At a Glance...




Black Hole of Calcutta

East India

Robert Clive

Warren Hastings

Battle of Plassey


Indian History







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See also [Mahatma Gandhi] [Quit India Movement] [Dandi March] [Hill Stations]

See additional papers and references at the end of page two

The British presence in India dates back to the early part of the seventeenth century. On 31 December 1600, Elizabeth, then the monarch of the United Kingdom, acceded to the demand of a large body of merchants that a royal charter be given to a new trading company, "The Governor and Company of Merchants of London, Trading into the East-Indies." Between 1601-13, merchants of the East India Company took twelve voyages to India, and in 1609 William Hawkins arrived at the court of Jahangir to seek permission to establish a British presence in India. Hawkins was rebuffed by Jahangir, but Sir Thomas Roe, who presented himself before the Mughal Emperor in 1617, was rather more successful. Two years later, Roe gained Jahangir's permission to build a British factory in Surat, and in 1639, this was followed by the founding of Fort St. George (Madras). Despite some setbacks, such as the Company's utter humiliation at the hands of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, with whom the Company went to war between 1688-91, the Company never really looked back.

Gateway of India, Bombay

In 1757, on account of the British victory at Plassey, where a military force led by Robert Clive defeated the forces of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah, the East India Company found itself transformed from an association of traders to rulers exercising political sovereignty over a largely unknown land and people. Less than ten years later, in 1765, the Company acquired the Diwani of Bengal, or the right to collect revenues on behalf of the Mughal Emperor, in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. The consolidation of British rule after the initial military victories fell to Warren Hastings, who did much to dispense with the fiction that the Mughal Emperor was still the sovereign to whom the Company was responsible. Hastings also set about to make the British more acquainted with Indian history, culture, and social customs; but upon his return to England, he would be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. His numerous successors, though fired by the ambition to expand British territories in India, were also faced with the task of governance. British rule was justified, in part, by the claims that the Indians required to be civilized, and that British rule would introduce in place of Oriental despotism and anarchy a reliable system of justice, the rule of law, and the notion of 'fair play'. Certain Indian social or religious practices that the British found to be abhorrent were outlawed, such as sati in 1829, and an ethic of 'improvement' was said to dictate British social policies. In the 1840s and 1850s, under the governal-generalship of Dalhousie and then Canning, more territories were absorbed into British India, either on the grounds that the native rulers were corrupt, inept, and notoriously indifferent about the welfare of their subjects, or that since the native ruler had failed to produce a biological male heir to the throne, the territory was bound to "lapse" into British India upon the death of the ruler. Such was the fate of Sambalpur (1849), Baghat (1850), Jhansi (1853), Nagpur (1854), and -- most tragically -- Awadh (1956). The Nawab of Awadh [also spelled as Oudh], Wajid Ali Shah, was especially reviled by the British as the worst specimen of the Oriental Despot, more interested in nautch girls, frivolous amusements -- kite-flying, cock-fighting, and the like -- and sheer indolence than in the difficult task of governance. The British annexation of Awadh, and the character of the Nawab, were made the subjects of an extraordinary film by Satyajit Ray, entitled The Chess Players ("Shatranj ke Khilari").

An English baby girl being carried on a palanquin by Indian bearers, on the road fo Nainital. Photograph dated 1904.

Shortly after the annexation of Awadh, the Sepoy Mutiny, more appropriately described as the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58, broke out. This was by far the greatest threat posed to the British since the beginnings of their acquisition of an empire in India in 1757, and within the space of a few weeks in May large swathes of territory in the Gangetic plains had fallen to the rebels. Atrocities were committed on both sides, and conventionally the rebellion is viewed as marking the moment when the British would always understand themselves as besieged by hostile natives, just as the Indians understood that they could not forever be held in submission. If in the early days of the Company's rule a legend was constructed around the Black Hole of Calcutta, so signifying the villainy of Indians, the Rebellion of 1857-58 gave rise to an elaborate mythography on both sides. Delhi was recaptured by British troops in late 1857, the Emperor Bahadur Shah, last of the Mughals, was put on trial for sedition and predictably convicted, and by mid-1858 the Rebellion had been entirely crushed. The East India Company was abolished, though John Stuart Mill, the Commissioner of Correspondence at India House, London, and the unacknowledged formulator of British policy with respect to the native states, furnished an elaborate but ultimately unsuccessful plea on behalf of the Company. India became a Crown colony, to be governed directly by Parliament, and henceforth responsibility for Indian affairs would fall upon a member of the British cabinet, the Secretary of State for India, while in India itself the man at the helm of affairs would continue to be the Governor-General, known otherwise in his capacity as the representative of the monarch as the Viceroy of India.

The proclamation of Queen Victoria, in which she promised that she and her officers would work for the welfare of their Indian subjects, ushered in the final phase of the British Raj. Among Indians, there were debates surrounding female education, widow remarriage, the age of consent for marriage, and more generally the status of women; and in the meanwhile, with increasing emphasis on English education, and the expansion of the government, larger numbers of Indians joined government service. There was, similarly, a considerable increase in both English-language and vernacular journalism, and in 1885 the Indian National Congress, at first an association comprised largely of lawyers and some other professionals, was founded in order that educated Indians might gain something of a voice in the governance of their own country. However, nationalist sentiments could not be confined within the parameters set by a gentlemanly organization such as the Congress, and both in Maharashtra, where the radicals were led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and in Bengal armed revolutionaries attempted to carry out a campaign of terror and assassination directed at British officials and institutions. In 1905, on the grounds that the governance of Bengal had become impossible owing to the large size of the presidency, the British partitioned Bengal, and so provoked the first major resistance to British rule and administrative policies in the aftermath of the Rebellion of 1857-58. It is during the Swadeshi movement that Indians deployed various strategies of non-violent resistance, boycott, strike and non-cooperation, and eventually the British had to agree to revoke the partition of Bengal. The partition itself had been attempted partly with a view to dividing the largely Muslim area of East Bengal from the western part of Bengal, which was predominantly Hindu, and the communalist designs of the British were clearly demonstrated as well in their encouragement of the Muslim League, a political formation that came into existence in 1907, on the supposition that the interests of the Muslims could not be served by the Indian National Congress. The capital of the country was shifted as well from Calcutta to Delhi, where a new set of official buildings designed to reflect imperial splendor led to the creation of New Delhi.

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