The India we know today did not exist in the 1800s, but was a larger entity taking in present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. These two countries did not come into existence until 1947 and 1971, respectively. European contact with India began as a series of trade outposts for ships transporting spices and other commodities from the Far East to Europe, but over time the European powers incorporated India into their overseas empires.


Great Britain was by far the dominant European power in India in the 1800s. The first major British presence on the continent was the East India Company, a trading company that established settlements in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras to exploit India’s cotton, according to Professor Peter Marshall of King’s College, London. In 1833 the company lost its monopoly over eastern trade, and in 1858 the India Act established direct government control over 60 percent of the subcontinent and indirect rule, via local princes, over most of the remaining 40 percent. India became an important part of the British Empire, considered the “jewel in the crown,” and Queen Victoria was proclaimed empress in 1877.


By the 1800s, France was losing its foothold in India. A series of conflicts between French and British settlers in the 1760s resulted in the French losing their influence in much of southeast India and Bengal. They were left with just five coastal settlements, relics of their former trade network: Pondicherry, Yanam and Karakal on the east coast, Mahe on the west coast and Chandernagore in the northeast province of Bengal. These cities were known as the “Comptoirs Francais,” and remained French possessions between 1816 and the 1950s, when they were formally transferred to Indian government.


Portugal’s Indian territories were even smaller than those of France, and consisted of just three settlements: Goa, Daman and Diu, as well as their hinterlands. Of these, Goa was the most significant due to its historic role as capital of Portugal’s empire in Asia. With the exception of 1809, when they briefly came into the possession of the British due to events in Europe, the three settlements remained under Portuguese control until 1962, when, after a breakdown in diplomatic relations, the Indian military invaded the territories and claimed them for India.


European colonists in India were not always accepted by locals. Some local rulers were happy to work alongside British colonists, but others were not so accommodating and had their territories forcibly removed. The largest rebellion against British rule came in 1857, when units of Indian soldiers rebelled against their British officers, leading to bloody uprisings in Agra, Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur and Meerut. The British eventually quelled the rebellion, but in the aftermath altered their system of government, bringing decision-making under state control and giving Indians a limited measure of involvement. India finally gained independence from Britain in 1947.