Mahadeep Singh Jamwal
The common know how of the British rule in India is confined to the short story of them coming to India as East India Company and ultimately becoming the rulers and leaving India in 1947 after annexing a new page in the Indian history by dividing the British ruled territory into India and Pakistan as two dominions. Here my write up is an attempt to look into the events leading to their coming to India as traders and becoming the rulers. If we visit the silent pages of history we come across that the original object of the group of merchants (latterly converged as British East India Company) involved was to break the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade with the East Indies. However, after 1623, when the English traders at Amboina (The Amboina massacre speaks of execution of twenty men, including ten of whom were in the service of the English East India Company, and Japanese and Portuguese traders, by agents of the Dutch East India Company owing to the reasons of intense rivalry between the East India companies of England and the United Provinces in the spice trade) were massacred by the Dutch, the company admitted defeat in that endeavor and concentrated its activities in India. One of the reasons for this cataclysmic change of destinies was also the inherent weakness of a decaying agricultural empire of the Mughals which after more than two hundred years of rule over vast areas of India, was at its terminal stage. That push was given by six East India Companies of different European countries which had extracted rights to trade with India from the Mughals but transformed themselves as the arbiters and protectors of several Indian states. Because of their inherent superiority as representatives of rising industrial powers, they had access to modern techniques and technology of warfare, which turned out to be the decisive factor in capturing vast territories in India. The British rule in India has its foot prints from East India Company that was informally known as John Company, an English and later British joint-stock company. The East India Company evolved from a small enterprise run by a group of City of London merchants (The East India Company initially had 125 shareholders) that was chartered on the last day of 1599 by Queen Elizabeth I, who gave the fledging company a monopoly on the potentially lucrative spice trade in the whole of Asia and the Pacific. For years it struggled against other European powers for a foothold in India gradually by mid-seventeenth century the company had constructed forts in the port cities of Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta, and Madras (now Chennai) protected by its own private army, stocked with mostly Indian mercenaries. The British East India Company between the mid-eighteenths to mid-nineteenth centuries was a major league player in World commerce and politics.
If we traverse into the foot prints of East India Company, historical pages of the voyages to the East Indies, that are the lands of South and Southeast Asia (the name “Indies” is derived from the River Indus and is used to connote parts of Asia that came under Indian cultural influence) we deduce that first such great voyage was undertaken by Sir James Lancaster ( a soldier and a trader in Portugal) hailing from Basingstoke a town in Hampshire, a county on the southern coast of England in the United Kingdom. This voyage starting on 10 April 1591 from England (Torbay) traversed through ‘Table way’ a natural bay on the Atlantic Ocean passing through Zanzibar a semi- autonomous region of Tanzania in East Africa, Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia containing Peninsular Malaysia, Southern Thailand, and the southernmost tip of Myanmar, reaching Penang a Malaysian state after crossing to Ceylon (an island country in South Asia, located southeast of India and northeast of the Maldives) returned back reaching England in May 1594. The voyage fleet comprised of three ships, Penelope, Merchant Royal and Edward Bonaventure. This was the earliest of the English overseas Indian expeditions. Lancaster’s Indian voyage, overland explorations and trading, was an important factor in the foundation of the East India Company also known as the Honorable East India Company (HEIC) or the British East India Company and informally as John Company. It was English and later British joint-stock company, which was formed to pursue trade with the “East Indies”, originally chartered as the “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies”. The company received a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I on 31 December 1600, making it the oldest among several similarly formed European East India Companies. Wealthy merchants and aristocrats owned the company’s shares. Initially the British government owned no shares and had only indirect control. In 1600 Lancaster was given command of the East India Company’s first fleet of 480 seamen that sailed from Torbay on 22 April, 1601 to India and returned in 1603. It consisted of four big ships and one small boat. The names of the ships and boat were The Dragon, The Hector, The Swan, The Ascension and The Guest. Lancaster continued to be one of the chief directors of the East India Company until his death in June 1618. Subsequently the second voyage was commandeered by Sir Henry Middleton and the third voyage was undertaken between 1607 and 1610, commandeered by General William Keeling. Ships belonging to the company arriving in India docked at Surat that was established as a trade transit point in 1608. In the next two years, the company established its first factory in south India in the town of ‘Machilipatnam’ on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. The company established trading posts in ‘Surat’ (1619), Madras (1639), Bombay (1668), and Calcutta (1690). By 1647, the company had 23 factories, each under the command of a factor or master merchant and governor, and 90 employees in India. In 1634, the Mughal emperor extended his hospitality to the English traders to the region of Bengal. The restoration of monarchy in England further enhanced the East India Company’s status. In an act aimed at strengthening the power of the East India Company (EIC), King Charles II granted the EIC (in a series of five acts around 1670) the rights to autonomous territorial acquisitions, to mint money, to command fortresses and troops and form alliances, to make war and peace, and to exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction over the acquired areas.. a. Eventually, the East India Company slowly seized control of the whole Indian subcontinent with its private armies, composed primarily of ‘Indian Sepoys’. In 1634, the Mughal emperor extended his hospitality to the English traders to the region of Bengal. In 1689 a Mughal fleet commanded by Sidi Yaqub attacked Bombay for Companies increasing misbehaviors. After a year of resistance the EIC surrendered in 1690 and pleaded for pardon, paid a large indemnity, and promised better behavior in the future. Subsequently East India Company re-established itself in Bombay and set up a new base in Calcutta.
In 1717 Mughal emperor completely waived customs duties for Company’s trade. The East India Company developed beyond a purely commercial enterprise when war between Britain and France spread to India in the mid-1740s. As the Company expanded its commercial interests, often through underhanded means, it began meddling in local politics, which infuriated Nawab of Bengal. The British East India Company had a strong presence in India. Meanwhile The French had also established an East India Company under Louis XIV and had important stations in India. The French were a late comer in India trade, but they quickly established themselves in India and were poised to overtake Britain for control. Ultimately The Battle of Plassey was a decisive victory of the British Company over the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies on 23 June 1757. The Company established military supremacy over rival European trading companies and local rulers and wielded enormous influence over the Nawab and consequently acquired significant concessions for previous losses and revenue from trade. The East India Company established a monopoly over the production of opium, shortly after taking over Bengal. The East India Company’s domination of the Indian economy was based on its private army. The battle consolidated the Company’s presence in Bengal, which later expanded to cover much of India over the next hundred years.
In 1765, the Mughal Emperor granted the Company the ‘Diwani’ (the right to harvest the revenues of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa), which provided funds to bolster the Company’s military presence in the sub-continent. Further territorial acquisitions in India during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries cemented the change in the Company’s role from mere trader to a hybrid sovereign power. Faced with this transformation and with growing concerns about mismanagement and corruption, the British Parliament decided to place a curb on the Company’s autonomy. From 1784 the Board of Control (Board of commissioners for the affairs of India appointed by an Act of Parliament) supervised the East India Company’s administrative and political affairs, but not its commercial business or the exercise of patronage by the directors. The Company’s mercantile monopoly came increasingly under attack from the free trade lobby in England and in 1813 the company’s monopoly of the Indian trade was abolished and its commercial operations were at first scaled down by British Parliament and then wound up completely by the Charter Act of 1833. Expansion of British territory by invasion or alliances was initiated, with the Company eventually acquiring major parts of present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. In 1857, the Indians raised their voice against the Company and its oppressive rule by breaking out into an armed rebellion, which historians termed as the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Although the company took brutal action to regain control, it lost much of its credibility and economic image back home in England. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 forced the British Government to pass “The Government of India Act 1858” on August 2, 1858 calling for the liquidation of the British East India Company and the transference of its functions to the British Crown directly. The Company’s territories in India were to be vested in the Queen, the Company ceasing to exercise its power and control over these territories. India was to be governed in the Queen’s name. The Queen’s Principal Secretary of State received the powers and duties of the Company’s Court of Directors. A council of fifteen members was appointed to assist the Secretary of State for India. The council became an advisory body in India affairs. The Crown was empowered to appoint a Governor-General and the Governors of the Presidencies. An Indian Civil Service was to be created under the control of the Secretary of State. The Act ushered in a new period of Indian history, bringing about the end of East India Company rule in India. The Company lost its powers following the Government of India Act of 1858 that transferred its powers to the India Office (The department of British government to which the government of India reported between 1857 and 1947). The Company armed forces, territories and possessions were taken over by the Crown. The company owned military force was incorporated into the British Army. ‘The East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act’ was brought in effect on January 1874 and after shareholders received compensation from British Parliament, The East India Company was formally dissolved by the Act of Parliament on 1 June 1874 which marked the commencement of the British Raj in India. We find here the observation of William Hamilton Dalrymple a Scottish historian and writer “We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath – Robert Clive (Commander-in-Chief of British India, was a British officer and privateer who established the military and political supremacy of the East India Company in Bengal).
Although the East India Company’s colonial rule was hugely detrimental to the interest of the common people due to the exploitative nature of governance and tax implementation, there is no denying the fact that it brought forward some interesting positive outcomes as well. One of the most impactful of them was a complete overhaul of the Justice System and establishment of the Supreme Court. Next big important impact was the introduction of postal system and telegraphy which the Company arguably established for its own benefit in 1837. The East Indian Railway Company was awarded the contracts to construct a 120-mile railway from Howrah-Calcutta to Raniganj in 1849. The transport system in India saw improvements in leaps and bounds with the completion of a 21-mile rail-line from Bombay to Thane, the first-leg of the Bombay-Kalyan line, in 1853. The British also brought forth social reforms by abolishing immoral indigenous practices through acts like the Bengal Sati Regulation in 1829 prohibiting immolation of widows, the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, 1856, enabling adolescent Hindu widows to remarry and not live a life of unfair austerity. Establishment of several colleges in the principal presidencies of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras was undertaken by the Company governance. The positive aspects of social, education and communication advancements were overshadowed largely by the plundering attitude of the Company rule stripping its dominions bare for profit.
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