Presidency of Bengal
|Historical era||New Imperialism|
|-||Battle of Buxar||1765|
|Today part of|| Bangladesh
The Bengal Presidency originally comprising east and west Bengal, was a colonial region of the British Empire in South-Asia and beyond it. It comprised areas which are now within Bangladesh, and the present day Indian States of West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Meghalaya, Orissa and Tripura. Penang and Singapore were also considered to be administratively a part of the Presidency until they were incorporated into the Crown Colony of the Straits Settlements in 1867.
Calcutta was purchased by the English in 1698 and declared a Presidency Town of the East India Company in 1699, but the beginning of the Bengal Presidency as an administrative unit can be dated from the treaties of 1765 between the East India Company and the Mughal Emperor and Nawab of Oudh which placed Bengal, Meghalaya, Bihar and Odisha under the administration of the Company.
At its height, gradually added, were the annexed princely states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh and portions of Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra in present day India, as well as the provinces of North West Frontier and Punjab, both now in Pakistan, and most of Burma (present day Myanmar).
In 1874 Assam, including Sylhet, was severed from Bengal to form a Chief-Commissionership, and the Lushai Hills were added to that in 1898.
The Presidency of Bengal, unlike those of Madras and Bombay, eventually included all of the British possessions north of the Central Provinces (Madhya Pradesh), from the mouths of the Ganges and Brahmaputra to the Himalayas as well as the Punjab. In 1831, the North-Western Provinces were created, which were subsequently included with Oudh in the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh). Just before the First World War the whole of Northern India was divided into the four lieutenant-governorships of the Punjab, the United Provinces, Bengal, Eastern Bengal and Assam, and the North-West Frontier Province under a Commissioner.
The East India Company formed its earliest settlements in Bengal in the first half of the 17th century. These settlements were of a purely commercial character. In 1620 one of the Company’s factors was based in Patna; in 1624–1636 the Company established itself, by the favor of the emperor, on the ruins of the ancient Portuguese settlement of Pippli, in the north of Odisha; in 1640–1642 an English surgeon, Gabriel Boughton, obtained establishments at Balasore, also in Odisha, and at Hughli, some miles above Calcutta, where the Portuguese already had a settlement. The difficulties which the Company’s early agents encountered more than once almost induced them to abandon the trade, and in 1677–1678 they threatened to withdraw from Bengal altogether. In 1685, the Bengal factors, seeking greater security for their trade purchased from the grandson of Aurangzeb, in 1696, the villages which have since grown up into Calcutta, the metropolis of India, namely Kalikata, Sutanuti and Govindpur. They were given exemption from trade duties and exactions in part of Bengal in 1717 by the Emperor Farrukhsiyar. During the next forty years the British had a long and hazardous struggle alike with the Mughal governors of the province and the Maratha armies which invaded it. In 1756 this struggle culminated in the fall of Calcutta to Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah followed by Clive’s battle of Plassey and recapture of the city. The Battle of Buxar established British military supremacy in Bengal, and procured the treaties of 1765, by which the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha passed under British administration. The other important institution which emerged in this period was the Bengal Army.
Administrative reform and the Permanent Settlement
Under Warren Hastings (British Governorships 1772-1785) the consolidation of British imperial rule over Bengal, and the conversion of mere trade into an entire military occupied territory under a military-civil government got solidified. To another member of the civil service, John Shore, afterwards Lord Teignmouth, was due the formation of a regular system of legislation. Acting through Lord Cornwallis, then Governor-General, he ascertained and defined the rights of the landholders in the soil. These landholders under the previous system had started, for the most part, as collectors of the revenues, and gradually acquired certain prescriptive rights as quasi-proprietors of the estates entrusted to them by the government. In 1793 Lord Cornwallis declared their rights perpetual, and made over the land of Bengal to the previous quasi-proprietors or zamindars, on condition of the payment of a fixed land tax. This piece of legislation is known as the Permanent Settlement of the Land Revenue. It was designed to "introduce" ideas of property rights to India, and stimulate a market in land. The former aim misunderstood the nature of landholding in India, and the latter was an abject failure. The Cornwallis code, while defining the rights of the proprietors, failed to give adequate recognition to the rights of the under-tenants and the cultivators. This remained a serious problem for the duration of British Rule, as throughout the Bengal Presidency ryots (peasants) found themselves oppressed by rack-renting landlords, who knew that every rupee they could squeeze from their tenants over and above the fixed revenue demand from the Government represented pure profit. Furthermore the Permanent Settlement took no account of inflation, meaning that the value of the revenue to Government declined year by year, whilst the heavy burden on the peasantry grew no less. This was compounded in the early 19th century by compulsory schemes for the cultivation of Opium and Indigo, the former by the state, and the latter by British planters (most especially in the district of Tirhut in Bihar). Peasants were forced to grow a certain area of these crops, which were then purchased at below market rates for export. This added greatly to rural poverty.
So unsuccessful was the Permanent Settlement that it was not introduced in the North-Western Provinces (taken from the Marathas during the campaigns of Lord Lake and Arthur Wellesley) after 1831, in Punjab after its conquest in 1849, or in Oudh which was annexed in 1856. These regions were nominally part of the Bengal Presidency, but remained administratively distinct. Officially Punjab, Agra and Allahabad had Lieutenant-Governors subject to the authority of the Governor of Bengal in Calcutta, but in practice they were more or less independent. The only all-Presidency institutions which remained were the Bengal Army and the Civil Service. The Bengal Army was finally amalgamated into the new British-Indian Army in 1904-5, after a lengthy struggle over its reform between Lord Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief, and Lord Curzon, the Viceroy.
The 1905 Partition of Bengal
The partition of the large province of Bengal, which was decided upon by Lord Curzon, was carried into execution in October 1905. The Chittagong, Dhaka and Rajshahi divisions, the Malda District and the States of Hill Tripura, Sylhet and Comilla were transferred from Bengal to a new province, Eastern Bengal and Assam; the five Hindi-speaking states of Chota Nagpur, namely Chang Bhakar, Korea, Sirguja, Udaipur and Jashpur, were transferred from Bengal to the Central Provinces; and Sambalpur and the five Oriya states of Bamra, Rairakhol, Sonepur, Patna and Kalahandi were transferred from the Central Provinces to Bengal. The province of West Bengal then consisted of the thirty-three districts of Burdwan, Birbhum, Bankura, Midnapur, Hughli, Howrah, Twenty-four Parganas, Calcutta, Nadia, Murshidabad, Jessore, Khulna, Patna, Gaya, Shahabad, Saran, Champaran, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Monghyr, Bhagalpur, Purnea, Santhal Parganas, Cuttack, Balasore, Angul and Kandhmal, Puri, Sambalpur, Singhbhum, Hazaribagh, Ranchi, Palamau, and Manbhum. The princely states of Sikkim and the tributary states of Odisha and Chota Nagpur were not part of Bengal, but British relations with them were managed by its government.
This decision proved highly controversial, as it resulted in a largely Hindu West Bengal and a largely Muslim East. Serious popular agitation followed the step, partly on the grounds that this was part of a cynical policy of divide and rule, and partly that the Bengali population, the centre of whose interests and prosperity was Calcutta, would now be divided under two governments, instead of being concentrated and numerically dominant under the one, while the bulk would be in the new division. In 1906–1909 the unrest developed to a considerable extent, requiring special attention from the Indian and Home governments, and this led to the decision being reversed in 1912. The same year saw the separation from Bengal of Bihar and Orissa, later itself subdivided into the Province of Bihar and the Province of Orissa, the former with its capital at Patna, the latter administered from Cuttack. This change proved a popular and lasting one.
With this final partition, the Bengal Presidency ceased to exist in all but name, and even this disappeared after the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 reconstituted Indian Provincial Government.
- Fanshawe, H.C. (1998). Delhi: Past and Present. Asian Educational Services. p. 314. ISBN 9788120613188.
- C.A. Bayly Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (Cambridge) 1988
- C. E. Buckland Bengal under the Lieutenant-Governors (London) 1901
- Sir James Bourdillon, The Partition of Bengal (London: Society of Arts) 1905
- Susil Chaudhury From Prosperity to Decline. Eighteenth Century Bengal (Delhi) 1995
- Sir William Wilson Hunter, Annals of Rural Bengal (London) 1868, and Orissa (London) 1872
- P.J. Marshall Bengal, the British Bridgehead 1740-1828 (Cambridge) 1987
- John R. McLane Land and Local Kingship in eighteenth-century Bengal (Cambridge) 1993
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