(BRITISH IMPERIALISM and ASIA, to 1900 – continued)

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BRITISH IMPERIALISM and ASIA, to 1900 (2 of 9)

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The British in India, to 1820

The island of Bombay had been a desolate place that Britain's Charles II had acquired when he married a Portuguese princess in 1662. Later it was held by Britain's East India Company. And the company also became established in the Indian province of Madras and it had a trading center at Masulipatam (Machilipatam). But the base in India for the East India Company was on the eastern side of the sub-continent, at Calcutta. In 1690, Calcutta had been a village sixty miles upriver in the Ganges delta, with access by ship to the high seas. There the company had been close to textile producers who took their goods overland to Calcutta. In 1717 the Mughal emperor, Farukh-siyar (1713-19), granted the company duty-free trading rights in exchange for three thousand Rupees. By 1735, Calcutta's population had risen to 100,000 and Calcutta had become a thriving commercial port.

In the 1700s in India, factional rivalries and warfare within the ruling Mughal dynasty were fragmenting its Islamic empire. Mughal rule remained around Delhi, and in the east a Mughal prince, Siraj-ud-Daula, in April 1756, succeeded to the throne of a piece of the old empire.

Robert Clive

Robert Clive, the first British governor of Bengal

A few weeks after taking power he demanded that the British destroy their fortifications at Calcutta – a part of his domain. The British refused. Siraj-ud-Daula marched a small army with elephants against the British. His troops imprisoned the British in what has been described as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Two months later news reached the British in Madras that 146 British men had been imprisoned and that only half of them had emerged alive the next day, the rest having suffocated. Scholarship has concluded that the story was an exaggeration, and there is some doubt that Siraj-ud-Daula was responsible for it. Nevertheless, from Madras the British sent an expedition of redcoats – British regulars – led by Robert Clive, a military officer belonging to the East India Company. Clive and the redcoats recaptured Calcutta on January 1, 1757, and the war continued.

Allied with the East India Company in Calcutta had been Hindu bankers. The bankers found security in Britain's support for free enterprise and rights of private property. Among them was India's wealthiest banker, Jagat Seth. He supported a pretender to power, Mir Jafar, to replace Siraj-ud-Daula. Some of the 50,000 or so troops on the side of Siraj-ud-Daula were paid not to fight, and the East India Company's force of 800 redcoats and 2000 Indians (Indians fighting with the British called Sepoys) defeated Siraj-ud-Daula at the Battle of Plassey. A week later, Robert Clive led Mir Jafar to the throne, and, a few days after that, Siraj-ud-Daula's body was found floating in a river.

The East India Company became the power behind the throne in Bengal, and it began taking responsibility for collecting taxes and maintaining law and order in Calcutta and from Bihar in the northwest to Orissa in the southwest. Company men bullied their way into dominating the trading of salt, opium, tobacco, timber and in boat building. The nominal ruler, Mir Jaffer, demanded some limits on commercial activities by company men, and the company described him as unfit to govern and had him replaced. Eventually, his replacement, Mir Kasim, tried to acquire independence from company rule, and, in 1763, a war was fought against his supporters, won by the company, and the company expanded its controls northwest along the Ganges River to the city of Petna.

Late in 1769 the monsoon rains were inadequate, leaving Bengal without grain. Famine appeared in 1770, taking the lives of an estimated one-third of Bengal's peasantry. The company had stored grain for itself, its military and servants, and some of it was sold to the populace at inflated prices, producing fortunes for a few, while some people in the area were reduced to cannibalism.

Some were getting rich, but the company itself was financially burdened, partly from the cost of maintaining its military force. Britain's parliament intervened in 1773, passing an act that put the company back on its feet financially while giving parliament greater control over the affairs of the company and placing British affairs in India under the administration of a governor-general.

India during and following the Napoleonic Wars

The British and French had been in competition in slave trading on the west coast of Africa, in sugar trading in the Caribbean and regarding cotton and silk in India. And they had been confronting each other in the Ohio River Valley in North America. That confrontation was part of the Seven Years' War (1756-63) that included fighting between the two in India as well as in Europe.

The French lost that war. Its enclaves in India were reduced and no longer a competitive challenge to the British. But soon the French allied themselves with a sultan in India hostile to the British. This was Sultan Tipu of Mysore, who had come to power in 1782. In 1789 he invaded the nearby state of Travancore (on the southeastern tip of the sub-continent) expecting help from the French that did not arrive – the French having been distracted by their revolution. Travancore had allied itself with the British, and war between Sultan Tipu and the British followed – the Third Mysore War. That war ended in 1792 with a British victory, and Sultan Tipu forced to cede a small portion of his territory, Malabar, to British control.

In May 1798, Napoleon and his troops crossed the sea from France to Egypt. The British feared Napoleon's forces going as far as India. Tipu allied himself again with the French and began organizing for another war. The British, aware of Tipu's alliance, asked him about it, were unsatisfied with his response and attacked – the Fourth Mysore War, fought in 1799. Tipu died at the head of his troops, and the British took control of Mysore, restoring the rule of an old Hindu royal family to a center portion of Mysore, with whom the British made a subsidiary alliance – an alliance in which the kingdom was dependent upon the British for its security.

Lord Richard Wellesley

Lord Richard Wellesley

Britain's governor-general in India since 1798, Richard ley, thought well of subsidiary alliances. The many independent Hindu kingdoms north of Mysore remained hostile to the British and to East India Company impositions. These were kingdoms of Marathi speakers. In a confederation, the Maratha (or Mahratta) kingdoms had become India's foremost power – having expanded against the weakened Mughal empire to their north.

During Britain's war against Napoleon, the Maratha powers allied themselves with Napoleonic France. The British exploited rivalries among the Maratha, and they defeated them. Why the smaller force on Britain's side was able to do this has been of considerable interest. The historian Max Boot has addressed the question. Boot writes of Indians saying it would have been otherwise if Indian peasants hadn't been willing to serve in European armies, if only Indian princes hadn't allied themselves with the British against their rivals, if only "a spirit of nationalism had prevailed over narrow caste and clan loyalties." Armies of the major states in India such as Mysore, Bengal and the Maratha Confederacy, Boot points out, always outnumbered "the tiny European forces sent to subdue them," but the Indians lost, not because of the character of the individual Indian soldier but because of reasons that were historical and cultural.

The individual Indian soldier had the same capacity to be a capable soldier as a Brit. The problem for the Maratha kingdoms was their armies were "resolutely traditional." Some had firearms but some were still using bows and arrows. The Marathas had a "dysfunctional command structure." At the Battle of Assaye the Maratha kingdoms had no single commander "whose orders were binding on all" and "the Maratha chieftains often would act at cross purposes in battle."

Also, writes Boot, "...the Marathas were handicapped by a lack of officers and NCOs schooled in the new way of fighting... Even it they had had more officers school in Western tactics, however, overall control still would have been exercised by tribal chiefs who were more influenced by reading chicken entrails than by reading any treatise on strategy."

Modernizing a traditional tribal force was not a simple matter. It required an administrative apparatus with members chosen at least partly on merit, people who perform their duties without the nepotism practiced by the Marathas and other tribal rulers. Boot continues:

Moreover, staying abreast of the latest development in military technology requires a certain amount of intellectual freedom and scientific inquiry, which would have been incompatible with the absolute rule of the Maratha nobility. Filling up the ranks requires arming and educating commoners, whose docility the nobles had always taken for granted. Above all, what was needed was an openness to new ideas and a willingness to evolve beyond old ways of doing things, something that would have been anathema to the Marathas, whose lives were governed by the ways of their ancestors. note39

After the Maratha was of 1802-05

The British left the Maratha kingdoms independent – easier, perhaps, than attempting an extension of rule and with a greater appeal to hearts and minds. The British ended their alliance with those Maratha princes who had sided with them. But British power remained a shadow over the kingdoms, and the princes who had fought the British felt their power to be in limbo.

Many Maratha soldiers turned to looting, and political anarchy and banditry spread across India and into territory dominated by the East India Company. The British augmented their force in India, recruiting Indians and creating an army of 200,000. With this force, the company was able to suppress disorder across India, including a few isolated uprisings. A unified rising against the British would have destroyed the British presence in India, but the British were careful not to aggravate the Indians to an extent that they would unify. Trying to avoid increasing hostility toward them, the British chose not to tamper with the rituals and customs of the Hindus, and they tried keeping taxes lower than what Indian rulers before them had demanded.

In 1813, Britain's parliament renewed the East India Company's charter but placed more government control over the company and abolished most of its trading monopolies within India – to the pleasure of other British business interests. The company had been against the arrival of Christian missionaries, fearing that missionaries would annoy the Indians, and parliament forced the company to allow a few Christian missionaries into restricted areas in India.

In 1814-15 the British in India fought a war against expansion by Nepalese Gurkhas out of the Himalayan mountains. A treaty was signed with the Nepalese in 1815, and ratified in 1816, depriving the Nepalese of their newly acquired territory. The Nepalese agreed to a British residence at Katmandu, and the British recognized Nepal as an independent nation.

In 1817, the British joined the Maratha kingdom of Nagpur into its system of subsidiary alliances, and on the day the alliance was signed, the British residence at Poona (Pune) was sacked and burned. Another Anglo-Maratha war erupted, with a force of 27,000 men attacking a British force of 2,800 at Khirki or Kirkee (now Khadki), a few miles north of Poona. With superior weapons and artillery the British force put the Maratha force to flight. Other risings against the British occurred among the Maratha. The British won again, the war ending in 1819 with the British annexing Maratha territory.

The war with Napoleon was over, and in Britain, people saw the success of their countrymen in India not as aggression but as a noble enterprise – the overcoming of mischief, poor governance and an evil obstruction to honest trade. The British had also outlawed slave trading across the high seas and their warships had begun patrolling against such trade. Looking at India they disapproved of infanticide, the caste system and the suicide of Hindu widows – suttee. But in time and with tranquility under British domination, some believed, the people of India would be amenable to reason and morality.

Meanwhile, Christian evangelists in India were having little success. Unlike the barbarian kings converted by Christian missionaries in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, the Muslims and Hindus of India had a rich intellectual tradition and were to cling to those traditions – the Hindus as stubbornly as they had against the Islamic incursions of previous centuries.


Copyright © 2002-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.