Climate, Commerce and Bureaucracy: Founding Colonial Rule in Northern East Bengal

In the public debates for most of the last century, North East India remained a region at the far end of the state, cut off from the ‘mainland’ and the larger markets, and haunted by violence. It carried legacies of colonial governance, which had been unable to subdue and domesticate people and landscape within the larger polity.
This secluded position of the region has a comparatively short history. The interest in the mineral wealth of the hills, and of connecting Bengal (and India) with the large markets in China was a major driving force behind the British East India Company’s advance eastwards. Commercial prosperity and private returns pushed forward Company initiatives to establish de facto control of the territories argued to be included in the diwani grant of 1765, located in northern east Bengal. They sought to reopen, not close the commercial overland routes to the east.
The paper focuses on conflicts involved in establishing colonial governance and will elaborate on three themes and their interrelatedness.
Firstly, the larger region’s climate and natural disasters sent shock waves into the EIC in the late 18th century. Survey reports and weather observations using new scientific methods reflected a landscape out of human control.
Secondly, the right to govern territory landed the EIC in a whole new situation. As an early-modern, global mercantile corporation, the Company strove to establish monopolies within the skills, grants and agreements they held. Governing a monopoly of territory in Bengal required the integration of the governor in socioeconomic and religious hierarchies – hierarchies in which the EIC had no place.
Thirdly, revenue settlements and military force served the purpose of keeping bureaucratic control of land and people. However, the revenue settlements formed into a complete mismatch between climate and administration. Revenue administration took half a century to restructure.
When the neighbouring autonomous polities were drawn into dependent relations to the EIC in the 1820s and 30s, forms and political settlements were significantly different. Already from the earliest subjugation of territories and people, colonial rule on the EIC’s ‘North Eastern Frontier’ formed into dual polities under one government.