World History 2 85 - 6.2.2 British Influence in India

After their victory in the Seven Years’ War, the British focused on expanding their control in India. In 1757, the forces of the British East India Company led by Robert Clive defeated the ruler of Bengal, a region in northeast India, who had favored the French. The British East India Company’s victory left it in control of territory larger than the island of Britain itself. Four years later, the capture of Pondicherry by the British effectively removed the French from contention in the competition to dominate Indian trade. After 1761, the Indigenous peoples of India provided the only significant source of resistance.

In 1764, British and Indian forces under the command of the British East India Company defeated a much larger army led by the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II at Buxar. After Buxar, the Mughals retained control of territory in northern and western India but effectively surrendered governance of much of southern and eastern India to the British East India Company. This included awarding the British East India Company the right to collect taxes in Bengal in 1765. The immense wealth gained from tax collection enabled the Company to further dominate India. Forces under the leadership of the Company defeated the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India by 1799 and the central Indian Maratha Empire by 1818 (Figure 6.13).

Two maps of India are shown. Map a is labeled “1765.” “British East India Company control” is highlighted blue. This includes a square shaped region in east India and a small thin rectangular region along the coast in the middle of eastern India. “Hindu control” is highlighted green and includes two small oval areas in the north, a triangular area in the east, a large area in the middle of India, and a very small thin sliver at the southern tip of India. “Muslim control” is highlighted orange and includes an upside down “V” shape in the north, a minute oval area in the middle, and an hourglass shape in the south of India. Map (b) is labeled “1805.” “British East India Company control” is highlighted blue. This includes a square shaped region in east India which extends west in a thin area toward the north as well as a long thin rectangular region along the coast starting in the middle of the country extending down to the southern tip. “Hindu control” is highlighted green and includes a large upside down “V” shape throughout most of the country, a triangular area in the east. and a very small thin oval area at the southern tip of India. “Muslim control” is highlighted orange and includes a thin long area in the northwest, a square shape in the north, a minute oval area in the middle, and an oval shape in the south of India.
Figure 6.13 These maps of India show (in blue) the area dominated by the British East India Company in 1765 (a) and the even larger area it controlled in 1805 (b). (attribution a and b: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Britain and the British East India Company both benefited economically from their colonial control of India. When investors founded the company in 1600, they initially focused on trading in spices. As spices decreased in price and profit, however, the Company turned its attention to textiles produced by highly skilled Indian artisans. Finally, when the value of hand-woven fabric began decreasing in the early nineteenth century, the company pivoted to trading Indian-produced opium for Chinese-grown tea, which became an increasingly valuable consumer good in the late eighteenth century.

The British East India Company typically engaged in indirect rule, a system in which colonial powers cooperated with Indigenous elites and allowed local leaders to exercise some authority. In exchange for British support of their power, Indian elites upheld the company’s foreign and economic policies. Most importantly, they ensured a steady flow of taxes and soldiers from the Indigenous people to the British East India Company. Indian soldiers, called sepoys, who were often led by British officers, defended British territory in India and enforced British laws (Figure 6.14).

A painting shows a dark-skinned and barefoot man and woman standing on a blue floor with green grasses on a white field behind and blue clouds above. The woman on the left wears a white cloth with red trim wrapped around her body, with her arms and part of her stomach exposed, her black hair up in a side bun, and jewelry around her neck and on her head. Her left arm is extended out to the man. He wears a red military coat with black and white trim, white tassels on his shoulders, short white pants with black and white trim, and a black hat with gold trim. He has a black moustache and is carrying a musket rifle.
Figure 6.14 A Hindu sepoy of the Madras Native Infantry and his wife, shown in a watercolor painting made on paper by an unknown army artist in about 1810. (credit: “Sepoy of Madras Native Infantry and his wife” by National Army Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The system of indirect rule often worked within existing power structures, providing British support for elites that had already long ruled India. However, in areas where Indigenous rulers opposed colonization, the British disrupted traditional practices, removed elites who refused to cooperate, and administered those areas directly. British rule led to conflicts within Indian society, with many Indigenous communities divided between people who wanted to cooperate with the British and those who supported a series of rebellions against foreign domination. Indians who opposed the British were further divided between those who supported violent resistance and those who believed peaceful resistance was more promising.

In 1813, as a result of pressure exerted by religious interests on the British Parliament, the British East India Company allowed missionaries limited access to India. This was a reversal of the Company’s longstanding policy of banning Christian missionaries for fear their activities would lead to unrest that would disrupt trade. The new policy pleased nobody and led to an unlikely alliance among British Christians and Indian Muslims and Hindus, who agreed on very little other than that the British East India Company should not rule India. British Christians opposed the East India Company’s rule because of its stance on missionary activity. Indian Muslims and Hindus opposed the Company’s rule because they wished to govern themselves.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax