Monday, October 15, 2012

In context: The Northern Circars

In reading about Vizag during the British rule, one frequently comes across the term Northern Circars. It’s a good idea to get more familiar with these Circars: Vizag’s history is intimately connected with their evolution.

The Northern Circars are a 78,000 square kilometre strip of coastal land that encompassed areas of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, consisted of Chicacole, Rajahmundry, Ellore, Kondapalli, and Guntur.

They were originally part of the Vijayanagara Empire until the battle of Tallikota (1565), in which the Bahmani sultanate routed the Vijayanagara rulers, effectively ending the latter’s kingdom. The Circars became part of the Bahmani Sultanate and remained so for more than a century.  In 1687 they were occupied by Aurangazeb.

In 1724, Asaf Jah, the governor of Hyderabad (Golkonda), under which the five Circars were ruled, declared independence from the Mughal empire.  He claimed the title of Nizam-ul-Mulk and became the Subahdar of the Deccan.

Rise of the Vizianagaram rajahs

The Vizagapatam district was part of the Chicacole Circar and was long known as the Kasimkota division. After the Golkonda Sultanate took over, the chief local officer was the faujdar of Chicacole, who was in charge of Ganjam and Vizagapatam regions. The first faujdar was Sher Muhammad Khan (1652-84), who governed through the local chiefs or zamindars.  Among these various zamindars, the Vizianagaram rajahs grew in power gradually and started playing a significant part in the politics of the region.

The English and French had several factories in this region and struggled for commercial control of the region.  After the death of Nizam-ul-Mulk, the English and the French took sides in succession disputes. Eventually Salabat Jung, Nizam-ul-Mulk’s son, supported by the French, became the Nizam and ceded four of the five Northern Circars– Elllore, Kondapalli, Rajamundury and Chicacole–to the French in 1753.

English supremacy

But in 1759 the success of the combined forces of the Vizianagaram rajahs and the English established English supremacy in the Circars; in 1765 Robert Clive obtained the Northern Circars from the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam, by way of inam or free gift subject to an annual payment.  Though the Nizam contested the validity of Shah Alam’s inam, the British, through a combination of force and diplomacy, obtained the Nizam’s acknowledgment of their right to the region and in 1823, the British bought the rights over the Circars from the Nizam.

Since the establishment of the company's government the whole province was divided and placed under two subordinate councils of which the larger was that of Vizagapatam, which was nearly "centrical to all the circars". About the middle of the I7th century a factory was established at Vizagapatam where, on the cession of the Circars, the chief-in-council was appointed.

Too attractive to resist

No one valued the Northern Circars more than the British, or rather, the Europeans. For landlocked Hindu and Muslim kingdoms, the thin strip of coastal territory was too far-flung and too wild to be brought under proper control. Tribal chieftains, hill zamindars, and local self-styled landlords made use of the sturdy, malaria-ridden barrier of the Eastern Ghats to keep central rulers away from the circars and run their own show.

However, the Nizam of Golconda as well as the emperors of the disintegrating Mughal empire dangled the carrot of the Northern Circars to get what they wanted from the British and the French.  Whenever they wanted British or French help in the form of troops or money, the Mughals and the Nizams would promise the Europeans more concessions in or control over the Northern Circars. And the Europeans always took the bait; for the sea-faring traders, the long strip of sea-coast was too attractive to resist. 

M.S.R. Anjaneyulu, Vizagapatam District, 1769-1834: A History of the Relations Between the Zamindars and the East India Company, Andhra University, 1982

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