The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power

By Partha Chatterjee | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Tipu's Tiger

MIRZA SHAIKH IHTISHAMUDDIN (C. 1730-C. 1800) set sail in January 1766 from the port of Hijli, now in the district of Purba Medinipur, several miles downstream from Calcutta. After four days of slow maneuvering through the treacherous currents of the Hugli River, the ship finally entered the Bay of Bengal. Ihtishamuddin was on his way to Vilayet.

He was by no means the first person from his part of the world to undertake the sea voyage to Europe. We know of many sailors as well as domestic servants of both sexes from Bengal who went, or were taken, to Britain in the eighteenth century. Rozina Visram's and Michael Fisher's studies have given us the outline of a social history of these visitors about whom little is otherwise known.1 Thus, we have shipping records of more than a thousand such Indians in Britain by the end of the eighteenth century showing, for example, that there were among them more women than men. Although more of them came from the Coromandel Coast in the earlier half of the century, by the end of the eighteenth century the flow was mainly out of Bengal. Most were Muslim, a few were Indian Catholics, and there were almost no Hindus.

Unfortunately, ayahs and lascars were not people who wrote anything about their visits, and except for indirect and sometimes fictional accounts, we have no stories about their experiences in the West. The only significant exception is the remarkable Shaikh Din Muhammad, who settled down in Ireland and wrote of his travels in 1794.2 If we also leave aside the autobiographical letters of Joseph Emin, the Armenian adventurer from Calcutta living in Britain in the middle decades of the century, then Ihtishamuddin’s is the earliest journey to Britain by a scholar-bureaucrat from Bengal about which we have a booklength narrative.3 It tells us many interesting things about the initial responses of the Indian elite to the revolution that had just occurred in the political affairs of Bengal.4


A BENGALI IN BRITAIN

Ihtishamuddin came from a family of minor officials. His ancestral home was in the neighborhood now known as Kazipara in the small town of Chakdah in Nadia District. Ihtishamuddin’s elder brother Ghulam Mohiuddin was a mufti

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