The ships of the English East India Company first docked at India’s shores in Surat in the early 17th century. In time, the Company — through astute politics and superior naval power — would become masters of this great port. The objective, however, was not to build on Surat's legacy as India’s emporia of maritime trade but with the single-minded goal of destroying its trading prowess. They did this by overcoming the local princes and fostering corrupt practices.
By 1800, the port had been completely annexed and a Treaty signed with the Nawab that would guarantee his family’s security from generation to generation. But the Company violated the treaty by stopping the family’s income, usurping the palaces, estates, jewellery
and all that was part of the private estates of the Nawab, leaving the infant granddaughters of the last Nawab on the brink of destitution.
In a riveting counterattack, Meer Jafar Ali Khan, father of the two infant girls, stood to defy an Empire and expose the corrupt practices of the Company in Victorian England. Spearheading a legal offensive that would shatter the Company’s reputation, Meer Jafar Ali Khan’s campaign for justice generated great heat and debate in British Parliament. Fighting against all odds, the prince won it all back for his daughters while also finding true love in Victorian England.
— From the synopsis for 'Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince' by Moin Mir
On his 15th birthday, Moin Mir received an unusual gift from his grandfather: an antique book titled 'Debate of the Nawab of Surat Treaty Bill 1856'. The volume detailed the dramatic debates that took place in the British Parliament in 1856, when Meer Jafar Ali Khan of Surat successfully campaigned against the East India Company for violating the Treaty of 1800, that assured the financial security of the Nawab of Surat's descendants.
Moin had grown up on stories of his illustrious ancestor Meer Jafar Ali Khan. Of particular interest was how the latter challenged the East India Company on its home grounds, for usurping the private estates and income of the Nawab of Surat's family in 1842. But there were few details about how Khan had actually accomplished his quest for justice. Moin recalls poring over the family archives in his growing up years, knowing they contained a story worth unravelling. Finally, it was in London — where Moin moved as a student — that he finally found the resources that would help fill in the gaps.
"The British Library at Kings Cross — particularly The India Office in the library — has vast amounts of manuscripts, letters, and documents that highlighted the dealings of the English East India Company in Surat," says Moin. "They revealed a fascinating story of how the East India Company annexed Surat from the local nawabs in 1800, then subsequently violated a treaty with the Nawab's family and left its descendants on the verge of poverty."
Surat at one time had been India's greatest maritime port. Moin describes it as a "cosmopolitan giant" where traders from various communities — Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Jains, the Portuguese, Dutch, English and Turks — thrived. The city had survived a sacking by Shivaji in the 1600s, but by the 1800s had passed into English and Dutch hands. By Meer Jafar Ali Khan's time, the fortunes of the nawab's family had taken a severe blow at the hands of the East India Company, which had reneged on the terms of the treaty they signed at the time of annexing the port. His fight in the British parliament, to safeguard the birthright of his two girls, made him — in Moin's words — "a symbol of Indian legal resistance against the East India Company on their home soil". It also made for a riveting story — one that Moin documents in his recently published book, Surat: Fall of a Port, Rise of a Prince.
Moin spent over six years working on this account of Meer Jafar Ali Khan's battle against the Company. Apart from the British Library, the Asiatic Library Mumbai and his family archives proved to be a fount of information as Moin drew on correspondence between the Nawab's family and the English East India Company, the official Treaty of 1800, antique manuscripts and the detailed minutes of the debate in parliament. Hansard Online, which chronicles all parliamentary affairs in Britain, proved to be an invaluable resource.
Moin found that the British press of the time had extensively covered Khan's campaign. And as he delved deeper into the story, there were several moments that stood out:
"The dark moment when the English violated the treaty made with Meer Jafar Ali Khan's family, leaving his little infant daughters on the brink of poverty... They confiscated the family's houses, stopped their income and confined the family to minuscule quarters," Moin enumerates. "The moment when Meer Jafar Ali Khan's first wife died in his arms, urging him to continue his fight for justice... The moment when Meer Jafar Ali Khan sold all he had to go to England to fight for his little girls. The moment when his campaign called for the end of British rule on the floor of British parliament in 1856. And finally, after 14 years of struggle when he defeated the East India Company in their home country. Within a year of his successful campaign in the House of Commons, the Company seized to exist as a colonising corporation. All these discoveries were absolutely striking to me."
While the story of Meer Jafar Ali Khan's legal campaign isn't widely known, Moin says he is glad to have had this chance to bring it to a wider audience.
"Meer Jafar Ali Khan boldly went where no other Indian prince had gone — the heart of British political establishment, its parliament, and challenged the malpractices of the East India Company. Everything has its time. His fight for justice may have been confined to the archives of the British Library, but I am pleased that I have told his story," he says.
It's a story we can learn much from, Moin adds: "This is a story of grit, determination and fearless belief in one's convictions. It teaches us to never give into injustice and most importantly, to persevere — even when a fight seems unwinnable."
Updated Date: Feb 11, 2018 16:11 PM