The British period of rule over the Indian subcontinent forms an extraordinary episode in world history. It is a dramatic story – of how a small island nation came to conquer and govern a vast empire thousands of miles from itself. Like the rise of many empires, it is characterised by a mix of ruthless greed and high-minded duty. But the overriding impression is one of opportunistic action, taking advantage of divisions and conflicts within the fabric of Indian society itself.
Europeans had started coming to India to trade at the end of the 15th century – a generation before the first Mughal emperor had begun to rule.
The Portuguese were the first to arrive, in 1498, under their famous explorer, Vasco da Gama. Two years later the Portuguese established their first trading post on the coast of India, at Calicut. Five more posts followed in the next five decades, at Cochin, Cannanore, Goa, Diu and Daman.
The Portuguese dominated the spice trade between the East and Europe in the 16th century. In the 17th century, however, the Dutch, French and English muscled in with trading posts of their own. By the end of that century the Portuguese were of negligible importance and the Dutch had, in an agreement with the English, decamped to focus on their interests in the East Indies. This left the English and French as rivals for the trade with India.
At the end of the 17th century the activities of all the Europeans were still confined to small trading posts on the coast. The English and French posts, like those of the Dutch, were owned and operated by private commercial organizations, their East India Companies. At this stage there was no thought of territorial conquest; how could there be, with the subcontinent under the rule of the mighty Mughal Empire?
In the early 18th century, however, Mughal power began to fragment. At first, this made little difference to the Europeans – the coastal rulers were still much too powerful for the European merchants to think of challenging them. In the middle of the century, however, this situation was transformed. By that time, maritime rivalry between European states had improved their naval forces to such an extent that they were able to project military power very effectively across thousands of miles of ocean. Thus, when the French and British (by now, England and Scotland had united to form Great Britain) went to war with each other in Europe, their trading posts in distant India were able to call in their respective navies to help them attack each other.
Not only Europeans’ naval forces, but their land forces too had undergone continuous improvement. This was made crystal clear in an incident in 1747. When a local Indian ruler, angry with the French for their high-handed behaviour towards the British trading post of Madras, sent an army of 10,000 troops against the French garrison of less than 500 men, his forces were driven off with great loss of life.
In the next few years the French embarked on an ambitious policy of intervening directly in the internal affairs of Indian states to ensure that rulers favourable to themselves were installed in power. The British had no choice but to respond in kind, and a struggle for influence developed in south-east India. This led to full-scale war between British and French land and sea forces, a part of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) between those countries which was fought on a world-wide scale. Superior naval power was decisive in giving the British control of the sea lanes between European and India, and with them the sources of supply. On land the British set about building up an army manned by Indian troops, but armed, organized and trained along European lines. At the battles of Plassey (1757) and Wandawash (1760) this army inflicted decisive defeats on Indian and French foes, and secured de facto control over important areas around Madras, in south-eastern India, and more importantly over the large and wealthy province of Bengal. These two areas, plus the important trading centre of Bombay, on the west coast, provided the bases for future expansion.
It was the Indian army which the British had brought into being which effectively conquered India for them. Their gains in the Seven Years’ War were formalized in 1765 by the Mughal emperor’s confirmation of their tax-raising privileges (and therefore effective political control over) Bengal.
In a long series of wars, the British expanded their areas of direct rule, and also brought increasing numbers of local rulers into alliance with them. This enabled them to control an ever-expanding portion of the Indian subcontinent without committing vast administrative resources to governing them. This also made overall British control more palatable to the Indian population.
A Great Rebellion and its aftermath
By 1849 the British controlled the whole of the subcontinent. Within less than a decade they almost lost it again. In 1857 a great rebellion broke out, first as a mutiny amongst Indian troops in the army but soon spreading to the civilian population as well. Bitter fighting ended in the collapse of the rebellion, but the British had been badly shaken by the experience. This led to major reforms. Hitherto, the anachronistic situation had been allowed to continue whereby the East india Company ran British interests in India. Although this was under the supervision of the British parliament, the Company was blamed for allowing the rebellion to break out, and its rule of India was formally terminated in 1858. In the process, the Mughal Empire was also formally ended. Parliament took direct control over India, and began to build up an efficient administration of the subcontinent.
British rule in India lasted for almost another century, and came to an end in 1947. In that year the independent nations of India and Pakistan (divided into West Pakistan and East Pakistan) came into existence.
[This article will be expanded to include a much more detailed treatment of the rise and nature of British rule in India, and of the emergence of the nationalist movements which led to independence.]