Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Two Conquests:   Egypt and Bengal before 1800

Steve Muhlberger

In the late 18th century, Europeans made unprecedented gains at the expense of Muslim rulers. This despite the fact that European governments were not all that interested in colonial expansion, but were mainly concerned to fight each other.  It was an ominous situation in which secondary armies, organizations of private investors, and the mere whims of European generals made Muslim empires totter.

At the same time Muslim empires were in a down cycle.  Down cycles of this sort are inevitable.  But it quickly became clear that Muslim weakness at this particular point might have very far reaching consequences.  It  was the conquests of this period—the first significant European conquests of traditionally Muslim-ruled territory—that woke up the Muslim world to its danger.

In this lecture I will be talking about two conquests with last effects on the world and especially on the relationship between Europe and Islam.  These are the British conquest of Bengal in India (now India and Bangladesh) in the 1750s, and the French invasion of Egypt in 1798.  Both of these events started out as side shows to the competition between Britain and France for overseas profits.  Both quickly became much more than that.


In the past, Mughal emperors based in Delhi had kept European merchants, who were very anxious to trade with India, on good behavior and out of local politics.  But after 1707, the Mughal power went into a steep decline.  The decentralization of India created a danger for the foreign merchants, as regular trade was threatened by war; it also, however, created an opportunity to meddle.

By the 1750s, the once-powerful Mughal empire had decentralized to the point that its provincial governors were effectively independent.  They paid tribute to Delhi, but only when they felt they had to, and otherwise their authority depended entirely on their own armies and resources.

The ambitions of these would-be dynasty-founders, and the rivalries between them, posed a big danger to trade and the foreign merchants in particular.  They were an obvious source of loot.  Yet at the same time, this situation increased the importance of the East India companies.  As major customers for the crops and the manufactures of India, they brought silver into the country.  This silver, extracted in the form of taxes from Indian and foreign merchants and the peasantry, was a key factor in any ruler's prosperity.

Danger, opportunity and need involved the British and French East India Companies into Indian politics.

Before the outbreak of the Seven Years' War in 1756, the two companies were already raising and using large armies.  These were necessary to protect their factories (trading centers), and to support their chosen Indian allies against their rivals for power.  The European-led armies were also a source of profit, not to the companies themselves, but to the merchant-generals who led them.  They were mercenary-princes in embryo, not much different from those who terrorized fourteenth-century Italy.  And of course such men worried most about their French or British counterparts.  In this chaotic situation, vast profits might be made.  What if the other side got them?  Thus by the 1750s, a Frenchman named Dupleix and a Briton named Clive were directly fighting each other, in what seemed to be one more prelude to the big war everybody expected to break out in Europe any day now.

The French lost this battle mainly because no one at home realized how much was at stake.  Dupleix eventually lost to the better financed Clive.   Dupleix, broke and defeated, was recalled, leaving Clive with an army that seemed superfluous.

But Clive soon found something else to do with it.  The East India Company's position in Bengal was being threatened just at this time (1756).  A new provincial ruler had just taken over that country, and he was both broke and insecure.  Irritated by the fortification of the British factory at Calcutta, and urged on by his need for money, he attacked the place, took and imprisoned the surviving garrison (either 61 or 146 of them) in a very small, badly venilated cell, 18 by 15 feet.  This was the Black Hole of Calcutta, and confinement in it killed most of the prisoners in the first night.

The Black Hole gave the British provocation and an eternal propaganda stick to beat Indians with, and Clive sailed to Bengal to retake Calcutta.  Because the Bengal ruler, Siraj-ud-Dawlah, was hated by lots of Bengalis, Clive was able to beat him at Plassey in 1757, just two years before the Plains of Abraham.  As the Plains of Abraham usually marks the conquest of French Canada, Plassey is taken to mark the beginning of British Empire in India.

At the time, however, no one saw it that way.  The Company and its Indian allies were looking for a return to the status quo.  By 1765, the instablilities of Indian politics had forced the Company to become the ruler of Bengal, a country three times more populous than Britian itself, and one that produced much wealth, even if most of its population was poor.

Clive's victories, his intervention at a strategic moment of political instability in India, transformed the British position.  Just yesterday, most British merchants had seen themselves only as traders, using money made elsewhere to buy Indian goods which could be sold elsewhere for a healthy profit. But the collapse of the Mughal empire had given them an opportunity to be the masters of this economy -- and almost before anyone realized it, they had become masters.

The early rule of Bengal is famous for the fantastic fortunes that British nabobs made out of the combination of taxation, trading on favorable terms, and sheer loot.  It was also a period when a third of the population of Bengal, 10 million people, died in a famine, which the British may or may not have contributed to -- such disasters were not unknown in India.  [Jones]

More remarkable is the fact that now British trade with India no longer had to be paid for.  The company, recognized in Delhi as the legitimate governor of Bengal, paid for Indian goods out of taxes levied on Indians.  Furthermore, the rule of the company in Bengal and in provinces acquired later, the very conquest of those new provinces, was financed in precisely the same way.

Thus in the 1760s and 1770s, a new era was beginning in India. The era of direct British rule in India was dawning.  The British East India company found it impossible to stop with the acquisition of Bengal, just as it had found it impossible to stop with the retaking of Calcutta.  To secure what it had, the company always had to take more.  It was very successful in doing so, using its privileged economic position and its European know-how.  The amazing thing about it is that British representatives acquired this vast empire during a period when something else was more important to the people in London:  in the 1770s and 80s, the American Revolution; in the 1790s, the 1800s, and the 1810s, the problem of the French Revolution and Napoleon.

What did this mean for Islam?

It meant a great deal.  India was the site of one of the major historic Muslim monarchies.   Muslim power had dominated North India for nearly 800 years.   Delhi had been a great world center of Islamic art,  literature and learning of all sorts.
Now the predominant power in India was no longer Muslim, culturally connected with Central Asia and Iran; it was Christian, and British.  For a while this made little difference. Eventually, however, things changed.  The British began to act as if they were there to stay, and rearranged things to suit themselves.  In the 1830s, the British stopped using Persian, began financing English language schools, and started to intervene to suppress what they considered barbaric customs.  (Widow-burning.)

The British, were, in fact, not very hostile at all to Islam in India.  However, their rule cut the ground out from under Islamic culture in that country.  Muslims had always been a minority in India; Islam had survived and grown as the religion of conquerors and rulers.  Official patronage of  Islam had been vital to the establishment and survival of a Muslim community in the subcontinent.

Now what?  Were Muslims to be merely another minority in India, to be favored or ignored by the new rulers, who in the long term must take into account the fact that most Indians were Hindus?  Could Islam survive in such an environment?

So this is what the conquest of India (which was almost complete by the 1850s) meant to Islam.  A huge area where Muslims had once ruled, where local resources had supported an impressive Muslim cultural establishment, where their religion had held a favored if not entirely secure position, was now a debatable land, where Islam’s future was entirely uncertain.


Now let’s turn to a different conquest—the temporary French conquest of Egypt in 1798.

At the end of the 18th century, Egypt was part of the Ottoman empire.  In this period, both Egypt and the empire as a whole were in a state of decline.  Until the middle of the century, the Ottomans had been reasonably successful in holding on to the territories that they had conquered in the 16th and 17th centuries.  In recent years, however, the Russians had made significant advances in the Black Sea area, and the weakness of the empire was clear to ambitious European powers.

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, then the leading general of the French Republic, decided that the best way to strike at Britain was to seize Egypt.  What motivated him was specifically his awareness of  British gains in India, and the strength that Britain was likely to derive from them.  The conquest of Egypt was to threaten British communications with India, and encourage Britain’s enemies in India.

But there was more to it than that.  The French Revolution was at the height of its success, and inspiring revolutionary movements across Europe and even in Canada.  The possibility of revolutionizing the world never seemed more realistic.  The proper moves on the part of the French might in a moment transform large regions.

Thus Napoleon’s landing in Egypt was supposed to attract the attention and the support of the non-European world.  This would be made easier by the fact that the French Revolution was the first European movement to come to the outside world in a non-Christian form.  The revolution was secular, it represented modernism and reason, and not a sectarian European ideal or mere European domination.

French propagandists thus accompanied Napoleon to tell the people of Egypt that the French Revolution represented true Islam—that it was based, like Islam on the ideals of equality and fraternity.

Egypt did not respond to revolutionary rhetoric.  But the ease with which the French had destroyed the Mamluk army that ruled Egypt under Ottoman suzerainty, made a big impression.  Egypt soon got a ruler who would try to create a modern state in the Nile Valley.  This man is called either Muhammed Ali or Mehmed Ali, depending on whether you prefer Arab or Turkish pronunciation.

Mehmed Ali was neither an Arab nor a Turk.  He was a Muslim from what is now Greek Macedonia, and may have been an Albanian.  Like all other Egyptian governors since 1250, he was a foreign soldier whose main support was other foreign soldiers.  But Mehmed Ali saw that in the confusion following the French and British invasions, that there was room for an ambitious man to entirely reshape Egyptian society.

Mehmed Ali then proceeded to seize all sources of power in Egypt.  First he confiscated nearly all the land in the country.  This had formerly been owned by leaders of religious organizations, who were the leading cultural and economic element in Egyptian life.  Mehmed Ali took their property away from them and abolished most of their institutional privileges.  Then he commercialized Egyptian agriculture.  Instead of wheat, much of which was consumed locally, he had the peasants grow cotton, which could be sold to English mill-owners.  To make sure that the maximum production was attained, he began the most ambitious rebuilding of the irrigation system of Egypt since Pharaonic times.  It was he who, with European help, built the dams and canals that ended the annual Nile flood, and added months to the growing season.

The final big change was to abolish foreign regiments like the one he had once belonged to and to recruit his soldiers from the native population of Egypt.  This was the first time this had been done on a large scale for thousands of years.   Mehmed Ali’s motivation was to create a big army, dependent entirely on him and armed and trained in the European style, with which he could conquer the Ottoman Empire.  And in the 1830s, he came close to doing that, acquiring Medina, Mecca, and Syria before the European powers stopped him.

Mehmed Ali's  motivation was his own power, and that of his family.    He was not in favor of “enlightenment,” and he was by no means an Islamic reformer.   The interest of his career is in the fact that a man with ambitions such as his own, ambitions that were by no means unusual, should turn to the resources of Europe:  the military resources, and the economic connection.  By doing so, he was able to transform an Islamic society very profoundly.

To Mehmed Ali, modern irrigation introduced by European help, cotton grown to be sold to British cotton mills, increased trade carried on European ships, were all tools to increase his personal power.  But everyone else was effected.  There were some advantages for ordinary people, but great disadvantages, as Egypt became a great cotton plantation with a single owner, a plantation whose workers lived and died on the price of cotton in Liverpool, lived and died because now Egypt’s food was not produced at home, but overseas, and brought to Egypt by foreign merchants.

Whatever else it meant, Mehmed Ali’s modernization meant a deep and unprecedented penetration of Egyptian life by infidel institutions, infidel money, infidel power.

Thus, around 1800, we see two important Islamic societies exposed to European power in a very direct way.

In India, Muslims went from enjoying the power and prestige of being the ruling race to subject status very quickly, leaving their position in Indian life and even their survival as a community was left in doubt.  In Egypt, there was no danger whatever that the vast majority of Egyptians would not continue to be Muslim, and Egypt was, in the broadest sense of the term, more politically independent than it had been in a long while.  But its initial steps to modernization—if that’s the right term—had entangled it deeply in a economic network where Europe called the shots.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.