BRITISH IMPERIALISM IN INDIA OVERVIEW
British Imperialism in India is an important topic in world history. It is related to the Age of Imperialism and the expansion of the British Empire. As well, it involved some of the most significant people in all of world history, such as Mahatma Gandhi. Modern India is located on the continent of Asia, at the northern section of the Indian Ocean, and sits next to other countries, such as: Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. In order to understand the significance of Imperialism in India, its first important to understand imperialism and the history of India before the arrival of Europeans.
WHAT IS IMPERIALISM?
Imperialism is a term that relates to when one country extends its political, economic or cultural authority over another country or region. This process involves the dominant country taking over the other through direct invasion and political control or by gaining authority over the economy of the other country. Imperialism, in history, was a foreign policy practiced by many different nations but is most often associated with European countries, the United States, and some Asian countries.
Britain played one of the most significant roles during the Age of Imperialism. As stated above, many European nations were spreading their influence throughout the world in the 18th and 19th centuries and took over control of vast regions of the world. However, Britain was the most important of these European nations, because the British Empire expanded the most at the time and came to be the largest empire in the world. For instance, throughout the Age of Imperialism, Britain gained influence in the following regions: India, South Africa, Egypt, Australia, Canada, United States and more.
EARLY HISTORY OF INDIA
According to modern historians, human beings first arrived in the Indian subcontinent about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. These ancient people lived in the region and developed civilizations with farming and settlements by about 7,000 BCE. For example, there is evidence from this time period of the domestication of crops (wheat and barley) and animals (goats, sheep and cattle). In fact, the people in the region (which today is modern Pakistan and northern India) developed into what eventually became the Indus Valley Civilization. This is one of the most prominent of the Old World civilizations, and considered similar to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Following this, India went through a series of major changes, as power shifted between many different kingdoms and empires over the centuries.
EARLY EUROPEAN INTEREST IN INDIA
Europeans had expressed an economic interest in India for a long period of time due to the transportation and trade of goods along ancient trade routes such as the Silk Road. It is perhaps one of the earliest and largest trade networks in human history, and played a vital role to many different civilizations throughout Eurasia from approximately 120 BCE to 1450 CE. At its height, the Silk Road stretched from Japan and China in the east to the Mediterranean area including Italy in the west, which was a span of over 4000 miles. Along the way, it travelled through many different regions including: India, Persia, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. Merchants and traders in the East transported to Europe, goods such as: silks, glass-based products, paper, spices, apples, oranges, and other foods items. On the other hand, other goods moved to the east (towards India), such as: grapes, cotton, gold, silver, wool, etc. As such, Europeans had a long history of trade with the Far East (including India) and sought ways to continue this trade.
The first European to carry out a sea route to India was Vasco da Gama in 1498. As sea travel improved, Europeans began seeking a quicker route to the Far East, and Portugal was the first country to begin major explorations along the western coast of Africa during the timeframe of the Age of Exploration. The Age of Exploration, or Age of Discovery, began in the early 15th century and continued until the end of the 17th century, and involved European explorers using their navigational skills to travel the world. In general, the Age of Exploration occurred was mostly carried out by the countries of Portugal, Spain, France and England. Vasco da Gama was one of the most significant explorers from this time period and sailed for Portugal. He is famous for being the first European to arrive by sea in India. For instance, he sailed with a series of ships and travelled south from Portugal, around the cape of Africa until finally arriving Calicut, India on May 20th 1498. His arrival in India was significant as it pushed other European nations to seek alternate routes to the Far East, and boosted the economic interest of Europe in India. This is important as it ties into the eventual British Imperialism over India. For instance, after Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India British, French, Portuguese and Dutch merchants soon established trade routes.
MUGHAL EMPIRE OF INDIA
The next significant time period that relates to the British imperialism of India is the Early Modern Period when India was controlled by the Mughal Empire. 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. This makes it one of the largest empires in the history of Southeast Asia.
The Mughal Empire of India was supposedly created in 1526 by a warrior chief from northern India (modern Uzbekistan) named Babur. The Mughal Empire had a rocky beginning and battled often with competing kingdoms and empires as it spread south and towards the main area of modern India. For example, Akbar, who ruled over the Mughal Empire from 1556 until 1605, was responsible for expanding the empire and developing a central administration. During these years, the Mughal Empire developed a strong economy throughout central India and even began trading with European trading companies that had begun to arrive on the shores of India, such as the British East India Company.
Mughal emperors in the early 1700s continued the expansion of the empire throughout India. For example, during the reign of Aurangzeb (who was the Mughal Emperor from 1658 to 1707), India developed one of the strongest economies on the entire planet. Emperor Aurangzeb also expanded the territory of the Mughal Empire to include most of South Asia. For example, at its height in 1700, the Mughal Empire ruled over approximately 158 million people, which was 23% of the total human population at that time.
When Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb died in 1707, he was succeeded by his son Bahadur Shah I. However, his reign over the Mughal Empire was short-lived, as he died in 1712. After his death, the chaos in the empire grew as power changed hands between several different emperors over the next few years. This lack of political leadership and authority helped to further weaken the Mughal Empire and lessen its grip over its vast territory in South Asia.
The decline of the Mughal Empire continued under the reign of Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah who ruled from 1719 until 1748. During this time, the empire lost large sections of land to competing kingdoms such as the Maratha Empire.
Finally, European nations recognized their opportunity with the weakening of the Mughal Empire and began their own campaigns of imperialism in India. This ended the control of Mughal Empire in India, as it saw power shift towards the British Empire. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the British East India Company began to exert its influence over the Mughal Empire and its territory. For instance, the British East India Company took control of the former Mughal province of Bengal-Bihar in 1793. This was significant because, Britain (along with other European nations) had taken an increased interest in India for the economic advantages that it could provide.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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’.
The term ‘British Raj’ refers to the time period in which Britain ruled over India as a colony of the British Empire. This is generally considered to have occurred from 1858 until 1947. As stated above, the British government did not take over India until 1858 when it assumed control from the British East India Company. The British East India Company was dissolved in 1858 following the Sepoy Rebellion, which was an uprising of Indian soldiers and citizens against the British East India Company. When this dissolution occurred, the British government took over administrative power in India and began to rule the country as a colony of the British Empire. In fact, the word ‘raj’ translates to ‘rule’ in the languages of northern India.
At its height, the British Raj controlled almost all of modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Furthermore, under direct British control, India was divided into approximate thirteen different provinces that were controlled through British administrative officers. British India was ruled over by the British in a very formal structure. For instance, Queen Victoria of Britain also became the ‘Empress of India’ on May 1st, 1876. However, this title was symbolic as the British Monarchy took little or no direct control in India, and the real power was held by the British Parliament in London, England. However, the British also appointed a Viceroy in India that ruled over the affairs of the country from Calcutta. This person acted on behalf of the British Monarchy and controlled British interests in the region, while also helping to administer a unified policy for the country.
India was an important part of the British Empire in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, India was often considered to be Britain’s most important colony from an economic standpoint and as a result was referred to as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’. The economic importance of India to Britain is heavily related to the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in England. In fact, the factories in England that emerged during the Industrial Revolution came to play an important role in British imperialism in India. This is because India served two important functions for Industrial England. First, Britain viewed India as a source of raw materials that could be used to fuel the factories in England. At the time, India economy was largely centered around agriculture, which would then be exported to England. The most common of these agricultural resources included: jute, cotton, sugar, tea, coffee and wheat. Second, India proved to be an important market for the goods that were developed in British factories. As a result, the British benefitted from selling goods to the people of India.
Britain’s economic interference in India during the time of the British Raj is a heavily debated topic. Some argue that the British helped to develop the country of India, which benefitted it by the end of the British Raj. For example, some historians have argued that Britain helped India transform to a more modern economy, following the stagnant policies of the Mughal Empire. Specifically, Britain developed many canals, roads and railways across India. In fact, during the time of the British Raj, India developed the fourth largest rail network on the planet with the help of British engineering. This infrastructure benefitted India in that it allowed the country better transportation networks that ultimately helped it transport goods and people across the country. Whereas, others argue that British economic policies in India were repressive and benefitted the British Empire over the people of India. For instance, Britain promoted the export of many of India’s natural resources, especially to industrial England. The British benefitted from this system because the Indian resources fuelled the factory system present in England during the time of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the British passed laws in India at the time that forced Indian citizens to produce crops for use in English factories instead of producing food crops. This is controversial, because India was stricken by several severe famines at the time, that some suggest could have been lessened with different economic policies. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 55 million Indians died from famine during the years of British rule in India. For example, the Great Famine, which is said to have occurred from 1876 to 1878, led to the death of 6 to 10 million people. As such, these criticisms of British imperialism in India led to a growth in Indian nationalism and a call for independence from British control.
The Indian National Congress was founded on December 23rd, 1885 in Bombay, India. In general, the Indian National Congress emerged out of a growing sense of Indian nationalism in the late 1800s. At the time, the British (first the British East India Company and later the British Government) had controlled India for almost two centuries. However, during the second half of the 1800s, a large groups of educated Indians began to express nationalistic feelings centered around Indian independence. As such, this Indian Independence Movement led to the eventual creation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. The initial goal of the Indian National Congress was to promote Indian nationalism and give a voice to the independence movement that was aimed at British imperialism in India. In fact, the early actions of the Indian National Congress focused on promoting self-government for Indian people. The concept of self-government in India is referred to as ‘swaraj’. The term swaraj became particularly important to Mahatma Gandhi in the 20th century, as he and the Indian National Congress tried to achieve independence for India from British imperial rule.
In the early 20th, century the Indian National Congress began to face a crisis of sorts, in that some of the members expressed more radical leanings while others remained relatively moderate. The more radical members opposed any involvement of the British in India and wanted to work immediately to gain independence for India. Whereas, the moderates in the Indian National Congress sought to reform the role that Britain played by working with the British. The Swadeshi Movement also emerged around this time in India.
The Swadeshi Movement was a significant strategy used by Indian nationalists in the late 1800s and early 1900s to reduce British control over India. In general, it involved Indians producing their own goods (or consuming domestically made goods) and rejecting foreign goods.
Indian nationalism grew further throughout the early 20th century, especially with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. While the First World War was primarily a European conflict, the colonies of the major European powers also came to play a role in the fighting. For instance, it is estimated that as many as 1.3 million Indian soldiers and workers participated in the war effort on the side of the British. Furthermore, Indian soldiers participated in conflicts throughout Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa. This helped to strengthen Indian nationalism, as it led to a sense of patriotism among people across India. In fact, supporters of the Indian Independence Movement began to argue that India’s role in World War I should gain it some aspects of self-government. This idea continued to grow in popularity, especially with the return of Mahatma Gandhi to India in 1915.
Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most important figures in India’s history and played a vital role in both the Indian Independence Movement and Indian National Congress. Gandhi was born on October 2nd, 1869 in the city of Porbandar in western British India. His name at birth was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The name ‘Mahatma’ was given to him later in life and literally translates to ‘Great Soul’, which is a reference to the role he played in helping India gain its independence from Britain.
As stated above, the Indian Independence Movement expanded in 1915 when Mahatma Gandhi returned to India following his time in South Africa. Before arriving in India in 1915, Gandhi had helped lead an Indian nationalist movement in South Africa, in which he argued for more rights and better treatment of Indians there. He used this experience in South Africa to carry out similar actions in India. In fact, Gandhi became the leader of the Indian National Congress in 1920, and quickly began to organize and carry out protests calling for an end to British imperialism in India. Gandhi’s concept of independence is often referred to as ‘swaraj’. In general, the term sawarj means self-government or self-rule and refers to the idea that Gandhi (along with other members of the Indian Independence Movement) wanted India to gain its independence from British imperial rule. He did this through several different ways, but Gandhi is most famous for his non-cooperation movement based on civil disobedience. In general, civil disobedience is when individuals refuse to follow the orders or laws of a society that they feel are unjust or discriminatory. Gandhi believed that India could gain its independence and achieve swaraj if it stopped cooperating with British laws, thus forcing the British to adapt to the Indian people instead of the other way around. He argued that the best way for Indian to obtain self-government (swaraj) was through a non-cooperation movement in which the Indian people refused to follow British laws.
Gandhi’s non-cooperation campaign focused on protesting Britain’s economic and political control over India. He argued that in order for Indians to force Britain out of India, the people of India had to practise civil disobedience through non-violence. As such, he advocated techniques such as hunger strikes and other forms of protest that did not involve the Indian people responding with violence.
One of the ways that Gandhi promoted the idea of economic non-cooperation was through the concept of ‘swadeshi’. In general, it involved Indians producing their own goods (or consuming domestically made goods) and rejecting foreign goods. At the time, Britain benefitted economically by selling goods to India from their factories in England. This arrangement deprived India from developing its own economy and sent large amounts of wealth back to England. As a result, members of the Indian National Congress (including Gandhi) began to express the importance of swadeshi.
Another example of Gandhi’s economic non-cooperation was the famous Salt March. This event took place from March 12th to April 6th in 1930 and saw Gandhi lead a non-violent protest against British laws related to salt harvesting in India. More specifically, the British effectively had total control over the harvesting of salt in India due to the 1882 Salt Act. Because of this act, Indians were forced to pay taxes on salt and could face harsh criminal punishments if they didn’t follow the law. This law angered many in the Indian National Congress because salt had been freely available to Indians for centuries, especially for those who lived along the coastlines of India. As a result, Gandhi and other members of the Indian National Congress decided to carry out a non-violent protest of the law by carrying out a salt march. The goal of the salt march was to openly disobey the British law and gain momentum for the Indian Independence Movement that was being supported by both Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.
In total, the Salt March that Gandhi led, lasted for 24 days in the spring of 1930. It saw Gandhi, along with about 80 other volunteers, march approximately 240 miles (384 km) from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi in western India. Many others joined Gandhi and the volunteers along the route until finally, when they arrived in Dandi on April 6th, there were thousands of participants in the Salt March. When the group arrived at the coast on April 6th, Gandhi broke the British laws by collecting salt. Millions of Indians began to break the salt laws in the days and weeks after the Salt March. Some collected their own salt, while others purchased it illegally. The British responded harshly by imprisoning over 60,000 people in the month after Gandhi carried out the Salt March.
Gandhi resigned from the Indian National Congress in 1934 in hopes that it would help the political organization grow. He remained active in Indian politics and endorsed candidates for the Indian National Congress that promoted his belief in non-violent civil disobedience.
The outbreak of World War II in Europe had a significant impact on British imperialism in India. For instance, Gandhi argued against Indians participating in the conflict because he did not agree with Indians fighting and dying to protect British democratic rights, especially when the British did not respect India’s calls for self-rule. However, this did not stop over 2.5 million Indians from volunteering for service in the war. Gandhi did not relent, and as the war progressed into the 1940s, he called for more non-violent acts of civil disobedience against the British. In fact, this most recent movement was referred to as the ‘Quit India’ movement. Again, British officials had him arrested. However, they released him in 1944 due to his failing health and advanced age (Gandhi was 75 years old).
At this point in history, India was facing an internal crisis based on religious divisions. Many people were calling for India to be divided along religious lines. For instance, some wanted a part of India that only for Hindus, while others wanted a section that was only for Muslims. Gandhi had battled against the division of India since his return in 1915, however, the political climate had shifted and the tensions between the different religious groups was high. As a result, with British approval, India was partitioned in 1947. In fact, the country was divided into Pakistan (for Muslims) and India (for Hindus and Sikhs). With this act, British imperial rule in India had ended and India had gained its independence.
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