The British Empire Library

The Prince who beat the Empire

by Moin Mir

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The subtitle of this engaging book is 'How an Indian ruler took on the might of the East India Company' which is a more accurate description of how the Nawab of Surat, Mir Jafar Ali Khan restored the family fortunes which had been taken by the Company. The story starts slowly, discursively, with probably too much background material. But it builds to an exciting conclusion that will have the reader cheering along with the British MPs when Jafar, as he is called here, won his case in Parliament against the Company. The port of Surat had risen to prominence during the Mughal period, attracting traders from all over India and abroad, including the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British. Parsi and Jewish merchants were welcomed, with their fire-temples and synagogues and Sufi shrines were popular places of pilgrimage too. Charles II had acquired a number of small islands to the south at Bombay, which he sold to the East India Company in 1668. It was the development of Bombay which led to the decrease in Surat's trade and importance. Almost inevitably Surat and its Castle fell into the Company's hands and by 1800 it had effectively bought off the ruling Nawab Nasir-ud-din Khan. The Nawab was forced to agree that 'the whole civil and military government of the city shall be vested for ever and entirely and exclusively with the English Company'. In exchange the Company agreed to pay the Nawab and his heirs a pension of a lakh of rupees (£10,000) annually as well as a proportion of the annual land revenue (£5,000). Jonathan Duncan, acting as agent for Richard Wellesley, the governor general, assured Nasir-ud-din that the Company would support his heirs 'in perpetuity' and so the treaty was signed.

The Nawab's heir, Afeal-ud-din who succeeded his father in 1821 produced no sons, only a daughter, Bakhtiar-un-nissa. As was common practice in these cases, a boy from a good family was adopted as heir. This was Jafar who consolidated his position by marrying Bakhtiar and the couple had two daughters. On the death of Afzal-ud-din in 1842, the Company tried to wriggle out of its financial obligations by using the 'Doctrine of Lapse' which allowed it to seize petty kingdoms like Surat and Jhansi where there was no male heir. The annual pension was stopped and the bulk of the properties and estates owned by Jafar and his wife were seized. After dignified but fruitless protestations to the governor general, Jafar decided to travel to England and lay his case before the Directors of the East India Company in Leadenhall Street, in person. It was not unprecedented. Indians seeking redress for real or perceived wrongs had made journeys to London before, including the Nawab Iqbal-ud-daula, from Lucknow who felt he had been unjustly deprived of the throne of Awadh.

Jafar's first visit in 1844 is well documented by his interpreter Lutfullah, who was later to write his account of the time spent in London. Jafar's party, including Lutfullah, his two secretaries and his physician, took lodgings in Sloane Street. The case for restoring the pension and the estates was dismissed by the Company who refused to discuss its decision. Frustrated, Jafar returned to Swat only to see his wife die of tuberculosis, leaving his two little girls motherless. Lord Dalhousie's aggressive forward policy as governor general and a paltry offer from the Company to restore only half the estates with a small pension impelled Jafar to England again. His father, Sarfarez, mortgaged his own property and borrowed money to support his son while abroad. This time a powerful brace of liberal MPs, Sir Richard Bethell and Sir Fitzroy Kelly were on hand to help and advise Jafar who returned to London in December 1853 and who was to stay for another four years. The story of his eventual success in Parliament is well told. It was undoubtedly in the interests of Bethell and Kelly to have a stick with which to beat the Company and they were not alone in their condemnation of the monolith that it had become. Jafar was the perfect figurehead for their fight - articulate, handsome and with an unimpeachable cause. There is much of interest in this book, written by a relative of the Surat family. The publicity machine surrounding Jafar which orchestrated his appearances at the Opera House, Ascot, the Royal Society of Arts and Hyde Park, among others, is fascinating, as is his tender relationship with the English actress Mary Jane Flood, who did her best to integrate into Indian life as Jafar's unofficial wife. Recommended.

British Empire Book
Moin Mir
First Published
Amberley Publishing,
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2018 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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