Shortly after death of the 6th emperor, Muhi-ud Din Muhammad (also known as Aurangzeb) in 1707, the Mughal Empire began to decay both from internal divisions and outside pressure. Nadir Shah, the Turkman ruler of Afghanistan and part of Persia, raided as far as Delhi, where he almost destroyed the city. This permanently weakened the Hindu armies and left India far more vulnerable than before to later English encroachment.


A portrait of Ahmad Shah Durrani (Source: Wikimedia)

With the collapse of the Mughals, the Sikhs were able to rule themselves in the Punjab. This led to a growth of the army which split into different confederacies or semi-independent units known as misls. Each of these component armies controlled different areas and cities. They were kept somewhat in check, however, by the invading Afghans from the north, who were led by Ahmad Shah Durani (1747-1793), who developed a short-lived empire from the Aral Sea to well into India. Durani is considered by Afghans to be the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan. In the Deccan, the Nizam of Hyderabad was a Muslim viceroy established in the 1720s. This dynasty remained the most important Muslim ruling house in India up to 1948. Bengal was the third great province to become independent and in 1756 the Bengalese temporarily drove out the British. The British East India Trading Company inevitably became embroiled in local politics and squabbles and intervened to protect their economic interests. Thus, on June 23, 1757, Robert Clive, leading 900 Englishmen and 2000 Indian sepoys (native infantrymen), routed an army of about 50,000 outside a Bengali village of Plassey and opened the gates of north India to the British. In the year 1700, there were about 1500 Englishmen in India, and by the end of the 18th century, the British Indian Empire had increased to thousands of British officials and soldiers under a British governor-general. The East India Company taxed Indian farmers at a rate of 50% of the produce they produced. Thus, enormous British fortunes were made, while as many as thirty million Indians were reduced to extreme levels of poverty.


A drawing of ships in the Surat harbor at the beginning of the 18th century (Source: Wikimedia)

This activity was part of a larger British, Dutch, Portuguese, and French take-over of the commercial shipping industry in India in the 18th century. Europeans established their own trading networks, which in turn hastened the end of the Mughal Empire. The Sarafs controlled the Indian portion of the trade. Belonging chiefly to the powerful merchant caste, these men organized an extensive commercial organization. A trader could borrow money in one city, pay back in another where he transferred the debt to a third place by borrowing again. Exchange fees resembled interest, sometimes at a staggering rate, but they allowed merchants to operate as far away as Java or southern China. The bankers themselves were present in large numbers in Isfahan, Istanbul, and Moscow. The largest commercial and shipping center in India was the seaport city of Surat. Merchants would send out as many as twenty ships a year from the post, each from three to eight-hundred tons, and carrying up to twenty-five thousand pounds of merchandise.


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