The Beginning of British Rule in IndiaAbout the same time that the English had begun to settle in North America, in the latter half of the sixteenth century, they had also begun to turn their interest to the opposite side of the world. Released by the defeat of the Spanish Armada from the threat to the peace and security of their own islands, and having no strength left, for the moment, to be tempted to seize some of Spain’s empire from her, they turned instinctively to trade and adventure, and equally instinctively began to look for both in the east as well as the west.
England’s contact with India may be said to have begun when, in 1583, a certain Ralph Fitch, with three companions, set out for the Far East by the overland route. So many years passed without any news of them that they were given up for lost. Then one day in 1591 Ralph Fitch came home again, and the tale he had to tell would not have shamed Scheherazade.
By way of the Euphrates and the Persian Gulf, he had come at last to Goa, where the Portuguese had long ago staked a claim. Arrested as a spy, he had been cast into prison there, and had only been released by the intervention of an English Jesuit resident. He had then visited the court of the Mogul at Agra, and the story he told of the riches of this country caused great excitement in the City of London.
Such great excitement, in fact, that before 1591 passed into 1592, the City merchants had despatched three vessels to do trade with the Far East. Only one survived, and reached Malaya, where it took on a cargo of pepper and spices to a resale value of one million pounds.
On the way home, she was swept by contrary winds across the Atlantic to Hispaniola and Labrador, but in 1593, battered, with half her rigging missing and a mere handful of survivors, who had put off their Captain, James Lancaster, they knew not where, she limped into Plymouth. It was not until the following year that a French vessel put Captain Lancaster ashore at Rye.
Despite the hazards this expedition had encountered, it had nevertheless proved an important point, such voyages to the Far East were feasible. Over the next two years or so, the City merchants laid their plans for establishing Far Eastern trade on a regular basis, and on 31 December, 1600, Elizabeth I granted a charter to “The Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies”.
First experiences did not hold out the prospect of a long life for the East India Company. With the traditional caution of the City merchants, since the uncertainties of any expedition required to voyage many thousands of miles were so great, the members of the Company wound up their accounts after each voyage and returned all the capital, plus profits, to the investors. This practice led to considerable confusion as soon as permanent agents began to be established in the East, yet it was persisted in until 1657, when the Company raised a permanent capital, and became a joint-stock concern in the modern sense.
The dominant desire of the members of the East India Company was to trade, and though they knew that sometimes, in order to trade successfully, their servants would have to fight, they wanted as little fighting as possible. When applying for their charter, they had told the Lord Treasurer of their resolve “not to employ any gentlemen in any place of charge. We wish to be allowed to sorte our business with men of our own qualitye lest the suspicion of the employmt of gentlemen being taken hold of by the generalitie do dryve a great number of the Adventurers to withdraw their contributions.”
The founders of the Company, therefore, had no designs on India. They had formed it to trade in spices in the East Indies, the archipelago of islands off the south-east coast of Asia. It was force majeure which was to compel them, very reluctantly, to turn their first attentions to the subcontinent.
Six years before the Company had been formed, the Dutch had begun trading with the islands, but their United East India Company was not the private concern that the English company was. It received such heavy official backing that it was virtually a department of State. Already much weaker than their Dutch rivals, the Company’s position was weakened further still when, in 1619, James I compelled the Company to accept a treaty with the Dutch whereby the English while having to contribute a third of the cost of the civil and military administrations of the islands, were allowed only one-third of the value of the trading carried on by the Dutch.
A clash of interests such as this was bound to lead to a physical clash, despite the English Company’s pacific intentions. It came to a head in February, 1623, when the Dutch governor at Amboyna in the Moluccas suddenly seized the eighteen English agents resident there, accused them of conspiring to seize the islands and executed ten of them in the presence of the native population.
The massacre of Amboyna went far towards founding the British Empire in India, for it brought to an end English trade with the Spice Islands, since the Company felt itself incapable of defending itself against such perfidy. Within two years, it had abandoned all activity in the farthest East, and was concentrating on India.
In India, the principal rivals, and obstacles, to trade were the Portuguese, who had been firmly established in Goa, and on the Malabar coast, and had been in possession of Ceylon for many years. At this time they were aiming to secure a monoply of Indian trade with Europe and with the Far East. So here, too, the Company had to be prepared to see its servants fight, for, as much as they disliked it, trade could be had on no other terms.
A dozen years before the abandonment of the Spice Islands’ trade, the Company’s representatives had already been challenging the Portuguese in India, and had had some success. In 1612, the Mogul governor of Surat, in acknowledgment of the English victory over the Portuguese after a prolonged struggle within his jurisdiction, had granted permission for the setting up of the first English trading-post in the dominions of the Great Mogul. This was the beginning of the collapse of the Portuguese empire.
A year earlier, an equally significant event had also occurred. An English factory had been established at Masulipatam, halfway up the eastern coast, and from Masulipatam, much against the wishes of the Company’s directors, Francis Day had acquired for his employers the sovereignty of a strip of land in Madras. Here Day built Fort George, the first fortified factory in India.
Despite these mettlesome activities of its servants and the indisputable fact that India was a rich field to cultivate, the Company was not prepared to take responsibility for developing English influence in India, and for about a quarter of a century it gave almost no effective support to its agents. Underlying this strange state of affairs was really a difference of opinion among the Company’s members as to what form the Company should take. The differences might never have been resolved had not Cromwell stepped in and as a result of his inquiries into its affairs decreed that the Company’s monopoly should be maintained. Though historians in the past, and too many still in the present, have overlooked the fact, the next thirty years, the era of Charles II, was seminal in the history of India. For at the beginning of this period we find the resident in Surat is the local manager of a trading company, while at the end of it he is President of Bombay, head of an executive government, with law courts, a standing army, and a system of taxation.
The first event in this process was a new charter granted in 1661, which added to the old privileges a wider jurisdiction over all Englishmen in the East, and new powers to raise troops and maintain fortifications. The first intention of this charter was to enable the Company to defend itself more effectively against its European rivals. Nevertheless, Charles began to entrust the instruments of government to the merchants.
In 1668 the king handed over to the Company, for a rent of £10 a year, the Crown colony of Bombay, which had come to him as part of the dowry of his Portuguese wife, but which had proved terribly costly to administer. Against all the signs to the contrary, the merchants “believed in” Bombay’s future. They fortified it, and in ten years its population rose from ten to sixty thousand.
A change was now beginning to come over the Indian scene. The great Mogul Empire was showing signs of disintegration. Up to now, the English merchants had reckoned on trading within the peace kept by the native rulers and had no thought of administration or government. But the growing ineffectualness of that rule made it necessary for the merchants to protect themselves, and this was the first step towards involvement in empire building.
The period of this development was one of relentless struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. Only the strength of Puritan resistance could probably have performed the apparently impossible. Take, for example, the obstinacy of Job Charnock, the Bengal agent.
In his territory the Company needed a port, and Charnock established one at the mouth of the River Ganges. In 1687 he was compelled by the Mogul’s soldiers to evacuate it; before the end of the year he was back, only to be forced to leave again the following year. Again he returned, in 1690, and this time was determined to stay for good. And he did. In 1697 Fort William was built there, and from it rose Calcutta, where, for the first time, the Company possessed rights of justice and police over the native population.
But other developments were also taking place in India which were to become part and parcel of a struggle which was to be fought out in Europe and North America a century later.
In the mid-i66os, the French East India Company had entered the field and had leased factories at Pondicherry, south of Madras, and at Chandernagore in Bengal. They were permitted to fortify their factories and to maintain a handful of soldiers for what were practically police purposes.
The leading French figure here was Francois Dupleix. Realizing to the full the disintegration of the Mogul Empire and the instability of the Mohammedan dynasties, Dupleix conceived the idea of establishing supreme French influence at the courts of the native rulers thus making the French masters of India. Before he could achieve this, however, the British had to be suppressed.
Unfortunately for Dupleix, he lacked the necessary sea-power. A simple duel between the French and the British actually in India might, and probably would, have resulted in a French victory. Sea-power turned the scales completely, because it enabled the British to recover from the effects of defeat while making it impossible for the French to do likewise. Therefore, instead of the French suppressing the British, the British suppressed the French.
The headquarters of the French and British were at Madras and Pondicherry respectively, both situated in the Carnatic, a vast province where the Nawab was a lieutenant of the Nizam of the Deccan. The declaration of war between the French and British in 1744 provided Dupleix with his opportunity. Having previously secured the favour of the Nawab, in 1746 he attacked the British and captured Madras. His progress was temporarily checked in 1748, when the treaty of peace compelled him to restore Madras to the British. But then a new way was opened when the succession both to the Nawab and the Nizam fell into dispute. Dupleix supported two of the claimants; the British the other two.
The French and their candidates seemed on the point of victory when the tables were turned by the brilliant achievements of Robert Clive. Peace in 1754 left the battle drawn, with the French candidate on the Nizam’s throne and the British candidate on the Nawab’s.
The outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1757 renewed the combat, and this time the British victory was complete. After 1763 the Nawab of the Carnatic was their puppet, and South India was divided between four powers, the British, the Nizam, the military state of Mysore just founded by the Mohammedan adventurer Haidar, and the Mahrattas. The rapidly expanding power of the last was utterly crushed at the third battle of Panipat by the Afghan ruler, Ahmed Shah.
In the meanwhile the British had in effect acquired a new dominion in Bengal as well as in the south. In Calcutta the local native potentate, Suraj-ud-Dowlah, shut up one hundred and twenty British residents in a small room in such conditions that all died. As a result of this outrage, known to history as the Black Hole of Calcutta, Clive was sent to Bengal with a punitive expedition. His sensational victory at Plassey on 23 June, 1757, made him the responsible master of Bengal, with complete control over the new ruler who was set up in the place of Suraj-ud-Dowlah. The position was regularized in 1765 when the Mogul, still the nominal sovereign of India, recognized the British as administrators of the province, while the Nawab of the neighbouring province of Oudh became their protege and dependant.
British ascendancy dates from Plassey, but the whole area under definite British control down to 1790 comprised only one-eighth of India. The authority of the British was vested in the East India Company, a trading concern without experience in political administration.
The home government awoke to some sense of its responsibilities and Lord North’s Regulating Act of 1773 devised an experimental system, under which it became the task of the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, not to extend the dominion, but to maintain the existing position. In the face of enormous difficulties, Hastings succeeded in this tremendous task and left India in 1785, having laid the foundations of the administrative system in Bengal upon which the structure of the British government in India was afterwards built up. But his rule had shown the necessity, first, for greatly increasing the freedom of action of the Governor-General, and, secondly, for the assumption of ultimate responsibility by the imperial government at home.
The result was characteristically British, a compromise, which though logically indefensible, was practically successful. Pitt’s India Act of 1784 appointed the Governor-General as the choice of the home government, and gave him general instructions, but at the same time authority to act on his own judgment.
By this time there were two aggressive native powers. Tippoo, the Sultan of Mysore in the south, and the Mahrattas in central India. And behind them loomed the fear of the recrudescence of the power of France in alliance with the enemies of the British. Tippoo forced war on Lord Cornwallis, and had part of his territories annexed as a result in 1792. But this did not deter Tippoo, who was finally quelled by Wellesley in 1799, when more territory was annexed, and Mysore was taken under British protection.
Wellesley developed the system of subsidiary alliances. He saw the necessity, if India were to survive, for a paramount power able to prevent aggression and enforce order. That power must naturally be British. He therefore pressed upon the native rulers the substitution of a protecting force under British control for huge native levies. At the same time, the Mogul, the supreme native ruler, was taken under British protection, and the British Government assumed his sovereign authority.
The decisive struggle with the Mahrattas came under the rule of Lord Moira (1813-1822), and the outcome was the transference of the Peshwa’s dominions to direct British control. The north-west still remained untouched, but there was a short and sharp conflict with the Gurkhas of Nepal, which resulted in a large cession of territory and the permanent establishment of friendly relations with the Gurkha kingdom. A deliberate challenge from Burma in 1823 led to the first annexations of territory in what was called Farther India in 1826.
The next twenty years, following upon Moira’s rule, saw no further expansion. Fear of French aggression was replaced by fear of a Russian advance through central Asia, and suspicion that the Amir of Afghanistan was intriguing with the Russians led Lord Auckland’s government to depose him in 1839 and to restore the ruler he had ejected. The reinstated Amir was supported by a British force at Kabul, until in 1843 the Afghans rose, cut up the British who were retreating under an ignominious capitulation, and forced them into a campaign which ended, admittedly, in the defeat of the Afghans, but also showed that the British had made an error of judgment in reinstating their supposed protege. So they deposed him, and put back on the throne the man whom they had deprived of it. Dost Mohammed now proved himself a loyal ally.
In 1839, the great Sikh Maharajah, Ranjit Singh, who had built up the powerful Punjab state, died, leaving an army full of confidence but with no controlling head. In 1845 it crossed the Sutlej and invaded British territory. A bloody campaign ended in the defeat of the Sikhs, but in 1848 a second war broke out, and after further fierce battles the Punjab was annexed in 1849.
Lord Dalhousie, the current Governor-General, having annexed Lower Burma, as the result of a second challenge from that quarter in 1852, then hit upon a means of extending British rule. Convinced that every expansion was for India’s good, he introduced the legal doctrine that when a territory was left without a legitimate heir, the territory lapsed to the paramount power. By these means, when Dalhousie retired in 1856 British rule had been extended to something like two-thirds of all Indian territory. The conquest had been achieved by troops which were for the greater part non-European. In the army of the East India Company, theoretically the Lord paramount of India, the Queen’s regiments and the Company’s own regiments were in 1856 outnumbered five to one by native regiments, though European officers commanded the latter.
Wherever British administration was established, order followed and general benefits accrued. But often a lack of sympathetic intelligence caused British methods to run violently counter to Hindu sentiments of immemorial sacredness, while the Mohammedans, dominant before the British ascendancy, resented their changed status, and the Mahrattas, too, were equally resentful.
Though on the surface all was well, under it doubts and questionings, hopes and fears were seething. In particular a fanatical group of Mohammedans were dreaming of a Mogul restoration, while Nana Sahib, the Mahratta Peshwa, nursed a bitter grudge against the British Government.
This state of affairs culminated in the Indian Mutiny, a stupendous event which brought home to the British people the anomalous character of their rule in India and the necessity of assuming national responsibility for her welfare. The East India Company was therefore wound up and the control of India formally transferred to the British Crown.
A period of active development now began. In 1860 the penal code originally drawn up by Lord Macaulay in 1837 was adopted, and in 1861 the Indian Councils Act, giving seats to Indians on the Governor-General’s Executive Council, marked the first step in the closer association of Indians with the machinery of government. The opening up of the resources of the country was fostered by the extension of the railways and roads, and by further irrigation works.
The visit of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, in 1875 was the occasion of remarkable demonstrations of loyalty to the Crown, and in the following year the Queen’s favourite minister, Benjamin Disraeli, devised a title for his beloved sovereign, and she became Empress of India, a title which was retained by her successors until it was surrendered in 1947, with the end of British rule.
Between 1876 and the latter date, the Indian Government filled the role of a benevolent despot. It was highly efficient and under it India achieved a greater degree of well-being and rate of progress than would have been the case had the British, or any other European power, not welded the many governments under one central authority.
Clearly, however, a civilization as old as India, whose people had once been powerful, and, after their fashion, independent, would not for ever be content to remain under foreign tutelage. The first signs of nationalism made their appearance under the great Vice-royalty of Lord Curzon between 1899 and 1905, and over the next half-century they increased, until it was evident, when the Second World War ended, that British rule in India must soon end, too. In 1947, C. R. Attlee, the British Prime Minister, appointed Lord Mountbatten to be Viceroy with the express purpose of bringing British rule to a close as quickly as possible. This was actually accomplished within seven months.
By 15 August, 1947, the British had completed their withdrawal and on the same day, amid celebrations in India and London, two new dominions, of India and Pakistan, were proclaimed. British rule in India had ended.
A progression over three and a half centuries had culminated in that very rare event in international affairs, an occupying power voluntarily relinquishing its suzerainty over another country. Though the association of Britain with India had been marked, at any rate up to the middle of the nineteenth century, by a full share of strife, nevertheless unlike many occupying powers she brought to the sub-continent a standard of impartial justice and a tradition of incorruptibility in civil administration unmatched anywhere else in the world.
The fact that India and Pakistan elected to remain within the Commonwealth after independence, and that their civil services and judicial systems remained modelled on the British pattern, is a tribute to the enlightenment of British policy.