The British East India Company began trading with the Indian subcontinent in the 1600s and, by the beginning of the 18th century, had established trading bases at coastal points, including Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. The main goods traded were cotton, sugar, indigo and opium.
The Mughal emperors who dominated much of the subcontinent supported the Company, but by the 1740s the Mughal Empire was beginning to fracture and several rival groups allied themselves to the British or French in the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 50s. The British, under the command of Robert Clive, ended up in control of a large swathe of territory, including Bengal, Northern Circars, Goa and Madras. In 1765 the Mughal emperor, defeated by East India Company troops was forced to dismiss his own revenue officials, who were replaced by English traders appointed by the new governor of Bengal, Robert Clive. From this point on the East India Company, assisted by its own private army, collected Mughal taxes.
As the East India Company grew it recruited guards and watchmen to protect its possessions scattered around India. This group evolved into field armies that were then organized under its three ‘presidencies’, Bengal, Bombay and Madras, hence the Bengal Army, Bombay Army and Madras Army. In 1748 these were all placed under the command of Major General Stringer Lawrence, the first commander in chief, and regarded as the father of the Indian Army.
Expansion and Control
By 1778 the East India Company’s army numbered 67,000. With such a force the Company could, and did, fight a number of wars to enhance its territorial holdings and offer protection to weaker Indian states. It also had the naval capacity to defeat its European rivals. But the British government became increasingly concerned by the conduct of the Company, especially in the treatment of the peoples falling under its control. Various regulations were passed by Parliament in 1773, 1784, 1786 and 1793, all aimed at some kind of responsible order in the Company’s operations. By 1795 one-fifth of the world’s population came under its trading influence, although the majority of the sub-continent’s territory was still dominated by the Maratha Confederacy, a conglomeration of warrior rulers, whose empire dated back to 1674. In 1775 the East India Company had intervened in a family succession struggle in Pune, leading to the First Anglo-Maratha War, and Maratha victory. The stage was set for further conflict.
Between 1806 and 1826 the East India Company continued its policy of expansion and control in India. After the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814 the Company annexed Kumaon and Garhwal , together with a collection of small states formerly allied to the Maratha Confederacy. In 1817 a large Company army invaded Maratha territory and, after a series of swift victories, the Maratha leaders were defeated, including the forces of Pieshwa Baji Rao II, the last ruler of the Maratha Empire. This left the Company in control of Central India and Maratha’s independence ended in 1818. Meanwhile, Rajputana accepted British suzerainty in 1817, Cutch followed in 1818, and Baroda in 1819. In 1823 a trade dispute with the Burmese Empire led to the First Anglo-Burmese War, which resulted in the Company gaining control of Assam, Manipur and Tenasserim. The Company, despite setbacks – including mutinies by Indian sepoy soldiers at Vellore in 1806 and at Barrackpore in 1824 – had managed to exploit the situation in India to its advantage. By 1825 total number of soldiers serving in the British Indian Army was around 200,000 men.
Ruling by Consent
The East India Company’s policy was to maintain direct and indirect control through agreements with local rulers. Two-thirds of India was occupied by puppet rulers who retained titular power but accepted the Company’s suzerainty. Through subsidiary alliances, protection against other regional powers was provided in return for payment and nominal British control. However, the situation relating to control was always subject to review; for instance Mysore came under direct British rule in 1836, which continued until 1881 when it reverted to the control of a local ruler. In 1833, the St Helena Act extended the royal charter granted to the East India Company for 20 years. The British parliament ended the commercial activities of the Company, which became a purely administrative body, the agent for the British administration of India; the Company’s monopoly on the China trade was terminated. The Governor-General of Bengal was designated the Governor-General of India and his executive council was granted exclusive legislative power for the whole of India. In 1836 the North-Western Provinces were established, made up of ceded and conquered provinces now under direct British rule. In 1837 the Post Office Act gave the government the exclusive right to convey letters within the territories of the East India Company.
The period 1839 to 1857 was, as far as the East India Company was concerned, a frantic time of empire-building. The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42) saw a British defeat, followed by a terrible retribution and a return to the status quo. The annexation of Sind (1843) was announced in General Napier’s laconic telegram to the Governor-General, saying simply “Peccavi”, Latin for “I have sinned”. The First Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46) resulted in the ceding of Kashmir to the British. The second Anglo-Sikh War (1848–49) led to the annexation of Punjab in 1849. Following the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852–53) the province of Pegu was annexed and renamed Lower Burma. The cost of this expansion to the Company was huge and had little or no benefit for the increasing number of people under the Company’s rule. The wars of expansion were fought by the Company’s three Presidency armies (Bengal, Bombay and Madras), made up mainly of locally recruited sepoy soldiers who were increasingly required to fight far from their familiar home regions. This demand took them as far east as Burma and as far west as Yemen in south Arabia, where the Company had occupied the port of Aden in 1838–39 to secure the route to India. Resentment built up among the common soldiers, which would be the undoing of the East India Company’s rule in India.
Tensions finally erupted on 10 May 1857 amongst Indian sepoys who revolted against British command in Meerut. This had a domino effect. Sepoy military units travelled around their bases and towns killing British officers and civilians, even taking the fort at Delhi. The revolts were mostly concentrated in northern India and attracted prominent pro-independence Indian activists. On 25 June, after resisting the mutineers for three weeks, 800 Kanpur British soldiers and civilians were massacred, after a promise of safe-passage. This brutality hardened British attitudes. By early 1858, British forces had successfully suppressed conflict in most areas, including crushing several southern revolts.
The Indian Empire
After the rebellion was defeated and many scores settled, the British government ended Company rule on behalf on the British Crown. The Government of India Act initiated a period of direct rule. India became known as the Indian Empire in 1876, when Queen Victoria became Empress of India. From 1858 onwards the increasingly unwieldy presidencies were broken up into more manageable provinces. By the turn of the 20th century India under the British Raj comprised eight major provinces, each administered by a Governor or Lieutenant-Governor and a few minor provinces administered by a Chief Commissioner. The settlement of Aden was a dependency of the Bombay Presidency from 1839–1932.The ‘minor’ provinces of Burma, which had come under British rule between 1824 and 1852, were consolidated into the ‘major’ province of Burma, following the Third Anglo-Burmese War and annexation of Upper Burma in 1885. In 1897 Burma became a Lieutenant-Governorship, with its capital at Rangoon.
The new Raj was created around a greater respect for Indian tradition and increased involvement of Indians in local and regional administration, while the upper layers of government remained in British hands. From 1931 a new capital, founded at New Delhi, took over from Calcutta. It was here that much of the politics of the last decades of the Raj were played out. The rising tide for Indian independence within the Indian National Congress, led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, would eventually lead to full independence in 1947, ending the Raj.