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1600-1858 - British East India Company

European and Indian accounts relate that in 1498, 1500 and 1502 Portuguese ships under Vasco da Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral crossed the Arabian Sea from Africa and reached the Malabar coast of southern India. The Portuguese seized Arab trading ships, looted their cargoes of Malabar black pepper and other spices, killed most of their crews, and returned with the spices to Europe. In their efforts to control the supply of spices to Europe and to control and tax inter-Asian shipping trade, the Portuguese established strategic bases for their naval fleets and trading operations along the western coast of India. During the 17th century the Portuguese Estado da India declined under increasing attack from the expanding Mughal Empire of northern India, and from the Dutch and English East India Companies. In 1632 Qasim Khan, governor of Bengal in the expanding Mughal Empire, attacked and destroyed the Portuguese settlement of Hugli, which thereafter never recovered its early importance.

The Dutch took over the most of the Portuguese trade in spices and most of their inter-Asian trade. The romance of the East India Company begins with an advertisement in the London Gazette of 1599, towards the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. As with all other enterprises of the nation, it was established by private means. The company was started with a capital of £72,000 in £50 shares. On 31 December 1600, a group of merchants who had incorporated themselves into the East India Company were given monopoly privileges on all trade with the East Indies. The adventurers bought four vessels of an average burden of three hundred and fifty tons. These were stocked with provisions, "Norwich stuffs," and other merchandise. beginning of the East India Company.

The tiny fleet sailed from Billingsgate on the 13th February, 1601. It went by the Cape of Good Hope to the East Indies, under the command of Captain James Lancaster. It took no less than sixteen months to reach the Indian Archipelago. The little fleet reached Acheen in June, 1602. The king of the territory received the visitors with courtesy, and exchanged spices with them freely. The four vessels sailed homeward, taking possession of the island of St. Helena on their way back; having been absent exactly thirty-one months. The profits of the first voyage proved to be about one hundred per cent. Such was the origin of the great East India Company, later expanded into an empire, and containing about two hundred millions of people.

The Company's ships first arrived in India, at the port of Surat, in 1608. By 1620 the English East India Company had established settlements in India along both the western and eastern coasts, and inland settlements in cities of the Mughal Empire in northwest India. Calcutta was founded in 1690 at the mouth of the Ganges and became the capital of the British Raj that dominated South Asia into the 20th century.

English company agents became familiar with Indian customs and languages, including Persian, the unifying official language under the Mughals. In many ways, the English agents of that period lived like Indians, intermarried willingly, and a large number of them never returned to their home country. The knowledge of India thus acquired and the mutual ties forged with Indian trading groups gave the English a competitive edge over other Europeans. The French commercial interest--Compagnie des Indes Orientales (East India Company, founded in 1664)--came late, but the French also established themselves in India, emulating the precedents set by their competitors as they founded their enclave at Pondicherry (Puduchcheri) on the Coramandel Coast.

The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb died in 1707, marking an end to his restrictive policies toward the Hindus. Various Hindu states were fortunate under weaker Mughal rulers to take over a very large part of the realm in the course of the 18th century. The Mughal Empire was split up at the same time, when the provincial governors in Bengal and Awadh in the east and the Deccan in the south gained de facto independence. In 1717 the Mughal emperor, Farrukh-siyar (r. 1713-19), gave the British -- who by then had already established themselves in the south and the west -- a grant of thirty-eight villages near Calcutta, acknowledging their importance to the continuity of international trade in the Bengal economy. As did the Dutch and the French, the British brought silver bullion and copper to pay for transactions, helping the smooth functioning of the Mughal revenue system and increasing the benefits to local artisans and traders. The fortified warehouses of the British brought extraterritorial status, which enabled them to administer their own civil and criminal laws and offered numerous employment opportunities as well as asylum to foreigners and Indians.

The British factories successfully competed with their rivals as their size and population grew. The original clusters of fishing villages (Madras and Calcutta) or series of islands (Bombay) became headquarters of the British administrative zones, or presidencies as they generally came to be known. The factories and their immediate environs, known as the White-town, represented the actual and symbolic preeminence of the British--in terms of their political power--as well as their cultural values and social practices; meanwhile, their Indian collaborators lived in the Black-town, separated from the factories by several kilometers.

The British company employed sepoys -- European-trained and European-led Indian soldiers -- to protect its trade, but local rulers sought their services to settle scores in regional power struggles. South India witnessed the first open confrontation between the British and the French, whose forces were led by Robert Clive and François Dupleix, respectively. Both companies desired to place their own candidate as the nawab, or ruler, of Arcot, the area around Madras.

At the end of the protracted struggle between 1744 and 1763, when the Peace of Paris was signed, the British gained an upper hand over the French and installed their man in power, supporting him further with arms and lending large sums as well. The French and the British also backed different factions in the succession struggle for Mughal viceroyalty in Bengal, but Clive intervened successfully and defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-daula in the Battle of Plassey (Palashi, about 150 kilometers north of Calcutta) in 1757.

Robert Clive's decisive victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 firmly established British supremecy in India thereby opening the door for expansion of the Honourable East India Company. Clive found help from a combination of vested interests that opposed the existing nawab: disgruntled soldiers, landholders, and influential merchants whose commercial profits were closely linked to British fortunes. Clive's victory was consolidated in 1764 at the Battle of Buxar (in Bihar), where the emperor, Shah Alam II (r. 1759-1806) , was defeated. As a result, Shah Alam was coerced to appoint the company to be the diwan (collector of revenue) for the areas of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa (this pretense of Mughal control was abandoned in 1827). The company thus became the supreme, but not the titular, power in much of the Ganges Valley, a region of roughly 25 million people with an annual revenue of 40 million rupees, and company agents continued to trade on terms highly favorable to them. Clive became the first British governor of Bengal.

The British Parliament enacted a series of laws, among which the Regulating Act of 1773 stood first, to curb the company traders' unrestrained commercial activities and to bring about some order in territories under company control. Limiting the company charter to periods of twenty years, subject to review upon renewal, the 1773 act gave the British government supervisory rights over the Bengal, Bombay, and Madras presidencies. Bengal was given preeminence over the rest because of its enormous commercial vitality and because it was the seat of British power in India (at Calcutta), whose governor was elevated to the new position of governor-general.

Warren Hastings was the first incumbent (1773-85). The Company, which had formerly been prosperous under Hastings' leadership, faced bankruptcy. As a result, the Governor-General was involved in measures for obtaining moneyt. Hastings was obliged to secure large sums of money to pay dividends to the East India Company. Hastings was directly responsible, not to the British government, but to a greedy trading company frankly interested in making money. He had great qualities, and he rendered great services to the state. But to represent him as a man of stainless virtue is to make him ridiculous.

Hastings came home in June 1785 on the natural expiration of his office. At home he was well received, but Edmund Burke, whose imagination had always been strongly drawn towards the majestic history of Hindostan, and whose hatred of oppression had been strongly fired by the accounts which had lately been received from India, gave notice that he should call attention to his conduct. When Parliament met in 1787, charges were brought against Hastings relating to the Begums of Oude. Hastings was taken into custody, but released on bail. Hastings had been honored with positions of responsibility and authority, and was charged with peculation, bribery, injustice, oppression, inhuman cruelty, tyranny, murder. And thus was begun that trial which figures so largely in the history and literature of England. Burke and his associates spent fourteen years in the preparation of their case, and for seven years Hastings was on his defense charged with "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Arrayed against Hastings and in the very height of their powers were the greatest orators of England at that time: Fox, known as the English Demosthenes, Sheridan their Hyperides, and Burke, who may very well be compared to Cicero, and to whom Cicero was ever the mightiest of ancient names. Burke and his colleagues spoiled their cause by overdoing it. The trial lasted till 1795, and ended in the acquittal of the accused on every charge, leaving him triumphant and ruined. Later students of Indian history have been inclined to regard the assaults made upon Him as excessive in their severity. If Clive made the Indian Empire possible, Hastings laid its real foundations.

The India Act of 1784, sometimes described as the "half-loaf system," as it sought to mediate between Parliament and the company directors, enhanced Parliament's control by establishing the Board of Control, whose members were selected from the cabinet. The Charter Act of 1813 recognized British moral responsibility by introducing just and humane laws in India, foreshadowing future social legislation, and outlawing a number of traditional practices such as sati and thagi (or thugee, robbery coupled with ritual murder).

As governor-general from 1786 to 1793, Charles Cornwallis (the Marquis of Cornwallis), professionalized, bureaucratized, and Europeanized the company's administration. He also outlawed private trade by company employees, separated the commercial and administrative functions, and remunerated company servants with generous graduated salaries. Because revenue collection became the company's most essential administrative function, Cornwallis made a compact with Bengali zamindars, who were perceived as the Indian counterparts to the British landed gentry. The Permanent Settlement system, also known as the zamindari system, fixed taxes in perpetuity in return for ownership of large estates; but the state was excluded from agricultural expansion, which came under the purview of the zamindars. In Madras and Bombay, however, the ryotwari (peasant) settlement system was set in motion, in which peasant cultivators had to pay annual taxes directly to the government.

Neither the zamindari nor the ryotwari systems proved effective in the long run because India was integrated into an international economic and pricing system over which it had no control, while increasing numbers of people subsisted on agriculture for lack of other employment. Millions of people involved in the heavily taxed Indian textile industry also lost their markets, as they were unable to compete successfully with cheaper textiles produced in Lancashire's mills from Indian raw materials.

Beginning with the Mayor's Court, established in 1727 for civil litigation in Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, justice in the interior came under the company's jurisdiction. In 1772 an elaborate judicial system, known as adalat , established civil and criminal jurisdictions along with a complex set of codes or rules of procedure and evidence. Both Hindu pandits and Muslim qazis (sharia court judges) were recruited to aid the presiding judges in interpreting their customary laws, but in other instances, British common and statutory laws became applicable. In extraordinary situations where none of these systems was applicable, the judges were enjoined to adjudicate on the basis of "justice, equity, and good conscience." The legal profession provided numerous opportunities for educated and talented Indians who were unable to secure positions in the company, and, as a result, Indian lawyers later dominated nationalist politics and reform movements.

India History Map - 1760 At the Time of Clive India History Map - 1765 India History Map - 1785 Departure of Hastings

The area controlled by the company expanded during the first three decades of the nineteenth century by two methods. The first was the use of subsidiary agreements (sanad) between the British and the local rulers, under which control of foreign affairs, defense, and communications was transferred from the ruler to the company and the rulers were allowed to rule as they wished (up to a limit) on other matters. This development created what came to be called the Native States, or Princely India, that is, the world of the maharaja and his Muslim counterpart the nawab. The second method was outright military conquest or direct annexation of territories; it was these areas that were properly called British India. Most of northern India was annexed by the British.

At the start of the nineteenth century, most of present-day Pakistan was under independent rulers. Sindh was ruled by the Muslim Talpur mirs (chiefs) in three small states that were annexed by the British in 1843. In Punjab, the decline of the Mughal Empire allowed the rise of the Sikhs, first as a military force and later as a political administration in Lahore. The kingdom of Lahore was at its most powerful and expansive during the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, when Sikh control was extended beyond Peshawar, and Kashmir was added to his dominions in 1819. After Ranjit Singh died in 1839, political conditions in Punjab deteriorated, and the British fought two wars with the Sikhs. The second of these wars, in 1849, saw the annexation of Punjab, including the present-day North-West Frontier Province, to the company's territories. Kashmir was transferred by sale in the Treaty of Amritsar in 1850 to the Dogra Dynasty, which ruled the area under British paramountcy until 1947.

Besides the presence of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French, there were two lesser but noteworthy colonial groups. Danish entrepreneurs established themselves at several ports on the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, in the vicinity of Calcutta and inland at Patna between 1695 and 1740. Austrian enterprises were set up in the 1720s on the vicinity of Surat in modern-day southeastern Gujarat. As with the other non-British enterprises, the Danish and Austrian enclaves were taken over by the British between 1765 and 1815.

A multiplicity of motives underlay the British penetration into India: commerce, security, and a purported moral uplift of the people. The "expansive force" of private and company trade eventually led to the conquest or annexation of territories in which spices, cotton, and opium were produced. British investors ventured into the unfamiliar interior landscape in search of opportunities that promised substantial profits. British economic penetration was aided by Indian collaborators, such as the bankers and merchants who controlled intricate credit networks. British rule in India would have been a frustrated or half-realized dream had not Indian counterparts provided connections between rural and urban centers. External threats, both real and imagined, such as the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815) and Russian expansion toward Afghanistan (in the 1830s), as well as the desire for internal stability, led to the annexation of more territory in India. Political analysts in Britain wavered initially as they were uncertain of the costs or the advantages in undertaking wars in India, but by the 1810s, as the territorial aggrandizement eventually paid off, opinion in London welcomed the absorption of new areas. Occasionally the British Parliament witnessed heated debates against expansion, but arguments justifying military operations for security reasons always won over even the most vehement critics.

The British soon forgot their own rivalry with the Portuguese and the French and permitted them to stay in their coastal enclaves, which they kept even after independence in 1947. The British, however, continued to expand vigorously well into the 1850s. A number of aggressive governors-general undertook relentless campaigns against several Hindu and Muslim rulers. Among them were Richard Colley Wellesley (1798-1805), William Pitt Amherst (1823-28), George Eden (1836-42), Edward Law (1842-44), and James Andrew Brown Ramsay (1848-56; also known as the Marquess of Dalhousie).

Despite desperate efforts at salvaging their tottering power and keeping the British at bay, many Hindu and Muslim rulers lost their territories: Mysore (1799, but later restored), the Maratha Confederacy (1818), and Punjab (1849). The British success in large measure was the result not only of their superiority in tactics and weapons but also of their ingenious relations with Indian rulers through the "subsidiary alliance" system, introduced in the early nineteenth century. Many rulers bartered away their real responsibilities by agreeing to uphold British paramountcy in India, while they retained a fictional sovereignty under the rubric of Pax Britannica. Later, Dalhousie espoused the "doctrine of lapse" and annexed outright the estates of deceased princes of Satara (1848), Udaipur (1852), Jhansi (1853), Tanjore (1853), Nagpur (1854), and Oudh (1856).

European perceptions of India, and those of the British especially, shifted from unequivocal appreciation to sweeping condemnation of India's past achievements and customs. Imbued with an ethnocentric sense of superiority, British intellectuals, including Christian missionaries, spearheaded a movement that sought to bring Western intellectual and technological innovations to Indians. Interpretations of the causes of India's cultural and spiritual "backwardness" varied, as did the solutions. Many argued that it was Europe's mission to civilize India and hold it as a trust until Indians proved themselves competent for self-rule.

The immediate consequence of this sense of superiority was to open India to more aggressive missionary activity. The contributions of three missionaries based in Serampore (a Danish enclave in Bengal) -- William Carey, Joshua Marshman, and William Ward -- remained unequaled and have provided inspiration for future generations of their successors. The missionaries translated the Bible into the vernaculars, taught company officials local languages, and, after 1813, gained permission to proselytize in the company's territories. Although the actual number of converts remained negligible, except in rare instances when entire groups embraced Christianity, such as the Nayars in the south or the Nagas in the northeast, the missionary impact on India through publishing, schools, orphanages, vocational institutions, dispensaries, and hospitals was unmistakable.

Education for the most part was left to the charge of Indians or to private agents who imparted instruction in the vernaculars. But in 1813, the British became convinced of their "duty" to awaken the Indians from intellectual slumber by exposing them to British literary traditions, earmarking a paltry sum for the cause. Controversy between two groups of Europeans--the "Orientalists" and "Anglicists"--over how the money was to be spent prevented them from formulating any consistent policy until 1835 when William Cavendish Bentinck, the governor-general from 1828 to 1835, finally broke the impasse by resolving to introduce the English language as the medium of instruction. English replaced Persian in public administration and education.

The company's education policies in the 1830s tended to reinforce existing lines of socioeconomic division in society rather than bringing general liberation from ignorance and superstition. Whereas the Hindu English-educated minority spearheaded many social and religious reforms either in direct response to government policies or in reaction to them, Muslims as a group initially failed to do so, a position they endeavored to reverse. Western-educated Hindu elites sought to rid Hinduism of its much criticized social evils: idolatry, the caste system, child marriage, and sati. Religious and social activist Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), who founded the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahma) in 1828, displayed a readiness to synthesize themes taken from Christianity, Deism, and Indian monism, while other individuals in Bombay and Madras initiated literary and debating societies that gave them a forum for open discourse. The exemplary educational attainments and skillful use of the press by these early reformers enhanced the possibility of effecting broad reforms without compromising societal values or religious practices.

The 1850s witnessed the introduction of the three "engines of social improvement" that heightened the British illusion of permanence in India. They were the railroads, the telegraph, and the uniform postal service, inaugurated during the tenure of Dalhousie as governor-general. The first railroad lines were built in 1850 from Howrah (Haora, across the Hughli River from Calcutta) inland to the coalfields at Raniganj, Bihar, a distance of 240 kilometers. In 1851 the first electric telegraph line was laid in Bengal and soon linked Agra, Bombay, Calcutta, Lahore, Varanasi, and other cities. The three different presidency or regional postal systems merged in 1854 to facilitate uniform methods of communication at an all-India level. With uniform postal rates for letters and newspapers--one-half anna and one anna, respectively (sixteen annas equalled one rupee)--communication between the rural and the metropolitan areas became easier and faster. The increased ease of communication and the opening of highways and waterways accelerated the movement of troops, the transportation of raw materials and goods to and from the interior, and the exchange of commercial information.

The railroads did not break down the social or cultural distances between various groups but tended to create new categories in travel. Separate compartments in the trains were reserved exclusively for the ruling class, separating the educated and wealthy from ordinary people. Similarly, when the Sepoy Rebellion was quelled in 1858, a British official exclaimed that "the telegraph saved India." He envisaged, of course, that British interests in India would continue indefinitely.


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Page last modified: 09-02-2017 19:32:58 ZULU