NABOB GAME The "Nabob Game" is a modern term to describe the early method of imperial expansion in India by agents of European trading companies, especially the British East India Company and the French East India Company (La Compagnie perpétuelle des Indes), usually with the support of their respective governments. The French governor-general Joseph François Dupleix and the Englishman Robert Clive were pioneers in the Nabob Game. The term itself, and the related "Nabobism," derive from the Persian nawāb, meaning governor. "Nabob" was a pejorative rubric for East India company agents, such as Clive, who had garnered power and wealth in India. Methods used ranged from negotiation and diplomacy to bribery, extortion, coercion, threats, and force. Their motives were often mixed, intended to gain commercial advantage, military supremacy, and influence and power over Indian rulers and territories, as well as personal aggrandizement. By the 1770s, Nabobs were mistrusted, even reviled, upon returning to Europe. Nonetheless, the Nabob Game laid the foundation of the British Empire in India, especially the system known as "indirect rule."
Nabobism filled the political vacuum in India following the death of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1707. Within a decade, the Mughal empire began to disintegrate, and the nizam of Hyderabad and the nawābs of Arcot, Mysore, Oudh, and Bengal could govern autonomously. They nominated and appointed tax collectors, used revenues and resources as they wished, conducted diplomatic and military activities among themselves, minted coins locally, and selected their successors. They no longer maintained the fiction that they were courtiers, and paid little more than lip service to the Mughal who gave them legitimacy.
Among Europeans, the French East India Company was the first to gain from the Mughal disintegration. French success in the Nabob Game depended largely on Dupleix, but even before he became governor-general in 1742, the French company had obtained the Mughal title of nawāb and the rights to maintain an armed force, collect land revenue, and mint rupees in Pondicherry. Dupleix's diplomacy was instrumental in obtaining the title of nawāb for the French company while he was governor of the French trading colony in Chandarnagar (near Calcutta), where he had regular contact with the Mughal court in Delhi. Dupleix and Governor-General Benoit Dumas both insisted that the Mughal rank be bestowed upon the company, although the powers and honors of the title were to rest with the governor-general in Pondicherry. Governors-general were, of course, chosen by the company directors, not the Mughal authority, so the choice of successors belonged, in practice, to non-Indians. The company's private army, needed for protection, was legitimized, and the company negotiated the right to mint rupees from imported silver in order to reduce minting costs. The French also obtained grants to collect land revenue from specified territories. The direct collection of land revenue, ostensibly to support troops, meant that the European nawāb, just as its Indian counterparts, had neither to depend on the Mughal treasury nor account for the revenue collected. In the case of the French East India Company, their territories constituted a trade zone closed to competition and a buffer from the depredations of warlords, brigands, and armies. The British had also sought land grants for the same reasons some years earlier. The assumption of Mughal titles was primarily a commercial decision, and their political and military benefits were secondary, albeit substantial.
As Anglo-French rivalry intensified during the War of the Austrian Succession (1742–1748) and the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), the respective East Indian companies found themselves enemies by proxy. In 1746 the French East India Company took Fort St. George (Chennai) from the British and was challenged by the nawāb of Arcot, who had forbidden hostilities. A small detachment of French troops defeated the nawāb's much larger army, demonstrating European military superiority. Henceforth, the threat or use of European military force against an Indian force was a hallmark of the Nabob Game. The struggle for the throne of Hyderabad, the most powerful post in the south, was a more convincing example of the uses of force in the Nabob Game. With the deaths in short order of the aged Nizām al-Mulk in 1748 and his immediate successor, Nasir Jang, late in 1750, the throne of the nizam of Hyderabad was contested by Muzaffar Jang. Dupleix, in league with Chanda Sahib, a claimant to the throne of Arcot, successfully backed Muzaffar, who in return confirmed Chanda Sahib as nawāb of Arcot and ceded large and valuable land grants to the French. It is doubtful Dupleix sought anything more than commercial and strategic advantage, because he did not try to make either Chanda Sahib or Muzaffar Jang instruments of French policy. Even when French interests alienated Chanda Sahib, Dupleix did little to undermine his protégé, leaving Chanda Sahib to rule until 1752, when the Marathas, with British connivance, deposed him. Unsurprisingly, his successor on the throne was more congenial to the British.
Before being recalled in 1752, Dupleix treated appeals from the nizam of Hyderabad for help against the Marathas, led by the peshwa Balaji Rao, as more of an annoyance than an offer to ally against a real threat. Dupleix sent only a protective force commanded by the Marquis de Bussy, thinking of them as profitable mercenaries. Upon the unexpected death of the nizam, Muzaffar Jang, de Bussy backed Salabat Jang, and the grateful new nizam rewarded de Bussy handsomely, and, for the next seven years, the Marquis de Bussy was his senior political adviser and the prototype for "political agents" in Indian courts. Under the British, such political agents were to make policy and create kings for nearly two centuries.
French policy was more focused on fortune than power, but the Englishman Robert "Bully" Clive turned that on its head. He had intrigued against the French, using rivals to the nizam of Hyderabad and nawāb of Arcot, but nothing in the French experience prepared him for the next step when he was ordered to Bengal. The British had held a grudge against Siraj-ud-Dawla, the young and impetuous nawāb of Bengal, ever since his capture of Calcutta had resulted in the atrocity dubbed the "Black Hole." Clive easily recaptured Calcutta and, using the Seven Years' War as an excuse, took the nearby French settlement at Chandarnagar for good measure. Clive's defeat of Siraj-ud-Dawla's army at the battle of Plassey in June 1757 was based on a small but well-trained European force, large bribes provided by a Hindu banker, and the perfidy of Siraj-ud-Dawla's Muslim nobles. In a mere six months, Clive established British commercial and military primacy in Bengal, placed a friendly ruler on the throne in Bengal, and, almost in passing, acquired a huge personal fortune. His success made him the stereotypical Nabob.
Although other Nabobs and the British East India Company profited greatly from the war in Bengal, Clive's wealth dwarfed theirs. In victory, he received an incredible sum in cash and land grants worth an annual fortune. When the newly retired thirty-two-year-old Clive triumphantly stepped off the gangplank in London, he was one of the richest men in England. Unfortunately for him, public discomfiture at the enormous wealth of Clive and other East India Company servants—and the manner in which they had acquired it—was so great that the term "Nabob" was used to mock them. This censure was based on accurate suspicions that the Nabobs had been greedy in pursuing wealth through fraud, extortion, and violence. Furthermore, the Nabobs were spending their wealth in ostentatious and socially disruptive ways and were tainted by "oriental" manners and morals. These last indictments reflected upper-class snobbery against parvenus from the commercial classes. Although Clive and the other Nabobs could buy the trappings of English gentry, they were not accepted by the titled elites.
The most serious charge against the Nabobs was, of course, the manner in which they had obtained their wealth. Whereas bribery, violence, and treachery to Indian interests might be overlooked, the defrauding of East India Company investors could not. Agents of European East India companies had always been allowed to supplement their pay by engaging in "country" or "private trade," usually by consigning them free portage in a company ship. The directors of the companies had, perforce, to recognize the entrepreneurial spirits of their servants and were never successful in banning private trade. Company directors even rationalized that privately developed "country trade" exposed new markets from which the company could also profit. Of course, the conflict of interests inherent in such country trade did drain company profits. Agents could coerce concessionary prices or rebates for themselves as they negotiated larger company purchases or deal only in goods with higher profit margins, leaving the company to transport the bulkier items, and could demand bribes and kickbacks from suppliers. Investors could suspect double-dealing, but even when company servants made fortunes from private trade, as did Dupleix, or profited from company-financed military actions, as in the case of Clive, the directors objected but did little. That benign official attitude changed between 1765, when Clive returned to India as governor-general, and 1772, the year that The Nabob opened on the London stage. The Nabob was a play by W. Foote skewering Nabobs returning from India with disproportionate wealth and airs of becoming titled gentlemen. While English society was comfortable with successful businessmen becoming country gentlemen, this new breed was more rapacious and ambitious.
The change in English attitudes rested on class consciousness and a residual suspicion of fraudulent conflicts of interest, but what perhaps tipped the scales against the Nabobs were events in Bengal. By the time Clive returned to Bengal, a British army had defeated an alliance of the Mughal emperor and the nawāb of Bengal at the battle of Baksar in 1764. The victory established the British East India Company as the strongest political force in eastern India. The Mughal emperor had to cede his enormous land revenues (known as the divāni) of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa; in the years following, company servants extorted wealth and plundered the resources of eastern India with an unprecedented rapacity and corruption. Clive left after two years, railing against what he saw as Bengal's march to disaster. But he was ignored, as he had done nearly the same thing in his day. Then, in 1770, famine hit Bengal and an estimated one-third of its peasantry, already reduced to penury, starved to death. English opinion was outraged at the Nabobs, who were blamed for this inhumanity. Clive was held responsible for the disaster, even though he had condemned the way his countrymen were conducting themselves in Bengal. Parliament acted, in large part because the East India Company was unable to repay a loan to the Treasury. The resultant "reforms," introduced to India by Warren Hastings, led to a crackdown, and more of the wealth of eastern India reached company coffers, and not the pockets of company agents. Hastings's Bengal administration thus marked the beginning of the end of Nabobism. Nevertheless, Indian rulers were forced to follow the advice of their British political advisers, who served British interests first, and to underwrite the expenses of the British-led troops that protected and controlled them. Indirect rule thus continued as the predominant method of British rule in much of India until the integration of most of the princely states into India's union at independence in 1947.
J. Andrew Greig
Barnett, Richard B. North India between Empires: Awadh, the Mughals, and the British, 1720–1801. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Chaudhuri, Nirad. Clive of India: A Political and Psychological Essay. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1975.
Dodwell, Henry. Dupleix and Clive: The Beginning of Empire. London: Frank Cass, 1920.
Keay, John. The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company. London: HarperCollins, 1991.
Spear, Percival. The Nabobs. London: Curzon Press. 1963.