British East India Company and Its Control over India

Introduction

British East India Company was one of the most successful establishments in the history of the Queen’s empire. It was founded on December 31, 1600. It is one of the legacies associated with Queen Elizabeth 1. The aim of the organization was to compete with Dutch East Company for the spices’ market in south and south-east Asia.1 It began as a joint-stock company between Leadenhall Street and London based investors and traders. The organization established itself in the country following the death of Jahangir. The ruler had permitted it to open an outlet in Port Surat.

The permit was granted in 1612. In 1640, the firm extended its jurisdiction. It opened another trading point in Madras. The expansion took place after the investors were granted permission by the ruler of Vijayanagara. After the collapse of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, the organization changed from a trading venture to a formidable political machine. To this end, it established its political and socio-economic control over India. It acquired a private army. As a result, it took over government and military functions.

In this paper, the author will analyze a number of economic, political, and social changes brought about by colonial rule in South Asia. The author will focus on the period between the mid-18th century and 1857. In addition, the paper will analyze the shift in the nature of the Indian state after the entry of the British. The analysis will be carried out in the context of the English East Asia Company. The company started controlling the country as a result of the political anarchy and power vacuum left behind by the decline of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century.

A Brief Historical Background of India in the 17th and 18th Centuries

To appreciate the influence of the colonialists in India, it is important to provide a historical background of this country before, during, and after the company. Towards the end of the 17th century, Aurangzeb helped India succeed in the political, economic, and social fronts. However, the seeds of the empire’s decline were planted by his acts of religious and political intolerance. For example, he expelled Hindus from public offices and destroyed their schools and temples.2 He also persecuted the Sikhs of Punjab, leading to rebellions against the Muslim rule.

In addition to his intolerant rule, Aurangzeb imposed heavy taxes on the farming population. The development resulted in economic decline and spurred the fall of the Mughal Empire. The territory declined further in 1707. The deterioration followed the demise of Aurangzeb. The rulers lost their influence to courtiers and war kings. As a result, they became mere figureheads under the control of the new rulers.

India also suffered invasions from Nadir Shah of Persia and Abdali of Afghanistan. The two empires constantly attacked Mughal’s capital, Delhi. Their regular incursions reduced Mughal’s rule to a small region around Delhi.3 The area was under the control of Maratha in 1785 and the British in 1803. The issues set the stage for the entry of the British company into the region.

The Mughal Empire in the 17th and 18th Centuries

The influence of this territory in India was relatively long-lived. In the 18th century, its power was largely dependent on Aurangzeb’s conquests. The ruler took part in many battles. His incursions led to the expansion of the territory.4 Starting in 1668, the ruler started changing various laws in the region. The aim of this extended outreach was to force non-Muslims to adhere to Islamic ideals. Jizya was reintroduced in the region. In addition, the leader criminalized various customs associated with the Hindu religion. Construction of temples for the deities was also curtailed.5 All these acts of political and religious discrimination led to constant rebellions in the empire.

Aurangzeb’s control over the region declined as his territory increased in size. The Punjab Sikhs, who were themselves, victims of constant discrimination, increased their military power and executed a number of revolts.6 In addition, the Marathas planned a series of battles against Aurangzeb. The wars lasted for 27 years. The battles weakened the military and economic power of the Mughal. Rajputs were considered to be loyal allies of Mughal. However, they also turned their back on Aurangzeb. Their decision was prompted by the ruler’s interference with their domestic affairs.

Aurangzeb’s rule came to an end with his death in 1707. More than ten thousand military officers lost their lives in different succession battles. Additional rebels and local power brokers emerged during the first three decades of the 18th century.7 They included the Rajputs, Sikhs, Nawabs, Hyderabad, and Awadh. Others were the Nawab of Bengal and the Marathas. Invasions from foreigners were also experienced in the Mughal Empire during the same period. The invaders included the Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan, and the British East India Company. The latter was stronger than all the other foreign invaders. The company ended up conquering large sections of India.

Factors that Led to the Successful Expansion of the British East India Company

When they arrived in India, the British did not have the political power needed to conquer the new country. It took them more than two hundred years to establish their influence over India. When the foreigners started interacting with their hosts, the Mughal Empire had started to crumble.8 The decline was a result of the internal problems faced by the rulers. The downfall of the Mughal Empire continued, leading to an increase in regional powers.

As a result of the collapse of the territory, the British faced less unified opposition from the locals. That gave them the much-needed room to rise to power in the subcontinent. The British did not foment the conditions that led to the fall of the Mughal Empire.9 On the contrary, they simply saw an opportunity and took advantage of it. There was a power vacuum in the region, which was made worse by internal fights among the various principals. The factors provided Britain with the opportunity needed to increase its power in India.10

The colonialists’ powerful navy also played a key role in the successful expansion of the company. In addition, the use of invalid thanks and trade agreements between the British and the Indians further enhanced these developments. Furthermore, disunity among Indian states and Britain’s superiority in relation to other colonial powers led to the firm establishment of the company. The colonials also made use of the doctrine of lapse and subsidiary alliance.11

Naval Superiority

Emperor Aurangzeb commanded a very big and strong army in India. He was able to defeat the British on land. However, he was unable to beat their offshore battalions. The foreigners retreated to the open seas after been overpowered by the imperial forces.12 That trick used to work in their favor because Aurangzeb’s army did not have a naval force. In the long term, the British agreed to pay an indemnity. They also expressed their willingness to provide security to India’s maritime investments for a fee, which was to be paid annually. When it came to matters of the sea, the Indians had no option but to seek help from the British.13 The reason is that the latter had the most dominant navy force in the area.

As the Mughal Empire crumbled, power shifted from the center to various decentralized regions. Most of the newly established territories were characterized by civil strife. The stability provided under Mughal’s Empire was absent.14 As a result, most people turned to the East India Company for security. The establishment used its army to restore political stability in those territories. It recruited its army from these jurisdictions. The situation led to the introduction of a non-agrarian way of living among the locals.

Use of Invalid Thanahs

The company used various strategies to fill the void left by the Mughal. The use of invalid Thanahs was one of the approaches adopted. Invalids were part of the native Indian community. They were individuals who had been discharged from the military for various reasons. For example, they included soldiers who had been dismissed due to disabilities. They were known as Thanahs and were grouped together. They were charged with various responsibilities, the most important one been the recruitment of young men into East India Company’s army.15

The invalids were highly rewarded for their military services to the company. That influenced and encouraged the young men to join the force. They were also seen as unique and special individuals compared to other groups in the society. The reason is because they were not subjected to military, political, and judicial laws like other members of the community.16 The participation of locals in the military is an indication of the influence of the company in the region as a result of the gap left behind by Mughal.

Fights between Indian States

The civil strife among the various territories helped the company establish itself in the region. The collapse of the Mughal led to the disintegration of some Indian states. The British company exploited these splits to further the political and economic goals of the colonialists. India was a collection of warring states that were in constant conflict with each other. The East India Company took advantage of their conflicts and played them against each other.17 Mir Jaffar, for example, betrayed his master, Siraj-Ud-Daulah. He lied to his superior that he was the Nawab. That enabled Robert Clive’s mission in Plassey to succeed.

The Doctrine of Lapse

The company found it easy to manipulate the rulers of the territories after the death of Mughal. One of the ways through which this was achieved entailed the use of treaties. For example, the colonialists discovered that it was more beneficial to sign agreements with the rulers to engage them in battles.18 It was agreed that the company could take over a territory under various circumstances.

Such instances included a situation where a ruler lacked an apparent heir at the time of their incapacitation. As a result of the agreement, the firm was able to take over Satara. It was one of the first regions to be controlled by the foreigners. In addition, the development fuelled the war in Jhansi. The doctrine lapse emerged as one of the most effective strategies used by the company to establish its rule in the country.

The Superior Nature of the British Rulers

In addition to the British, there were other colonial powers competing for the Indian resources. The others were Denmark, France, Holland, and Portugal. France was the fiercest rival that British had to deal with in the race to colonize the country. However, the latter’s battalion was more professional, organized, and better equipped than the French force.19 That enabled East India Company to defeat France in key battles, taking control of the East Coast.

Subsidiary Alliance

The alliance was a form of a treaty. Any kingdom that signed it had to abide by all the rules put in place. For example, the foreigners had the rights to establish a permanent company within the ally’s jurisdiction. In return, the colonialists were allowed to take over some part of the territory. In addition, the rulers who entered into these agreements were banned from establishing any links with their contemporaries without permit from the colonialists.20 As a result, the leaders were made to believe that they had secured their legacy in the region. However, the reality was that they had lost their freedom. They still had ‘withdrawal’ symptoms as a result of the absence of the Mughal’s protection.21 In addition, their independence was gradually taken away from them.

Conclusion

India is one of the Asian countries with a very interesting history. For example, throughout the 18th century, it was characterized by political and economic turmoil. The once powerful Mughal Empire, which had dominated the country before the 18th century, was crippled after the death of Aurangzeb. The resulting gap led to the emergence of local powers and constant invasions from neighbors, such as the Nadir Shah. British East India Company took advantage of the chaos to exercise its powers within the country.

Bibliography

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Footnotes

  1. Robert Travers, Ideology and Empire in the Eighteenth Century India: The British in Bengal (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 43.
  2. Barbara Metcalf and Thomas Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, 3rd ed, (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 22.
  3. Khan Parvej, The Mughal Empire (Delhi: Khurana Book Co., 2009), 98.
  4. Jawahar Nehru, The Discovery of India (London: Penguin, 2012), 23.
  5. Melita Waligora, “What is Your ‘Caste’?: The Classification of Indian Society as Part of the British Civilizing Mission,” in Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India, eds. Harald Fischer-Tine and Michael Mann (London: Wimbledon Publishing Company, 2004), 150.
  6. Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India (London: Penguin, 2012), 82.
  7. Prem Kishore and Anuradha Ganpati, India: An Illustrated History (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2003), 12.
  8. Nehru, The Discovery of India, 23.
  9. Christopher Bayly, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 72.
  10. Ravi Ahuja, “’The Bridge Builders’: Some Notes on Railways, Pilgrimage, and the British ‘Civilizing Mission’ in Colonial India,” In Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India, eds. Harald Fischer-Tine and Michael Mann (London: Wimbledon Publishing Company, 2004), 112.
  11. Ranjit Guha, Selected Subaltern Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 19.
  12. Bayly, Indian Society, 23.
  13. Ibid, 56.
  14. Metcalf and Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, 43.
  15. Kishore and Ganpati, India: An Illustrated History, 39.
  16. Stephen Hay, Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. 2: Modern India and Pakistan, 2nd ed (New York: Free Press, 1988), 73.
  17. Bayly, Indian Society, 88.
  18. Khilnani, The Idea of India, 12.
  19. Bose Sugata and Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, 3rd ed (London: Routledge, 2011), 34.
  20. Khilnani, The Idea of India, 34.
  21. Bayly, Indian Society, 23.