Dhaka City Society - late 18th century

Sirajul Islam

Photo: Charles Dí oYLY

How was the society of Dhaka city at the end of the eighteenth century? Historically, the capital cities of Bengal had invariably decayed or even ceased to exist in the wake of shifting the seat of government or with the change of dynastic regimes. Glaring examples are the rise and fall of the capital cities like Pundranagar, Kutalipara, Gaur Pandua, Lakhanavati, and Sonargaon, Murshidabad. All of them ceased to exist as premier cities in the wake of the political changes. The latest casualty of the trend was Murshidabad. It steeply declined and lost its urban status when Calcutta rose as the capital city of Bengal. But Dhaka, though badly bruised first by the transfer of the capital to Murshidabad, and then by the rise of Calcutta as the capital of British India, never yielded to extinction. It seems Dhaka developed considerable resiliency to survive against extreme adverse circumstances.

However, we straightway move to see the contours of the Dhaka City society in the late eighteenth century, when Calcutta emerged as the capital of Britain's eastern empire. While reporting on the state of Dhaka city of the 1790s, the Court of Appeal and Circuit (a judicial body of the new colonial state) mentioned the past vicissitudes of the city and concluded that Dhaka of the 1790s was 'only a shadow of its past.' But in spite of decaying conditions of the city Dhaka had still a population of over two lakhs at the end of the 18th century, which is certainly a very big size compared to the world cities of the time. Parallel to the process of recession there must also be a process of people's readjustment to the new situation.

The society in 1763
Politically Dhaka ceased to be a Mughal city in 1763, when it was sacked and conquered by the East India Company. How was the social scenario of the city at the time of the conquest? In spite of considerable reduction of population ever since the transfer of the capital of Murshidabad, Dhaka was still holding a great mass of population. All the European trading Companies had their regional commercial headquarters in Dhaka. All the great banking and trading houses of Hindustan had their branches here. Though Khalsa or Treasury was shifted to Murshidabad, zamindars and taluqdars of eastern Bengal paid their revenues in Dhaka. The naib-nazim of Dhaka was responsible for revenue settlement and maintenance of law and order. All eastern Bengal trading routes culminated in Dhaka. Thus in the mental image of the people Dhaka remained their capital city. Even in the vocabulary of the English officials Dhaka often appeared as an unofficial 'capital' of eastern Bengal.

Structurally, the society of this uncrowned capital city was segmented into many status groups having distinctive characteristics. The people enjoying the highest status and honour were the remnants of the Mughal aristocracy. Several streams of nobles made up the city aristocracy. The most exalted stream consisted of the exiled princely families. As Dhaka was far from the hot-beds of Mughal power politics and disadvantageously situated for hatching plots against the ruling party, so Dhaka was used as a captive city for those nobles who were defeated in power struggle. Many of the subjugated but potentially dangerous opponents were deported to Dhaka. Thus we find in this city in 1763 the descendants of the deported royal bloods from Suja to Sirajuddoula. With the deported nobles joined many of their family members and closest associates. Besides official exiles Dhaka had also received many self-exiled nobles who fell from the grace of the authorities and ran away to Dhaka in search of security. Most of them received pensions and doles from the government. Among the pensioners are to be found the family members of the deposed Nawab Sarfaraz Khan, descendants of Haji Ahmed the celebrated king maker and brother of Alivardi Khan, descendants of Aga Baker Khan and Sirajuddoullah, and the latest Mughal naib of Dhaka Muhammed Ali Beg and his family and associates.

The city society held these nobles and their descendants in the highest esteem, even much higher than post-Mughal naib-nazims. To the contemporaries the family of Jasarat Khan, the founder of the naib nazim family under the British, had inferior pedigree to Mughal pensioned-off aristocrats. Naib Jasarat Khan himself seemed to have accepted that social verdict.

Lakherajdars stood next to the exiled aristocrats as regards rank and status. Who were they? From a combined petition of the lakherajdars made to Warren Hastings in 1775 we learn as to their origins. They were the early settlers who accompanied the Mughal military establishments as war adjuncts. They were the pioneer settlers in Dhaka when it was made the capital. The sanads in their possessions indicate that the early Mughal government made lakheraj grants to them as an incentive to Mughal immigration to the new settlement. When the city settlement became considerable over time the social and economic significance of these pioneer settlers increased. They turned out to be the owners of city land and city houses. All Faujdars and Shar-Amins (city magistrate) counted them as most important members of the society and it was they who were allowed to form the panchayets of the city. Like the exiled nobles the lakherajdars were also all Muslims. They drew their main income mostly from house rental. Most of the foreign trading communities, military generals and traveling merchants and pilgrims were their tenants.

Trading and manufacturing classes
As regards social significance trading and manufacturing elements constituted the next most important social segments of Dhaka. As mentioned earlier, all the European Companies pursuing trade and commerce in Bengal had their establishments in Dhaka. Such establishments, in the contemporary jargons, were known as `Factories'. Every Factory had under it chain of aurangs or residential depots at every principal mart and bazaar of the country. All these were controlled from the principal factories at Dhaka. European elements of these factories consisted of an agent, members of Factory Councils, some subordinate writers, and a contingent of militia. From native side there were banias, mutsuddis, gornosthas, paikers, dalals, kayals, sarrafs, mohrers, paiks, peadas and required number of labourers. Besides, every Factory had an army of carpenters, thatchers, boatmen, grass cutters, wood cutters, bleaching men, palki-men, rope makers, animal minders and so on. Altogether European trading houses happened to be the biggest centres of employment and economic activities. From social point of view the local `factory'-men formed an important part of the city society. The city aristocracies accorded them equal status by calling them 'sahebs'- which means gentlemen deserving respect.

Among the inhabitants of the city most numerous were the small traders, potdars, sarrafs, karigars, manufacturers, weavers, spinners, bleachers, carpenters, thatchers, boat-makers, boatmen, domestic servants, shopkeepers, washermen, cleaners, masons and so on. Materials for brick buildings were prohibitively expensive, and hence except the very rich people, all others built thatched structures for accommodation. Obviously, every bazaar of the city had corners for bamboos, reeds and thatches. Boat building ghats were numerous along the Buriganga. As Dhaka was the nerve centre of eastern Bengal river communication, boat building turned out to be the biggest manufacturing and trading item of the city.

Sack of the city: 1763-64
One of the reasons why we take 1763 as a terminal date is the terrible ravage that the city was inflicted upon in that year. Its consequence was far reaching. For the whole year the city had no administration, no authority, no law and order. The foreign merchants including the English deserted the city and many of them never came back later. Men of wealth left the city during the period of law of nature. How could it happen?

In 1763 the English East India Company declared open hostilities against the Government of Mir Qasim. Against the excesses of the Company Muhammed Ali Beg, the naib of Mir Qasim at Dhaka, took drastic action against the British. In retaliation the English first left the city for Lakhsmipur (Noakhali) and later came back with reinforcement and took over the city. Muhammed Ali and all his Faujdari officials were captured. City administration collapsed. In the absence of any valid authority bandits took over. The fakirs and sannasies also joined in sacking the city.

The city aristocrats like the sons of Sarfaraz Khan and other nobles tried to bring the situation under control, but at one stage they themselves were captured by the British. The situation created consternation among the inhabitants who had no other alternative to defend themselves other than self-mobilisation. But the arrest of the principal Mughals made self-mobilisation move futile. The British tried to set up a puppet government headed by some Hindu Mutsuddis but the phantom authority thus established failed to restore law and order. Lawlessness continued. Most government records about administration, justice and revenue settlement were destroyed by the British and bandits.

Whatever confidence was placed on the puppet machinery was ruined by the conduct of one Thomas French, a servant of the Company at Dhaka. On his return to Dhaka, French gathered some dacoits around him and started looting and burning the city even flouting the English authority over him. He made every person of the city responsible for plundering his property and property of the Factory, and he made a vow to punish every person of the city.

With the restoration of Mir Zafar on the throne and appointment of Syed Muhammed Reza Khan as Naib Nazim of Dhaka, the law and order of the city began to improve. But the prolonged anarchy had changed the scenario of the city society. The social influence and authority of the traditional aristocracy was badly shaken. The people no longer looked to the nobles as the last resort for the preservation of social customs and practices. The big nobles themselves fell victims of anarchy. The loss of their property and honour had a levelling effect on the social structure. The inviolability and sanctity of the aristocracy had been put under question. Through the anarchy bandits acquired social respect because it was they who could now defend life and property, not the nobles. As the aristocratic social structure got weakened, the local heroes during the crisis emerged with alternative leadership. This picture we get from the numerous arzis and darkhasts that the aggrieved aristocrats made to the colonial authorities for redress.

Naib-Nazim family
The naib-nazim family of Dhaka was a product of the early East India Company's government. Customarily the post of the naib at Dhaka under the Mughal government was a transferable one. The practice continued up to Reza Khan (1763-65). After the departure of Reza Khan, when he left Dhaka to become the naib diwan under the Diwani administration the Company resolved to establish a loyal ruling family in Dhaka as a permanent bridgehead between the British and the local people. It was a colonial necessity. The person chosen for the job was Jasarat Khan, who openly sided with the British when he was the faujdar of Dhaka (1757-60). Nawab Mir Qasim ousted him because of his loyalty to the Company. In his place was appointed Muhammed Ali Beg, a staunch anti-British noble. He held the posts of naib and faujdar of Dhaka. As stated earlier the British took him prisoner when Mir Qasim declared war against them. After Mir Zafar's death (5 February 1765) Reza Khan was withdrawn from Dhaka and in his place Jasarat Khan was made the naib of Dhaka "for his known attachment to us". He was made a hereditary naib from 1767. He was vested with nizamat powers and his family members were allowed to use the title Nawab. Jasarat Khan died in 1778. The successive naib nazims were Hashmat Jang (1778-1785), Nasrat Jung (1785-1822), Shamsuddoullah (1822-1831), Qamruddoullah (1831-1834) and Gaziuddin Haider (1834-1843). The hereditary naib-niabat of Dhaka was officially abolished in 1822. The later nawabs held the title without official recognition until 1843 when the family became extinct.

The position of the naib nazim family in the Dhaka society was never very high. It was partly because of their servile partnership with the British and partly for their chronic poverty. Many of the old nobles were much richer than the naib nazim. Moreover, in presence of so many old princely families the naib nazim family was too dull and dim to create any enthusiasm among the people about them. Had they enjoyed political power like the former naibs their social position could have been different. But from the beginning, the naib nazim was made a figurehead dependent on the pensions from the company government. Under Warren Hastings the naib nazim had nizamat powers theoretically but practically he was deprived of those powers. Under Cornwallis the nizamat powers were officially withdrawn from the Murshidabad nawab, and hence from the naib nazim of Dhaka too.

Currency class
As a bi-product of the currency chaos prevailing in the late 18th century a class of traders specialising in currency business emerged as a distinct social category. Socially they came to be known as seths, saraffs, potdars, mahajans. Though monetization of Bengal economy began long ago, it did not take any regular and systematic institutional form until the early nineteenth century.

The origin of the currency chaos goes back to the seventeenth century. The value of coins was determined by their metallic content. All could freely coin money in the Mughal mints. Because Bengal always exported more and imported less, coins from all parts of India poured in Bengal and all these were in circulation in the market. Even then, every region had its principal currency, such as Sicca Rupee was current in Calcutta, Narayani Rupee in north Bengal, Kauri in Sylhet, Das Massa Muggy in Chittagong and in Dhaka Arcot currency. Sicca Rupee was partially in circulation only in Dhaka city.

According to a survey conducted by the Dhaka district collector in 1787, the Dhaka market had as many as seven types of currencies, of which the most universally current being the Arcot currency. Sicca currency retained its original value for a year and then it became sanat. All sanat Sicca had to pay batta or discount. Similarly Arcot also got debased and batta had to be paid for sanat Arcot. Kauris were carried to the interior for small transactions. At the sadar, kauris were exchanged with other metallic currencies. As government revenue was collected only in Sicca all these currencies had to be converted to Sicca for revenue payment.

Who did the batta business? It required a high degree of specialization to deal in currency business and those who did it was called by various names, such as, seths, bania, saraffs, potdars, mahajans. They were the currency castes of the time. The seths and banias were the currency capitalists. In fact, it is they who controlled the currency market. As bankers they issued Hundis or bills of exchange and they also stood financial security to revenue farmers, zamindars and taluqdars. Among the most influential financial houses of Dhaka in the last two decades of the eighteenth century were Krishnacharan Das, Gopal Das, Shibnath Das, Jagannath Manick Chand, Monohar Das, Kishore Das, Goal Das, Goshal Das. These families were acquiring social influence steadily because of their intermediate situation between the landholders and the government and particularly because of the increasing monetization of the economy. By buying landed estates on auction sales, most of them became members of the landed gentry, but yet to get social recognition.

Under the pressure of the operation of the Sun-set Law the zamindars were compelled to borrow money from currency castes for paying government revenue punctually. It will not be an exaggeration to remark that by the end of the 18th century most zamindars and taluqdars of eastern Bengal fell indebted to the seths and banias of Dhaka.

All the members of the currency caste were, of course, not equally influential. The most influential were the seths and banias. They were followed by sarrafs and mahazans. They mainly bought debased money from the market and sold it to minting seths for recoining. Their principal function was money changing on batta. Fixing batta was a prerogative of the sarrafs, since other people were entirely ignorant of the true value of the debased coin. The Dhaka Collector reported in 1785 that the people were at the mercy of the sarrafs who fixed batta most arbitrarily. He remarked: the knowledge and dissemination of different kinds of arcots, has become a profession unknown to every person but sarrafs themselves. In consequence of the mystery which attends this business and collusion among them all receipts or payments of money must pass through their hands. This enables them to levy an arbitrary batta on all monies received from the mofussil.

New society
The decline and fall of the Mughal aristocracy led to the decline of its associated institutions, and on the ruin of the old social order emerged a new society which became clearly marked in the last decade of the eighteenth century. The members of the new society were those who achieved success through their association with the British. The local people nearest to power became nuts and bolts of the colonial administrative machinery. Their individual success was later extended to other members of their families. They formed the lower stratum of the colonial administration, and the higher stratum of the emergent local middle class.

The operation of the permanent settlement had brought about radical change in the established social order. Private property was created in land and anyone could buy it if he had money. The banias, mutsuddis, sarrafs, potdars and office amla got opportunity to rise up socially through buying zamindari rights at public sales of revenue lands.

Among the city magnets who converted their wealth into social power by buying zamindari rights, the most remarkable were George Paniaty, Paniaty Alexander, Dul Sing, Rajiblochan, Harikrishana, Ramprashad Sarkar, Barkatullah, Mirza Golam Ali, Govinda Das, Mirza Haider Ali, Khwaja Hafizullah and Khwaja Alimullah (father of Khwaja Abdul Gani). Almost all of them came from outside Bengal, some from Iran, Armenia and Greece. They made Dhaka their home. The secret of their success was their association with the British either as traders or as amlas. But as regards social respectability none of these new families got instant recognition. In the eyes of the older families they were men of wealth, but never of status.

From an impressionistic social survey officially made in 1800 we may have a clear idea as to social difference between the old and new families. For imperial reasons, Lord Wellesley ordered the district collectors and judges to prepare a list of locally influential people. Melville, the Magistrate of Dhaka City made a curious list of 26 influential persons. From his list it appears that the contemporaries never mixed social status with wealth. Key to social respect was pedigree not money. Thus we find in Melville's report that persons like Mir Muhammed Ali, Mir Muhammed Hafiz, Ali Raihan, Mir Husain, Mirza Asadullah, Anup Chandra Lahori and others were highly respectable socially though not rich. On the other hand, persons like Mirza Muhammed, Mirza Budai, Mirza Rahimullah Beg, Jiban Babu, Tulsi Ram, Dul Sing, Udai Babu, Rajiblochan and others not socially respectable though very rich. The names of Hafizullah and Alimullah did not appear in Melvile's list though they bought extensive lands during the period and were rich. It indicates they were yet to draw official attention.

By the 1770s the aristocracy had lost all its political power and by the end of the century most members of the aristocracy were reduced to utmost poverty. But yet in social estimation they were still the natural leaders.

Language and culture
So far no serious study has been made on the language and culture of the city. Like all other Mughal administrative cities social life of Dhaka city was dominated by the aristocratic culture. Persian and Arabic were cultivated by the rulers and the literati. For generality in the administration Hindustani was the language. Petrified Bangla was the language of the shopkeepers, servants and slaves. With the coming of the Europeans and Euro-Asians in large numbers from the start of the 18th century the language and culture of the city obtained a new dimension. The city life became more cosmopolitan and consequently city culture was affected by it. The English, Dutch, French and other Europeans spoke in their own languages within the confines of their kuthis. But outside they had to find a way out to communicate with the local people. Same was the problem with the local people who came in trading contact with the Europeans. The language problem was solved by use of words without syntax. The Europeans tried to express by using as many as local words as they could marshall and similarly the Indians also used as many European words as they could. Thus in the Euro-Indian circle a peculiar business language ridden with trans-language words emerged.

Parallel to the Euro-Asian business language developed another language in the city under the same circumstances. From the mid eighteenth century eastern Bengal rice became an important item of export trade. Dhaka turned out to be the emporium of rice trade. Rice exporters were all Marwari and up-country merchants. They imported paddy from the interior of the country and they employed numerous local labourers to process paddy into rice. These rice huskers were called kutti (from the Sanskrit word kuttin or smashing). The cross-language communication between the Hindustani elements and the rustic Bengalis led to the growth of a hibrid pidgin called kutti. Later, kutti developed into an independent dialect among the late labouring settlers.

In the city society shameless profligacy had been noticed with concern by the government. The people were reported to be highly sensual and extravagant. According to an official explanation the Dhaka people acquired profligacy from Nawab Sadat Ali of Oudh who came to Dhaka in 1783 "accompanied by profligate citizens of Lucknow" and lived here for four months with the nazims of Dhaka, "in the most profligate manner". It was thought that Dhaka people got infected by the decadent and squandering followers of Sadat Ali and his moral standard became a model for the city greats after his departure." We cannot accept such a simplistic explanation for a complex social problem. Social slavery and sexuality moved together in all societies. Moreover, the loss of political power, poverty in the rank and file of the former rulers, liquidation of local capital consequent upon colonial inroads were strong factors for degeneration and desolate life among a section of Dhaka elite. Sensuality and profligacy are sociologically associated with failures and decadence. Under the operation of the colonial system, the traditional Dhaka were left with no state role, no education and wealth.

In the judgment of the city Magistrate, the Dhaka people were physically and morally feeble and they were extremely "submissive to authority". From his experience the Mathew Day, the Chief of Dhaka in the seventies and eighties, observed that the 'Bangalees worshipped the authorities and oppressed the subordinates'. Collector Massie noticed that the people paid only lip service to moral principle but they never practiced it. According to him good faith is entirely absent in the society. To quote him, “What is called good faith is entirely out of the question, for, as far as any knowledge of the natives extends it appears to me that the conduct of a man who acts on principles of good faith is attributed more to want of abilities than to any laudable motive.”

These comments on the character and habits of the people cannot be taken seriously. As the universal practice goes the alien ruling class is always prone to make rash comments on the subjugated people. A subjugated culture may offer little to be appreciated by the masters. That the above remarks were made on insufficient grounds will be noticed in the crime records of the city. The annual statement of crimes in the city shows that from 1793 to 1801 only 550 persons were tried before the Court of Circuit for various crimes such as, murder, perjury, robbery, burglary, arson, theft, rape, frauds, plundering and assaulting, forgery, etc. On an average hardly fifty persons were tried every year before the Court of Circuit. In a city of more than two hundred thousand inhabitants only fifty derailed persons a year is certainly a mark of honesty, principle and good faith on the part of the people.

The author is a Historian and Chief Editor, Banglapedia:National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh.

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