about British rule in India
The rule of the British in India
is possibly the most controversial and the most hotly debated
aspect of the history of the British empire. Admirers of British
rule point to the economic developments, the legal and administrative
system, the fact that India became the centre of world politics.
Critics of British rule generally point out that all of these
benefits went to a tiny British ruling class and the majority
of Indians gained little. Admirers of British rule counter
this by saying that most Indians were poor and oppressed by
their own leaders before the British arrived, and that British
rule was less harsh on ordinary Indians than rule by Indian
Perhaps the main reason why the
arguments are so heated and so complex is that India was very
different from the other territories that made up the empire.
North America and Australia, for example, were sparsely populated
and their populations were less economically developed than
Britain. India, however, had a huge population and was just
as developed as Britain in the 1700s when the British arrived.
The British were able to take control
of India mainly because India was not united. The British
signed treaties and made military and trading alliances with
many of the independent states that made up India. The British
were very effective at infiltrating these states and gradually
taking control. They often left the local princes in charge
of the various parts of India. These local princes were effective
at maintaining British rule and gained much from being loyal
to the British.
|The largest rebellion against British
rule took place in 1857-58. It was known in Britain as the Indian
Mutiny. This was because it began with a rebellion by Indian
troops (sepoys) serving in the army of the British East India
Company. British rule in India was handled by the East India
Company. Indian historians dislike the term 'mutiny' because
it suggests that only Indian troops were involved. In fact,
once some of the Indian troops did revolt, the rebellion against
British rule spread rapidly and involved many local Indian leaders
who had a wide range of complaints against British rule. The
British preferred to think of the rebellion as a mutiny because
this word disguised the huge scale of the rebellion. The word
mutiny also covered up the involvement of ordinary Indians.
The British preferred to keep this quiet as it suggested that
British rule was not widely accepted in India.
||Telegram alerting the
British government to the outbreak of rebellion in India in
(By permission of the
|The rebellion lasted about 18 months.
It was brutal and vicious. The rebels committed many atrocities.
They were, however, disunited and badly organised. Gradually
British troops, along with the forces of Indian rulers who sided
with the British, overcame them. There is a lot of evidence
that the great majority of ordinary Indian peasants tried as
hard as they could to stay out of the rebellion. They thought
(probably rightly) that their lives would change little if they
were ruled by the British or by the Indian leaders who were
trying to get rid of the British. Eventually the British forces
defeated the rebels. Their revenge was just as vicious as the
rebels had been, and the British and their allies committed
many atrocities. The rebellion/mutiny left a lasting legacy
of mistrust, fear and hatred between the British and Indians,
which continued throughout the British time in charge of India.
After the rebellion the British government took direct control
of India away from the East India Company. You can find out
more about the rebellion by looking at case study 4 in this
British rule from the time after
the mutiny is often called the Raj. During this period a tiny
number of British officials and troops (about 20,000 in all)
ruled over 300 million Indians. This was often seen as evidence
that most Indians accepted and even approved of British rule.
There is no doubt that Britain could not have controlled India
without the co-operation of Indian princes and local leaders,
as well as huge numbers of Indian troops, police officers,
civil servants etc.
Other historians point out that
British rule of India was maintained by the fact that Indian
society was so divided that it could not unite against the
British. In fact, the British encouraged these divisions.
The better-off classes were educated in English schools. They
served in the British army or in the civil service. They effectively
joined the British to rule their poorer fellow Indians. There
are huge arguments about whether the British created or enlarged
these divisions in Indian society (British society was deeply
divided by class), or whether the British simply took advantage
of divisions that were already present in Indian society.
For much of the 1800s the average Indian peasant had no more
say in the way he or she was ruled than did the average worker
in the United Kingdom.
The British view tended to portray
British rule as a charitable exercise - they suffered India's
environment (eg climate, diseases) in order to bring to India
good government and economic development (eg railways, irrigation,
medicine). Modern admirers of British rule also note these
Other historians point out that
ruling India brought huge benefits to Britain. India's huge
population made it an attractive market for British industry.
In the 1880s, for example, about 20% of Britain's total exports
went to India. By 1910 these exports were worth £137 million.
India also exported huge quantities of goods to Britain, especially
tea, which was drunk or exported on from Britain to other
countries. Then there were the human resources. The Indian
army was probably Britain's single greatest resource. Around
40% of India's wealth was spent on the army. This army was
used by Britain all over the world, including the wars in
South Africa in 1899-1902 and the First and Second World Wars.
It was the backbone of the power of the British empire. In
1901, for example, the British viceroy (governor) of India,
Lord Curzon, said 'As long as we rule India, we are the greatest
power in the world. If we lose it we shall straightway drop
to a third rate power'.
||Indian troops at Portsmouth
in 1882 waiting to be shipped to Egypt to tackle a rebellion
against British rule. The British relied heavily on Indian troops
to enforce their military power.
(Catalogue ref: COPY 1/59 f.371)
Did India gain or lose from British
rule? Some recent research suggests that British rule did
little for India in economic terms. Britain gained hugely
from ruling India, but most of the wealth created was not
invested back into the country. For example, from 1860 to
about 1920, economic growth in India was very slow - much
slower than in Britain or America. India's population only
grew by about 1% per year, which also suggests there was not
much economic growth. India actually started importing food
under British rule, because Indians were growing 'cash crops'
like cotton and tea to be sent to Britain.
It is extremely important not to
forget the terrible famines that devastated India. These were
partly the result of weather, but partly caused by British
policies. Food shortages came about because Indians were growing
cash crops. When famine struck in 1876-77 and 1899-1900 the
British system of government was completely overwhelmed and
could not organise a big enough relief effort. As well as
these massive famines, there were many other smaller, more
On the other hand, research suggests
that from about 1870 to 1930 Britain took about 1% of India's
wealth per year. This was much less than the French, Dutch
and Germans took from their lands. The British invested about
£400 million in the same period. They brought in an irrigation
programme, which increased the amount of land available for
farming by 8 times. They developed a coal industry, which
had not existed before. Public health and life expectancy
increased under British rule, mainly due to improved water
supplies and the introduction of quinine treatment against
Big landowners, Indian princes, the Indian middle classes
all gained in terms of job opportunities, business opportunities
and careers in areas like the law. Ordinary Indians gained
little, but the argument still continues about whether British
rule made much difference to their lives. Many historians
think that the majority of Indians would have remained poor
even if they had been ruled by Indians.