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India and the British

The East India Company

The British presence in India was heralded by the creation of the East India Company (EIC). This was the first Glossary - opens new windowjoint stock company, set up by royal charter in 1600 to trade between Britain and India. Its charter was renewed and extended under Charles II and James II.

The Glossary - opens new windowUnited East India Company, the Dutch company trading with India and the east, was already fully operational when the English entered this competitive region.

 View of Bombay by John Bowles, c. 1750 - opens new window
A View of Bombay, c.1750
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 EIC petition to King for authority to raise soldiers to serve in India - opens new window
Raising Soldiers
for India (162KB)
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For the early merchant adventurers, establishing a foothold in India was not an easy task. The East India Company did not establish its first 'factory' or permanent depot until 1619, at Surat. The opportunity for the British to expand came in 1661, when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza and as part of his dowry gained Bombay from the Portuguese.

The commercial success of the British in India was impressive, and by the 18th century the previously strong positions held by the Portuguese, Dutch and French had been undermined. The profits of the slave trade gave Britain a huge financial advantage over all its competitors. Contracts were made with Indian merchants and artisans for all kinds of luxury goods, in exchange for silver from Britain. By the 18th century, the East India Company was shipping more Indian goods to Europe than any of its rivals.

For Indian states, European settlement offered a mixture of advantages and disadvantages. Some local rulers resented the British presence, while others benefited from the coastal trade in pepper, tea and textiles.

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Controlling the East India Company

In 1773 Parliament, tired of the East India Company's abuses of power and its financial problems, passed a Regulating Act, which imposed some financial controls on the East India Company and created the new post of Governor-General of India. A few years later, in 1784, the India Act brought the Company under the direct control of the British government through a new Board of Control. This was a compromise arrangement, however, and the administration of India remained in the hands of the directors of the East India Company until 1858, when the British government took over the rule of India from the Company.


Diplomatic letter from George III  - opens new window
George III Writes to
an Indian Prince
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Clive of India

In 1757, an East India Company civil servant turned military man, Robert Clive, defeated the Glossary - opens new windowNawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey. From then on, the British presence in India grew spectacularly. From this point, the East India Company took over the administration of large parts of the country and established a direct military operation. British communities were established around the three Glossary - opens new windowpresidency towns of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Farmers were taxed off their land, and their plight became desperate when they were hit by the severe famine of 1769-70, which caused many deaths.


Précis of intelligence re French aims in East Indies, dated 12 Nov 1787 - opens new window
French and British
Rivalry in India

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Despite the fact that its revenue was increasing, the East India Company was burdened with massive expenses. Not only was military protection for Britain's trade and possessions in India extremely costly, but so too were the Glossary - opens new window'nabobs' of the East India Company themselves. They lived in self-contained Anglicised settlements and adopted the extravagant lifestyle of the Mughals, with servants at their beck and call. The nabobs were criticised back in Britain for their extravagant ways and, as a result of its financial troubles, the Company had to ask for government help.


Junkzelone - what vast profit the Honourable Company may make by settling that place - opens new window
'Junkzelone - what vast
profit the Honourable
Company may make
by settling that place' (150KB)
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Panoramic of the storming of Seringapatam (engraving)  - opens new window
Panorama of the Storming
of Seringapatam (175KB)
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Conquering India

By the end of the 18th century, Britain ruled about two-thirds of India. Its dominance was sealed by the defeat of the southern ruler Tipu Sultan, who had allied with the French to counter the power of the Glossary - opens new windowRaj. In 1799 the British took Tipu's capital, Seringapatam, thus securing the state of Mysore and ending effective French influence in India. Further conquests in the south followed until effective opposition had been quelled - at least for the present.

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Anglo-Indian relations

The Raj could not function without the cooperation of millions of Indians. Many filled the Indian army in senior ranks and as foot soldiers. Others served in the navy or the undermanned police force.

In the countryside, where most Indians lived and worked on the land, local village headmen kept the machinery of government working. According to the historian Lawrence James, they were the bedrock upon which British rule rested.

Garlanding the Bengal Light Infantry 1843 (watercolour) - opens new window
Indians Essential to the British Army
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In spite of political and economic resentment, there was a considerable amount of fraternising, at least between British men and Indian women. Recent research carried out by William Dalrymple has brought to light a period full of intermixing and cross-cultural marriages. Wills made in the 1780s show that more than a third of British men in India left their possessions to one or more Indian wives and their children. From 1830, however, in Victorian times, mixed relationships became less common.

The End of the Raj

For two centuries, the East India Company and the Indian Glossary - opens new windowRaj underpinned Britain's status as a global power and provided it with markets, the profits from which helped to build the Britain we live in today. Protest against British rule did not go away, however. A nationalist movement emerged and the struggle for self-government was successful in 1947, when India and Pakistan became independent.

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References and Further Reading

Bayly, C. A. (ed.), The Raj: Indian and the British 1600-1947 London, 1990

Chaudhuri, K. N., The English East India Company, London, 1965

Dalrymple, W., The White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India, London, 2002

James, L., Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, London, 1997

Nightingale, P., Trade and Empire in Western India 1784-1806, London, 1970

Visram, R., Asians in Britain: 400 years of History, London, 2002

Wolpert, S., A New History of India, Oxford, 1997


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