In the 1700s, Siraj-ud-Daulah ruled over Bengal during a tumultuous time. In our new blog, discover more about this war-torn period in the history of West Bengal. If you want to know more, why not visit key locations such as Plassey and Chandernagore on a West Bengal expedition on a delightful Brass and Teak Pandaw Boat. Sail a 7-nights circular voyage from Kolkata or try one of the new 3 and 4-night short cruises between Kolkata and Murshidabad with a one-way first-class train ticket included.
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Siraj-ud-Daulah – The Last Independent Nawab of Bengal
Mirza Muhammad Siraj-ud-Daulah was born in Murshidabad, Bengal, in 1733 to an aristocratic Mughal family. His parents, father Mirza Muhammad Hashim and mother Amina Begum brought him up with all the education and training needed to become a Nawab of Bengal in the future. His upbringing had a lot to do with the special bond that he shared with Alivardi Khan, his maternal grandfather, who became the Deputy Governor of Bihar soon after he was born. In 1740, Alivardi Khan became the Nawab of Bengal after defeating his predecessor Sarfaraz Khan.
Alivardi Khan had no son, and it was widely believed at the time that after his time as Nawab was up, it would be young Siraj-ud-Daulah’s turn to lead Bengal. After Siraj-ud-Daulah turned 13, he started accompanying his grandfather on his political and military ventures. However, in 1750, he seized Bihar’s capital Patna after revolting against Alivardi Khan, but he ended up surrendering to his grandfather, who forgave him after being impressed with his grandson’s military nous. Prior to Khan’s death, he declared Siraj-ud-Daulah as his successor, and this would kick off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the British capturing Bengal.
Suppressing jealousy: The start of Siraj-ud-Daulah’s reign as Nawab
Alivardi Khan’s declaration of Siraj-ud-Daulah as the next Nawab of Bengal wasn’t well-received. Many of his relatives were jealous of the power that the young Siraj-ud-Daulah would soon have. Initially, Siraj-ud-Daulah wasn’t aware of the ill feelings that his relatives harbored for him. However, after he took charge in 1756 and got wind of the situation, he quickly took action to quell any chances of rebellion.
His first major move after coming to power was to confine Ghaseti Begum, his aunt. Ghaseti Begum was a wealthy woman, and she had the financial power and the political clout to influence the men of the court. Alongside confining his aunt, Siraj-ud-Daulah seized her wealth as well. Next, he made numerous changes in high positions within the government, and installed officers he could trust, with Mir Madan Khan (the new paymaster of the armed forces) being one of his most famous appointments. One of the changes, which involved the promotion of Mohanhal, a Hindu, to the position of a court clerk, led to much controversy.
Conflict with the East India Company
During Siraj-ud-Daulah’s time in power, the British East India Company was steadily increasing its political and military influence in Bengal. Allegedly, the British were plotting a conspiracy with some of Siraj-ud-Daulah’s court members to oust the Nawab. This allegation angered Siraj-ud-Daulah, who also blamed the British for the following:
- Gross abuse of trade privileges that were given to them by Mughal rulers. The abuse led to significant customs duties losses for the government.
- Strengthening of fortification around Fort William without approval or intimation.
- Sheltering officers of the government who had been found guilty of misappropriating government funds.
Despite Siraj-ud-Daulah’s anger and resentment towards the British, they did not stop their military strengthening of Fort William. In 1756. Siraj-ud-Daulah sprang into action and seized Calcutta and captured Fort William as well. However, many of the British taken prisoners died after being kept in a prison cell overnight following confusion in the chain of command.
The cell, which gained notoriety later as the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ had space to hold only 6 prisoners, but over 140 were held there. The majority of the prisoners died from conditions like delirium, heat exhaustion, and asphyxiation. Much of the blame was laid at the feet of Siraj-ud-Daulah. However, the British took no action against Siraj-ud-Daulah.
Eventually, peace was brokered in a deal between the British East India Company and the Nawab. The peace deal required Siraj-ud-Daulah to pardon several officials of the British East India Company who had fought against him.
The Battle of Chandernagar and its fallout
In 1757, the British attacked Chandernagar, a Bengal settlement held by the French. The battle was won by the British, but Siraj-ud-Daulah was infuriated, and the peace brokered between him and the British wasn’t to last for long. However, despite his animosity towards the British, he couldn’t afford to launch a direct attack.
The political situation in the Indian subcontinent at the time was tense, and he had to take the threats posed by the Afghans and the Marathas into account as well. Ahmad Shah Durrani was eyeing Bengal from the north, while the Marathas were poised to attack from the west. A direct attack on the British would leave Siraj-ud-Daulah and his forces vulnerable on the flanks. As a result, Siraj-ud-Daulah started negotiations in secret with the French and moved a significant fraction of his army to Plassey to prepare for a British attack.
The rise of an alliance against Siraj-ud-Daulah
As Siraj-ud-Daulah was busy with preparations against impending and imminent attacks from multiple forces, a conspiracy was being hatched to overthrow him. By this time, many of his prominent court members had grown discontent with him, and eventually, an alliance came to be with the singular purpose of bringing the Nawab down.
Notable people who were hatching the conspiracy included the likes of the traders of Bengal, also known as The Seths, and Mir Jafar, the former army paymaster. The Seths, who were friendly towards the Mughals during the rule of Alivardi Khan, had become fearful and concerned about their wealth under Siraj-ud-Daulah’s reign. Mir Jafar was one of the prominent men in the Nawab’s court who was irked by the promotion of Mohanlal and also the appointment of Mir Madan Khan, who replaced him as the army’s paymaster.
William Watts, who represented the British East India Company in Siraj-ud-Daulah’s court, got wind of the situation and was quick to notify Robert Clive about an imminent conspiracy. Robert Clive was hesitant at first to believe Watts, but after he found out that the conspirators are among some of Siraj-ud-Daulah’s most powerful men in court, he hatched a grand plan to end Siraj-ud-Daulah’s reign.
Soon after, an agreement was made between Mir Jafar and the British. The latter promised Jafar the position of the Nawab of Bengal after the ousting of Shiraj-ud-Daulah. In return, Mir Jafar was to provide military support and also provide financial compensation for Shiraj-ud-Daulah’s attack on Calcutta.
The Battle of Plassey: The beginning of the end for Siraj-ud-Daulah
The British attack to recapture Calcutta was initiated from Madras, as the British troops marched into Bengal from the south under orders from Robert Clive. As they made their way into Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah beat a retreat and decided to take on the British at Plassey, where a sizeable portion of his army was stationed along with the French contingent.
During the battle, Siraj-ud-Daulah lost Mir Madan Khan, whose death came as a shock to the Nawab, and he was compelled to call on Mir Jafar and ask for help. At this point in time, Siraj-ud-Daulah was unaware of the agreement that Mir Jafar had signed with the British East India Company and still believed that Mir Jafar was fighting on his side.
Mir Jafar’s advice to Siraj-ud-Daulah was to retreat, and as a result, the Nawab ordered his troops to stop fighting. Jafar convinced Siraj-ud-Daulah that he and his men would repel the British. This proved to be a blunder, as the British forces, led by Robert Clive, attacked the retreating soldiers as they were approaching their camps.
The suddenness of the attack took Siraj-ud-Daulah’s forces by surprise, and the battle was lost, even though Siraj-ud-Daulah had 50,000 men in his army and Robert Clive only had 3,000. The Nawab escaped to Murshidabad first and then set off on a journey towards Patna on a boat. He halted in the town of Rajmahal in the present-day state of Jharkhand but was identified there by one of Mir Jafar’s trusted men, who subsequently arrested the Nawab and handed him over to Mir Miran – Mir Jafar’s son.
On 2 July 1757, Siraj-ud-Daulah was executed by Mohammad Ali Beg at Mir Jafar’s palace in Murshidabad – Namak Haram Deorhi. The orders for the execution came from Mir Miran, which were according to the agreement that his father Mir Jafar had signed with the British.
Bengali autonomy came to an end with the execution of Siraj-ud-Daulah, as the British came to power and the age of imperialism dawned on the Indian Subcontinent. His efforts against the British became a source of inspiration during the early years of the Indian independence movement, during which he was portrayed as a hero along with the likes of Tipu Sultan and Bahadur Shah II.
Siraj-ud-Daulah also played a prominent part in promoting Shia Islam in Bengal. From the early 18th to the late 19th centuries, Shia Islam was practiced by the Nawabs of Bengal, and to promote it, they built Shia houses of worship known as imambaras. Siraj-ud-Daulah built numerous imambaras during his reign, but the most prominent one among them was the Nizamat Imambara in Murshidabad.
He had selected the Nizamat Fort Area for building the imambara, and used his own hands to lay the building’s foundation. However, due to the fact that the imambara was made primarily of wood, it caught fire in 1842. Another fire in 1846 resulted in the imambara being completely destroyed. In 1847, Nawab Nazim Mansur Ali Khan built the new Nizamat Imambara, which is regarded as the world’s largest imambara.
Popular opinion about Siraj-ud-Daulah in the modern day is divided. While some believe that he was a wicked man, others see him as a brave man who had the courage to stand up to early British imperialism. Across Bangladesh and West Bengal (which collectively made up Bengal prior to Indian independence), Siraj-ud-Daulah is still revered. Numerous educational institutions across the present-day Bengal region are named after him. There was even a biopic released in 1967 titled ‘Nawab Sirajuddaula’, which honored and celebrated his bravery and courage.