Indian Recreations Vol.I

About this text

Introductory notes

Reverend William Tennant was a chaplain of the Bengal Army. Tennant's job allowed him to travel widely across the Bengal province. In Tennant's own words, he had the opportunity of residing at different parts of the country and used his time to examine the custom and practices of the "Hindoos" and "Mahommedans", particularly pertaining those to the rural economy. Tennant's penned his experiences and observations in two volumes. The first volume was published by C. Stewart at Edinburgh, in the year 1803.

The selections from the text have been made from the chapters on Origin and Present State of the Maratha Empire, Domestic Slavery, Peculiarities of Mussalman character and General Sketch of the Maratha Governement. Tennant in these chapters highlight on the corrupt and rapacious nature of Maratha State and considers the Maratha raids to be responsible for excalating the dimensions of the 1770 famine. Tennant also discusses the institutions of the slavery which he observed in 'Hindoo' and how during the times of scarcity or famine even children were sold in the slave market.

Selection details

The selections from the text have been made from the chapters on Origin and Present State of the Maratha Empire, Domestic Slavery, Peculiarities of Mussalman character and General Sketch of the Maratha Governement. Tennant in these chapters highlight on the corrupt and rapacious nature of Maratha State and considers the Maratha raids to be responsible for excalating the dimensions of the 1770 famine. Tennant also discusses the institutions of the slavery which he observed in 'Hindoo' and how during the times of scarcity or famine even children were sold in the slave market.



[Page 29]


Near Buxar, Nov. 1796.

THIS nation derives its name from Mahrat, a province in the Deccan*1, which is, at present, under the name of Baglana, forms the most central part of the Mahratta dominions. Sevajee is regarded as the founder of this empire; he had obtained a distinguished rank in the army of the King of Visiapour, and the distractions of that monarchy soon afforded him an opportunity of assuming independent power. [Page 30] His conquests were so rapid in the adjoining provinces, that before the accession of Aurungzebe to the throne, he had already become formidable to the Mogul Empire. The Roman State had not a more hardy or warlike people for its founders than the Mahrattas; for many of the conquests of Sevajee were made in the face of Aurungzebe when he was at the summit of his power. The confusions which followed upon the death of that Emperor, and the dissentions among his sons, allowed the Mahrattas to extend their conquests with a rapidity peculiar to this part of Asia. Bred in the school of war, and preserved by their rugged and barren mountains from falling into that listless effeminacy which characterized the inhabitants of India, the Mahrattas were able to contend with Aurungzebe himself; and Sahojee, the prince who succeeded the founder of the nation, had before his death extended his dominions from the western shore of the peninsula to Orissa on the eastern; and from Agra, on the north, to the Carnatic, on the south; while almost every part of Hindostan and Bengal itself had been plundered by his armies. These conquests were made in the same manner as those of this nation have ever been: an enterprising chief, by holding up to his followers a prospect of plunder, soon collects an army; and the weakness and distractions of his neighbours afford him an opportunity of realising his promises.

IN 1718 the Mahrattas were so powerful, that they were enabled to enforce the payment of a tri[Page 31]bute from the Emperor Nadir Shah: this imposition: is in the language of Hindostan denominated a chout, and though it varied in particular districts, amounted generally to one fourth of the annual revenue. This shameful contribution was exacted from the province of Bengal in 1742, when they overran that province with 80,000 cavalry, whose depredations and cruelties are still remembered with horror by the natives. For two successive years they plundered this rich territory, nor did they quit it till they exhausted its stores, and carried off an immense booty, particularly from the Jaggut Seets, the most eminent bankers in India.

THE fortunes of an empire of such recent formation and rapid growth, were destined soon to fall; for it contained the seeds of its own destruction. In fact, the combination of the Mahratta chiefs exhibits the feudal constitution in its loosest form. It is a voluntary combination of plunderers, possessing no principle of permanent union or improvement; and the rise of the Mahratta power may with greater propriety be termed the dissolution of all government, and the establishment of anarchy, than the foundation of regular empire. They are the Swiss of India, ever ready to enter for hire into every scheme of plunder suggested by an ambitious chief.

[Page 128]


Calcutta Dec. 1798
[Page 131]

SLAVES in India are of many different descriptions, according to the manner in which they have been acquired. No less than fifteen legitimate methods of acquiring slaves are specified in the Eastern code; some of which are peculiar to this quarter of the world.

NOTWITHSTANDING the humane provisions just mentioned, many persons either from being deserted by their relations, or by the death of their parents, are cast destitute upon the public; such unfortunates, like loft goods, become the property of the finder*2. If, during a famine, a person has been fed by another, and his life by that means preserved, such become the property of those who entertained him. Many acquisitions of this nature might have been made by Europeans, had their customs authorised the practice.

[Page 132]

SOMETIMES a person to free himself from the importunities of a creditor, delivers himself as a pledge for the debt, or in lieu of payment: this species of slavery is countenanced by the Hindoo as well as the Jewish and Roman jurisprudence. It does not, however, occur to me that the latter admitted of personal slavery on the chance of play, as is the avowed language of statute in this country, as it was by consuetudinary law in America.

ANOTHER description of slaves are such as have become Sanyassee, and afterwards have renounced that holy way of life. This conduct implies not merely a dereliction of a state of sanctity and great perfection, but also the breach of solemn vows; whoever was guilty of it became punishable by the magistrate with the loss of liberty, unless the delinquent were a Brahmin. In that case the criminal was branded in the forehead with the print of a dog's foot, and banished the kingdom†3.

[Page 133]

THE last class of slaves peculiar to the Hindoo laws, consists of those who, from their attachment to a slave girl, give up their liberty for the purpose of having intercourse with her. Such slaves recover their liberty on renouncing the female slave, and discontinuing the connection.

[Page 134]

IN general, the domestic slavery of the Hindoos is attended with less harshness, cruelty, or exhausting labour, than what results from the system among other nations. A stranger is seldom able to distinguish between a slave and any other member of a family. The labour of all the common people is moderate, and their food and cloathing so simple as hardly to admit of degrees.

EVEN in times of calamity, if a person sell his slave girl to another against her consent, he is reprehensible, and may be fined: perhaps the whole system as it is practised in Hindostan may be defended on principles of humanity. Scarcity here arises often to be famine: while the great body of the people from the benignity of the climate live almost without cloathing, or house for shelter. There is no provision for a time of difficulty: a man who has nothing but his labour to subsist upon, and perhaps does not possess the value of two days provision, is not supposed in distress, and is often actually happy; at least he takes no thought for to-morrow. During a famine, however, such persons are relieved by a servitude which prevents them from falling victims to hunger. In every warm country cloathing is less ne [Page 135] cessary; lodging almost superfluous; hence the people are indolent and improvident to a degree that in your northern climes would prove fatal. Were a famine as frequent in Italy as it is in this country, the idle Lazaroni of Naples would be benefited by a slavery which might secure them against hunger and want, the necessary result of their improvident idleness.

IT may therefore be questioned whether that zeal which burned so furiously among you for the liberation of slaves, was in every case guided by knowledge. There are at least some instances in which the tender mercy of your humane reformers would be cruelty; for independent of the circumstances peculiar, perhaps, to the natives of India, there are many persons whose intellects may not be sufficiently cultivated to guide their conduct in a state of perfect freedom. As Mr. Burke has justly said, liberty is power, and man, along with the milk of human kindness, has also a good deal of the wolf in his composition, and till that is purged off it will be dangerous to allow him to associate with sheep, more so to rule over them.

TENDERNESS to slaves as well as to every creature dependent on our care, is undoubtedly one of the precepts which dignifies our benevolent religion: yet at the time when the new testament was written, slavery was far more universal than at present, while no prohibition of that state appears in its pages. The [Page 136] reciprocal duties between master and servant (slave) are there laid down with much plainness, and recommended from motives very powerful; but the very regulation of such a state seems a tacit acknowledgment of its necessity, and infers its continuance. It is no where said, Dismiss your servants and abolish slavery.

[Page 181]


Calcutta Jan. 1798
[Page 182]

THOUGH their faith be theism, and a much nearer approach to our standard of religious opinions, than the popular creed of the other natives, it does not appear that they are profited in their moral conduct by this circumstance: not one in an hundred is able to read his own Scriptures; and the number able to profit by what they read is still much less considerable. The idea therefore entertained by some of our divines, that the progress of Islamism over so great a part of the world, is likely to pave the way for that of Christianity, is rather to be regarded as a fond conjecture, than a fact at all established by experience. The Coran, it is true, allows considerable authority to our sacred records, and acknowledges the truth of Christ's mission as [Page 183] subordinate prophet; but this has never influenced the conduct of Musselmans with lenity, or even forbearance to those of that persuasion. Every system differing from their own, is regarded with equal abhorrence and contempt.

HENCE has arisen that persecuting and fanatical spirit, which has ever marked the conduct of this people, whose cruelties in attempting to convert the Hindoos, cannot be contemplated without horror. Even where his religion is not concerned, the manners of the moorman are frequently characterised by brutality. The treatment of the British prisoners taken by Hyder Ally, is perhaps unexampled for deliberate, and unprovoked cruelty, in the annals of history. Some of the officers, after languishing many years in prison, where they were loaded with irons like the vilest criminals, were forced upon the sad alternative of engaging in the service of the tyrant, or of dying by poison. In these noisome dungeons some died of famine, many were driven to distraction by despair, and many perished by disease. In all cases where this cruelty proved fatal, the victims were denied the honour of a grave; their bodies were thrown out, and devoured by dogs and vultures. The particulars of these enormities were committed to writing by an officer of great veracity, who was himself one of the few who survived the outrage of that unrelenting monster*4.

[Page 184]

THAT contempt for learning, with which these zealots are actuated, perhaps adds to the ferocity of their disposition*5,6; as it certainly destroys every principle of tolerance and liberality to such as follow a different system of religious faith. The privates taken by Hyder, from this cause, suffered a refinement of cruelty, equally disgraceful to the tyrant, and degrading in the eyes of those who were the unhappy victims of it: they were not only compelled to enter the service, but to undergo the painful initiatory rite to the religion of the despot.

In the practice of the Mahomedan worship, there is a number of rites equally frivolous and unmeaning with those of the Hindoos themselves. Some of their holiday solemnities are disgraced by a ferocity to which the latter are happily strangers. The procession at the Mohurram, a festival in commemoration of the death of Hosseim and Hassen, are accompanied with gladiators, who fight each other with daggers and spears, to the great edification of the brutal multitude. In these encounters, which last for ten days, blood is often shed, and several lives lost; for the tragedy which is begun in show, as zeal becomes more ardent and ungovernable, terminates often in all the horrors of reality.

[Page 357]


Chunar 1798
[Page 363]

IT is one peculiar feature of the Mahratta government, that the empire always considers itself as in a state of war. This circumstance entirely results from the unsettled and fluctuating state of the internal government: their recent acquisitions in Hindostan are held only by the sword; and they are under the necessity of compelling the payment of the Chout, always given with reluctance, or extorted by actual force. But, independent of these motives, war is with them a source of revenue; as the different chiefs of the empire make annual campaigns in the few districts which have not yet been brought to a state of subjection, or actual servitude. These military excursions are termed Muluk-ghere, two Persian words, which signify taking possession of territory.

THIS eternal warfare is the cause of an enormous expence; to supply which the Mahrattas have many modes of finance; but the most prevailing one is that of anticipating their revenues. It is unnecessary to enlarge on the defects of a system so ob [Page 364] viously pernicious. These mortgages upon the territorial revenue are negociated by wealthy Soucars, between whom and the minister there always exists a proper understanding; they are frequently at a discount of thirty or forty per cent, and then paid in the most depreciated currency. This ruinous method of raising the supplies, arises from the unsettled state of the country, which induces government to prefer a certain sum in hand, though at an enormous usury, to the possible receipt of a precarious revenue at the expiration of three or four years, to which extent they are frequently anticipated. In such districts as remain in the management of the Sircar, the taxes are raised according to the usages of the highest antiquity, and are generally very moderate. The duties on common commodities, on a gross estimate, never exceed five per cent, except on Ghee, which amount to fifty. The revenue resulting from the proprietary right to the soil, which is one half of the produce; the Chout paid by the Nizam, and the plunder raised by Moulukghere, form the grand pecuniary resources of the Mahratta empire. These, though amounting to a vast sum, are far short of the current expences. The conquered country in Hindostan, exhausted by continual depredations, is no longer capable to furnish a single rupee. The entire wealth of this once rich country, is buried in the private treasuries of the Mahratta chiefs, and lost to all the purposes of circulation. So great is the scarcity of specie in the upper provinces, that for these two years past, Scindia has been obliged to ex [Page 365] tort money from the Poonah government for the payment of his vast armies in Hindostan.

IN the different governments of the native powers, as in the most despotic ones, the prince, unless he possesses great talents, is merely a cypher; the Dewan, or minister, has all the authority in his hands. This office is universally bestowed on the person who gives the greatest nuzzur, or more properly speaking, can furnish a sum to answer some particular exigence of the state: for an inability to supply money for current expences, is always sure to displace a minister. The prince having taken the bribe, often amounting to many lacks of rupees, the object of the purchaser is to reimburse himself. Here the great door to corruption is thrown open: every office is set up to auction, and knocked down to the highest bidder, without regarding any qualification but the price. Every situation, Komisdars, Killadars, and places, are disposed of in public market. No check can be given to consequential peculation. He that should punish the delinquent, has himself set the example, and is equally implicated in his guilt. The very man that has bought his office is not certain of holding it a year: this consideration gives additional keenness to his avarice, till it gets whetted to the highest degree, and he extorts from the unfortunate Ryut the product of his labour, without compunction. Thus he plunders without mercy the very subject it is his duty to protect. If this tyrant be removed, the evil is by no means removed with him; [Page 366] for his successor, if he buys his office, (and on no other terms will he get it), will most certainly be equally rapacious and unprincipled.

IT is from causes of this kind, that the bulk of the people are almost without property. Few under a Mahratta government have any opportunity of acquiring wealth, except the powerful Brahmins, who hold offices in the Durbar. Their avarice is insatiable; and if ever the madness of accumulation was marked with the highest degree of folly, it is in the present instance: for although the Brahmin may be permitted to go on even for years in every practice of extortion, his wealth at last excites the attention of the prince, when he is obliged to disgorge, and is perhaps ordered to a Kella for life. If he happens to die while in office, his property is generally sequestrated by the Sircar. In this case his family is provided for, either by a pension, or otherwise; and the custom of plunder, which is called Goonogere*7, forms one very considerable part of the contingent revenue.

UPON the whole, I believe, there is not upon record an example of any government so little calculated to give protection to the subject, as the fluctuating and unsteady system of the Mahrattas: an administration formed of rapacity, corruption, and [Page 367] instability, affords but little hope of domestic happiness, or public security. To this grand source may be ascribed the accumulated misery of the people; oppression, poverty, and famine, which last appears the appropriated curse of this country. When we reflect on the great fertility of Hindostan in general, it is amazing to consider the frequency of this dreadful visitation. It is evidently not owing to any sterility in the soil or climate, since there are many seasons that yield two or three crops; the evil must be traced to some political cause; and it requires but little penetration to discover it in the avarice and extortion of the various governments. In a country such as this, where revolutions are so common, the great spur to industry, that of security, is taken away: the Ryut, who cultivates his ground this year, is by no means sure of possessing it the next: if he should, it is highly probable that under a government that holds its sway only by the sword, some large detachment may be quartered in his neighbourhood: no greater blow can be given to industry; for a Mahratta army is more indefatigably destructive than myriads of locusts. The property of friends and enemies falls equally a prey to their undistinguishing depredations. Hence no man raises more grain than is barely sufficient for himself; and the produce of the year is just equivalent to its consumption. The consequence is, as there are no public granaries, that the first unfavourable season produces a famine: the inhabitants abandon their fields, and either fly to the coast, or to some ether place, [Page 368] where the famine has prevailed less. This new accession of people produces a famine there also, and the evil becomes universal.

IT is at this period, that the traveller beholds the greatest of all human miseries; hunger, nakedness, and disease, and death, which in this case is the extreme of mercy. He sees the streets strewed with carcases; the highways with skeletons; and every countenance proclaiming misery, wretchedness, and despair. It is owing to the frequency of this dreadful calamity, that the Mahrattas are total strangers to charity, and possess an insensibility of heart, to which other nations are strangers. The feelings become steeled with a repetition of distress, especially in a people whose ruling passion is avarice. A Mahratta will see his own brother expire before him with the most phlegmatic composure. Perhaps the man who has beheld his whole family die around him, without exciting one sentiment of compassion on his fellow-beings, will, when the evil again recurs, find his heart hardened against mankind from a recollection of their barbarity, rather than softened to pity by a knowledge of their distress. Such is the effect of famine upon morals; but I believe it has never produced one insurrection against the government, which, for the most part, occasions it. The Hindoo has but few passions; he considers misfortune as his fate; and he submits without a struggle.

[Page 369]

IT is also owing to famine, and its concomitant depopulations, that some parts of India are so thinly inhabited. I believe it may be safely asserted, that through the whole country (Bengal and Behar excepted) one acre in fifty is not cultivated; and the quantity of tilled land will always bear a proportion to the number of people to be maintained by it. It is no uncommon circumstance for large cities, in the time of famine, to lose three fourths of their inhabitants; and the country suffers in the same degree. Frequently whole districts are swept away, and for years remain a jungle, notwithstanding the climate is so favourable to population. Upon the whole, between the indolence of the people, and the rapacity of the government, famine appears to be the prime curse of this country; yet, incredible as it may seem, no provisions are ever made against it; but that the fault is not in nature, or the natives, may be seen by turning to Bengal, which enjoying a more steady administration, has not suffered famine, I believe, since that which happened in 1770, or 1771, twenty-six years ago; although every other part of India has been frequently visited by it since that period.

SUCH is the comparative state of the British provinces, and the rest of India, drawn by a disinterested spectator, and I have often had occasion to witness its accuracy and truth. Upon what principle then does the Abbe Reynal, and after him other ignorant declaimers, give out that the English have [Page 370] robbed the natives of their possessions, and distressed them by their cruelties? The British territories are, in truth, the only part of the country which they peaceably possess; the only asylum where they, at this hour, enjoy in any competent degree either protection, plenty, or comfort. Among a people so long accustomed to anarchy or misrule, it would be too sanguine to expect that habits of industry or submission to order can be speedily established; yet that the extension of European dominion over this vast country, above described, has proved a great blessing, is a truth as incontrovertible as any in the science of morals. It has already been brought to the test of experience; and so far as it has yet extended, the truth has obtained all the evidence of demonstration. When, therefore, you hear of instances of misconduct in our countrymen, and there perhaps have been some, they do not overturn the general principle; for assuredly a system in some respects bad, may be a great improvement on another which has always been essentially and radically worse.

This is a selection from the original text


avarice, climate, crops, famine, grain, scarcity, wealth

Source text




Publisher: G.STEWART

Publication date: 1804

Original date(s) covered: 1796-1803

Edition: 1st Edition

Place of publication: EDINBURGH

Provenance/location: This text was transcribed from images available at Internet Archive: Original date(s) covered: 1796-1803

Digital edition

Original author(s): Rev William Tennant

Language: English

Selection used:

  • 1 ) pages 29 to 31
  • 2 ) pages 131 to 136
  • 3 ) pages 182 to 184
  • 4 ) pages 363 to 370


Texts collected by: Ayesha Mukherjee, Amlan Das Gupta, Azarmi Dukht Safavi

Texts transcribed by: Muhammad Irshad Alam, Bonisha Bhattacharya, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Muhammad Ehteshamuddin, Kahkashan Khalil, Sarbajit Mitra

Texts encoded by: Bonisha Bhattacharya, Shreya Bose, Lucy Corley, Kinshuk Das, Bedbyas Datta, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Sarbajit Mitra, Josh Monk, Reesoom Pal

Encoding checking by: Hannah Petrie, Gary Stringer, Charlotte Tupman

Genre: India > nonfiction prose > memoirs

For more information about the project, contact Dr Ayesha Mukherjee at the University of Exeter.