‘The Crown Jewel’ of the British Empire, tracing the origins of how the British captured and asserted her dominance over India can be slightly difficult. This is partly due to the fact that there is no obvious beginning to her rule, but a series of episodes that finally led to complete dominance.
Although the East Indian Company had been trading, somewhat peacefully, in India since the 1600’s, and allowed to establish three sovereign, but scattered, commercial bases, it was not until after 1750 that the East India Company developed more political ambitions.
The ‘beginning’ can be attributed to the British presence between 1750 and 1765 CE, when the British gained a ‘bridgehead’ in eastern India. This was partly due because military asymmetry favoured them, and partly because of the political culture and condition of India, involving the decay of the existing hegemonic power of the time. This offered the potential of power to a number of ambitious power-seekers, among them the East India Company, to take hold of a degree of autonomy for themselves and to expand their territory.
The military strength of the British, in association with local princes, allowed the British to secure greater security for trade and funds to expand commercially. Unfortunately, the British policy reduced her Indian allies to mere puppets, but this did not stop the Indian princes turning to the British. Indeed, the alliances between Robert Clive and Warren Hastings with the Indian princes, stemmed from the desire to enlist the help of the British military strength in their internal rivalries (Bryant, p.432). Due to this, the British soon gained power.
The East India Company started to create small armies at each of its presidency settlements. Initially, only white men were used a front-soldiers, but failure in procuring more men led to the recruitment of native Indian men. By the 1760’s, the Company’s soldiers were able to keep the French corralled in their trading bases.
By 1767 Robert Clive, now retired in London, decided that the Company should concentrate of infantry and limit the expansion of their political power around Bengal and Bihar in the northeast and the Carnatic in the southeast. Mughal-style armies were never able to defeat the British army’s – the elite cavalry were heavy armoured unites wielding scimitars, lances and maces (Bryant, p.436). By 1761, the French had been rendered thoroughly helpless, due to their main base at Pondicherry being captured.
In 1760, a new military power rose. Haidar Ali Khan was the first independent Indian prince to seriously reform his infantrymen. The British fought 4 wars with Haidar and his son, Tipu Sultan, between 1767 – 1799. Despite the Company’s military strength, Haidar was able to defeat them during 1767 – 1769 and then fought to a standstill in 1780 – 1783. Tipu Sultan was finally defeated and killed outside his capitol Seringapatum in 1799. A treaty was signed and the Indian kingdom utterly defeated.
It was due to the liquidation of the East India Company that allowed the British Empire to officially take control over India. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, otherwise known as the Great Mutiny (to the British) or the First War of Independence (to the Indians) caused great devastation and the disestablishment of the Company. After the Company’s suppression of the ‘Mutiny’ of 1857, the British government froze the system of indirect rule in India. No longer a means to expand British control over India’s states, this system sought largely to maintain the loyalty of the princes, and through them, the sizable populations of their states. The Government of India Act in 1858 transferred all Indian properties to the British Queen and India to be ruled under her sovereignty.
Bryant, G. J. (2004) Symmetric Warfare: The British Experience in Eighteenth-Century India, The Journal of Military History, Society for Military History.
Fisher, Michael H. (1984) Indirect Rule in the British Empire: The Foundations of the Residency System in India (1764 – 1858), Modern Asian Studies, Cambridge University Press.
Marshall, P. J (1997) British Society in India under the East India Company, Modern Asian Studies, Cambridge University Press.