Colonialism 15th - 18th Century

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[Colonialism and The Raj] [Colonialism 15th-18th Century] [Colonialism 19th-20th Century]


1492 -- Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria  about 100 tons, about 70 feet long, about 40 crew.  Columbus left Spain in August 1492 and landed in Cuba in October --  less than 2 months later.

1498 -- Vasco da Gama first European voyage to India ship dimensions??
1498 --Vasco da Gama's epic journey took eleven months

1620 -- Mayflower --"Pilgrim Ship" to America. ~ 180 tons, carried 192 passengers and xx crew, 90 feet long, took 65 days from Plymouth England to America
1812 EastIndiaman between 800 and 1200 tons, similar to ships used by Blanchette and Roberts to sail to India.  Journey took 5 months. Ships carried about 400 heads

15th Century -- Spain and Portugal

In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal, the two Atlantic facing continental powers, were the two major European countries with monarchs interested in funding a direct route to the Indies.  Christian Spaniards had been deeply influenced by Muslim cartography and philosophy and were eager to outflank the Muslims and deal directly with the riches of the "Indies" via a sea route. 

 Mediterranean Europe had worked out profitable trading relationships with the Muslims who controlled the overland trade with China and the Indian Ocean, and saw little reason to rock the boat.

In 1492 the King of Spain funded the Italian navigator Columbus.  Columbus traveling West, convinced that the world globe was smaller than it actually was, stumbled onto what we call today the “West Indies”.  He claimed the land for the King of Spain who had bankrolled him, took some Indians as slaves and returned home with them.  He died years later still convinced he had discovered a western route to Cathay and the Indies. 

Meanwhile, financed and encouraged by their King, Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese were creeping down the West coast of Africa attempting to find an Eastern route to the Indies. 

Five years later, in 1498 Portuguese sailors traveling East, found their way around the southern tip of Africa to the west coast of India and the fabled “Indies” (Vasco da Gama 1498),

16th Century --England enters the Race

By the mid 1500’s Spain’s conquistadors had conquered and enslaved the indigenous empires of Central and South America and had set up a Spanish Empire in the interior of the New World.  By the late 1500’s massive quantities of gold and silver had been flowing from the Americas into Europe via Spain for nearly half a century—exciting the envy of other European countries.

The Portuguese used a different pattern in the East.  They were a nation of only a million people, and in the “Indies” they faced more sophisticated and larger indigenous civilizations than did the Spaniards in the West. 

Within a few years of Vasco da Gama’s trip to the Indies, Albuquerque, the Portuguese admiral, set up small Portuguese armed enclaves along the sparsely inhabited Coromandel coast of India, and in certain of the islands of the Indonesian archipelago.  These “forts” were the entry and exit points for goods acquired by trade and piracy, not by conquest.  Portuguese strategy was to control the East Indies trade by controlling the sea lanes to Europe and the major ports of the East.  They were able to do this for close to 150 years before the Dutch and British and French forced them out beginning in the 17th century.  (Good short overview article on European Domination of the Indian Ocean Trade here.)

In the same year that Queen Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII came to the British throne (1508) the Indian city of Goa became the fortified capital of these Portuguese holdings.  By the mid 1500’s spices, perfumes and gems traded for European gold and silver were flowing from India, the Indian Ocean and the Spice Islands through these trading posts, into Europe via Portugal.   The treasure of the Americas began to finance Europe, and provided the gold for the spices and textiles of the East. 

In 1508 when Henry VIII came to the throne, Britain was a relatively poor, minor Catholic power on the fringes of the Renaissance civilizations of Europe. 

When Henry died (1547) he had divorced the King of Spain’s daughter, broken with the Pope, appointed himself head of the Church of England and, to aid a near bankrupt treasury, had closed the English monasteries and appropriated their wealth   Not surprisingly, these actions caused a serious rift between Catholic Spain and Portugal on the one hand and Protestant England on the other.   

Elizabeth 1 came to the throne in 1558. She inherited an England with no standing army and a depleted treasury.  Her major asset was a relatively strong and confident navy built by her father, and an island nation "whose rocky shores beat back the siege of watery Neptune".  Britain's island geography defended it from the Spanish Armada in the 16th century, from Napoleon and the French in the 18th century, and from Hitler and Germany in the 20th.

This island nation of 5 million people, was smaller, poorer and far less formidable than her chief adversary Spain, Europe’s then most powerful nation.  Nevertheless in 1588, during her reign, the British navy and the British weather defeated an attempted invasion of England by the “invincible” Spanish Armada. 

This surprising victory opened a crack in the Spanish and Portuguese monopolies of the treasure routes to America and the Indian Ocean.  Elizabeth, short of money, “chartered” English pirates like Drake and Hawkins to harass and plunder Spanish and Portuguese ships and to trade in slaves.  Her price was a share of their plunder.


Queen Elizabeth 1 as a young girl.  When she died in 1603 England had become a major European power challenging the Spanish and Portuguese Empires.  It was Queen Elizabeth who began the English slave trade, encouraged exploration, chartered the HEIC, hired "privateers" and laid the groundwork for England's colonies which laid the foundations of Empire.
1562 --English African Atlantic Slave trade starts
1612  English HEIC ships defeat Portuguese ships off coast of Surat, India -- impresses Moghuls, helps HEIC trade in India
By 1650 HEIC had several installations scattered along the coast of India
By 1700 the HEIC had developed large trading stations (factories) at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay with attendant armies of native troops (sepoys) commanded by Europeans.  
17th Century

England, India and the "Honorable East India Company"

In 1592, four years after the rout of the Armada, a full century after Columbus’ landing in the New World, and Vasco da Gama’s voyage to the Indian Ocean, an English pirate (a “privateer”) xxx captured a Portuguese ship off the Azores islands on its way back home from Asia.

The Madre de Deus was brought to the port of Dartmouth; 165 feet in length with a beam of forty-five feet and some 1600 hundred tons, she was the largest ship Elizabethan England had ever seen. Beneath her hatches was a cargo of jewels, cloth, ebony and spices with an estimated value of half a million pounds sterling or about half the total holdings of the Crown's Exchequer at the time. This fabulous haul not only created a sensation, it gave England's merchants a firsthand glimpse of the wealthy trade they were missing out on. 

To put this ship in perspective: the “Marquis of Wellington” which brought Thomas Blanchett to India two hundred years later, weighed in at 910 tons with a  length of about xx feet.  Columbus largest ship weighed about 100 tons and was about 80 feet long.  The largest "EastIndiaman" built in the early 19th century was rated at about 1500 tons.  The "Stratheden" on which I returned to England displaced 24,000 tons.

English Merchants agitated for a chance to compete for this wealth until at last, on the last day of 1600, 

"for the honor of the nation, the wealth of the peoples, The increase of  navigation and the advancement of lawfulle traffic,"

Elizabeth chartered the Honorable East India Company (HEIC) to trade in the "Indies".    It was later granted the right by James 1 to “acquire territory, coin money, maintain armies and forts, form foreign alliances, declare war, conclude peace, and try and punish law breakers”. 

There is an excellent series of recent articles on the HEIC here and an older summary piece from the Encyclopedia Britannica on the British Empire here.

We are the direct descendants of Roberts and Blanchett, the British soldiers who were sent out to India in 1800, two hundred years after the founding of HEIC,  “to declare war and conclude peace” on  behalf of the merchants of the HEIC.

The first HEIC trading post, known as a station or factory, was set up at Surat on the West Coast of India (Bombay Presidency) around 1612 and the second at Fort St. George (Madras Presidency) 1640.  The mouth of the Ganges was known as Kallikati (Calcutta) and here Fort William was established around 1665.

These three factories in time developed to become the three HEIC "Presidencies" of India, each controlling the ever-growing areas around them. Thomas Blanchett fought for the "Bengal Presidency" in the HEIC army known as the "Bengal Europeans".

Until 1813 the Company had a complete (British) monopoly of all trade east of the Cape of Good Hope across to Cape Horn, that is all of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.  Until 1813 no British subject could go to India without the permission of the HEIC or live there without a license granted by them.  In 1813 HEIC lost its monopoly after which independent British traders and missionaries began flooding into India. 

HEIC influence spread all over the East with Fort Marlborough (Bencoolen) being established in Sumatra. Other HEIC factories were at the Prince of Wales Island (Penang), Singapore, Malacca, Java, Borneo, Celebes, Siam (Thailand), Persia (Iran) and the Persian Gulf, Macao and Whampoa (China). St Helena was settled by the East India Company in 1659 and was held and administered by them until the island was handed over to the Crown in 1836.  Napoleon was incarcerated in an HEIC property.  He was guarded by the same British regiment which was home to Robert Roberts.

The Dutch East India Company was chartered in Holland at roughly the same time as the HEIC and had the same objectives as the HEIC.  Through the (often armed) three way competition between the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, during the 17th century, the Portuguese were gradually defeated, the Dutch took control of Indonesia and Ceylon, and the British became the main contestants for primacy in India. 

Portugal maintained its toehold on the Indian mainland by retaining Goa.  It remained a Portuguese possession until the 1960’s long after the British and the Blanchettes had left.  It was “liberated” when Indira Gandhi’s Indian army expelled the Portuguese by force in 1961.

1757 -- Battle of Plassey.  British merchants take control of East India (Bengal).  HEIC begins to expand control of India through force and bribery


Indian Sepoy 1795.  These are the Indian soldiers who fought alongside Blanchett and Roberts. They were used by the HEIC to conquer India, and later by the British Government to expand the Empire and fight in European wars. 
From 1780 until the "Mutiny" of 1857 control of India rested with a "Joint Venture" between the British Government and the HEIC.  During this time the "Governor General" was an unchecked dictator.
In 1805 Roberts and in 1817 Blanchette go to India to fight in wars of HEIC expansion  The major wars are listed here: 1757 - 1947 -- Chronology of "The Raj"
1810 onwards -- Roberts and later Blanchette marry in India and their descendants begin to raise families.  Cornwallis proclamations eliminates them from military and most other jobs in India 


18th Century

India and Britain and France

The rival French East Indies Company, “Compagnie des Indes”, was established in the 18th century and succeeded the Dutch as HEIC’s chief rival in India. During much of the 18th century Britain and France battled for domination in India by using Indian proxies.

In 1757 HEIC backed Indian forces under Robert Clive defeated the French backed Indian forces at the definitive battle of Plassey in Bengal. This victory together with the victory at Buxar in 1760, made the HEIC the unacknowledged rulers of Bengal.    Despite Napoleons later ambitions about India, France never recovered from this defeat and became a minor player on the Indian stage.

HEIC installed their puppet Mir Qassam as ruler of Bengal.  Qassam gave HEIC the right to collect tax money and HEIC employees accepted "gifts" and collected taxes as "official" tax collectors for Bengal.  The money was retained mostly by individual Englishmen while the HEIC and Bengal suffered.  Chaos ensued for the next two decades while Englishmen plundered Bengal, and HEIC faced bankruptcy. 

In 1770-72 nearly a third of the Bengali population died of famine while Englishmen were repatriating millions of pounds back to England .  The number of deaths has been estimated to have been in the region of 10 million people.  

Here is a web page written by Bengalis giving a Bengali point of view.

In 1773, with the HEIC on the verge of bankruptcy, the British Government intervened to create the Bengal Governor as Governor-General of all the Company's Indian lands. Later a London Board of Control was appointed to supervise the East India Company who were charged by Parliament to continue running India.  Warren Hastings, a long time HEIC employee, became the first Governor General of India (1774-1785) and began to impose some control.  Hastings was an Indiaphile.  Like virtually all senior HEIC personnel he had lived in India most of his life, appreciated Indian culture, and supported government of Indians by Indians for everyday affairs, with ultimate authority remaining with British.  Hastings India policies faced severe criticism at home in Britain.  He resigned, was impeached, was on trial for seven years and eventually exonerated.  

Here is a BBC article on 18th Century British-India by Professor Peter Marshall

The second Governor General Lord Cornwallis --a political appointee with no Indian experience--was sent out in 1786. He was given a much freer hand than Hastings and in his tenure set the tone and laid the foundation of the British Indian Raj.  Cornwallis himself was incorruptible.  He was convinced all Indians were corrupt and incapable of governing themselves.  All government must be by Englishmen raised and hired in England.  The foundation of the separation of Britons born in Britain from the rest of Indian society, and the retention of all but the most minor government jobs for Britons born in Britain, was laid during Cornwallis regime (1780 and 1793).   .
The fourth Governor General was the Marquess of Wellesley (xxx), the older brother of Arthur Wellesley, the future Lord Wellington, the man who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.   The Wellesley brothers were determined to use India for their own advancement. Despite direct orders from the London HEIC Board,  they massively expanded the HEIC territories in India by war, bribery and treaty abrogation.

It was as a result of the Wellesley's Indian conquests that Robert Roberts and later Thomas Blanchett went to India.  Robert Roberts had joined the Royal Army and went out to India in 1805 after seeing service in the West Indies.  Roberts died in Trichinopoly while campaigning against the Pindaris during the Mahratta wars instigated by the elder Wellesley.   Thomas Blanchett joined the HEIC Bengal army as a youth of approximately 15 and went to India in 1817.  I don't yet know what campaigns he fought in.  

Here is a piece on the HEIC Bengal Army contribution to Empire and here is a Timeline of  Robert Robert's Regiment the 53rd Shropshires

On to Colonialism 19th and 20th Centuries

Table of Contents | Preface | An Indian Childhood | Genealogy | Colonialism and The Raj

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