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India's Princes and Traders

For thousands of years the main trade between Europe and Asia was the richest of all trades -- in the spices and luxuries of the Indies. It has even been said of the history of modern Europe that it is "the story of the conquest of the aromatic gum, resins and balsams and condiments and spices of India, further India, and the Indian archipelago." For centuries before the merchants of Elizabethan England formed their East India Company, India had been a prey to Muslim invaders. Entering the country through its north-western gates, they time after time plundered and conquered its rich plains. One famous King of Afghanistan invaded India no less than seventeen times in his forcible attempts to convert the people to the faith of Mohammed. The monster Tamerlane was the first of the Mogul (or Mongol) invaders (1398), and when he took Delhi he made a pyramid of a hundred thousand heads!

But the real Mogul conquest came in the sixteenth century. Under Akbar (1556-1605) the whole people -- Hindu and Muslim -- were united in a peaceful and prosperous rule. Akbar proved to be one of India's wisest and most tolerant rulers, and the English merchants were much impressed by his wealth and splendour. He and other Mogul Emperors of India were famous for their splendid palaces and mosques, and some of the most beautiful buildings in the world were erected under the rule of Akbar's grandson, Shah Jehan. The Taj Mahal, built for the remains of his favourite wife; the Pearl Mosque; and his Peacock Throne, with its framework of solid gold, were among the wonders of the world.

In the eighteenth century, however, the great Mogul Empire began to fall to pieces. The English and French East India Companies were drawn into the quarrels of rival princes, and so began to play a great part in Indian politics.

By the end of our Stuart era, fortunes were already being made by merchants in India. One of these, Thomas Pitt; Governor of Madras, had with his wealth been able to buy a landed estate at home and also the deserted borough of Old Sarum, which gave him a seat in Parliament. This Thomas Pitt was the grandfather of William Pitt, the great statesman who inspired Clive and Wolfe in the eighteenth century to win their victories in India and Canada.