The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 15, 2002
Time Off

Selling lands to build empires
Manohar Malgonkar

How much a month would you pay? To rent the whole of Bombay.

ABSURD as the question sounds, because not even Bill Gates could afford to pay such a rental, there was a time when it was wholly realistic. What is more, almost any of us could have forked out Bombay’s monthly rent without feeling the pinch. The rent was less than an English pound per month. In fact £ 10 for the whole year.

In the mid seventeenth century, the island of Bombay came as a gift to King Charles II, of England. His Majesty had not only seen it, but had only a hazy idea of its geographical whereabouts. It had come to King Charles as a part of his dowry when, in the year 1661, he had married the King of Portugal’s daughter, Catherine. Seven years later, the King leased it out to the East India Company — for ten pounds a year.

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All of which fell comfortably in the logic of empire-building nations. A conquered land became yours to do whatever you liked to do with it: develop it, sell it, colonise it, rule it, give it away as a reward for services, or as dowry, lease it out on rent. No thought was given to the people who had lived on those lands for generations. They were, after all, natives. They were just not worth bothering about.

So bits and pieces of Asia, Africa and the Americas were passed from hand to hand, as it were, without consulting their people, and this practice went on right till the middle of the twentieth century. It finally ended when the whole cult of empire-building itself collapsed.

The most staggering example of one country selling a vast tract of the planet to another, was the Louisiana purchase: the sale of French controlled territory adjoining what were then the American colonies which had just become the United States. It happened in the year 1803. Napoleon Bonaparte who ruled France sold the whole of Louisiana which included a flourishing port, New Orleans, for $ 15 million. Now the entire area of France is well under a quarter million square miles. What France sold to America was more than four times that size: more than a million square miles.

By comparison, tiny little Bombay being given away in dowry and then being rented out by its new owner seems hardly worth a historical footnote.

But an important footnote nevertheless, which highlights the close ties that marked Anglo-Portuguese relations in the mid-seventeenth century when, the Portuguese were well ahead in the process of empire-building and the British still novices. The reason behind that marriage of convenience as well as the treaty of alliance was their common animosity of the Dutch and the French who too, were well ahead of Britain as Empire builders.

The amazing part is that the alliance sealed by that joyless marriage still governs Anglo-Portuguese relations and both Portugal and Britain, now rendered empireless, trot it out whenever it is relevant, as for instance when in 1961, Indian forces marched in and took over Goa which was still owned by the Portuguese.

Amazing because in the years that immediately followed that treaty Britain had not only caught up with Portugal in conquering distant territories but had actually left them far behind. It was a matter of time before they would clash.

That clash came about in India. In the first quarter of the 19th century, Britain’s East India Company had swallowed up most of the land area of the subcontinent and was in the process of mopping up the remaining bits and pieces. The Company possessed perhaps the largest and best-trained standing army in the world. For its officials the few Portuguese pockets in India were like eyesores, to be rubbed out at will. What held them back was old treaty of alliance with Portugal.

They tried to threaten the local Portuguese officials and even sent troops into Goa. One of their columns actually took the Fort of Aguada by force and sent its soldiers foraging into Panjim, Goa’s capital.

The Viceroy of Goa, realising that he could not defend Goa with his small ragtag force, resorted to offering public prayers to Goa’s own saint, Francis Xavier, to save Goa, and hoped against hope that this attack was a bid on the part of the East India Company to frighten him into surrendering Goa, and could not have been sanctioned by the British Government.

He was right, too. The Company had acted on its own initiative, and hoped to finish off the conquest of Goa before the British Government could intervene. In any case, the Company’s troops quietly vacated the occupied fort and marched away.

But that did not mean that it had given up all thought of taking over Goa. For a year or so later, the Portuguese Viceroy received an offer from the Company: Half a million pounds for all three Portuguese colonies in India — Goa, Daman and Diu.

The response was an icy ‘No’. Goa, Daman, Diu, were not for sale.

That rejection both surprised and offended not only the East India Company, but also the British Government. They knew that Portugal’s economy was in tatters, and their Indian colonies, a burden more than an asset. They took umbrage and longed to avenge the slight.

Their chance came seventy years later, but, in such matters, national memories are long. In the year 1900, the Portuguese Government made the British an offer that would have been music to the ears of a race so hell-bent on world conquest as the British: the territory of Mozambique, a vast chunk of the African continent comprising 300,000 square miles for just three million pounds. At only ten pounds for a square mile.

Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Government said ‘No’!

Britain, at the turn of the 19th century, was a heavy-weight among the empire-building nations, but was still to fill out its Sumo-wrestler image of the mid-19th century. But, of course, it is also true that, at this point in time, Britain had acquired rather more territory than it could conveniently rule — there just were not enough administrators. As an indications of this predicament, there is the instance of their trying to interest the Zionists into accepting Kenya, in Africa as their homeland. The Jewish leaders in England pondered nearly a whole year before turning down the offer. No. What the Jews wanted was to go back to their roots in the Arab heartland.

They chose Palestine in preference to Kenya, there to set up a new home for their dispersed people who, they were convinced, would live in amity with the Arabs.

The rest is history — or history on the boil, for all of us to see on TV in gory technicolour: blasted houses, frenzied mobs, blood-spattered streets, blind, primitive revenge. Next episode soon — watch this space!

One wonders if Kenya might not have been better choice...but who can say?