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BENGAL

of the Mauryas, Andhras and Guptas; and its chief town, Patna, is the ancient Pataliputra (the Palimbothra of the Greeks), once the capital of India. The Delta or southern part of Bengal lay beyond the ancient Sanskrit polity, and was governed by a number of local kings belonging to a pre-Aryan stock. The Chinese travellers, Fa Hien in the 5th century, and Hsüan Tsang in the 7th century, found the Buddhist religion prevailing throughout Bengal, but already in a fierce struggle with Hinduism—a struggle which ended about the 9th or 10th century in the general establishment of the latter faith. Until the end of the 12th century Hindu princes governed in a number of petty principalities, till, in 1199, Mahommed Bakhtiyar Khilji was appointed to lead the first Mussulman invasion into Bengal. The Mahommedan conquest of Behar dates from 1197 A.D., and the new power speedily spread southwards into the delta. From about this date until 1340 Bengal was ruled by governors appointed by the Mahommedan emperors in the north. From 1340 to 1539 its governors asserted a precarious independence, and arrogated the position of sovereigns on their own account. From 1540 to 1576 Bengal passed under the rule of the Pathan or Afghan dynasty, which commonly bears the name of Sher Shah. On the overthrow of this house by the powerful arms of Akbar, Bengal was incorporated into the Mogul empire, and administered by governors appointed by the Delhi emperor, until the treaties of 1765, which placed Bengal, Behar and Orissa under the administration of the East India Company. The 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 dates from Patna; in 1624-1636 the Company established itself, by the favour of the emperor, on the ruins of the ancient Portuguese settlement of Pippli, in the north of Orissa; in 1640-1642 an English surgeon, Gabriel Boughton, obtained establishments at Balasore, also in Orissa, and at Hugli, some miles above Calcutta. The vexations and extortions to which the Company’s early agents were subjected 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, driven to extremity by the oppression of the Mogul governors, threw down the gauntlet; and after various successes and hairbreadth escapes, purchased from the grandson of Aurangzeb, in 1696, the villages which have since grown up into Calcutta, the metropolis of India. During the next fifty years the British had a long and hazardous struggle alike with the Mogul governors of the province and the Mahratta armies which invaded it. In 1756 this struggle culminated in the great outrage known as the Black Hole of Calcutta, followed by Clive’s battle of Plassey and capture of Calcutta, which avenged it. That battle, and the subsequent years of confused fighting, established British military supremacy in Bengal, and procured the treaties of 1765, by which the provinces of Bengal, Behar and Orissa passed under British administration. To Warren Hastings (1772-1785) belongs the glory of consolidating the British power, and converting a military occupation into a stable civil government. To another member of the civil service, John Shore, afterwards Lord Teignmouth (1786-1793), is due the formation of a regular system of Anglo-Indian legislation. Acting through Lord Cornwallis, then governor-general, he ascertained and defined the rights of the landholders in the soil. These landholders under the native 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 zamíndárs, on condition of the payment of a fixed land tax. This piece of legislation is known as the Permanent Settlement of the Land Revenue. But the Cornwallis code, while defining the rights of the proprietors, failed to give adequate recognition to the rights of the undertenants and the cultivators. His Regulations formally reserved the latter class of rights, but did not legally define them, or enable the husbandmen to enforce them in the courts. After half a century of rural disquiet, the rights of the cultivators were at length carefully formulated by Act X. of 1859. This measure, now known as the land law of Bengal, effected for the rights of the under-holders and cultivators what the Cornwallis code in 1793 had effected for those of the superior landholders. The status of each class of persons interested in the soil, from the government as suzerain, through the zamíndárs or superior landholders, the intermediate tenure-holders and the undertenants, down to the actual cultivator, is now clearly defined. The act dates from the first year after the transfer of India from the company to the crown; for the mutiny burst out in 1857. The transactions of that revolt chiefly took place in northern India, and are narrated in the article Indian Mutiny. In Bengal the rising began at Barrackpore, was communicated to Dacca in Eastern Bengal, and for a time raged in Behar, producing the memorable defence of the billiard-room at Arrah by a handful of civilians and Sikhs—one of the most splendid pieces of gallantry in the history of the British arms. Since 1858, when the country passed to the crown, the history of Bengal has been one of steady progress. Five great lines of railway have been constructed. Trade has enormously expanded; new centres of commerce have sprung up in spots which formerly were silent jungles; new staples of trade, such as tea and jute, have rapidly attained importance; and the coalfields and iron ores have opened up prospects of a new and splendid era in the internal development of the country.

During the decade 1891-1901 Bengal was fortunate in escaping to a great extent the two calamities of famine and plague which afflicted central and western India. The drought of 1896-1897 did indeed extend to Bengal, but not to such an extent as to cause actual famine. The distress was most acute in the densely populated districts of northern Behar, and in the remote hills of Chota Nagpur. Plague first appeared at Calcutta in a sporadic form in April 1898, but down to April of the following year the total number of deaths ascribed to plague throughout the province was less than 1000, compared with 191,000 for Bombay. At the beginning of 1900, however, there was a serious recrudescence of plague at Calcutta, and a malignant outbreak in the district of Patna, which caused 1000 deaths a week. In the early months of 1901, plague again appeared in the same regions. The number of deaths in 1904 was 75,436, the highest recorded up to that date.

The earthquake of the 12th of June 1897, which had its centre of disturbance in Assam, was felt throughout eastern and northern Bengal. In all the large towns the masonry buildings were severely damaged or totally wrecked. The permanent way of the railways also suffered. The total number of deaths returned was only 135. Far more destructive to life was the cyclone and storm-wave that broke over Chittagong district on the night of the 24th of October 1897. Apart from damage to shipping and buildings, the low-lying lands along the coast were completely submerged, and in many villages half the inhabitants were drowned. The loss of human lives was reported to be about 14,000, and the number of cattle drowned about 15,000. As usual in such cases, a severe outbreak of cholera followed in the track of the storm-wave. Another natural calamity on a large scale occurred at Darjeeling in October 1899. Torrential rains caused a series of landslips, carrying away houses and breaking up the hill railway.

The most notable event, however, of recent times was the partition of the province, which was decided upon by Lord Curzon, and carried into execution in October 1905. Serious popular agitation followed this step, on the ground (inter alia) 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; but as part of the general history of India the movement may be best discussed under that heading (see India: History).