“A Great and Famous Superstructure”
In early 1756, virtually on the eve of the nawab of Bengal’s invasion, the Calcutta council discovered to their horror that parts of the diary of John Surman’s embassy to Emperor Farrukhsiyar were missing. Losing the official diplomatic record of the acquisition of the Company’s “Magna Charta” in India should have been awkward enough. It was not nearly as embarrassing, however, as where one of its leaves ultimately resurfaced: stuck away, evidently unnoticed, in the factory’s “publick necessary house.”1 How Surman’s diary ended up in the latrine used by the factory’s bureaucrats was, and remains, a mystery. Still, there may have been no finer metaphor for the place Company politics of the previous century would soon come to occupy in the annals of the British Empire. The nawab’s invasion was regarded by Edmund Burke as marking “a memorable era in the history of the world”; his defeat at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 came quickly to be considered a “revolution,” and the diwani grant that followed from it in 1765 the moment when, as Thomas Pownall put it in 1773, “the merchant” had “become the sovereign.”2 The Company’s acquisition of territorial sovereignty in Bengal thus marked for many, then and since, a firm break from the past and, consequently, the political institutions, behaviors, and ideologies of its previous century and a half figured as part of a commercial prehistory—mislaid in the dustbin, or perhaps the necessary house, of political, intellectual, and imperial history.
Despite this persistent perception, the so-called Company “Raj” that emerged in the wake of Plassey and diwani was constantly negotiating the legacies of its past politics. That a British corporation could become a Mughal diwan, what Burke decried as a “dual sovereignty,” with responsibilities over vast territorial revenues, the administration of justice, and the maintenance of “a large army for the protection of the provinces” had clear antecedents in pre-Plassey Company governance, in fantasies of an Indian Ocean faujdari and the realities of the acquisition of a qilidari, in shipping passes and dastaks, in Josiah Child’s battles for Company charters and John Child’s wars for his farman, not to mention John Surman’s successful acquisition of it through diplomacy decades later.3 The