Medieval European geographers located paradise at the mouth of the Ganges and although this was overhopeful, Bengal was probably the wealthiest part of the subcontinent up until the 16th century. The area's early history featured a succession of Indian empires, internal squabbling, and a tussle between Hinduism and Buddhism for dominance. All of this was just a prelude to the unstoppable tide of Islam which washed over northern India at the end of the 12th century. Mohammed Bakhtiar, from Turkistan, captured Bengal in 1199 with only 20 men thanks to an unexplained 'bold and clever strategy'.
Under the Moghul viceroys, art and literature flourished, overland trade expanded and Bengal was opened to world maritime trade - the latter marking the death knell of Moghul power as Europeans began to establish themselves in the region. The Portuguese arrived as early as the 15th century but were ousted in 1633 by local opposition. The East India Company negotiated terms to establish a fortified trading post in Calcutta in 1690. The decline of Moghul power led to greater provincial autonomy, heralding the rise of the independent dynasty of the nawabs of Bengal. Humble East India Company clerk Robert Clive ended up effectively ruling Bengal when one of the impetuous nawabs attacked the thriving British enclave in Calcutta and stuffed those unlucky enough not to escape in an underground cellar. Clive retook Calcutta a year later and the British Government replaced the East India Company following the Indian Mutiny in 1857.
The Brits established an organisational and social structure unparalleled in Bengal, and Calcutta became one of the most important centres for commerce, education and culture in the subcontinent. However, many Bangladeshi historians blame the Brits' dictatorial agricultural policies and promotion of the semi-feudal zamindar system for draining the region of its wealth and damaging its social fabric. The British presence was a relief to the minority Hindus but a catastrophe for the Muslims. The Hindus cooperated with the Brits, entering British educational institutions and studying the English language, but the Muslims refused to cooperate, and rioted whenever crops failed or another local product was rendered unprofitable by government policy.
At the close of WWII it was clear that European colonialism had run its course and Indian independence was inevitable. Independence was attained in 1947 but the struggle was bitter and divisive, especially in Bengal where the fight for self-government was complicated by internal religious conflict. The British, realising any agreement between the Muslims and Hindus was impossible, decided to partition the subcontinent. That Bengal and Punjab, the two overwhelmingly Muslim regions, lay on opposite sides of India was only one stumbling block. The situation was complicated in Bengal where the major cash crop, jute, was produced in the Muslim-dominated east, but processed and shipped from the Hindu-dominated city of Calcutta in the west.
Despite grumblings many and various, partition duly occurred and East Bengal became the runt state of East Pakistan. It was administered unfavourably from West Pakistan, with which it shared few similarities apart from the Muslim faith. Inequalities between the two regions soon stirred up a sense of Bengali nationalism that had not been reckoned with during the push for Muslim independence. When the Pakistan government declared that 'Urdu and only Urdu' would be the national language, the Bangla-speaking Bengalis decided it was time to assert their cultural identity. The drive to reinstate the Bangla language metamorphosed into a push for self-government and when the Awami League, a nationalistic party, won a majority in the 1971 national elections, the president of Pakistan, faced with this unacceptable result, postponed opening the National Assembly. Riots and strikes broke out in East Pakistan, the independent state of Bangladesh was unilaterally announced, and Pakistan sent troops to quell the rebellion.
The ensuing war was one of the shortest and bloodiest of modern times, with the Pakistan army occupying all major towns, using napalm against villages, and slaughtering and raping villagers. Bangladeshis refer to Pakistan's brutal tactics as attempted genocide. Border clashes between Pakistan and India increased as Indian-trained Bangladeshi guerrillas crossed the border. When the Pakistani air force made a pre-emptive attack on Indian forces, open warfare ensued. Indian troops crossed the border and the Pakistani army found itself being attacked from the east by the Indian army, the north and east by guerrillas and from all quarters by the civilian population. In 11 days it was all over and Bangladesh, the world's 139th country, officially came into existence. Sheikh Mujib, one of the founders of the Awami League, became the country's first prime minister in January 1972; he was assassinated in 1975 during a period of crisis.
The ruined and decimated new country experienced famine in 1973-74, followed by martial law, successive military coups and political assassinations. In 1979, Bangladesh began a short-lived experiment with democracy led by the overwhelmingly popular President Zia, who established good relationships with the West and the oil-rich Islamic countries. His assassination in 1981 ultimately returned the country to a military government that periodically made vague announcements that elections would be held 'soon'. While these announcements were rapturously greeted by the local press as proof that Bangladesh was indeed a democracy, nothing came of them until 1991. That year the military dictator General Ershad was forced to resign by an unprecedented popular movement led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League.
In 1991 democracy was re-established and Begum Khaled Zia became prime minister. The economy ticked along at a 4.5% growth rate, and ties with the West were strengthened when the government sent troops to assist in the Gulf War, the US-led invasion of Haiti and the war in Bosnia. By 1994, however, many Bangladeshis had become disenchanted with the Zia government. Despite election promises, the 1974 Special Powers Act, allowing detention without charge for 120 days, had never been repealed. There were claims that the government had rigged by-elections, and military and police repression of dissenters appeared to be on the rise. Opposition parties called for mass general strikes and the country's bureaucrats walked out.
A general election was held in February 1996, but a boycott by opposition parties, 5% voter turnout, and claims of ballot box stuffing and repression of anti-government protesters raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the re-elected Zia government. Opposition parties and activist groups campaigned against the election, and on 30 March Zia stood down and a caretaker government under Muhammad Habibur Rahman was appointed. Elections, generally seen as free and fair, were held in June and a coalition government headed by Sheikh Hasina Wazed of the Awami League was voted in. In mid-1988 the country was hit by devastating floods - 50 of the country's 64 districts were flooded, 755 people died and nearly a million were made homeless.