BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY
The British East India Company was one of the most important economic and political organizations in the world during the period of European Imperialism. It was a major player in British imperialism in India and other nations of the Far East that centered in the Indian Ocean. It operated throughout much of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and had a profound impact of the growth of the British influence in the world during this time.
EARLY HISTORY OF THE BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY
As stated above, the British East India Company played a significant role in the in the history of India and British imperialism in India. The British East India Company was first established on December 31st, 1600 as a company that aimed at promoting British trade in the Far East, which included India, China and Japan. The company was created by a group of over 200 English merchants that petitioned Queen Elizabeth I, who was then the monarch of England. As a result, the Queen issued the group a Royal Charter, which essentially gave the British East India Company a monopoly on all trade in the Far East. When the company was formed it was determined that it would be administered by a single governor and a team of 24 directors.
Sir James Lancaster led the first voyage undertaken by the newly created British East India Company. In 1601, Lancaster sailed in a ship called the Red Dragon and made his way to the Far East by way of the route around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. On the route, he visited several islands in the Indian Ocean and modern Indonesia. For example, Lancaster famously established the first English factories in Indonesia at Bantam and Moluccas. These factories produced spices, which were central to the British East India Company for decades. He returned to England in 1603 and was knighted by the new English monarch – James I. The British East India Company carried out several more voyages following Lancaster’s initial one in 1601. These subsequent voyages focused on growing the economic interest of the company. For instance, the British East India Company sent a voyage to the Far East every year between 1606 and 1615. Furthermore, the company focused on establishing more factories in the Far East, including several on mainland India, to assist in sending back to England desirable goods and raw materials.
It is important to note that the British East India Company was not the only European economic interest in the Far East at the time. For example, the Dutch East India Company was also operating in the region at the time was and initially more successful than the British East India Company, especially in relation to the spice trade. Beyond that, the British also competed with Portuguese and French merchant ships. This economic competition is important because it eventually drove the British East Company away from the spice trade and caused them to focus more with trade on mainland India.
In 1612, the English monarch, James I, sent a request to the Mughal Emperor, Nur-ud-din Salim Jahangir, asking that the British East India Company be allowed access to the Indian mainland. At the time, the Mughal Empire was the largest and most powerful kingdom in India. For instance, the Mughal Empire existed approximately from 1526 until 1857 and at its height included most of the territory in modern India, parts of Pakistan and parts of Bangladesh. As part of the deal, the British East India Company wanted exclusive trading rights in India, such that it did not have to compete with other European traders. As well, the British requested that the company be allowed to establish several factories in India, in order to collect raw materials. In fact, the British East India Company had hoped to establish a factory in Surat, India. The company had been using Surat as a docking place for ships and point of contact with the Indian mainland for several years before. In exchange for being allowed access to Indian trade markets, the British promised to provide the Mughal emperor with unique goods from Europe. Emperor Jahangir agreed with the terms of the British offer and sent the following letter to the British Monarch James I:
Upon which assurance of your royal love I have given my general command to all the kingdoms and ports of my dominions to receive all the merchants of the English nation as the subjects of my friend; that in what place soever they choose to live, they may have free liberty without any restraint; and at what port soever they shall arrive, that neither Portugal nor any other shall dare to molest their quiet; and in what city soever they shall have residence, I have commanded all my governors and captains to give them freedom answerable to their own desires; to sell, buy, and to transport into their country at their pleasure. For confirmation of our love and friendship, I desire your Majesty to command your merchants to bring in their ships of all sorts of rarities and rich goods fit for my palace; and that you be pleased to send me your royal letters by every opportunity, that I may rejoice in your health and prosperous affairs; that our friendship may be interchanged and eternal.
- Nuruddin Salim Jahangir, Letter to James I
- Nuruddin Salim Jahangir, Letter to James I
The British East India Company benefited greatly from the trading rights in India and soon expanded to new markets and territories in the region. In fact, the company was able to outpace the growth of their rivals. For instance, by 1647, the British East India Company had established 23 factories in India, including locations in Bengal, Madras and Bombay. At this point in history, the main resources sought by the British East India Company were cotton, silk, dye, saltpetre, and tea. Each was a valuable resource to the British and relatively rare back in England.
While the British East India Company was able to gain a foothold in mainland India, it still faced severe competition from rival European nations, including the famous Dutch East India Company. This economic competition remained throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, several important spices were only available on the islands in the Indian Ocean. These spices included pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. European merchants were able to collect these spices and sell them back in Europe for high profits, which was a central cause of the economic rivalry in the region. In fact, the rivalry between the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company became so inflamed that it eventually resulted in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, which occurred throughout different periods of the 17th and 18th centuries. As a result, the British Monarch, Charles II, passed a series of acts in 1670 that attempted to strengthen the British East India Company’s position in India. In general, these acts allowed the company to expand into new territories, create their own currency, and form an army and build fortresses. This, along with other factors, helped the British East India Company become the world leader in textile trade with India throughout the 17th and 18th centuries – outpacing even the Dutch East India Company.
In order to aid in its expansion throughout India, the British East India Company began to establish its own private armies. For instance, a common practise by the European nations in India was to recruit and employ Indian men into their own armies. These Indian soldiers who fought for European companies were referred to as ‘sepoys’. The British, French and Portuguese also recruited sepoys to fight on their behalf in India. The sepoys were trained in the latest European military standard. The term ‘sepoy’ was used in the Mughal Empire of Indian before the arrival of European, in reference to infantrymen in the army. The British East India Company carried out the practise of recruiting sepoys regularly and amassed a large army of Indian soldiers. This was vitally important to the expansion of the British East India Company in the 18th century and allowed it to gain control over huge sections of the Indian subcontinent, which expanded its wealth and influence.
By 1720, approximately 15% of all imports into England came from India and the British East India Company was responsible for almost all of this trade. Furthermore, the British East India Company grew so large and influential that by the 18th century it faced almost no competition for trade between England and India, that it was effectively a monopoly. This situation gained the company not only influence in India, but also in the political and economic circles in England. While the company often battled with the British Parliament for more control over its own affairs, it also enjoyed relative freedom to reign over India how it so wished.
'COMPANY RULE' IN INDIA BY THE BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY
As the 18th century progressed, the British East India Company used its extensive wealth and influence to recruit ever more ships and sepoy soldiers. For instance, in 1750 the company had only about 3,000 soldiers, but by 1778 it had over 67,000. It used this army to fight battles to further its expansion into India from the areas it controlled in Bengal, Madras and Bombay. In fact, by the mid-1700s, the company faced less resistance from European competitors and more from local Indian rulers. This eventually led to a major conflict for the British East India Company in 1757 called the Battle of Plassey.
The Battle of Plassey was a major conflict between the British East India Company and Muslim rulers (Nawab) in Bengal. The Nawab were also supported by the French who had their own economic interest in the region. Robert Clive led soldiers for the British East India Company during the Battle of Plassey. Clive was an official of the company and was a central figure in relation to the militaristic growth and power of the company in mainland India in the mid-1700s. For example, he is credited with expanding the military capabilities of the British East India Company in the region around Bengal. Clive led the company to victory over the Nawab and its French Allies on June 23rd, 1757. The victory in the Battle of Plassey was important for the British East India Company because it gave it a foothold in Bengal that it used to expand throughout the rest of India. Also, 1757 is considered to be the time when the British East India Company went from simply exerting economic influence in India, to fully controlling the political and economic affairs of the region. As such, from 1757 until 1858 in India is the time when the British East India Company ruled India as a sort of colony. Because of this, historians refer to this time period as ‘Company Rule’ or ‘Company Raj’.
Throughout the late 1700s, the British East India Company expanded its control over large sections of eastern India from its main base in Bengal. For example, by the mid-1800s, the company had come to control all of the Indian subcontinent and ruled over the country through direct administration. This transformed the British East India Company from having a focus on trade to directly ruling and controlling India as a possession. It did this by expanding its military strength in the region. In fact, by 1857, the British East India Company had several armies that totaled as much as 267,000 soldiers.
THE END OF THE BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY IN INDIA
However, the power of the British East India Company in India ended in 1857 with the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion. Also called the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’, it saw Indian sepoy soldiers for the British East India Company from north and central India, rebel against the company. This rebellion first began on May 10th, 1857 and lasted until November 1st, 1858. While the Sepoy Rebellion began with sepoy soldiers, it quickly spread to include local rulers and peoples throughout India. The fighting between the two sides (Indians and British East India Company) was fierce and led to many deaths and atrocities, including the massacre of civilians. While exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, historians estimate that as many as 6,000 Europeans died in the conflict. Furthermore, some estimates put the death toll of Indians as high as 800,000. It is important to note that these figures include death from warfare, famine and the spread of disease that were related to the Sepoy Rebellion. In the end, the Sepoy Rebellion was pushed back by the British East Indian Company and formally ended on November 1st, 1858.
The Sepoy Rebellion was a significant event in the history of the British East India Company and British Imperialism in India. This is because, following the events of the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857 and 1858, the British East India Company officially lost its control over the Indian subcontinent. For example, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act on August 2nd, 1858, which effectively ended the company and transferred all of its powers in India to the British Monarchy. This transition saw Britain take over direct control of India as a colony and led to the period known as the ‘British Raj’.
BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY IN CHINA
Besides exerting its power over the subcontinent of India, the British East India Company also played a significant role in other regions of the Far East, including China. For example, the company was heavily involved in the trade of opium to China during the late 1700s and early 1800s. In fact, much of the opium sold to China was harvested from parts of British controlled India. While the opium trade was illegal in China, the British East India Company created a work around by selling its opium to traffickers who then sold the opium in Chinese markets. The opium trade became such a large issue for China, that it eventually resulted in two wars: First Opium War and Second Opium War. These were major conflicts in world history and the history of British imperialism.
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