Shabana Chowdhury Ahmed, Belgium
The British East India company in the Indian sub-continent was formed in 1600. A private corporation with the intention to establish a British presence in the lucrative Indian Spices Trade. It became an immensely powerful agent of British Imperialism in South Asia and the defacto colonial ruler of large parts of India. Because of corruption the company was nationalised by the British Crown in 1858. In the 17th and 18th centuries the East India Company relied on slave labour from the West and East Africa. It also had its own army. The waning of the Mughal Empire gave way to the East India Company’s brutal reign of terror and oppression in the Indian sub-continent. It turned Hindu and Muslim rulers against each other. It offered protection to some and also set up some puppet rulers. The divide and rule policy worked. A story unfolds during the days of the British Raj!
In London during the reign of Queen Victoria, Thomas the son of an Admiral graduated from the Naval Academy as a Captain. He married his sweetheart Charlotte. After a few months he was made Captain of a ship which would carry British troops to India and on return bring back silk, spices and tea. The journey would take about four to six months.
Full of hopes and dreams of starting their new life in the land of mystic and magic Thomas and Charlotte boarded the ship, which was to be home till they reach their destination. High Winds, Low Winds, Rough Sea, Calm Sea all presented themselves to the Captain and his bride.
At the end of four months the ship docked at the port of Calcutta. The East India Company’s representative met the young couple and took them to their new bungalow. Indian servants greeted them. A young woman who could speak some English was to be Charlotte’s personal maid. After a cool bath Charlotte ventured into the garden. Tropical flowers and plants greeted her. Thomas joined her for tea in the garden. Next day, Thomas and Charlotte were invited to the British club, where they met other British couples.
Thomas now had to complete the acquiring of the goods and loading them on to his ship as par contract. He would come home late and tired on weekdays that he hardly had time for his wife. The weekends were spent at the club. Charlotte spent a lot of time with her maid Maya. The two women became friends. Maya revealed that her husband was a farmer in the village but life was so hard that she had to take this job. What she did not mention was that her husband was also a soldier in the rebel army. Maya took Charlotte to the market place and the river side. Charlotte saw a colourful and mystic world she never knew.
One fine morning Maya told Charlotte that she must go to the temple by the river to offer special prayers and asked for a few hours leave. The temple was also a meeting place for the rebels who plotted attacks against the British soldiers. Charlotte wanted to accompany Maya to the temple to see how the prayers were performed. Maya told her that the natives would be offended by her presence in the temple so she must remain outside. Charlotte agreed and both the women set out towards the temple.
The colourful hustle and bustle of the native people greeted Charlotte’s eyes. Maya entered the temple alone, while Charlotte sat on the bank of the river watching the activities of the people around her. Maya met her husband and other rebels and while they were making plans a group of British soldiers on horseback came riding swiftly towards the temple. They quickly surrounded the temple and some soldiers went into the temple. They came out with the native people who were inside. The British Captain gave a bag of money to beggar, who was an informer of the British army. Charlotte watched with horror and disbelief at the sight of the people with their hands tied behind their backs. As they were being led away, she saw Maya among the people. She stopped the Captain and asked him to release her maid. He politely declined and told a soldier to accompany the lady back home as it was not safe for her to be alone with the natives. Maya’s husband and a few other rebels managed to escape.
Back home Charlotte waited anxiously for Thomas to return from work. Thomas came home and found his weeping wife, who recounted the horrible experience she had endured. She asked Thomas to go to the authorities for the release of Maya. Thomas met the Captain who was holding the prisoners. The Captain refused to release Maya saying that they were rebels and would be punished by being sentenced to life imprisonment.
Charlotte took the news badly for she had become very fond of Maya. The loading of the goods on the ship was completed and it was time for Thomas and Charlotte to return home. A party in honour of Captain Thomas and his wife was given at the club on the night of their departure from India. After dinner Charlotte became sick and was sent to the ship to rest till Thomas came back. The ship was scheduled to sail at dawn. Captain Thomas and his crew were still at the party as Charlotte slept on the ship with only two guards on board. Maya’s husband and his men swam on to the deck of the ship overpowered the guards and set up explosives in the cargo hold. They had no idea that Charlotte was on board. They swam to safety and watched the ship blow up.
News ran like wide fire to the club. Soldiers with Thomas and his crew came to the docks to see the burning ship. All was lost. Thomas lost his wife that night. He was made a scapegoat by the British East India Company, who had him court marshalled. Unable to bear the loss of his wife and disgrace he shot himself.
Rudyard Kipling quoted “The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire” to which
George Bernard Shaw concluded “If the Sun Never Sets on the British Empire, it’s because God Would Not Trust the English in The Dark.”