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Tales of the First Traveller from
Bengal to Europe 1765-68

Azizul Jalil

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Mughal Emperors were sovereigns in India only in name. In Bengal, the battle of Plassey was already lost by Nawab Sirajuddoula. Lord Clive, heading the East India Company affairs in India, was manipulating the puppet Nawab in Bengal and Emperor Shah Alam in Delhi. He did it by cunning, deceit and military threats to extract the most lucrative and advantageous terms for the British side. The Mughals had become submissive and servile to the British and increasingly dependent on their backing and protection to maintain even a semblance of their rule from local challenges to their authority.

Against this backdrop, Mirza Sheikh Itesamuddin, born in Bengal, grandson of a Persian immigrant and historian of Mir Zumla's Assam campaign, Shihabuddin Talish, came to be associated with the British as a Farsi writer and secretary. Emperor Shah Alam planned to send a letter to the British king George III, appealing to him to sanction troops for his protection. A man with good knowledge of Farsi was to accompany a British military officer carrying the letter and a gift of a hundred thousand rupees from India to the British monarch. Itesamuddin, an employee of the company, was chosen to be that person. He was himself given four thousand rupees for the trip and promised generous rewards on his successful return from England. The following is an account of what followed, why his visit to England was prolonged and impressions of the visit as given in his book in Farsi in 1779. The book was named “Shigarf-nama-e-Bilayet”, written long eleven years after his return to India at the urging of his friends. It was translated into Bangla in installments by A.M.Habibullah for Bangladesh Itihash Parishad journal 'Itihash” and later published in Dhaka by Muktadhara in 1981in a Bangla book “Bilayetnama.” It would be fair to say that Sheikh Itesamuddin was the first known visitor to Europe from Bengal.

A few days after he set sail for England, British Captain Swinton, who was accompanying him, informed that Clive had seized the Emperor's letter and no gift of money was going along with them. Clive had told the Captain that he himself would travel to England later with the two items and submit these to George III personally. Itesamuddin was completely taken aback and saddened but had no option at that stage other than to continue. On the way to England, he had to stay in Boulogne and Cape Corn in France for about a fortnight. He arrived in England after a long journey of eight weeks. At the port, his luggage was not cleared by the customs. He had to leave them behind temporarily and proceed to London, where he was put up by Captain Swinton in his brother's house on Coventry Street in Haymarket. The customs department after a delay of a fortnight released his goods by order of a court which found his importation of silk handkerchiefs were for gift-giving and not for sale and since he was a visitor who did not know the rules and regulations of the country, he should be given back his goods without any penalty.

Eventually, Lord Clive arrived from India and the deceptive person he was, presented the money sent by the Indian Emperor as his personal gift. He decided not to submit Shah Alam's letter to the king, as it would be inconvenient to the company's interest. Because of the on going debate whether administration of India should be taken over directly by British government personnel and not left with the company, a mere business corporation, Clive argued that the East India Company's forces have suffered casualties and monetary loss in establishing British supremacy in large parts of India, particularly in Bengal. Therefore, it would be fair to give the company administrative and revenue collection responsibilities in India. The company pledged to pay annual taxes to the British king in increasing amounts. Clive's request was granted by the King.

Itesamuddin appreciated British patriotism and nationalism and had regrets about the complete absence of it among the Indians, particularly among the elite and the rulers. He states that during the time of war, the British king calls upon the well-to-do to come forward with loans for the defense of the country. The people happily provided this because the money is returned in installments with interest and defeat in war might lead to loss of their own property and position.

For the benefit of his countrymen, Itesamuddin recorded his observations about London, its streets, the wide Westminster Bridge and Cathedral, the Museum, the king's palace, and the type of houses that people lived in. Regarding civic facilities, he mentions London's water supply system: from distant water falls, water is brought to the outskirts of the city through canals and kept in a huge water storage facility lined with stones, then brought to the city streets by metal pipes. People bring it inside homes though pipes and store in tanks. Water is released once a week. Some people also dig wells in their house for supplementing their water supply. Refuse is collected from the homes of people regularly for which a fee is levied. Anybody throwing trash into the streets is fined. He did not omit to tell his readers that at the beginning of his visit local people, who had not seen a man from India before, would look out of windows and children would come out into streets seeing a strange creature like him in funny clothing. They would often mistake him to be a woman dancer. As they got used to him, he was treated with courtesy and hospitality and regarded as a nobleman from India.

He admired work ethics of the British where earning livelihood by the sweat of one's brow is respected. Itesamuddin was happy to see large buildings dedicated to orphanages where hundreds of little children without parents or those born out of wedlock are sheltered, trained and given health care. When they become adults, many are given jobs in local governments or found jobs in private sector such as in ships etc.

He used to be invited to some parties where he met high ranking people who asked him questions concerning his religion and traditions. Because he was staying abroad alone for a prolonged period, he was once asked why he was not taking a wife. To which his reply was that women of higher class would not want him and being an aristocrat in his own country, he could not take a wife from the lower class. This was appreciated by his questioners. There are many other interesting anecdotes in his book.

He narrates an amusing story from the highlands in Scotland, which he also visited. A villager had eaten grilled liver in a town and enquired from a chef about the recipe and way to cook it. He wrote these down and bought some liver from a butcher. As he was going home to prepare the kabob, a dog followed him, snatched the packet containing the meat and ran away. Irritated, the man jeered at the dog saying that the animal will not have any benefit because the cooking instructions were still in his pocket. This may have been an English joke at the cost of the Scots, but Itesamuddin drew the obvious conclusion that in every country, even in England, there were many simpletons around and their numbers may be great.

His friends wanted Itesamuddin to stay a couple of years more in England to teach young people Farsi language and offered generous allowances. He however declined because of attachment to his country and relations. He returned to India after a long sojourn in England of a total, including the journey time, of two years and seven months.

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