British Imperialism in India

The ideological origins of the British India had a rather interesting source. Many British intellectuals of the time held the view that Indian people needed enlightenment and progress and the way to provide it would begin with colonization. Such eminent philosophers like John Stuart Mill voiced similar opinions.

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It was believed that, though Britain suffered substantial economic loss and political disadvantages in governing India, progress and the general happiness of Indian people is facilitated under British rule than when they were governed by their native kings. Thus, if only the benefits which the Indians would gain from British rule were taken into account, it was desirable for the British to rule the Indians.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the East India Company’s inauguration in India was one of the most significant commercial events. The East India Company’s trade was built on the lure of Indian produce. India offered foreigners the skills of its craftsmen in “weaving cloth and winding raw silk, agricultural products for export, such as sugar, the indigo dye or opium, and the services of substantial merchants and rich bankers”. During the 17th century, the effective rule of the Mughal emperors throughout much of the subcontinent provided security for trade to flourish.

However, by the end of the century, the Company was militarily active through out India and rapidly extending elsewhere. British involvement in India during the 18th century is comprised of two stages, one ending and the other beginning at mid-century. In the early part of the century, the British were a trading presence at certain points along the coast. But from the 1750s they began to wage war on land in eastern and south-eastern India and to reap the reward of successful warfare, which was the exercise of political power, most notably over the affluent province of Bengal. By the end of the century British rule had expanded from Ganges valley to Delhi and over most of the peninsula of southern India. By this time the British had established a ruthless dominance that would enable them in subsequent years to subdue all the remaining Indian states by either conquering them or forcing their rulers to become subordinates.

What opinion in Britain came to recognize as a new British empire in India remained under the authority of the East India Company, even if the importance of the national concerns now involved meant that the Company had to submit to increasingly close supervision by the British crown and to frequent inquiries by the parliament. In India, the governors of the Company’s commercial settlements became governors of provinces and, although the East India Company continued to trade, many of its servants became administrators in the new British regimes. Large armies were created, largely composed of Indian soldiers but with some regular British regiments. These armies were used to defend the Company’s territories, to coerce neighboring Indian states and to crush any potential internal uprising.

“The British East India Company was probably the most successful chapter in the British Empire’s history as it was responsible for the colonization of the Indian subcontinent, which would become the British Empire’s largest source of revenue, along with the conquest of Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Malaya (which was also one of the largest sources of revenue) and other surrounding Asian countries, and were thus responsible for establishing Britain’s Asian empire, the most important component of the British Empire.” (Bailey)

Meanwhile, the political climate in India was changing rapidly. The Mughal empire had collapsed and was being replaced by a variety of regional states, though this did not produce a situation of anarchy and chaos. Some of the regional states maintained stable rule and there was no marked overall economic decline in most of India. There were, however, conflicts within some of the new states. Contestants for power in certain coastal states were willing to seek British support for their ambitions and the British were only too willing to give it. To an extent, they acted on behalf of their companies.

“By the 1740s rivalry between the British and the French, who were late comers to Indian trade, was becoming acute. In southern India the British and the French allied with opposed political factions within the successor states to the Mughals to extract gains for their own companies and to weaken the position of their opponents. Private ambitions were also involved. Great personal rewards were promised to the European commanders who succeeded in placing their Indian clients on the thrones for which they were contending.” (Frykenberg)

The Company’s rule practically came to an end exactly 100 years after its conquest since 1757, when in 1857 the Indian Mutiny took place, known to many Indians as the “First War of Independence”, where many of the Company’s Indian soldiers were armed against their British commanders, after a period of political unrest triggered by a number of political events. One of the pivotal factors was the introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle, which used animal-fat lubricants. Eating cow fat was prohibited for the Hindu soldiers, while pig fat was forbidden for the Muslim soldiers. Although it was insisted that neither cow fat nor pig fat was being used, the rumour circulated and many soldiers refused to follow their orders and use the weapons.

Another important event was the execution of the Indian soldier Mangal Pandey who was hanged for attacking and wounding his British superiors, possibly out of insult for the introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle and similar reasons.

In May 1857 soldiers of the army of Bengal revolted against their British officers, and marched on Delhi. Their mutiny encouraged rebellion by considerable numbers of Indian civilians in a broad belt of northern and central India – roughly from Delhi in the west to Benares in the east. For the following months the British presence in this area was reduced to beleaguered garrisons, until forces started their counter-offensives that had restored imperial authority by 1858.

British public was quite shocked by the scale of the uprising and by the loss of life on both sides, which involved the massacre by the rebels of captured Europeans, including women and children, and the ruthless killing of Indian soldiers and civilians by the avenging British armies. This inevitably resulted in much self-examination, out of which emerged an explanation of these terrible events. This explanation has exercised a powerful influence over opinion in Britain for the decades to come.

It goes like this: Indians were perceived to have been a deeply conservative people whose traditions and ways of life had been disregarded and disrespected by their British rulers. Reforms, laws, advancement of technology, even Christianity, had been forced upon them. They found these deeply offensive and had no option but to resist them with violence.

“These factors combined with a number of other reasons resulted in the Mutiny, which eventually brought about the end of the British East India Company’s regime in India, and instead led to 90 years of direct rule of the Indian subcontinent by Britain, after the British East India Company was dissolved. The period of direct British rule in India was known as the British Raj, when the regions now known as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar would collectively be known as British India.”(Minault)

Now, the British accepted from the department of finance and of war from their predecessors, but they completely neglected the area of public works. Hence agriculture started to deteriorate. The oppressive effect of this neglect of agriculture, bad as it is, could not be looked upon as the final blow dealt to Indian society by the British intruder, had it not been attended by a situation of quite different significance. However volatile the political aspect of India’s past may appear, its social condition had remained unaltered since its remotest antiquity, until the first decennium of the 19th century. The hand-loomers spinning the wheel and producing their regular myriads of spinners and weavers, were the defining members of that society.



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