Great Britain's trade with Asia began with the formation of the British East India Company in the early 17th century. The joint-stock company ultimately focused its trading operations on mainland India, exporting products such as textiles, pepper, tea and opium. In the 18th century, the company was forced to defend its trading operations against French intrusion and French-supported Indian factions. Great Britain's quest to expand its economic and political authority, in India and worldwide, combined with the belief that India required civilizing led to the decision to absorb India into the British Empire.
From Competitor to Protector
The East India Company's early trade with India was subject to the authority of the powerful Mughal Empire. The company competed with other European traders in India for Mughal favor. As the authority of the Mughal Empire weakened, different Indian factions fought for control and company factories were raided during the conflicts. The company began to arm and fortify its factories in an effort to protect its commercial interests and those of its Indian trading partners. Although the company was not seeking to conquer Indian trading centers, it established political authority in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta.
From Protector to Puppeteer
In 1756, the Nawab of Bengal captured Fort William and imprisoned about 60 British soldiers overnight in an airless cell. About 40 soldiers subsequently suffocated and died. The incident, known as "The Black Hole of Calcutta," confirmed British opinion that Indians were ruthless barbarians who needed to be taught civilized ways.
The Battle of Plassey in 1757 represents a turning point at which the East India Company ceased being only a trading company and openly asserted its superior political maneuvering and military might. At Plassey, the company displayed its ability as a king-maker, placing a favored Indian ruler at the head of a puppet-government that the company directed.
Puppeteer to Provincial Ruler
A more powerful step toward British control of India took place in 1765, when the Mughal emperor of India signed a treaty giving the East India Company the right to collect revenues in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Though the company was amassing great wealth as a trading enterprise, the power and wealth afforded the company as a ruling entity was even greater. Control of Bengal, India's richest province, made it easy for the company to take control of other provinces in India.
Parliament Takes Control
British expansion in India continued under several governor-generals appointed by the East India Company. In England, meanwhile, company shareholders were pressing Parliament to reform the East India Company's involvement in India. Many shareholders, including statesman Edmund Burke, believed company officials were withholding returns and were repressing the native population. Burke and others sought a separation of powers, limiting the company to trading privileges while giving Parliament the authority to govern. The India Act of 1784 allowed Parliament and the company shared control of India. This arrangement stood until the Indian Rebellion of 1857. British troops quashed the rebellion and deposed the last Mughal emperor, who was convicted of sedition. The East India Company was abolished, and India became a Crown colony.
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- BBC: History: The British Presence in India in The 18th Century
- A Concise History of Modern India: Chapter 3: East India Company (1772-1850); Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf
- UCLA: Division of Social Sciences: India and Its Neighbors: British India
- UCLA: Division of Social Sciences: India and Its Neighbors: Black Hole of Calcutta
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- University of Groningen: Groningen Growth and Development Centre: The Economic and Social Impact of Colonial Rule in India
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images