So the East India Company was formed in 1600 to undo the humiliation English merchants had felt in Asia. Queen Elizabeth I gave the Company a royal charter on England’s trade with Asia and from then on, the Company zealously protected its monopoly.
My high school British History teachers stressed how progressive Imperial Britain had been in India. Undoubtedly the Indians wanted to run their own country, uninvaded by military or corporate raiders. But the teachers could give wonderful examples about British railways systems were built, British laws legislated, economies developed, irrigation systems installed and young Indian women protected. All in all, it was a civilising mission accomplished.
Then I read India Conquered, where the author Jon Wilson suggested that far from rescuing India from chaos, the British caused it. Even on legal issues, the British didn’t manage to reform and universalise personal law, leaving a confused tangle of property legislation that impeded modern commercial relations. With nothing to replace them, periods of food-price inflation led to the deaths of millions of Indians.
Charter granted to the East India Company,
Critics argued that the Company was actually protecting its own corporate power and status, not Britain’s commercial relationship. The Company’s aggressive approach created a tense relationship with Indian merchants and political leaders. Its officers hid behind the walls of forts and military garrisons whenever they could. Negotiations were short; force resolved difficult situations.
The first major clash began in 1686, when Company officials were anxious that a] the Mughal empire wasn’t letting them trade without paying taxes and b] the Mughals were collaborating with private English traders to flout the Company’s monopoly. So war was declared on the Mughal empire. A fleet of 19 ships and six army companies was sent to liberate the English. But the Company’s ships were scattered by bad navigation and they were easily defeated by the Mughal military at Bombay.
By 1710 the Mughal empire practical power had begun to fragment. But until the early-mid C18th, India’s political system was powerful enough to defend against the Company. Violent events in 1720 could have led to the British conquest of Kerala, had the East India Co. not been embroiled in bigger battles elsewhere. A fleet and a small army sailed down from Bombay to take revenge, and land was “conquered from the natives”. But the fight in Kerala was quickly abandoned. In 1721 the British ships and troops were needed to defend Bombay against the Marathas of Maharashtra state.
Prince of Wales on a tiger hunt in India, 1875
As noted by my history teachers, the standard view of Britain’s empire in India emphasised its control, stability, success and the rational pursuit of profit. After all this story had been recorded by the empire’s governors and generals, after they returned to Britain.
The reality was that British actions were messy and chaotic. The Persian ruler Nader Shah invaded India in 1739, overthrowing the Mughals and stripping their treasuries. The invasion provoked conflict in the capitals of India and sent bands of warlords to ransack the country side.
Company forces led by Robert Clive sailed from Madras to a battlefield north of the Company’s base at Calcutta, and defeated the army of Bengal’s nawab Siraj ud Daula in Oct 1756. Then the Battle of Plassey, in June 1757, was the most important event that led to the Company’s conquest of India. It pitted 3,000 soldiers of the British East India Co. against the 5,000-strong army of the young Nawab of Bengal and his allies. When the Company refused to back down, the nawab marched, driving the British from Calcutta. After Calcutta was retaken and Siraj signed a peace treaty granting all they demanded, the British marched to depose the Nawab! British trade and honour were protected by violence; Robert Clive, perhaps an unstable sociopath, became known as the Conqueror of India.
The British replaced Siraj on the throne with the more compliant Mir Jafar. But always paranoid about Indian actions, trust broke down again. Allies became antagonists and the British began to assert power more widely. Mir Jafar was blamed and ousted, apparently because conquest didn’t lead to quick profits. But Bengal’s wealth was rapidly draining into Britain, while its prosperous weavers and artisans were coerced like slaves by their new masters.
Maharaja Bhupendra Singh of Patiala, 1911
In April 1857, the north Indian city where the Commissioner of Meerut was stationed became the heart of the greatest-ever insurrection against Britain anywhere in the British empire. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, much of north India was ruled by leaders hostile to the Company. Atrocities happened on both sides, but the last days of the Rebellion were so brutal, Indian Delhi and Lucknow were destroyed. The British massacres of rebel sepoys and unarmed citizens were war crimes.
The days of the British Raj in India were numbered. After 1858 the Company was abolished and Queen Victoria was proclaimed India’s direct sovereign. British power was exerted through law courts and public works, railway timetables and codes of law, not just military violence. Yet imperial power was still limited and messy.
The British finally left India in 1947.
Readers might like to read India Conquered: Britain's Raj and the Chaos of Empire, by Jon Wilson, Simon & Schuster, 2016. Also The Tears of the Rajas by Ferdinand Mount, Simon & Schuster, 2016.