite the creation of an army commissariat department, the military authorities still depended on Indian agencies to keep them in the field. The Sikh wars of the 1830s and 1840s threw up immensely wealthy grain, cloth and bullock dealers as the Maratha wars had done before. Chaube grain dealers of Agra had netted Rs. 30 lakhs in supplying the Punjab Army in 1834–5. There was also the case of Joti Prasad, the great contractor of Agra who was building up an unparalleled network of mercantile subcontractors among the Khattris and Banjaras of the western districts in the years before the second Sikh war.53

Yet openings of this sort were not as plentiful as they had been for people in Hindustan at the turn of the century, and spectacular examples such as Joti Prasad may be misleading. In fact, the military frontier of the British empire had rolled on into the Punjab, leaving the cities of eastern Hindustan without income from military spending, and those of the west mere sluggish supply depots. In terms of its impact on the Gangetic economy, military expenditure may have reached its peak by about 1820 and then declined progressively until 1858. The Sikh wars (p.342) and concern about the security of the northern frontier countermanded the most determined stirrings towards economy. But there was an overall slowdown in the growth of military manpower in the region after 1826, while military expenditure per head of the civil population must have dropped substantially. The Bengal Army expanded from about 26,000 men in 1796 to about 140,000 men in 1826.54 By 1857, it had boomed and slumped several times, but the overall increase was a modest 20,000 men over the 1826 figure. On the other hand, if our figures are broadly correct, at least 200,000 full-time soldiers of the armies of the Indian states must have been stood down in the Gangetic region since the beginning of the century. Sleeman was not exaggerating when he observed of the difference between British and Indian armies:

We do the soldiers’ work with one-tenth of the soldiers that had before been employed in it over the territories we acquire, and turn the other nine-tenths adrift. They all sink into the lowest class of religious mendicants, or retainers; or live amongst their friends as drones upon the land.55

More significant even than the slackening of the pace of growth of the Bengal Army was the disposition of its forces. Those high spenders the European battalions had moved off to the Punjab; and whereas there had been five battalions in the North-Western Provinces in 1801 there was only one between Delhi and Calcutta in 1857, as the British were to find to their cost. Taking account of the permanent armies of Indian rulers,56 the number of towns or bazaars which supported more than 5,000 troops appears to have declined from sixteen in 1800 to three (Meerut, Agra and Lucknow) in 1857.

Problems in the Export Economy

The export trades in agricultural produce of the years 1780–1830 were moulded and constrained by existing patterns of social organisation. (p.343) At the level of production the ‘harvest cycle’ of particular crops and the inclination of the peasant household to avoid risks imposed its own rhythm.57 Next, the supply of credit, the level of investment and access to markets were heavily influenced by the redistributive economics of the petty kingdoms of the localities. Finally, Indian merchant society which linked these institutions to distant markets was influenced by its own conceptions of ‘safety first’—its own moral economy. The interlocking of these different types of organisation produced inherent instability in the markets. But between 1827 and 1847 these local tremors were exacerbated. The role of the East India Company in eastern trade was drastically curtailed, and a series of slumps occurred in India which distantly echoed the changing tempo of the great engine of the North Atlantic economy.58

After 1834 the end of the Company’s monopoly on the export of raw cotton to China resulted in an immediate boom but ultimate stagnation of this crucial staple of the area’s export economy. The initial effect of the withdrawal of the Company from the market was beneficial to the Indian merchants who had dominated it since the collapse of George Mercer and other European entrepreneurs. The Company, anticipating its demise as a monopolist, had run down its stocks of cotton in Canton, and Bombay and Bengal houses rushed in to make up the difference, purchasing massively from their up-country Indian agents. By 1838, however, demand was slumping once again because of overstocking in Canton, and prices had fallen to under 50 per cent of their 1834 level. The modest profits that peasant farmers and interior dealers made on the trade were severely squeezed. And in such a situation, the cotton trade of the Bengal area was bound to be the major casualty. Though ‘Bengal’ (i.e. Hindustan and Central Indian) cotton already had a name for poor quality, dealers had unwisely adulterated their crop in the boom years after 1834. K. M. Mullick of the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce (p.344) remembered that ‘All manner of adulteration found its way in screwing the bales here, which were shipped under fictitious trade marks’. So in the buyers’ market which developed after 1838, export of ‘Bengal’ raw cotton slumped from a value of Cos. Rs. 62,63,777 to Cos. Rs. 19,26,237 in 1839–40.59 More seriously, by the mid-1840s, growing production of indigenous Chinese and American cottons had further diminished the market for India in the Far East and the west. Attempts in the 1840s by the Court of Directors to improve the quality and types of Indian cotton met with little success. In fact the growing international disfavour in which Indian cottons were held was only forgotten in the great boom which followed after American production was dislocated by the Civil War. All the while the cotton trade of eastern India was suffering from its own particular problems. The development during the 1840s of overland carriage from the producing areas of central India to Bombay diverted trade from the route that led through Jabbalpur and Mirzapur to Calcutta. This contributed to the stagnation of Mirzapur, north India’s ‘Manchester’ of the previous generation. Cultivators and merchants still had alternative markets open to them in Awadh and Nepal, but in general terms the continued relative decline of income from raw cotton was a serious blow to the one cash crop whose extensive form of cultivation and bulking and transport requirements had rapidly enriched some peasant farmers and merchant families.

Just as the rapid growth of cotton cultivation before 1826 had led to the ‘proliferation of interior marts’ and town-building at major centres, so the social effects of the relapse were unmistakable. In the years 1816 to 1825, a very large business had been done in the Agra area by Messrs George Mercer and Co., an agency house which employed one of the largest European staffs in the interior, and by a set of powerful Agra Agarwal families headed by Lala Piru Mal who had begun to dominate the cotton and salt trades shortly after 1800. By 1836, the Europeans had failed or withdrawn their capital and Piru Mal had made a loss of more than Rs. 1 lakh in a single season. The Delhi Customs Master noted that ‘Since the year 1827 the whole of the cotton screw houses (p.345) scattered over the country have been abandoned’, while N. B. Wright, a customs patrol officer who worked south of Delhi, reckoned that the annual produce of the region had fallen from 300,000 maunds to a mere 22,000 maunds over the years 1826–36.60 The rapid expansion of cultivation in the Muttra–Agra area by as much as 30 per cent had provided suitable soil for the cotton boom, but by the mid-1830s the general withdrawal of European capital, and adverse ecological changes caused by over-cropping, had made it virtually impossible for the local zamindars to pay the revenue.

Merchants could, of course, redirect their trade to slowly developing internal markets, but the effect of the booms and slumps of the years after 1827 was to increase the instability of the interior centres. Already in the years 1812 to 1816 a whole network of periodic markets in Bah and Pinahut divisions south of Agra had collapsed under the pressure of poor seasons and customs house exactions, throwing out of employment an estimated 30,000 people who provided labour for the petty industries which rose on the back of the cotton trade.61 After 1826 such situations became general throughout the Agra region. Some Indian cotton merchants moved in to mop up the declining trade abandoned by Mercer and Co., but in general places like Pulwul declined. The relative over-assessment of the area provided an additional check to development of a higher level of local consumption. In 1836 Wright noted: ‘I may here remark that to my personal knowledge, one European purchased nearly as much cotton in one season as all the native merchants together during the last.’62

The effect on the large towns was more complex. At one extreme the variation of Agra’s population over the bad years after 1827 was quite remarkable. Always at the mercy of an unstable hinterland, the city seems to have lost between 10 and 30 per cent of its population to mortality and temporary emigration during the bad seasons of 1818–19 and 1833–4. During the terrible famine of 1838, the loss may have been nearer 40 per cent. The volatile nature of the cotton, (p.346) grain and cattle trades on which the city had thrived accentuated this fragility. Internal traffic, for instance, was severely reduced by the ‘Depression’ of 1830–3. But so long as the cotton trade continued, even in recession, Agra received some very large despatches from its hinterland. It was a convenient depot for small merchants who could not afford ‘to be out of their money’ for the long period that would be necessary if the goods were to be bulked in Delhi or Kanpur.

Allahabad was another town which did not maintain the rapid growth which it had experienced in the immediate aftermath of Cession. By 1824 it was said that ‘the town itself does not seem to have been on the increase, but rather to have suffered in size and importance’.63 The evidence suggests a rapid growth from 1803, when Hamilton estimated the population as a mere 20,000, to about 40,000 in 1820, followed by a slow stagnation until the late 1840s. This was connected with the vicissitudes of the raw cotton trade, the decline of military spending and the gradual depletion of the weaving population which had continued to supply Nawabi troops until the 1840s. By contrast, Mirzapur and Kanpur continued to expand until the 1840s. Kanpur appears to have benefited from the decline of Farrukhabad as a major commercial centre during the Depression,64 while Mirzapur was not really feeling the pinch until the mid-1840s. Even when the Maratha demand and cotton trades were in recession, Mirzapur still gained from the steady southward trade in sugar from the Azamgarh and Gorakhpur Divisions. As late as 1836 police arrangements in the city had to be revised to take account of the growth of those wards of the city which dealt particularly with the cotton trade. It was not until the late 1840s that complaints about the decline of the city became insistent following the rerouting of much cotton through Bombay. (p.347)

Figures for north India’s cities and large market towns are quite treacherous before 1870. But it seems reasonably clear that the first thirty years of the century saw population maintaining itself in the centres which had emerged during the eighteenth century, and an increment in towns which became British political centres or bulking points for the export trades. In general, the next twenty years—from 1830 to 1850—recorded slower growth or stagnation in urban population. In fact, since there was a faster rise in total population after 1838, there may well have been a net decline of urban population over the period. This was probably concentrated in intermediate market and political centres.

For some substantial areas, however, there is absolutely no doubt that the whole commercial economy went into sharp decline. For instance, in the late 1820s, Company investment in cotton of the Bundelkhand area was still Rs. 40 lakhs per annum,65 while private investment ran at about Rs. 18 lakhs. The inflow of money into the region came to a drastic halt in 1834 when the Company disbanded its commercial agency in Kalpi on the termination of the China trade monopoly. This move deepened the distress caused by the 1834 famine, and 20,000 starving people converged on Banda and Hamirpur.66 Even though the cultivated area picked up quite quickly after 1838, more than half of the total number of villages in the subdivisions of Kalpi, Kunch and Hamirpur were still said to be abandoned in 1842. By this date, moreover, private investment in Bundelkhand cotton had dwindled to Rs. 7 lakhs annually so that, in total, the area had suffered a loss of cash inflows amounting to Rs. 50 lakhs during a single decade. This, of course, coincided with the gradual erosion of luxury trade and courtly employment. The cumulative decline of Bundelkhand meant that whereas as late as 1842 there were agents of 52 banking houses in the town of Kunch, by 1872 there were only two shops left where hundis could be negotiated.67

After cotton, sugar had the greatest potential as a ‘development crop’. Given good market conditions, demand in both the internal (p.348) market and the world market was expected to increase as consumers with an improved standard of living turned to more refined varieties. European demand in 1830 was estimated at 450 million pounds per annum while the total of all East Indian sugars exported was a mere 5½ million pounds.68 Sugar, like cotton, was a crop which favoured Indian middlemen and producers and required the development of a basic technology around collection points. Bengal sugar had received an early advantage in the English market in 1792 when the failure of West Indian sugar and the cheapness of tea resulting from the Commutation Act made it competitive for the first time despite the punitive duties levied. Nevertheless before 1836 when duties on the West and East Indies were equalised, export was discouraged by a differential duty of eight shillings per hundredweight over the West Indian produce.69 After the equalisation, of course, exports rose rapidly, reaching a peak value of about Rs. 166 lakhs per annum in 1849, but then declining to Rs. 53 lakhs in 1858 and Rs. 9 lakhs in 1869. As with cotton and indigo, production for export went through a curve, with Indian products becoming relatively less competitive in world markets after an initial boom. Once again the major reasons were foreign competition and institutional discouragements. After 1849, the triumph of free trade principles in Britain opened its market to various plantation and slave-produced foreign sugars which had been totally excluded in earlier days. The problems of transport and petty commodity production put Indian sugars, and particularly those of eastern and western Hindustan, at a disadvantage compared with these foreign competitors.

The local effects in inland India of the failure of sugar export are much more difficult to determine than those of cotton because there had always existed a much more responsive internal demand, particularly in central and southern parts of the country. When the Company withdrew its own investment in 1833, prices in the Azamgarh and Ballia Districts fell, but there does not seem to have been a great (p.349) decline in the acreage under the crop.70 Similarly, when European demand slumped in the late 1840s, sugar from the eastern region which had been temporarily siphoned off to Calcutta and Europe resumed its earlier route through Mirzapur to central India.71 The social effects of the sugar boom were consequently more stable than those of cotton or indigo export. Around Benares the cultivated area under sugar held up relatively well in the years between the settlements of the 1840s and the 1870s, and Indian middlemen and rural bania families became wealthy. In the late 1830s raw sugar was manufactured in large quantities by innumerable small firms, European and Indian, whose factories were scattered over the districts of the Benares Division. Prominent were those of Dip Chand Sahu of Azamgarh.72 It was in the 1840s also that the ancestors of the great Benares firm of Raja Sir Motichand Gupta who had previously served as taluqdari bankers in Ajodhya moved from their base in Azamgarh district and established themselves in Calcutta, developing a new line of business in sugar.73 The linking in to the riverine economy of the districts of the Bihar borderlands which had proceeded slowly in the 1820s and 1830s was speeded by the development of sugar and opium at the very time when other parts of Hindustan were being knocked out of export farming. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that the momentum of growth was maintained sufficiently to alter basic conditions of the peasant economy. Merchant capital was not concentrated in large-scale investment in plant. The structure of the peasant family and regressive revenue-demand discouraged the development of a class of really substantial yeoman farmers.

Finally, mention must be made of the fate of opium and indigo production over these years. And what must be emphasised again is the extreme instability of indigo as a cash crop and the geographical limitations of the benefits to the whole Bengal area of the opium trade which passed through it. Indigo had, of course, been associated with (p.350) some of the earliest signs of the recovery of commercial agriculture in the unstable parts of the upper Doab. Around Farrukhabad, large numbers of Indian banking firms and zamindars had become attached to the nets of credit required by the Bengal Houses of Agency in financing their operations up-country. The collapse of the Agency Houses and their Indian partners after 1827 revealed that indigo cultivation had been vastly overextended for institutional reasons. In the words of J. Bell, writing in 1830:

The prices in the Calcutta market … have been kept up not so much by actual consumptive demand, as by its use as a medium of remittance, consequent on the depression of exchange, but for which the cultivation before this would have in all probability been considerably reduced.74.

The reduction in the acreage under indigo proceeded by fits and starts through from the 1830s to the early 1900s when indigo finally succumbed to synthetic dyes. Though there were a number of booms and slumps associated with commercial crises in England in 1836 and 1847, the industry in upper India never recovered from the crash of 1827. As late as the 1870s, settlement officers noted the large numbers of ruined indigo factories scattered through the pristine countryside of the western districts, an indication of the extent to which sustained export performance might have provided conditions for rural capital formation. What survived were oases of village production associated with colonies of ‘gardener castes’ which had been planted by the eighteenth-century rulers. This was not negligible. In the years 1822–4, more than 35 per cent of the production of the Agra District was still directed to indigenous consumption in Delhi and Rajasthan.75 Nevertheless, the Farrukhabad indigo houses alone failed completely, precipitating a crisis which drove more than fifty merchant houses out of the city and bankrupted many of the hinterland zamindars. The earlier closure of the Farrukhabad mint had damaged the grain and bullion trade. The slow expansion of the city which had proceeded cautiously since the 1720s came to an abrupt and permanent halt. (p.351)

Opium, by contrast, was almost entirely a cash crop for export, the small quantity required for local consumption being sold by district treasurers or smuggled. When labour costs were taken into account, opium production was relatively unprofitable for the farmer.76 Extensive cultivation of opium was therefore limited to poor or developing areas like the Ghazipur District where the government Opium Agency pumped in advances to get as much acreage under cultivation as possible. Here again, political considerations intruded into production, just as external political and commercial considerations limited the potential of opium as a development crop. The total number of chests of Bengal and Bihar opium exported to the Far East rose from 4,200 in 1820/1 to 7,324 in 1829/30 and 64,000 in 1863/4.77 However, from the late 1840s Indian opium was under increasing competition from the cheaper Chinese product, and the Bengal and North-Western Provinces governments were forced to protect their own revenues by artificially extending production and forcing down the prices of their own crop.78 State intervention here certainly pushed forward the development of a number of small towns in the Gorakhpur and Ghazipur Districts and helped tie them into the Benares commercial area, but the benefits to the cultivator appear to have been limited to a small area, particularly the Padruana Tahsil of the Ghazipur District. Even here it is noteworthy that the major cultivators took the first opportunity of the coming of the railway to move into much more lucrative grain production, leaving the difficult, costly and polluting drug to their poorer neighbours.79

The general picture, then, for both Hindustan and Bengal was of a relatively successful early penetration of foreign markets, followed after 1830 by a stagnation or even absolute decline of agricultural exports. The commercial and agrarian benefits of capital accumulation through export were, therefore, geographically unstable. Different areas deep in (p.352) Bengal and Hindustan were temporarily vitalised by foreign demand and inputs of capital, only to slump again when external conditions turned against them. Since land-revenue usually remained fixed at the higher level consonant with lucrative exports, wealth created in the boom after the Napoleonic War proved insubstantial.

A Turning Point for Imports?

If the years 1827–40 were critical for north India’s exports, did they also see a sharp increase in the flow of European imports? Bentinck’s remarks on the ‘bleaching bones of weavers’ and the precipitous decline of weaving in the cities of Bengal after 1815 alerted official opinion to the consequences of the decline of artisan industries. But we are less concerned here with the extent of absolute deindustrialisation’, for which the evidence remains inadequate, than with the dislocation of the old intermediate level of artisan production, for which it is more plentiful.80

It was during the boom after 1815 that there were the first indications of substantial European imports. Dacca and Murshidabad in Bengal and Tanda in Awadh were all said to be in decline in the years 1810–30, though here it is difficult to separate the consequences of the ending of the Company’s investment in Indian cloths from those of increased import. As far as Tanda is concerned, private European purchases and sales to the kingdom of Nepal seem to have remained buoyant until the 1840s.81

Much more significant than the impact of finished goods in these decades was the astonishingly rapid market penetration by European twist and yarn which completely wiped out Indian spinning before 1850, except for the production of the ‘sacred thread’ which continued in some areas. Imports through Calcutta rose from Rs. 1,23,145 in 1824/5, shortly after the introduction of ‘mule twist’ in England to (p.353) Rs. 31,11,841 in 1830/1. After this, the volume and value of imports continued to expand rapidly, reaching Rs. 79,90,32 by 1840/1.82 As early as 1813, the Collector of Benares had noted distress among the spinners of the city, who were generally poor or aged relations of the weavers;83 while before 1836 European twist and yarn, made up in Delhi, was making inroads into the markets of the west. The significance of the decline of Indian spinning probably lies in its deleterious effect on the total income of families who were employed in both spinning and weaving, rather than a simple collapse of employment. Another commodity which rapidly moved into the north Indian market during this period was English-made iron. Here again, economies of scale had been so great that English products were competitive even in the face of much lower Indian transport and labour costs, and as semi-manufactured goods there was no problem of suitability for the final market.

Both semi-manufactured and manufactured imports seem to have leapt ahead in the 1830s. Imports of finished cloth through Calcutta increased fourfold during the decade, and qualitative evidence suggests that penetration into the Gangetic valley was quite rapid even during these poor years. On the face of it, the Depression and low consumer demand due to the scarcities ought to have suppressed demand in general, as occurred during the scarcity years of 1869–71. What may have happened, then, is that the relative rise in grain prices after 1833 increased the labour costs of Indian weavers and chintz stampers sufficiently to make European imports competitive in medium quality grades.84 At the same time, the decade saw a general improvement in communications and culminated in large-scale troop movements during the Sikh war. Market networks and demand had to be created, so that inroads into the Punjab in the late 1830s saw a massive increase in demand for ‘British and other goods’ in the area of operations, and the countries ‘west of the Sutlej’, which rose from Rs. 20 to Rs. 60 lakhs over this short period.85 (p.354) Again, the end of internal customs duties speeded the growth of imports. Around Agra there was a large increase in the demand for European iron as a result of the ‘freedom of trade from extortion’ after 1836. Finally, the decline of aristocratic centres of consumption speeded the dispersal of old artisan communities, leaving the field open to imports.

The emphasis should fall more on the rapid pace of dislocation among artisan communities during the 1830s than on the ‘deindustrialisation’ of India, or the complete demise of craft production. The decline of paper-making in the lower Doab, for instance, was in part caused by the desuetude of the traditional Indian paper varieties as the farman (charter) was replaced by the ‘proceeding’, but it also reflected the growth of new paper-making industries at Serampore in Bengal.86 Weaving communities were often relocated rather than annihilated; the weavers of qasbah Shahzadpur, abandoning the declining service communities of their locality, moved across the river Ganges to seek protection and patronage among the taluqdars of south Awadh. In the same way, Mirzapur’s brassware production almost achieved factory dimension during these years as it was now receiving cheap European raw materials along the burgeoning river trade route. The decline of brassmaking in the cities of the west of the region partly reflected the growth of Mirzapur production.

The Scarcity Cycle of the 1830s

What exacerbated the dislocation of the 1830s to crisis point was its fortuitous conjuncture with the worst period of weather instability which the region had seen since the Chalisa famine of 1781–3. The first point to establish, however, is that both the Depression and the famines (1833–4 and 1837–8) affected different parts of the territory in different ways. The districts of the interior which had not specialised in the cultivation of export crops generally survived the crash of 1827 without too much damage, while the ‘older’ well-irrigated tracts of the east did not suffer so badly from drought as those parts of the west which remained almost as unstable as they had been during the (p.355) late eighteenth century. Bulandshahr District, for instance, had never been so heavily involved in indigo as some of its neighbours, and, given good river communications, it was able to prosper by exporting grain through the 1830s.87 Allahabad and Fatehpur were also exporting grain for the first time in the late 1830s, and there were distinct signs of prosperity among the substantial village merchants of their hinterlands.88

The effects of the depression and scarcities also fell with different degrees of severity on various sections of the population. Substantial traders who had diversified their interests were able to profit from both. In 1837 many of the great Delhi and Kanpur salt merchants rapidly switched their riverboat capacity from salt to grain and made a killing. Quick adaptation among the largest dealers accounts for the fact that the overall volume of trade seems to have fallen off by as little as 20 per cent during the famine, while in 1839 trade was given a positive stimulus as large dealers made haste to restock their salt and grain holdings.89 Lesser merchants, however, had much less room for manoeuvre. Primarily, they lacked sufficient capital to move rapidly from one branch of commerce to another. An officer on patrol in the Agra region in 1837 noted large droves of cattle belonging to the Banjaras of Beana returning unladen from the northern markets of Farrukhabad and Shahjahanpur.90 Usually these traders had exchanged Rajasthan salt for Rohilkhand grain, but this year the prices were so high that they could not purchase with any hope of immediate gain in the western markets. Intermediate traders were also badly affected by the withdrawal from the salt market of two or three of the largest dealers who had switched into grain. These big dealers had previously bought salt in bulk at Bharatpur and provided the lesser dealers with salt on credit.91 For those without much capital, in fact, the famines (p.356) must only have been the culmination of a series of blows which began with the ‘money famine’ of 1828/9. Well before the 1833 food famines there had been a considerable fall off in the petty traffic on one or two bullocks or on headloads which had represented the contribution of smaller merchants to the commercial growth of the Agra region. Traders dealing in commodities such as brass vessels, low grade cloths and liquor which depended on the existence of a small monetary surplus in the hands of agricultural people were obviously in a bad position once silver became scarce.

Artisans were also among the first to be hit by any form of economic slowdown. The Depression affected the market for small manufactures while restricting the supply of credit. The scarcities which followed it disrupted grain supplies to towns and temporarily destroyed the market altogether. Indeed, commentators during both famines noted that artisans who were not tied into the jajmani systems of ‘big men’ were harder hit even than the rural poor and came flocking to the relief works. Similar conditions obtained in the villages. As usual, it was the weakest who suffered most—women, children and those unable to rely on the aid of a patron. During the depression and famine years, moneylenders restricted their credit to individuals who had security of tenure on their lands, and therefore possessed some viable collateral. After 1834, moneylenders in the Agra district were even said to be very reluctant to lend to anyone who did not own irrigated land.92 There were also sharp differences between the condition of labourers in different types of villages. During the 1838 scarcity, for instance, labourers in the parts of Kanpur District which supported large zamindari holdings received hand-outs from the zamindars who wished to keep their bands of labourers together. By contrast, labourers in areas of joint smallholding (pattidari) could expect little aid from their impoverished employers, and there were cases where whole communities fled to Central India.93

For labourers in both town and countryside, the little evidence available suggests that the 1830s were a period of decisive reverses (p.357) in standards of living. In the late eighteenth century labour shortage had given them a certain advantage on the labour market which slow but steady population growth in the early colonial period gradually eroded. The decline of opportunities for service in local Indian armies and construction works by rajas and nawabs must also have affected them adversely. But during the 1830s, the relative depreciation of the copper currency against silver created a critical situation for people who were paid wages in copper and had to buy food and firewood. One indication of this is the rapid decline of government revenue from ahkari or low class liquor shops.

The Abkarry Revenue throughout the provinces has suffered much from the scarcity of silver and consequent depreciation of the copper currency … the Abkarry shop is supported principally by the sale of liquor to the labouring classes, who are in many instances paid their daily wages not in the fractions of a Rupee but by a certain number of pice without reference to the relative exchange. The labourer then finds that to supply his necessary daily portion of food takes all his pice and leaves him nothing wherewith to purchase the liquor of the abkar.94

The general abkari statistics were distorted by local administrative arrangements, but the overall trend throughout the provinces was a sharp fall in revenue throughout the 1830s, with little evidence of recovery until the late 1840s.95

Labourers also felt the pressure directly. The fall in food-grain prices in the early 1830s did not compensate them for the consequences of the depreciation of the copper coinage, and besides, wholesale grain prices do not necessarily reflect actual local market conditions. One observer, for instance, noted that the price of grain purchased per seer in the Kydganj market at Allahabad had doubled between 1802 and 1833, though this was by no means reflected in official prices for the district.96 Firewood, moreover, had doubled in price in less than five years, and this was a necessity of life in the cold north Indian winter. There is evidence also that the scarcities of the 1830s disrupted the system of free meals provided by employers which had once been a crucial part (p.358) of a labourer’s remuneration. Even the ‘pinch’ of salt which the petty dealer used to throw in with small retail purchases had become a thing of the past. In earlier years ‘the poorer classes never bought salt but the Banyas threw a handful of salt with each “attadal” of split peas, but now it is not a handful and the saokars [sahukars] inform me that the Banyas do not take a ⅓ of their former quantity of salt’.97 Indian statistics do not allow us to construct the sort of wage and price curves that have become a commonplace of European history. All the same, there is good reason to feel that the 1830s in north India did represent a ‘conjunctural crisis’ of the sort that significantly altered the economic standing of one section of the population in relation to others. Petty merchants, artisans and labourers appear to have fared particularly badly, and there is little reason to imagine that their position improved much before the 1850s when government and railway expenditure began to grow significantly.

In many respects, the 1830s were a faint echo of the 1780s, as far as the social conditions of the famine years were concerned. In both periods, the more stable eastern districts received large numbers of immigrants from the west and the upper Doab. Older patterns of social conflict and adjustment also reasserted themselves. Williamson’s report on the 1783 famine had spoken of grain hoarding and looting bands traversing the countryside. In 1837/8 there was again widespread looting throughout the Agra and Rohilkhand Divisions by gangs of up to 1,000 men ‘composed principally of half-starved people headed by some few daring or notorious villains and … in some cases connived at by the zemindars out of enmity to the mahajuns because they discontinued their advances’.98 In Shahjahanpur District during August 1837 there were eighty-three dacoities alone. Mewati and Rajput zamindars led their men against the towns and there was imminent danger of an attack on the grain markets of Jalalabad.99 The Collector put landholders under heavy penalties to protect market (p.359) villages with their own servants. In 1838 there was a series of savage grain riots in Delhi which was already disturbed by conflicts between European and Mughal officers in the city and rumours of political disturbance in the north-west.100 As in the 1780s, social groups on the margins of the economy were easily pushed into internal plunder. Mewati military gentry resumed their depredations on the route between Delhi and Muttra. Further north, Gujar cattlemen turned to robbery once again as they did during every major political disturbance between the Chalisa famine and the 1857 Rebellion; and large bandit gangs which had been penned by British forces south of the Jamna erupted into the Ganges valley. For a short period the foundations of the Raj in Hindustan trembled, but as yet there was no defection from the military or police such as was to occur twenty years later.

The agricultural setback of the 1830s had begun with a ‘liquidity crisis’ and had been deepened by a periodic cycle of drought. Yet the vulnerability of agrarian society to these events may have been increased in some areas by a deeper exhaustion of productive forces in the countryside. In the less stable areas which had been brought under the plough so rapidly at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was, by the 1830s, some evidence of falling yields, or ‘exhaustion of the soil’ as it was called at this time. N. B. Wright of Pulwul suggested that the problems of the depression had been exacerbated by the rapid pace of the earlier development. By 1827, ‘most of the waste lands had been broken up and the quality of cotton considerably deteriorated from the want of new soils, and the repeated croppings from those previously broken up’.101 According to Sleeman’s informants among the peasants of the area between Delhi and Agra, their agriculture faced a general threat of ‘declining fertility’. Besides the iniquity of an unbeliever’s government, the main reasons given for the change was ‘the want of those salutary fallows which the fields got under former governments when invasions and civil wars were things (p.360) of common occurrence, and kept at least two-thirds of the land under waste’.102 In the light of earlier findings, one could emphasise that the flexible nature of the pre-colonial political economy with its mobile peasants itself encouraged long leas and fallows independently of the incidence of civil war. This flexibility, however, had begun to disappear by the 1830s. The recovery of the tract from the 1783 Chalisa famine and the return of migrants had increased local population, reducing the scope for long fallows. Population per square mile may have increased from under 100 to at least 250 in the middle Doab districts during the first thirty years of the nineteenth century. But government revenue-demand also acted to keep areas under perpetual cropping. Thus in Pulwul, ‘By degrees the zumindars found that the cotton no longer paid the revenue, which had been increased by its indirect means, till at last it has been discovered that the assessments are higher than the soil can possibly bear.’103 In the absence of good manuring techniques, this was almost bound to happen since a large bush like cotton was likely to exhaust the soil much more rapidly than ordinary food crops.

Rapid expansion had other consequences which contributed to a setback in the medium term. The destruction of trees appears to have gone on very rapidly over these years, if anecdotal evidence and the price of firewood are put together. The subsequent change in local ecologies probably lies behind complaints in the 1830s of the ‘rapid advance in recent years of the hot winds,104 from the Rajasthan Desert which were now penetrating further east, drying out the soil and making the plantation of summer (zaid) crops more or less impossible. One can speculate also that the restriction of pasture by the spread of cultivation had reduced the large herds of cattle which Lambert and Tennant had observed in upper India in the previous generation, further limiting the supply of manure. As in other periods of rapid agricultural expansion, more was being taken out of the soil than was put into it. The significance of this apparent (p.361) fall in marginal productivity on newly opened up agricultural land was heightened by the stasis which we have already noted in the areas which have been described as stable. Here in the central Agra District, or Allahabad or Baiswara, most good land had been brought under double cropping before 1800, and population density was edging over 400 per square mile. With a stagnant agricultural technology and limited capital, agriculture in these areas had already reached a plateau some time before the expansion outward began to lag.105

The Recovery, 1843–57

By the mid-1840s Hindustan had generally recovered from the immediate effects of the Depression and scarcities. The cultivated area and population began a further steady expansion, as far as it is possible to determine from the poor statistics of the early censuses. Trade, down the Trunk Road and river systems at least, developed speedily with river steamers beginning to replace the slow wooden boats. But there were considerable variations in the rate of real recovery. Some areas such as Bundelkhand, Rajasthan and, possibly, south Awadh, never regained their relative prosperity. The outer, more unstable parts of several of the western districts also remained in the doldrums. The central part of Agra District, for instance, recovered rapidly; the 1839–40 harvest was only 30 per cent less than that of the year before the famine.106 But in Bah and Pinahut, once great cotton growing regions, the devastation took a generation or more to repair. The area had lost more than 25 per cent of its population in 1838,107 but there had also been much greater loss of cattle than in any other famine, including the Chalisa of 1783. On the other hand, some unstable areas benefited from the stimulus that scarcity gave to official and private investment in irrigation. (p.362) In the north-west, the Ganges Canal began its slow creation and in forested Muttra:

The year of the great famine Samvat 1894, that is 1838 A.D. is invariably given as the date when the [forest] land began to be largely reclaimed: the immediate cause being the number of new roads then opened out for the purpose of affording employment to the starving population.108

The social context within which this patchy revival took place differed from the eighteenth-century pattern in some important respects. The role of courtly consumption in the economy and society was being steadily reduced. North India was beginning to resemble the classic ‘colonial economy’ in which exports of primary agricultural products were offset by imports of foreign manufactures, and in India’s case, of bullion. The service people, artisans and mercenary soldiers who had found service within the earlier princely systems were going through a period of dislocation, and, as yet, expenditure by the British government and westernised elites had failed to create a substantial alternative demand.

The position of Indian merchants in the state and agrarian society had also changed rapidly during this period of hiatus. Their links with British and Indian rulers had atrophied. Now that the great revenue systems were established features of the landscape, Indian merchants were not needed as guarantors, and district treasury bills had begun to replace the hundi as the basic instrument of official transactions. At the same time, the decline of the old luxury trades had eroded the merchants’ role as kingly provisioners. But most seriously, the consequences of agricultural depression had been redoubled by the activities of the British courts which enforced the sale of land for debt. The huge loans which magnate families had taken during the depression years were now being realised. Commercial families often had little choice but to buy into land-rights in order to retain some benefit from the capital which had been immobilised in the form of advances to landholders. The Indian merchant moneylender has often been portrayed as a ‘usurious capitalist’, the carrier of an unproductive or stagnant form of entrepreneurship which did little but expertly cream (p.363) off the surplus of the peasant family in the form of interest payments. But in the Indian states the usurious role of the merchant had often been offset in part by lavish royal expenditure and investment which the merchant community also helped to finance. Merchant, peasant, artisan and ruler had been part of a system in which it was not in the interest of one element to reduce any of the others to complete dependence. Many of the negative features attributed to the Indian bania in more recent times do not seem to be a product of inherent viciousness but of particular historical circumstances. In particular, his role changed in the absence of the lavish local elite expenditure and intrusive political authority which had once put limits to the consequences of his commercial ruthlessness.

The turning point of the 1830s also helps to put into new perspective other major events in the history of colonial north India. How, for instance, did it relate to that other, more widely known ‘crisis’, the Rebellion of 1857? The work of Stokes, Metcalf and Brodkin has provided us with splendid, detailed glimpses of the motivation of local participants in the Rebellion, and of its specific economic context. Yet it is always difficult to derive ‘causes’ of revolt from considerations of local circumstances alone. The actual level of land-revenue or the specific degree of penetration by moneylenders in particular areas may have been much less important than the general feeling that society was out of joint, or that the power of the infidel, the bania, or the low caste arriviste, was growing in some unspecified way, and ought to be diminished. Recent work has under-emphasised the wider political context of the revolt, and especially those broad, popular notions of good government and moral economy which have been so pervasive in all historic insurrections. Against this background, the Great Rebellion seems to have been a belated response to the political changes which gathered pace after 1825, and which had given such a jolt to dignities and livelihoods throughout north India without providing the lineaments of a strong new system such as emerged in Bengal and the Punjab.

The erosion of princely dignity was to prove to be an insistent theme in the ideology of the rebels. The proclamation of the rebel Nawab of Banda, for instance, bewailed the gradual impoverishment of the royal houses as pensions were reduced by inflation and subdivision so that ‘the ample (p.364) allowance for one person became a mere pittance for several individuals … by which the number of attendance [sic] is also reduced’.109 The disruption of lordships by an alien government was a fear which affected practically the whole of the old ruling classes; the proclamation of the Begum of Awadh dwelt on the fact that ‘The Company professed to treat the chief of Bhurtpore as a son, and they took his territory; the chief of Lahore was carried off to London … the Peishwa they expelled from Poonah Sitara; the Raja of Benares they imprisoned in Agra.’110 But the disturbance was felt at a local level. Indeed the revival of the agrarian and commercial economy in the late 1840s and 1850s only heightened pressures on those notables and service people whose grievances had been submerged by the general distress of the 1830s. The sense of ‘relative deprivation’ became more insistent. In the Agra region where the anti-taluqdari settlements were particularly severe, ancient marriage patterns linking Rajputs of the British territories and those of the Indian states had been disrupted. In 1856 an officer warned pointedly: ‘I believe it is not uncommon for them [the Bhadouria Rajputs] to state their expectations of eventually regaining their ancestral possession on our government giving way to some more powerful as the Muhomedan rule gave way to us.’111

The deflation of aristocratic consumption was also a grievance for the many fragments of the old artisan economies which had come under more severe pressure in the 1830s. In many qasbah towns throughout the Doab and Rohilkhand, weavers, spinners and dyers proved an inflammatory element in the disturbances. Drawing on this hostility, the proclamation of the Azamgarh Maulvi denounced the import of European goods which had reduced ‘every description of native artisan’ to beggary. It added that under the government ‘the native artisans will be exclusively employed in the services of the kings, the rajahs and the rich, and this will no doubt ensure their prosperity’.112 The rebels (p.365) even attempted to draw on resentment among the merchant classes to government monopolies and taxes, and the aspersions on their commercial honour made by ‘worthless people’ in the British courts. In fact where the rebels did elicit patchy support from merchant families, it was almost always from those like the Gurwala family of Delhi which had been closely tied in to the court provisioning of Indian powers. This broad context does not, of course, explain in detail why certain groups revolted and others in a similar situation did not. For this we need to fall back on detailed studies of the military situation and factional conflicts in the localities. But it is nevertheless useful to distinguish between immediate causes for rebellion and general preconditions which provided both grievances and justification for it.


The striking fact about the downturn of the 1830s in north India was the way in which a wide range of adverse climatic, ecological and monetary conditions converged. Yet it was, first and foremost, a crisis in the political economy. That is to say, it resulted from a disturbance of the links between state, commerce and agrarian society which had been established after 1740. The decline of princely consumption and agrarian patronage in the intermediate economy magnified the disruption caused by a political assault on the north Indian monetary system and the collapse of the false commercial economy which had remitted its Europeans’ political perquisites to Britain. It was not a crisis of modernisation; it represented the impact on the Indian localities not primarily of European capitalism, but of a conquistador imperialism using Mughal methods to push for a degree of centralisation which the Mughals had never achieved. Even in those areas where ‘soil exhaustion’ and the end of agricultural expansion underlay these external problems, the context within which agricultural productivity began to fall was created by the pressures of the revenue system and the lack of state expenditure. Yet if this was a ‘colonial crisis’, it had particular features because of the very special implications of gift-giving, royal service and ritualised consumption within the Indian political economy. The only close parallel was in early colonial Java where (p.366) the Dutch assault on the Hindu–Muslim polities unleashed a similar dislocation among service people and merchants who had supported their ritual and display.

In other parts of India similar disturbances took place, but less elided in time. In Bengal, the decline of the rajwari economies had come earlier, between 1770 and 1800, with the disbanding of the Nawabi armies and the pressures on the zamindari which accompanied the Permanent Settlement. The old service classes had already melted away, and the 1830s and 1840s saw instead the frustration of the indigenous Bengali commercial class. In the newly conquered Punjab, by contrast, the demise of the Sikh notables and their expenditure was consciously made good by the incoming British who bought acquiescence by military and civil expenditure.


(1) CGC Kanpur to Bd, 27 Oct. 1807, CPR, 30 Oct. 1807, 97/28, IOL.

(2) Farrukhabad Magistrate’s Report, 27 Oct. 1814, Home Misc. 776, IOL.

(3) CGC Farrukhabad to Bd, 1 Nov. 1826, reprod. NWP Rev. Customs Jan. 1836, 221/85, IOL.

(4) Siddiqi, Agrarian Change in a Northern Indian State (Oxford, 1973), ch. 8.

(5) ‘Statement of British Subjects and Other European Residents in or holding lands for the Cultivation of Indigo in the District of Farrukhabad’, see esp. list of creditors of J. Mercer, BCJ, 14 Dec. 1830, 139/64.

(6) Metcalf, Landlords, pp. 105–35.

(7) Sleeman, Rambles, p. 365.

(8) Collr Aligarh in Bengal Financial Letters, 38, 343ff., IOL; cited in Siddiqi, Agrarian Change, p. 169.

(9) Commander, ‘The agrarian economy’, Table 4.3, p. 173.

(10) Jenkins, Report on the Territories of the Rajah of Nagpore, p. 100.

(11) Ibid. Sumit Guha has shown the significance of political change for the economy of the Deccan in his unpublished Cambridge Ph.D. dissertation, 1981, ‘The agrarian economy of the Bombay Deccan, 1818–1941’.

(12) Jenkins, Report, p. 101; court consumption of shawls, kinkhabs and muslins accounted for about 80% of all ‘foreign’ imports into the Deccan capitals.

(13) In the west of the Province large numbers of jagirs for life had been granted by the incoming British officials (see For. Sec. Cons. 1804–7, NAI); these had progressively reverted to government with the death of the grantees, impoverishing many aristocratic families, e.g., the case of the relatives of the poet Ghalib, Ghalib, tr. and ed. R. Russell and K. Islam (London, 1969), I, 23, 67.

(14) See, e.g., basta 3, files 4, 20, 44, 59; basta 6, 48; basta 12, 22; basta 18, 18, Persian files, Benares Agency, UPR; Sangam Lal papers, Sri Ramkrishna Papers, Benares.

(15) E. I. Brodkin, ‘Rohilkhand from conquest to revolt, 1774–1858’ (unpublished Cambridge Ph.D dissertation, 1968), pp. 152–3.

(16) For Kumu Khan and other Pathan Khandars, CGC Bareilly to Bd, 23 Sept. 1824, CPR, 28 Sept. 1824, 95/39, IOL.

(17) R. Heber, Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay (London, 1829), II, 119–25.

(18) DG Jalaun, pp. 45, 161; P. J. White, Final Settlement Report of Pargana Kalpi (Allahabad, 1875), pp. 3–10; petition of Durga Prasad, head of the mahajans of Kalpi, NWP Crim. Judl, Jan. 1840, 231/66, IOL.

(19) Political Agent Bharatpur to Resident Delhi, 20 July 1831, Delhi Agency Correspondence, NAI; the number of regular troops appears to have been reduced from c. 15,000 to less than 5,000; Pande, Jats of Bharatpur, p. 179.

(20) Rajputana Gazetteer, I (Calcutta, 1879), 168–9.

(21) Sleeman, Rambles, p. 364.

(22) Norman P. Ziegler, ‘Some notes on Rajput loyalties during the Mughal period,’ in J. Richards (ed.), Kingship and Authority in South Asia (Madison, Wisconsin, 1980), p. 34.

(23) Sleeman, Rambles, p. 365.

(24) Metcalf, Landlords, pp. 94–8.

(25) Any significant decline in ‘aristocratic’ consumption should certainly have fed through into the price depression as it did in the Deccan from 1820 to 1840. But NWP prices are unrevealing because of (i) great regional variation, and (ii) the impact of ‘external’ factors—export demand within and outside India, fluctuations in bullion inflows, the severe famines of 1833–4 and 1837–8. But the decline in fine-grain price series, 1826–33 (see Siddiqi, Agrarian Change, pp. 188–93, Commander, ‘The agrarian economy’, Roy, IESHR (1972), 91–100, Agra Judl, etc., UPR) probably reflects demand as well as purely monetary factors; several contemporaries considered so. There is also much local evidence of the dislocation of consumption causing price falls from 1820 onwards, e.g., the decline of non-food-grain prices in Agra 1816–36, Agra Settlement Report 1880, pp. 33, 77; the slowdown in consumption of quality building materials in Benares, Chunar and Mirzapur by ‘wealthy natives … in recent years’, Collr Mirzapur to Bd, 16 Aug. 1819, Mirzapur Judl, 39, UPR.

(26) R. Temple, ‘Report on the Moquddamee Settlement,’ NWP Selections, xxviii, art. 15.

(27) Records of the Commissioner of Allahabad, Post-Mutiny, Dept. xii, basta 21.

(28) Oudh Gazetteer, iii, 530.

(29) Stokes, Peasant and Raj, p. 67.

(30) The Company sought practical results such as the end of the ‘imposition of the shroffs’, but it was also aware of symbolic issues, especially ‘the need for some emblem of British sovereignty’ to assert legitimacy over the many petty sovereigns who had the right to coin, India Mint Procs, 12 Jan. 1835, NAI.

(31) Commr Agra to GG, 11 Apr. 1838, NWPCJ, July 1838, 231/49, IOL.

(32) Siddiqi, Agrarian Change, ch. 8; the Benares commercial community continued to press for the re-establishment of the Benares mint for a decade, see, e.g. Harrakhchand to Magt. Benares (Persian), 11 Oct. 1839, ‘Memory Book’ (YadashtBahi).

(33) Replies of commrs and collrs to Bd of Revenue NWP, Indian Mint Procs, 9 Oct. 1832, NAI.

(34) Commr Agra to GG, 11 Apr. 1838, NWPCJ, July 1838, 231/49; Offg. Commr Agra to GG, 31 Nov. 1838, NWPCJ, Jan. 1839, 231/58, IOL.

(35) S. Ahmed, Two Kings of Awadh. Muhammad Ali Shah and Amjad Ali Shah (1837–47) (Aligarh, 1971), pp. 91–120; J. Pemble, The Raj, the Indian Mutiny and the Kingdom of Oudh, 1810–59 (Hassocks, Sussex, 1977).

(36) E.g., Butter, Southern Districts, pp. 5–7.

(37) Resdt Lucknow to GG, 29 Nov. 1837, extract from For. Sec. Dept., 27 Dec. 1837, For. Pol. Procs, 27 Dec. 1837, NAI.

(38) Same to same, 16 Oct. 1832, For. Pol. Procs, 26 Dec. 1832, NAI.

(39) Same to same, 6 Nov. 1832, For. Pol. Procs, 3 Dec. 1832, NAI.

(40) Trans. of akhbarats (newsletters), enc. same to same, 3 Dec. 1832, NAI.

(41) Same to same, 16 Oct. 1832, For. Pol. Procs, 26 Dec. 1832, NAI.

(42) ‘Translation of the Prime Minister’s Rough Estimates of the Annual Receipts and Disbursements of the Oude Govt. for the year 1838’, same to same, 29 Nov. 1837, NAI.

(43) E.g., akhbarat, enc. same to same, 16 Oct. 1832, noting withdrawal of peasants and proprietors of Rampur into Company territory; for settlement of Awadh Kurmis in Allahabad see, SR Allahabad, 1878, p. 73.

(44) Resident to GG, 16 Oct. 1832, NAI.

(45) R. Montgomery, Statistical Report of the District of Cawnpoor (Calcutta, 1849), p. 110 and passim; Safi Ahmed, Two Kings, p. 78.

(46) Hoey, Monograph on Trade and Industry in Upper India, pp. 43–5.

(47) Tod, Rajasthan, II, 128.

(48) Note by Commr Ajmer–Mewara, 8 Sept. 1839, NWP Bd Rev. Procs, 15 June 1841, 223/26, IOL.

(49) NWP Bd Rev. Procs, 7 June 1836, 221/86; cf. C. L. Datta, ‘Significance of shawl wool trade in western Himalayan politics’, Bengal Past and Present, lxxxix (1970), 23–5.

(50) This assertion is difficult to quantify; changes in chaukidari assessments for places with a population under 10,000 cannot be regarded as significant. But the qualitative references found in early gazetteers, settlement reports and proceedings come down heavily on the side of relative stagnation or even decay for smaller places after about 1825. The exception may be places on the few new metalled roads (e.g., the Grand Trunk Road or the road south from Mirzapur) which benefited from the slow move from pack-bullocks to carts.

(51) E. T. Stokes, ‘Bureacracy and ideology. Britain and India in the nineteenth century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5 ser., xxx (1980), 149–50.

(52) See D. J. Howlett, ‘An end to expansion. Influences on British policy in India circa 1830–60’ (unpubl. Cambridge Ph.D. dissertation, 1981), ch. 2.

(53) Jt Magt. Agra to Magt., 27 June 1850, NWPCJ, Mar. 1851, 233/22, IOL.

(54) Madan Paul Singh, Indian Army, pp. 57–8; J. A. B. Palmer, The Mutiny Outbreak at Meerut (Cambridge, 1966), p. 34.

(55) Sleeman, Rambles, p. 365.

(56) The crisis in the Sikh kingdom during the 1830s and 1840s also led to the standing down of mercenary troops from Hindustan, Lieut. Nichols to Magt. Mirzapur, Mirzapur Judl, 107, UPR.

(57) Commander, ‘The agrarian economy’, pp. 215–50.

(58) For an extended discussion of the export economy see C. A. Bayly, ‘The age of hiatus. The north Indian economy and society, 1830–50’, in C. H. Philips and M. D. Wainwright (eds), Indian Society and the Beginnings of Modernisation (London 1976), pp. 83–105.

(59) Mullick, Bengal Commerce, I, 17, table.

(60) CGC Delhi to Bd, 16 May 1836, NWP Rev. Customs, 7 June 1836, 22/81, IOL.

(61) Judge Agra to CGC Agra, 11 Nov. 1816, CPR, 11 Jan. 1817, 97/59, IOL.

(62) CGC Delhi to Bd, 16 May 1836.

(63) ‘The town of Allahabad in 1824’ in D. and B. Bhattacharya (eds), ‘Report on the population estimates of India, 1820–30’, Census of India 1961 (Delhi, 1963).

(64) CGC Farrukhabad to Dty CGC Farrukhabad, 20 Oct. 1826, NWP Rev. Customs, 29 Nov. 1836, cf. chart of ‘town duties’ at Allahabad and Kanpur, 1826–36, idem, 2 Feb. 1836, 221/85, IOL.

(65) DG Jalaun, p. 45.

(66) Dty Opium Agent, Bundelkhand to Govt, 23 June 1836, CGC Bundelkhand to Bd, 27 June 1842, NWP Rev. Customs, 12 July 1842, 223/49, IOL.

(67) DG Jalaun, p. 45.

(68) J. Bell, Review of the External Commerce of Bengal from 1824–5 to 1829–30 (Calcutta, 1830), p. 28.

(69) Mullick, Bengal Commerce, I, 26; Colebrooke and Lambert, Husbandry, pp. 120–5.

(70) Revenue Settlements under Reg. ix, I, 7.

(71) Ibid.

(72) Ibid.

(73) Interview, family histories, Sri Jyoti Bhushan Gupta, Benares, April 1974.

(74) Bell, External Commerce, p. 26.

(75) CGC Agra to Bd, 5 Oct. 1824, CPR, 3 May 1825, 95/62, IOL.

(76) Colebrooke and Lambert, Husbandry, pp. 113–14.

(77) Mullick, Bengal Commerce, I, 40.

(78) Collr Gorakhpur to Commr Benares, 15 June 1841, NWP Rev. Procs, 2 July 1841, 223/27, IOL.

(79) DG Ghazipur, p. 53.

(80) Cf. A. K. Bagchi, ‘Deindustrialisation in Gangetic Bihar, 1809–1901’, in Barun De et al. (eds), Essays in Honour of Prof. S. C. Sarkar (Delhi, 1976), pp. 499–522; M, Vicziany, ‘The deindustrialisation of India in the 19th century. A methodological critique of Amiya Kumar Bagchi’, IESHR, xix (1979).

(81) Oudh Gazetteer, iii, 490–3

(82) Mullick, Bengal Commerce, 1, 4, 7–11; ibid., II, 3.

(83) CGC Benares to Bd, 23 July 1813, CPR, July 1813, 36/97, IOL.

(84) For some evidence of this, Settlements under Regulation ix, 1, 9–10.

(85) NWP Bd Rev. Customs, 29 June 1841, 223/26, IOL.

(86) Interviews, Kara, Allahabad, 1973–4.

(87) Collr Bulandshahr to Collr Meerut, 19 June 1834, Rev. Extracts Bulandshahr, Elliot MSS Eur. D. 310, IOL.

(88) Settlements under Regulation ix, II, 63.

(89) Comparative general returns of gross and net customs receipts by stations, 1837–40, NWP Rev. Customs, 7 Aug. 1838, 222/45, and 31 July 1840, 223/5, IOL.

(90) CGC Agra to Bd, 2 Jan. 1837, NWP Rev. Customs, 13 Jan. 1837, 226/16, IOL.

(91) Ibid.

(92) Collr to Commr Agra, 15 July 1838, Agra Judl, 3, UPR.

(93) Girdlestone, Report on Past Famines, p. 46.

(94) Note, NWP Rev. Customs, 5 Jan. 1836, 221/85, IOL.

(95) Statement showing the total abkari revenue by pargana and district from 1820–1 to 1840–1, NWP Rev. Customs, 12 Aug. 1842, 223/49, IOL.

(96) BCJ, 17 June 1833, 140/41, IOL.

(97) Patrol Officer Doab to CGC Agra, 8 Dec. 1845, NWP Rev. Customs, 30 Jan. 1846, 225/19 IOL.

(98) Commr for Dacoity to Bd, 23 Aug. 1813, BCJ, Sept. 1837, 231/39, IOL.

(99) Collr Shahjahanpur to Commr Rohilkhand, 6 Sept. 1837, NWPCJ, June 1838, 231/48, IOL.

(100) See below, pp. 310–12.

(101) N. B. Wright, on Patrol, to Customs Master Delhi, 12 May 1836, in CGC Delhi to Bd, 16 May 1836, NWP Rev. Customs, 7 June 1836, 221/86, IOL.

(102) Sleeman, Rambles, p. 413, cf. pp. 415–17.

(103) N. B. Wright to Customs Master Delhi, 12 May 1836.

(104) Butter, Southern Oudh, p. 48.

(105) Commander, ‘The agrarian economy’, pp. 281ff.

(106) Note by Collr (?) Aug. 1839, Agra Rev., 6, UPR.

(107) H. F. Evans, Report on the Settlement of Agra District, NWP (Allahabad, 1880), pp. 25, 32; Girdlestone, Past Famines, p. 39, for ‘distress selling’ of stock and permanent loss of capital by farmers during the famine.

(108) F. B. Growse, ‘Braj Mandal’, IA, i (1872), 66.

(109) S. A. Rizvi and M. I. Bhargava (eds), Freedom Struggle in Uttar Pradesh (Lucknow, 1956–60), I, 22.

(110) Proclamation of Begum of Awadh, ibid., I, 437.

(111) Collr to Commr Agra, 23 Feb. 1855, Agra Rev., 12, UPR.

(112) Azamgarh Proclamation, 25 Aug. 1857, repr. in R. Mukherjee, ‘The Azimgurh Proclamation and some questions on the Revolt of 1857’, in B. De (ed.), Essays Presented to S. C. Sarkar, pp. 477–98.