India: East India Company and Britain After the Mutiny

Colonial rule in India was established in 1818 when the East India Company entered the country and established its own rule. Exploitation occurred, but the colonial rule was based on other things besides exploitation. Historical facts and figures show that India was better governed by the East India Company before 1857 because of greater autonomy and management of separate regions; after 1857 India lost its independence and was severely exploited by the British government.

The British East India Company was established in 1600 as a trading company. The year 1818 marks a watershed in the history of British India. In that year the British dominion in India became the British dominion of India. India has unified again in a way it had not been from at least 17501. Subsequent annexations were mere additions to a whole and did not radically alter the situation. The main achievement of this period was that India was a political entity once more. The unity, it is true, was external and political only. It was the events of the next hundred years that were to transform that external bond, by a process unique in the history of India, into an organic union of minds and cultures.

The political settlement of 1818 was determined by the fortunes of the campaign against the Pindaris, which placed the Peshwa’s dominions in the Company’s hands, by the Company’s determination to secure effective control of all India up to the Sutlej, and by its equal anxiety to limit its administrative responsibilities as far as was compatible with safety2. The subsidiary treaties had been a success in binding princes to the British side and their long-term defects were not realized. The same authority which eschewed Indian agency within its own territories, therefore, welcomed it in the form of dependent states. Effective control of land was recognized as conferring a title to rule3. 1818 was the end of the Maratha Empire. Wars with Maratha between 1800 and 1803 and in 1818 led to the annexation of Delhi and the upper Ganges valley, Orissa in the east, and the Bombay hinterland. An aggressive thrust toward Kabul ended, indeed, in a spectacular defeat in 1841. The English nonetheless occupied and annexed Sind, until then Afghan territory. Two wars were waged between 1845 and 1849 against the Sikhs, originally a Hindu sect, who had established a kingdom in Punjab earlier in the century4.

Before 1857, no further territorial expansion was contemplated, either by the company or the British government. Wars cost money, and the East India Company stood on the verge of bankruptcy. But British territory gradually expanded, all the same. At this point, it may be convenient to pause and consider briefly the reason for the British success. There was of course the preliminary political collapse of India with which the British had nothing to do. At the moment that they were taking control of Bengal the central Mughal authority in Delhi was collapsing for reasons which had nothing to do with Europeans5. It was also an entirely internal struggle that decided that the Marathas should not succeed to the empty seat of authority. The initial causes of the British supremacy must therefore be attributed to local Indian forces.

The failure of Mughal leadership, the Afghan invasions, and the stalemate which followed Panipat were all part of these. Perhaps the biggest single factor in this situation was the failure of the Marathas to rise above the level of plunder and extortion to that of empire-building6. They never learned the art of sincere co-operation, of conciliating opponents, or of controlling dependents, whether they were Hindu or Muslim. The guerrilla warfare frame of mind was the result of Aurangzeb’s destruction of Sivaji’s compact and disciplined kingdom, but it deprived them of the hope of Indian leadership. Thus Charles Metcalfe emphasized the “precariousness” of the Company’s new dominion7. The ruler of Delhi, the opponent of the Peshwa who organized his territories, and the pacifier of central India all concurred in this imperialist gloom. They had all in youth been ardent members of the forward school; in the success, they saw more of the danger than the opportunities. Everywhere the British found traces of the Mughal rule, and their respect increased with their knowledge. There was, in fact, more in common between the British and the Mughals than has been generally realized. Both took a paternalist view of society8.

The aim of the East India Company was to provide a frame of security within which the general business of life could proceed. Both, therefore, emphasized law and order while abstaining from cultural or social interference. But apart from this agreement on ends, there was also a considerable community of spirit. Both groups, unlike the aristocrats of medieval Europe, were lovers of trade9. High Mughal lords indulged in it almost as freely as the early Company officials. Supreme authority in India, a subordinate of course to London, was exercised by the governor-general and his council in Calcutta. About half of British India was governed by subordinate princes; it was with the other half that the governor-general was directly concerned.

Here he had three sets of agents to enforce his will. The first was the civil service, put on a firm basis by Cornwallis and developed in the time of Wellesley into an elite body. Its members were all British, were nominated by the Company’s directors, and received preliminary education and training at Haileybury College before going out. The average age of arrival was about fifteen before the college was established and about eighteen thereafter. They had high salaries but no pensions or retiring age, which prevented some, who had fallen into debt in youth, from retiring when they should have10. With some misfits, they numbered in their ranks many able men and developed a high level of integrity. The second agent of the governor general’s will was the army, a minority being British and the majority Indian; the officer cadre was entirely British. Many officers were employed on political or administrative work11

These agents established and maintained law and order. The second pillar of government was justice. This was administered through a network of the Company’s civil and criminal courts. The judges were British, forming a separate branch of the civil service. Criminal law was based on the Muslim code shorn of its fiercer penalties, such as the loss of limbs. Since English law was as yet unreformed, the effect was to produce a penal system more humane than that of England at the time. Personal law was administered according to community practice, for which purpose Hindu and Muslim assessors sat with the British judges12. It was the codification of these laws and their translation into English and the local languages which stimulated both translations from Indian classics and the development of prose writing in the local languages.

Commercial law was based on British practice and so was the procedure in the courts, a very important innovation. For example, a Brahmin was liable to the same penalty as a non-Brahmin for the same offence. The unit of administration was the district, of which Bengal had twenty-three in the time of Cornwallis. They corresponded roughly with the sarkars of the Mughals13. Each district had at its head a collector (of revenue) who was also a magistrate and a judge. Up-country the collector was called a deputy commissioner. The collector controlled the police under their superintendent. The district was divided into subdistricts under various names, and these again in subgroups down to the basic unit of the village. The village had a hereditary accountant and record-keeper. Certain variations did not affect the essential character of this structure, which has continued into the new India down to the present day. The district officer had to keep order, watch the local chiefs, and collect the revenue. He tended to be the countryman’s friend, jealously watching encroachments from Calcutta and resisting strenuously the influence of outside townsmen. In general, he stood for the status quo and only later concerned himself with such things as local self-government, economic improvement, and social betterment14.

Lord Dalhousie was a governor-general (1848-1856) of the later Lord Curzon’s stamp. Though fundamentally conservative, he was as convinced of the superiority of Western civilization as any radical; “a paternalist who believed in steam engines.”15 He not only pushed ahead with railway construction and set up a public works department but as a representative of the “forward school” also returned to a policy of territorial annexation, though by means of incorporating princely states rather than by war. Another symbolic act was the informing of the aged Mughal emperor that his title would lapse upon his death. In 1856 Oudh, the greatest of the independent Muslim states was annexed. Wretched misgovernment provided the desired excuse. The administration declared war on the tax collectors and rural aristocracy. The idea was to reduce the burden of the peasants, but the nexus of loyalties within the traditional agrarian society was not sufficiently reckoned with16.

The Liberal reform and annexation policy did more than estrange the ruling classes and orthodox Brahmin circles. It also allowed the impression to arise that England had declared all-out war on the Hindu religious and social order and intended to uproot any developing Indian local or national feeling. The mutiny of Indian troops in May 1857 (40,000 soldiers were from the newly annexed Oudh, and Rajputs and the Brahmin caste were heavily represented) thus rapidly widened into a rebellion that for a time seriously threatened English rule and was finally repressed only in 185817. Massacres of Europeans were followed by extraordinarily bloody repression that cost the lives of thousands of Indians and was accompanied by an orgy of hatred on the part of the British. But the revolt was not national. Both Bengal and the Madras presidency remained quiet, and even the Punjab (including the Sikhs, who had been defeated only shortly before) participated in the struggle against the rebels.

Prominent representatives of the new educated class in Bengal also declared their loyalty18. Neither Nehru nor present-day Indian historians accept nationalist interpretations of the rebellion. They see the mutiny as an uncoordinated lashing out against British rule by those most directly affected by it and as a defensive action to maintain or restore the endangered old order19. For colonial historians, the rebellion shows all the earmarks of a “post-primary” resistance action. The mutiny altered the British attitude toward India in no fundamental way. It nonetheless left a lasting mark on both the style and the ideology of British rule. The liberals had believed that the introduction of British law and education.20 They also believed that the gratitude and appreciation of the ruled would create fertile ground for Anglo-Indian collaboration. These beliefs had proved to be illusions. Occidental and oriental civilization seemed separated by an abyss. Indian society had proved more foreign and more conservative than originally assumed or hoped. Racism combined with the traditional European feelings of superiority. England was destined to rule India, found its mission there, and saw its own greatness therein confirmed21.

The rule of the East India Company, which had won England a world empire, ended in 1858. The break was mainly formal, however, for, after Pitt’s India Act of 1784, the influence and control of the Crown over Indian administration had grown steadily22. The duties of the president of the board of control, who already sat in the cabinet, were transferred to the secretary of state for India, the de facto India minister. The latter was responsible to Parliament, the supreme authority in imperial matters. Parliament had been involved in Indian activities since the days of Clive and had increasingly acted as the company’s supervisory agent. Investigating commissions had exposed insufficiencies and abuses, and the company had occasionally been subject to severe criticism, though the latter admittedly came from interest groups with rather diverse motivations23. The renewal of the charter had also given Parliament periodic opportunities for direct or indirect intervention. The administration of British India was not only autocratic but was centralized until 1919-1920 when provincial governments with limited responsibility toward elected parliaments were established. Provincial governors still retained much of the freedom of action received in 1861, when the provinces had also received legislative powers.

Financial competence had also been decentralized in stages, which is to say that control of certain incomes and expenditures were given to the provinces. All the same, central control remained tight. The rule came to have an increasingly impersonal character because of the growing importance of several technical administrative functions but also, regrettably, because of the mountain of regulations, intended to curb arbitrary behaviour, that set narrow limits upon administrative initiative. The actual administrative units were the 240 districts, the borders of which were largely coterminous with those of the Mughal Sarkars, yet another indication that England was the legatee of the Mughal emperors24. In the course of his reforms, Cornwallis also removed Indian collectors and judges from office and replaced them with Britons. The Mughal rulers had employed Muslim Indians and in the important Bengal area even Hindus in their administration, though they were subordinate to their own chief officials of Turkish-Afghan and Persian origin25. The erection of an orderly British administrative system, by contrast, resulted in the expulsion of Indians from the leading positions. The substitution of British for Muslim law and the subsequent abolition of Persian as the administrative language particularly hurt the Muslim upper class. This exclusion was sharply criticized by the conservative school. Munro, in particular, farsightedly suggested that a “spirit of independence” would be the inevitable reaction to the “unnatural” foreign rule26.

Liberals who fought the patronage system and in 1854 forced entrance examinations through Parliament. That made entry into the Indian Civil Service (the new name for the covenanted Service) possible for Indians, especially since the Royal Message of 1858 expressly reconfirmed that of 183327. The entrance examination had its own difficulties. It was in London, which imposed formidable costs on Indian candidates and limited the pool to those from well-off families. In addition, the examination tested the history of English literature, and a Latin or Greek text counted for more points than one in Arabic or Sanskrit. The first Indian to pass, in 1864, was the poet Rabindranath Tagore’s elder brother28.

The construction of railways and the infiltration of a cash economy had led to the commercialization of agricultural products. India began to export rice and wheat. Surpluses from the fat years were no longer, or to a much lesser degree, warehoused, but were brought to market29. The dire result was that if the harvest of the following year was bad, or delayed, foodstuffs had to be bought, and if this could not be done expeditiously, hunger was inevitable. The lack of reserves resulting from sales was emphasized in administrative reports as an important cause of famine. India’s confrontation with British power and the resulting economic and social change must be seen against a demographic background. The Indian agrarian situation and its “involution” cannot be understood. Indians had proved themselves as judges and seemed less likely to endanger British rule than Indians in leading political and administrative positions30. All the same, the bill aroused a storm of indignation, particularly from English planters and businessmen.

They called for separation from England, and their threats of rebellion are reminiscent of the later conflict in 1923 in Kenya or the protests of the French in Algeria against the reform plans of the Popular Front in 1936. It was obviously a matter of not merely the substantive content of the bill but also, Ripon’s entire program for the liberalization of British rule. A part of this was his attempt to guarantee the new Western class of Indians a consultative voice in the legislative councils and to push forward the Indianization of the ICS31. The Ilbert affair led directly to the foundation of the Congress party in 1885. In 1887 the commission proposed the creation of a new Provincial Civil Service (PCS), which would receive 108 former ICS spots, among them a third of the district judgeships, and a tenth of the collectorships. By 1893 this body comprised 1,030 administrative and 797 judicial positions, all filled by Indians. The hope that the PCS would come to have a prestige equal to the ICS was never fulfilled, however. Possibilities for Indians to advance had indeed been created but the key positions remained reserved to the ICS, and the Indianization of the latter remained unresolved. The corps was defending itself against the entrance of “foreigners” who threatened its existing lifestyle and moral code. Then, too, the ICS was an important and highly skilled instrument of rule32.

The recruiting policy also reflected the new need for security. Instead of drawing from Rajputs and Brahmans from Oudh, the other provinces in the northwest, and the Deccan, recruiting shifted to Punjab, bringing in particularly Sikhs and also Pathans and Gurkhas from independent Nepal33. In 1930 62 per cent of the army was still from Punjab. One spoke of the “martial races,” which, in contrast to, say, the Bengalis, produced particularly able soldiers. The Indians could nonetheless point out that the Marathas and the men of Oudh and Agra had proved at least as warlike, and that in reality the British were merely following a policy of divide et impera. In the army itself, caste and clan loyalties were strictly observed, in part to reduce internal tension but also to prevent the development of any national solidarity within the Indian army34.

The officer corps, the king’s or queen’s commissioned officers, remained British until the First World War. World War II pushed Indianization forward rapidly, however, so that by 1947 a qualified officer corps was available to both India and Pakistan. During the bloody weeks of the partition the Indian officer corps kept its head well enough, a success some booked to Sandhurst35. At the party congress of 1940 in Lahore, the famous “Two Nations” resolution was passed. It allowed for scarcely any solution save partition, particularly since the Congress moved over into the opposition and with its “Quit-India” campaign of 1942 forced the Indian government to move closer to the Muslim League and heed the latter’s demands in the negotiations over constitutional reform, transition government, and the transfer of power. India became officially independent on January 26 1950, when the Republic of India was proclaimed36.

In sum, India was better governed by the East India Company before 1857 because it did not limit its trade policies and had more effective control and administration of the regions. After 1857, Britain established an autocratic rule and introduced unfair and discriminating laws in this country. Britain did not care about the economic development of the country but exploited its natural resources and population. Thus rule led to the independence movement and proclamation of the Republic of India in 1950.


  1. Bayly, C.A. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (The New Cambridge History of India). (Cambridge University Press, 1990): 107.
  2. Ibid, 108
  3. Ibid.: 108.
  4. James, L. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. )St. Martin’s Griffin; First Edition edition, 2000.): 152.
  5. Ibid.: 153.
  6. Ibid.: 155.
  7. Ibid.: 160.
  8. Ibid.: 167.
  9. Judd, D. The Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj, 1600-1947. ( Oxford University Press, USA, 2004); 50.
  10. Bayly, C.A. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (The New Cambridge History of India). (Cambridge University Press, 1990); 173.
  11. Ibid.: 169.
  12. Ibid.: 138.
  13. Judd, D. The Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj, 1600-1947. (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004): 51.
  14. Ibid.: 53.
  15. Ibid.: 55.
  16. Spear, P. The History of India, Vol. 2. (Penguin (Non-Classics), 1990): 77.
  17. Ibid.: 78.
  18. Ibid.: 79.
  19. Judd, D. The Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj, 1600-1947. (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004): 56.
  20. Carr, B. Concession & Repression: British Rule in India 1857-1919 Robert Carr Assesses the Nature of British Rule in India during a Key, Transitional Phase. History Review, 52 (2005); 28.
  21. Bayly, C.A. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (The New Cambridge History of India). (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  22. Kaviraj, S. Modernity and Politics in India. Daedalus 129 (2000); 137.
  23. Bayly, C.A. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (The New Cambridge History of India). (Cambridge University Press, 1990): 195, 197.
  24. Ibid.: 199, 200.
  25. Ibid.: 203, 209.
  26. Spear, P. The History of India, Vol. 2. (Penguin (Non-Classics), 1990): 76.
  27. Ibid.: 79.
  28. Ibid.: 90.
  29. Bayly, C.A. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (The New Cambridge History of India). (Cambridge University Press, 1990): 195.
  30. Ibid.: 197.
  31. James, L. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. (St. Martin’s Griffin; First Edition edition, 2000); 214, 360.
  32. Ibid.: 317.
  33. Ibid.: 216.
  34. Spear, P. The History of India, Vol. 2. (Penguin (Non-Classics), 1990): 76.
  35. James, L. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. (St. Martin’s Griffin; First Edition edition, 2000): 130.
  36. Spear, P. The History of India, Vol. 2. (Penguin (Non-Classics), 1990): 123..


Bayly, C.A. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (The New Cambridge History of India). Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Carr, B. Concession & Repression: British Rule in India 1857-1919 Robert Carr Assesses the Nature of British Rule in India during a Key, Transitional Phase. History Review, 52 (2005); 28.

James, L. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. St. Martin’s Griffin; First Edition edition, 2000.

Judd, D. The Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj, 1600-1947. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.

Kaviraj, S. Modernity and Politics in India. Daedalus 129 (2000): 137.

Spear, P. The History of India, Vol. 2. Penguin (Non-Classics), 1990.