A New Phase In Europe’s Eastern Trade
India’s trade relations with Europe go back to the ancient days of the Greeks. During the Middle Ages trade between Europe and India and South-East Asia was carried on along several routes. The Asian part of the trade was carried on mostly by Arab merchants and sailors, while the Mediterranean and European part was the virtual monopoly of the Italians. Goods from Asia to Europe passed through many states and many hands. Yet, trade remained highly profitable.
The old trading routes between the East and the West came under Turkish control after the Ottoman conquest of Asia Minor and the capture of Constantinople in 1453. Moreover, the merchants of Venice and Genoa monopolised the trade between Europe and Asia and refused to let the new nation states of Western Europe, particularly Spain and Portugal, have any share in the trade through these old routes. The West European states and merchants therefore began to search for new and safer sea routes to India and the Spice Islands in Indonesia, then known as the East Indies. They wanted to break the Arab and Venetian trade monopolies, bypass Turkish hostility, and open direct trade relations with the East. They were well-equipped to do so, as great advances in ship-building and the science of navigation had taken place during the fifteenth century. Moreover, the Renaissance had generated a great spirit of adventure among the people of Western Europe.
The first steps were taken by Portugal and Spain whose seamen, sponsored and controlled by their governments, began a great era of geographical discoveries. In 1492, Columbus of Spain set out to reach India and discovered America instead. In 1498, Vasco da Gama of Portugal discovered a new and all-sea route from Europe to India. He sailed round Africa via the Cape of Good Hope and reached Calicut. He returned with a cargo which sold for 60 times the cost of his voyage. These and other navigational discoveries opened a new chapter in the history of the world. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were to witness an enormous increase in world trade. The vast new continent of America was opened to Europe and relations between Europe and Asia were completely transformed.
Another major source of early capital accumulation or enrichment for European countries was their penetration of Africa in the middle of the fifteenth century. In the beginning, the gold and ivory of Africa had attracted the foreigner. Very soon, however, trade with Africa centred around the slave trade. In the sixteenth century this trade was a monopoly of Spain and Portugal. Later it was dominated by Dutch, French and British merchants. Year after year, particularly after 1650, thousands of Africans were sold as slaves in the West Indies and in North and South America. The slave ships carried manufactured goods from Europe to Africa, exchanged them on the coast of Africa for African slaves, took these slaves across the Atlantic and exchanged them for the colonial produce of plantations or mines, and finally brought back and sold this produce in Europe. It was on the immense profits of this triangular trade that the commercial supremacy of England and France was to be based. A great deal of West European and North American prosperity was based on the slave trade and the plantations worked by slave labour. Moreover, profits of slave trade and the slave-worked plantations provided some of the capital which financed the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A similar role was later played by the wealth extracted from India.
In the sixteenth century, European merchants and soldiers also began the long process of first penetrating and then subjecting Asian lands to their control. Portugal had a monopoly of the highly profitable Eastern trade for nearly a century. In India, Portugal established its trading settlements at Cochin, Goa, Diu and Daman. From the beginning, the Portuguese combined the use of force with trade. In this they were helped by the superiority of their armed ships which enabled them to dominate the seas. A handful of Portuguese soldiers and sailors could maintain their position on the seas against the much more powerful land powers of India and Asia. By threatening Mughal shipping, they also succeeded in securing many trading concessions from the Mughal Emperors.
Under the viceroyalty of Alfonso D’Albuquerque, who captured Goa in 1510, the Portuguese established their domination over the entire Asian coast from Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to Malacca in Malaya and the Spice Islands in Indonesia. They seized Indian territories on the coast and waged constant war to expand their trade and dominions and safeguard their trade monopoly from their European rivals. Nor did they shy away from piracy and plunder. They also indulged in inhuman cruelties and lawlessness. In spite of their barbaric behaviour, their possessions in India survived for a century because they enjoyed control over the high seas, their soldiers and administrators maintained strict discipline, and they did not have to face the might of the Mughal Empire as South India was outside Mughal influence.
In the latter half of the sixteenth century, England and Holland, and later France, all growing commercial and naval powers, waged a fierce struggle against the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly of world trade. In this struggle the latter had to go under. The English and the Dutch merchants were now able to use the Cape of Good Hope route to India and so join in the race for empire in the East. In the end, the Dutch gained control over Indonesia and the British over India, Sri Lanka, and Malaya.
In 1602, the Dutch East India Company was formed and the Dutch States General—the Dutch parliament—gave it a charter empowering it to make war, conclude treaties, acquire territories and build fortresses. The main interest of the Dutch lay not in India but in the Indonesian Islands of Java, Sumatra, and the Spice Islands where spices were produced. They soon turned out the Portuguese from the Malay Straits and the Indonesian Islands and, in 1623, defeated English attempts to establish themselves there. They also established trading depots at Surat, Broach, Cambay and Ahmedabad in Gujarat in west India, Cochin in Kerala, Nagapatam in Madras, Masulipatam in Andhra, Chinsura in Bengal, Patna in Bihar and Agra in Uttar Pradesh. In 1658 they also conquered Sri Lanka from the Portuguese.
The English merchants looked greedily at the Asian trade. The success of the Portuguese, the rich cargoes of spices, calicoes, silk, gold, pearls, drugs, porcelain, and ebony they carried and the high profits they made inflamed the imagination of the merchants of England and made them impatient to participate in such profitable commerce. An English association or company to trade with the East was formed in 1599 under the auspices of a group of merchants known as the Merchant Adventurers. The company, popularly known as the East India Company, was granted a royal charter and the exclusive privilege to trade in the East by Queen Elizabeth on 31 December 1600. In 1608 it decided to open a ‘factory’, the name given at the time to a trading depot, at Surat on the west coast of India and sent Captain Hawkins to Jahangir’s court to obtain royal favours. Consequently, the English Company was given permission by a royal farman to open factories at several places on the west coast.
The English were not satisfied with this concession. In 1615 their ambassador Sir Thomas Roe reached the Mughal court. Roe succeeded in getting an imperial farman to trade and establish factories in all parts of the Mughal empire. In 1662 the Portuguese gave the island of Bombay to King Charles II of England as dowry for marrying a Portuguese princess. Eventually, the Portuguese lost all their possessions in India except Goa, Diu and Daman. The English Company fell out with the Dutch Company over the division of the spice trade of the Indonesian Islands. The intermittent war in India between the two powers, which had begun in 1654, ended in 1667, when the English gave up all claims to Indonesia while the Dutch agreed to leave alone the English settlements in India.
The Growth of The East India Company’s Trade and Influence, 1600–1714
The English East India Company had very humble beginnings in India. By 1623 it had established factories (trading posts) at Surat, Broach, Ahmedabad, Agra, and Masulipatam. From the very beginning, it tried to combine trade and diplomacy with war and control of the territory where their factories were situated.
Conditions in the south were more favourable to the English as they did not have to face a strong Indian government there. The great Vijayanagar Kingdom had been overthrown in 1565 and its place taken by a number of petty and weak states. It was easy to appeal to their greed or overawe them with armed strength. The English opened their first ‘factory’ in the south at Masulipatam in 1611. But they soon shifted the centre of their activity to Madras, the lease of which was granted to them by the local Raja in 1639. The Raja authorised them to fortify the place, administer it, and coin money on condition of payment to him of half of the customs revenue of the port. Here the English built a small fort around their factory called Fort St. George.
Interestingly enough, from the very beginning this company of profit-seeking merchants was also determined to make Indians pay for the conquest of their own country. For example, the Court of Directors of the Company wrote to the Madras authorities in 1683:
… we would have you to strengthen and fortify our Fort and Town (Madras) by degrees, that it may be terrible against the assault of any Indian Prince and the Dutch power of India…. But we must needs desire you so to continue your business (but with all gentleness) that the inhabitants may pay the full charge of all repairs and fortifications…
The island of Bombay was acquired by the East India Company from the British government in 1668 and was immediately fortified. In Bombay the English found a large and easy-to-defend port. For that reason, and because English trade was threatened at the time by the rising Maratha power, Bombay soon superseded Surat as the headquarters of the Company on the west coast.
In Eastern India, the English Company had opened its first factories in Orissa in 1633. In 1651 it was given permission to trade at Hugli in Bengal. It soon opened factories at Patna in Bihar, Balasore in Orissa and Dhaka and other places in Bengal. It now desired that in Bengal too it should have an independent settlement. It dreamt of establishing political power in India which would enable it to compel the Mughals to allow them a free hand in trade, to force Indians to sell cheap, and buy dear, to keep the rival European traders out and to make its trade independent of the policies of the Indian powers. Political power would also make it possible for it to appropriate Indian revenues and thus to conquer the country with its own resources. Such plans were explicitly put forward at the time. In 1687, the directors advised the governor of Madras to:
… establish such a policy of civil and military power and create and secure such a large revenue to maintain both as may be the foundation of a large, well-grounded, secure English dominion in India for all time to come.
In 1689 they declared:
The increase of our revenue is the subject of our care, as much as our trade: ’tis that must maintain our force, when twenty accidents may interrupt our trade; ’tis that must make us a nation in India …
Hostilities between the English and the Mughal emperor broke out in 1686 after the former had sacked Hugli and declared war on the emperor. But the English had seriously misjudged the situation and underestimated Mughal strength. The Mughal empire under Aurangzeb was even now more than a match for the petty forces of the East India Company. The war ended disastrously for them. They were driven out of their factories in Bengal and compelled to seek refuge in a fever-stricken island at the mouth of the Ganga. Their factories at Surat, Masulipatam, and Vishakhapatam were seized and their fort at Bombay besieged . Having discovered that they were not yet strong enough to fight the Mughal power, the English once again became humble petitioners and sumbitted “that the ill crimes they have done may be pardoned”. They expressed their willingness to trade under the protection of the Indian rulers. Obviously, they had learnt their lesson. Once again they relied on flattery and humble entreaties to get trading concessions from the Mughal emperor.
The Mughal authorities readily pardoned the English folly as they had no means of knowing that these harmless-looking foreign traders would one day pose a serious threat to the country. Instead they recognised that foreign trade carried on by the Company benefited Indian artisans and merchants and thereby enriched the State treasury. Moreover, the English, though weak on land, were, because of their naval supremacy, capable of completely running Indian trade and shipping to Iran, West Asia, Northern and Eastern Africa and East Asia. Aurangzeb therefore permitted them to resume trade on payment of Rs 150,000 as compensation. In 1698, the Company acquired the zamindari of the three villages Sutanati, Kalikata, and Govindpur where it built Fort William around its factory. The villages soon grew into a city which came to be known as Calcutta. In 1717 the Company secured from Emperor Farrukh Siyar a farman confirming the privileges granted in 1691 and extending them to Gujarat and the Deccan. But during the first half of the eighteenth century Bengal was ruled by strong Nawabs such as Murshid Quli Khan and Alivardi Khan. They exercised strict control over the English traders and prevented them from misusing their privileges. Nor did they allow them to strengthen fortifications at Calcutta or to rule the city independently. Here the East India Company remained a mere zamindar of the nawab.
Even though the political ambitions of the Company were frustrated, its commercial affairs flourished as never before. Its imports from India into England increased from £500,000 in 1708 to £1,795,000 in 1740. British settlements in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta became the nuclei of flourishing cities. Large numbers of Indian merchants and bankers were attracted to these cities. This was due partly to the new commercial opportunities available in these cities and partly to the unsettled conditions and insecurity outside them, caused by the break-up of the Mughal empire. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the population of Madras had increased to 300,000 of Calcutta to 200,000 and of Bombay to 70,000.
The Charter of 1600 granted the East India Company the exclusive privilege of trading east of the Cape of Good Hope for a period of 15 years. The Company was a strictly closed corporation or a monopoly. In India, a factory of the Company was generally a fortified area within which the warehouse (stores), offices and houses of the Company’s employees were situated. It is to be noted that no manufacture was carried on in this ‘factory’.
The Company’s servants were paid very low salaries. Their real income for which they were so keen to take service in India, came from the permission the Company granted them to carry on private trade within the country while trade between India and Europe was reserved for the Company.
The Anglo-French Struggle In South India
The English East India Company’s schemes of territorial conquests and political domination, which had been frustrated by Aurangzeb at the end of the seventeenth century, were revived during 1740s because of the visible decline of Mughal power. Nadir Shah’s invasion had revealed the decay of the central authority. But there was not much scope for foreign penetration in western India where the vigorous Marathas held sway and in eastern India where Alivardi Khan maintained strict control. In southern India, however, conditions were gradually becoming favourable to foreign adventurers. While central authority had disappeared from there after Aurangzeb’s death, the strong hand of Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah was also withdrawn by his death in 1748. Moreover, the Maratha chiefs regularly invaded Hyderabad and the rest of the south collecting chauth. These raids resulted in politically unsettled conditions and administrative disorganisation. The Carnatic was embroiled in fratricidal wars of succession.
These conditions gave the foreigners an opportunity to expand their political influence and control over the affairs of the south Indian states. But the English were not alone in putting forward commercial and political claims. While they had, by the end of the seventeenth century, eliminated their Portuguese and Dutch rivals, France had appeared as a new rival. For nearly 20 years from 1744 to 1763 the French and the English were to wage a bitter war for control over the trade, wealth and territory of India.
The French East India Company was founded in 1664. It was firmly established at Chandernagore near Calcutta and Pondicherry on the east coast. The latter was full fortified. The French Company had some other factories at several ports on the east and the west coasts. It had also acquired control over the islands of Mauritius and Reunion in the Indian Ocean.
The French East India Company was heavily dependent on the French government which helped it by giving it treasury grants, subsidies and loans, and in various other ways. Consequently, it was largely controlled by the government which appointed its directors after 1723. State control of the Company proved quite harmful to it. The French state of the time was autocratic, semi-feudal, and unpopular and suffered from corruption, inefficiency, and instability. Instead of being forward-looking it was decadent, bound by tradition, and in general unsuited to the times. Control by such a state could not but be injurious to the interests of the Company.
In 1742, war broke out in Europe between France and England. The war in Europe between England and France soon spread to India where the two East India Companies clashed with each other. In 1748, the general war between England and France ended. Though War had ended, the rivalry in trade and over the possessions in India continued and had to be decided one way or the other.
Dupleix, the French Governor-General at Pondicherry at this time, now evolved the strategy of using the well disciplined, modern French army to intervene in the mutual quarrels of the Indian princes and, by supporting one against the other, securing monetary, commercial or territorial favours from the victor. Thus, he planned to use the resources and armies of the local rajas, nawabs, and chiefs to serve the interests of the French Company and to expel the English from India. The only barrier to the success of this strategy could have been the refusal of Indian rulers to permit such foreign intervention. But the Indian rulers were guided not by patriotism, but by narrowminded pursuit of personal ambition and gain. They had little hesitation in inviting the foreigners to help them settle accounts with their internal rivals.
In 1748, a situation arose in the Carnatic and Hyderabad which gave full scope to Dupleix’s talents for intrigue. In the Carnatic, Chanda Sahib began to conspire against Nawab Anwaruddin, while in Hyderabad the death of Asaf Jah, Nizam-ul-Mulk, was followed by civil war between his son Nasir Jang and his grandson Muzaffar Jang. Dupleix seized this opportunity and concluded a secret treaty with Chanda Sahib and Muzaffar Jang to help them with his welltrained French and Indian forces. In 1749, the three allies defeated and killed Anwaruddin in a battle at Ambur. The tetter’s son, Muhammad Ali, fled to Trichinopoly. The rest of the Carnatic passed under the dominion of Chanda Sahib who rewarded the French with a grant of 80 villages around Pondicherry.
In Hyderabad too, the French were successful. Nasir Jang was killed and Muzaffar Jang became the Nizam or Viceroy of the Deccan. The new Nizam rewarded the French Company by giving it territories near Pondicherry as well as the famous town of Masulipatam. He gave a sum of Rs 500,000 to the Company and another Rs 500,000 to its troops. Dupleix received Rs 2,000,000 and a jagir worth Rs 100,000 a year. Moreover, he was made honorary governor of Mughal dominions on the east coast from the river Krishna to Kanya Kumari. Dupleix stationed his best officer, Bussy, at Hyderabad with a French army. While the ostensible purpose of this arrangement was to protect the Nizam from enemies, it was really aimed at maintaining French influence at his court. While Muzaffar Jang was marching towards his capital, he was accidentally killed. Bussy immediately raised Salabat Jang, the third son of Nizam-ul-Mulk, to the throne. In return, the new Nizam granted the French the area in Andhra known as the Northern Sarkars, consisting of the four districts of Mustafanagar, Ellore, Rajahmundry and Chicacole.
The French power in south India was now at its height. Dupleix’s plans had succeeded beyond his dreams. The French had started out by trying to win Indian states as friends; they had ended by making them clients or satellites.
But the English had not been silent spectators of their rival’s successes. To offset French influence and to increase their own, they had been intriguing with Nasir Jang and Muhammad Ali. In 1750, they decided to throw their entire strength behind Muhammad Ali. Robert Clive, a young clerk in the Company’s service, proposed that French pressure on Muhammad Ali, besieged at Trichinopoly, could be released by attacking Arcot, the capital of the Carnatic. The proposal was accepted and Clive assaulted and occupied Arcot with only 200 English and 300 Indian soldiers. As expected, Chanda Sahib and the French were compelled to raise the seige of Trichinopoly. The French forces were repeatedly defeated. Chanda Sahib was soon captured and killed. The French fortunes were now at an ebb as their army and its generals had proved unequal to their English counterparts. In the end, the French government, weary of the heavy expense of the war in India and fearing the loss of its American colonies, initiated peace negotiations and agreed in 1754 to the English demand for the recall of Dupleix from India. This was to prove a big blow to the fortunes of the French Company in India.
The temporary peace between the two Companies ended in 1756 when another war between England and France broke out. In the very beginning of the war, the English managed to gain control over Bengal. This has been discussed later in this chapter. After this event, there was little hope for the French cause in India. The rich resources of Bengal turned the scales decisively in favour of the English. The decisive battle of the war was fought at Wandiwash on 22 January 1760 when the English general, Eyre Coot, defeated Lally. Within a year the French had lost all their possessions in India. The war ended in 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The French factories in India were restored but they could no longer be fortified or even adequately garrisoned with troops. They could serve only as centres of trade; and now the French lived in India under British protection. The English, on the other hand, ruled the Indian sea. Freed of all European rivals, they could now set about the task of conquering India.
During their struggle with the French and their Indian allies, the English learnt a few important and valuable lessons. First, in the absence of nationalism in the country, they could advance their political schemes by taking advantage of the mutual quarrels of the Indian rulers. Second, the Western trained infantry, European or Indian, armed with modern weapons and backed by artillery could defeat the old-style Indian armies with ease in pitched battles. Third, it was proved that the Indian soldier trained and armed in the European manner made as good a soldier as the European. And since the Indian soldier too lacked a feeling of nationalism, he could be hired and employed by anyone who was willing to pay him well. The English now set out to create a powerful army consisting of Indian soldiers, called sepoys, and officered by Englishmen. With this army as its chief instrument and the vast resources of Indian trade and territories under its command, the English East India Company embarked on an era of wars and territorial expansion.
British Occupation of Bengal
The beginnings of British political sway over India may be traced to the battle of Plassey in 1757, when the English East India Company’s forces defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal. The earlier British struggle with the French in south India had been but a dress rehearsal. The lessons learnt there were profitably applied in Bengal.
Bengal was the most fertile and the richest of India’s provinces. Its industries and commerce were well developed. The East India Company and its servants had highly profitable trading interests in the province. The Company had secured valuable privileges in 1717 under a royal farman by the Mughal emperor, which had granted the Company the freedom to export and import their goods in Bengal without paying taxes and the right to issue passes or dastaks for the movement of such goods. The Company’s servants were also permitted to trade but were not covered by this farman. They were required to pay the same taxes as Indian merchants. This farman was a perpetual source of conflict between the Company and the Nawabs of Bengal. For one, it meant loss of revenue to the Bengal government. Second, the power to issue dastaks for the Company’s goods was misused by the Company’s servants to evade taxes on their private trade. All the Nawabs of Bengal, from Murshid Quli Khan to Alivardi Khan, had objected to the English interpretation of the farman of 1717. They had compelled the Company to pay lump sums to their treasury, and firmly suppressed the misuse of dastaks. The Company had been compelled to accept the authority of the Nawabs in the matter, but its servants had taken every opportunity to evade and defy this authority.
Matters came to a head in 1756 when the young and quick tempered Siraj-ud-Daulah succeeded his grandfather, Alivardi Khan. He demanded of the English that they should trade on the same basis as in the times of Murshid Quli Khan. The English refused to comply as they felt strong after their victory over the French in south India. Instead of agreeing to pay taxes on their goods to the Nawab, they levied heavy duties on Indian goods entering Calcutta which was under their control. All this naturally annoyed and angered the young Nawab who also suspected that the Company was hostile to him and was favouring his rivals for the throne of Bengal. The breaking point came when, without taking the Nawab’s permission, the Company began to fortify Calcutta in expectation of the coming struggle with the French, who were stationed at this time at Chandernagore. Siraj rightly interpreted this action as an attack upon his sovereignty. How could an independent ruler permit a private company of merchants to build forts or to carry on private wars on his land? In other words, Siraj was willing to let the Europeans remain as merchants but not as masters. He ordered both the English and the French to demolish their fortifications at Calcutta and Chandernagore and to desist from fighting each other. While the French Company obeyed his order, the English Company refused to do so, for its ambition had been whetted and its confidence enhanced by its victories in the Carnatic. It was now determined to remain in Bengal even against the wishes of the Nawab and to trade there on its own terms. It had acknowledged the British government’s right to control all its activities; it had quietly accepted restrictions on its trade and power imposed in Britain by the British government; its right to trade with the East had been extinguished by the Parliament in 1693 when its Charter was withdrawn; it had paid huge bribes to the King, the Parliament, and the politicians of Britain (in one year alone, it had to pay £80,000 in bribes). Nevertheless the English Company demanded the absolute right to trade freely in Bengal irrespective of the Bengal Nawab’s orders. This amounted to a direct challenge to the Nawab’s sovereignty. No ruler could possibly accept this position. Siraj-ud-Daulah had the statesmanship to see the longterm implications of the English designs. He decided to make them obey the laws of the land.
Acting with great energy but with undue haste and inadequate preparation, Siraj-ud-Daulah seized the English factory at Kasimbazar, marched on to Calcutta, and occupied Fort William on 20 June 1756. He then retired from Calcutta to celebrate his easy victory, letting the English escape with their ships. This was a mistake for he had underestimated the strength of his enemy.
The English officials took refuge at Fulta near the sea protected by their naval superiority. Here they waited for aid from Madras and, in meantime, organised a web of intrigue and treachery with the leading men of the Nawab’s court. Chief among these were Mir Jafar, the Mir Bakshi, Manick Chand, the Officer-in-Charge of Calcutta, Amichand, a rich merchant, Jagat Seth, the biggest banker of Bengal, and Khadim Khan, who commanded a large number of the Nawab’s troops. From Madras came a strong naval and military force under Admiral Watson and Colonel Clive. Clive reconquered Calcutta in the beginning of 1757 and compelled the Nawab to concede all the demands of the English.
The English, however, were not satisfied; they were aiming high. They had decided to instal a more pliant tool in Siraj-ud-Daulah’s place. Having joined a conspiracy organised by the enemies of the young Nawab to place Mir Jafar on the throne of Bengal, they presented the youthful Nawab with an impossible set of demands. Both sides realised that a war to the finish would have to be fought between them. They met for battle on the field of Plassey, about 30 km from Murshidabad, on 23 June 1757. The fateful battle of Plassey was a battle only in name. In all, the English lost 29 men while the Nawab lost nearly 500. The major part of the Nawab’s army, led by the traitors Mir Jafar and Rai Durlabh, took no part in the fighting. Only a small group of the Nawab’s soldiers led by Mir Madan and Mohan Lal fought bravely and well. The Nawab was forced to flee and was captured and put to death by Mir Jafar’s son Miran.
The battle of Plassey was followed, in the words of the Bengali poet Nabin Chandra Sen, by “a night of eternal gloom for India”. The English proclaimed Mir Jafar the Nawab of Bengal and set out to gather the reward. The Company was granted undisputed right to free trade in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. It also received the zamindari of the 24 Parganas near Calcutta. Mir Jafar paid a sum of Rs 17,700,000 as compensation for the attack on Calcutta to the Company and the traders of the city. In addition, he paid large sums as ‘gifts’ or bribes to the high officials of the Company. Clive, for example, received over two million rupees, Watts over one million. Clive later estimated that the Company and its servants had collected more than 30 million rupees from the puppet Nawab. It was also understood that British merchants and officials would no longer be asked to pay any taxes on their private trade.
The battle of Plassey was of immense historical importance. It paved the way for the British mastery of Bengal and eventually of the whole of India. It boosted British prestige and at a single stroke raised them to the status of a major contender for the Indian empire. The rich revenues of Bengal enabled them to organise a strong army and meet the cost of the conquest of the rest of the country. Control over Bengal played a decisive role in the Anglo-French struggle. Lastly, the victory of Plassey enabled the Company and its servants to amass untold wealth at the cost of the helpless people of Bengal. As British historians, Edward Thompson and G.T. Garrett, have remarked:
To engineer a revolution had been revealed as the most paying game in the world. A gold lust unequalled since the hysteria that took hold of the Spaniards of Cortes’ and Pizarro’s age filled the English mind. Bengal in particular was not to know peace again until it had been bled white.
Even though Mir Jafar owed his position to the Company, he soon repented the bargain he had struck. His treasury was quickly emptied by the demands of the Company’s officials for presents and bribes, the lead in the matter being given by Clive himself. As Colonel Malleson has put it, the single aim of the Company’s officials was “to grasp all they could; to use Mir Jafar as a golden sack into which they could dip their hands at pleasure”. The Company itself was seized with unsurpassable greed. Believing that the kamdhenu had been found and that the wealth of Bengal was inexhaustible, the directors of the Company ordered that Bengal should pay the expenses of the Bombay and Madras Presidencies and purchase out of its revenue all the Company’s exports from India. The Company was no longer to merely trade with India, it was to use its control over the Nawab of Bengal to drain the wealth of the province.
Mir Jafar soon discovered that it was impossible to meet the full demands of the Company and its officials who, on their part, began to criticise the Nawab for his incapacity in fulfilling their expectations. And so, in October 1760, they forced him to abdicate in favour of his son-in-law, Mir Qasim, who rewarded his benefactors by granting the Company the zamindari of the districts of Burdwan, Midnapore, and Chittagong, and giving handsome presents totalling 29 lakhs of rupees to the high English officials.
Mir Qasim, however, belied English hopes, and soon emerged as a threat to their position and designs in Bengal. He was an able, efficient, and strong ruler, determined to free himself from foreign control. He realised that a full treasury and an efficient army were essential to maintain his independence. He, therefore, tried to prevent public disorder, to increase his income by removing corruption from revenue administration, and to raise a modern and disciplined army along European lines. All this was not to the liking of the English. Most of all they disliked the Nawab’s attempts to check the misuse of the farman of 1717 by the Company’s servants, who demanded that their goods whether destined for export or for internal use should be free of duties. This injured the Indian merchants as they had to pay taxes from which the foreigners got complete exemption. Moreover, the Company’s servants illegally sold the dastaks or free passes to friendly Indian merchants who were thereby able to evade the internal customs duties. These abuses ruined the honest Indian traders through unfair competition and deprived the Nawab of a very important source of revenue. In addition to this, the Company and its servants forced the Indian officials and zamindars to give them presents and bribes. They compelled the Indian artisans, peasants and merchants to sell their goods cheap but buy dear from them. People who refused were often flogged or imprisoned. These years have been described by a recent British historian, Percival Spear, as “the period of open and unashamed plunder”. In fact the prosperity for which Bengal was renowned was being gradually destroyed.
Mir Qasim realised that if these abuses continued he could never hope to make Bengal strong or free himself of the Company’s control. He, therefore, took the drastic step of abolishing all duties on internal trade, thus giving his own subjects a concession that the English had seized by force. But the alien merchants were not willing to tolerate equality between themselves and Indians. They demanded the reimposition of duties on Indian traders. The battle was about to begin again. The truth of the matter was that there could not exist two masters in Bengal. While Mir Qasim believed that he was an independent ruler, the English demanded that he should act as a mere tool in their hands, for had they not put him in power?
Mir Qasim was defeated in a series of battles in 1763 and fled to Awadh where he formed an alliance with Shuja-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Awadh, and Shah Alam II, the fugitive Mughal emperor. The three allies clashed with the Company’s army at Buxar on 22 October 1764 and were thoroughly defeated. This was one of the most decisive battles of Indian history for it demonstrated the superiority of English arms over the combined army of two of the major Indian powers. It firmly established the British as masters of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and placed Awadh at their mercy.
Clive, who had returned to Bengal in 1765 as its Governor, decided to seize the chance of power in Bengal and to gradually transfer the authority of government from the Nawab to the Company. In 1763, the British had restored Mir Jafar as Nawab and collected huge sums for the Company and its high officials. On Mir Jafar’s death, they placed his second son Nizam-ud-Daulah on the throne and as a reward to themselves made him sign a new treaty on 20 February 1765. By this treaty the Nawab was to disband most of his army and to administer Bengal through a Deputy Subahdar who was to be nominated by the Company and who could not be dismissed without its approval. The Company thus gained supreme control over the administration (or nizamat) of Bengal. The members of the Bengal Council of the Company once again extracted nearly 15 lakhs of rupees from the new Nawab.
From Shah Alam II, who was still the titular head of the Mughal empire, the Company secured the Diwani, or the right to collect revenue of Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. Thus, its control over Bengal was legalised and the revenues of this most prosperous of Indian provinces placed at its command. In return, the Company gave him a subsidy of 26 lakhs of rupees and secured for him the districts of Kora and Allahabad. The emperor resided in the fort of Allahabad for six years as a virtual prisoner of the English.
The Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-Daulah, was made to pay a war indemnity of five million rupees to the Company. Moreover, the two signed an alliance by which the Company promised to support the Nawab against an outside attack provided he paid for the services of the troops sent to his aid. This alliance made the Nawab a dependent of the Company.
Dual System of Administration of Bengal
The East India Company became the real master of Bengal at least from 1765. Its army was in sole control of its defence and the supreme political power was in its hands. The Nawab depended for his internal and external security on the British. As the Diwan, the Company directly collected its revenues, while through the right to nominate the Deputy Subahdar, it controlled the nizamat or the police and judicial powers. This arrangement is known in history as the ‘dual’ or ‘double’ government. It held a great advantage for the British: they had power without responsibility. The Nawab and his officials had the responsibility of administration but not the power to discharge it. The weaknesses of the government could be blamed on the Indians while its fruits were gathered by the British. The consequences for the people of Bengal were disastrous: neither the Company nor the Nawab cared for their welfare.
The Company’s servants now had the whole of Bengal to themselves and their oppression of the people increased greatly. We can quote Clive himself:
I shall only say that such a scene of anarchy, confusion, bribery, corruption, and extortion was never seen or heard of in any country but Bengal; nor such and so many fortunes acquired in so unjust and rapacious a manner. The three provinces of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, producing a clear revenue of £3 millions sterling, have been under the absolute management of the Company’s servants, ever since Mir Jafar’s restoration to the subahship; and they have, both civil and military, exacted and levied contributions from every man of power and consequence, from the Nawab down to the lowest zamindar.
The Company’s authorities on their part set out to gather the rich harvest and drain Bengal of its wealth. They stopped sending money from England to purchase Indian goods. Instead, they purchased these goods from the revenues of Bengal and sold them abroad. These were known as the Company ’s Investment and formed a part of its profits. On top of all this the British government wanted its share of the rich prize and, in 1767, ordered the Company to pay it £400,000 per year.
In the years 1766, 1767 and 1768 alone, nearly £5.7 million were drained from Bengal. The abuses of the ‘dual’ government and the drain of wealth led to the impoverishment and exhaustion of that unlucky province. In 1770, Bengal suffered from a famine which in its effects proved one of the most terrible famines known in human history. People died in lakhs and nearly one-third of Bengal’s population fell victim to its ravages. Though the famine was due to failure of the rains, its effects were heightened by the Company’s policies.
Wars Under Warren Hastings (1772–85) and Cornwallis (1786–93)
The East India Company had by 1772 become an important Indian power and its directors in England and its officials in India set out to consolidate their control over Bengal before beginning a new round of conquests. However, their habit of interfering in the internal affairs of the Indian states and their lust for territory and money soon involved them in a series of wars.
In 1766 they joined the Nizam of Hyderabad in attacking Haidar Ali of Mysore. But Haidar Ali forced the Madras Council to sign a peace-treaty on his terms. Then, in 1775, the English clashed with the Marathas. An intense struggle for power was taking place at that time among the Marathas between the supporters of the infant Peshwa Madhav Rao II, led by Nana Phadnis, and Raghunath Rao. The British officials in Bombay decided to intervene on behalf of Raghunath Rao. They hoped thus to repeat the exploits of their countrymen in Madras and Bengal and reap the consequent monetary advantages. This involved them in a long war with the Marathas which lasted from 1775 to 1782.
This was a dark hour indeed for British power in India. All the Maratha chiefs were united behind the Peshwa and his chief minister, Nana Phadnis. The southern Indian powers had long been resenting the presence of the British among them, and Haidar Ali and the Nizam chose this moment to declare war against the Company. Thus the British were faced with the powerful combination of the Marathas, Mysore and Hyderabad. Abroad, they were waging a losing war in their colonies in America where the people had rebelled in 1776. They also had to counter the determined design of the French to exploit the difficulties of their old rival.
The British in India were, however, led at this time by the energetic, and experienced Governor-General Warren Hastings. He acted with firm resolve and determination. Neither side won victory and the war came to a standstill. Peace was concluded in 1782 with the Treaty of Salbai by which the status quo was maintained. It saved the British from the combined opposition of Indian powers.
This war, known in history as the First Anglo-Maratha war, did not end in victory for either side. But it did give the British 20 years of peace with the Marathas, the strongest Indian power of the day. The British utilised this period to consolidate their rule over the Bengal Presidency, while the Maratha chiefs frittered away their energy in bitter mutual squabbles. Moreover, the Treaty of Salbai enabled the British to exert pressure on Mysore, as the Marathas promised to help them in recovering their territories from Haidar Ali. Once again, the British had succeeded in dividing the Indian powers.
In the meanwhile, war with Haidar Ali had again started in 1780. Repeating his earlier exploits, Haidar Ali inflicted one defeat after another on the British armies in the Carnatic and forced them to surrender in large numbers. He soon occupied almost the whole of the Carnatic. But once again British arms and diplomacy saved the day. Warren Hastings bribed the Nizam with the cession of Guntur district and gained his withdrawal from the anti-British alliance. During 1781–82 he made peace with the Marathas and thus freed a large part of his army for use against Mysore. In July 1781 the British army under Eyre Coote defeated Haidar Ali at Porto Novo and saved Madras. After Haidar Ali’s death in December 1782, the war was carried on by his son, Tipu Sultan. Since neither side was capable of overpowering the other, peace was signed by them in March 1784 and both sides restored all conquests. Thus, though the British had been shown to be too weak to defeat either the Marathas or Mysore, they had certainly proved their ability to hold their own in India.
The third British encounter with Mysore was more fruitful from the British point of view. The peace of 1784 had not removed the grounds for struggle between Tipu and the British; it had merely postponed the struggle. The authorities of the East India Company were acutely hostile to Tipu. They looked upon him as their most formidable rival in the south and as the chief obstacle standing between them and complete domination over South India. Tipu, on his part, thoroughly disliked the English, saw them as the chief danger to his own independence and nursed the ambition to expel them from India. War between the two began again in 1789 and ended in Tipu’s defeat in 1792. By the treaty of Seringapatam, Tipu ceded half of his territories to the English and their allies and paid 330 lakhs of rupees as indemnity.
Expansion Under Lord Wellesley (1798–1805)
The next large-scale expansion of British rule in India occurred during the Governor-Generalship of Lord Wellesley who came to India in 1798 at a time when the British were locked in a life-and- death struggle with France all over the world.
Till then, the British had followed the policy of consolidating their gains and resources in India and making territorial gains only when this could be done safely without antagonising the major Indian powers. Lord Wellesley decided that the time was ripe for bringing as many Indian states as possible under British control. By 1797 the two strongest Indian powers, Mysore and the Marathas, had declined in power. Political conditions in India were propitious for a policy of expansion: aggression was easy as well as profitable.
To achieve his political aims Wellesley relied on three methods: the system of ‘Subsidiary Alliances’, outright war, and the assumption of the territories of previously subordinated rulers. While the practice of helping an Indian ruler with a paid British force was quite old, it was given definite shape by Wellesley who used it to subordinate the Indian states to the paramount authority of the Company. Under his Subsidiary Alliance system, the ruler of the allying Indian state was compelled to accept the permanent stationing of a British force within his territory and to pay a subsidy for its maintenance. All this was done allegedly for his protection but was, in fact, a form through which the Indian ruler paid tribute to the Company. Sometimes the ruler ceded part of his territory instead of paying annual subsidy. The ‘Subsidiary Treaty’ usually also provided that the Indian ruler would agree to the posting at his court of a British Resident, that he would not employ any European in his service without the approval of the British, and that he would not negotiate with any other Indian ruler without consulting the Governor-General. In return, the British undertook to defend the ruler from his enemies. They also promised non-interference in the internal affairs of the allied state, but this was a promise they seldom kept.
In reality, by signing a Subsidiary Alliance, an Indian state virtually signed away its independence. It lost the right of self-defence, of maintaining diplomatic relations, of employing foreign experts, and of settling its disputes with its neighbours. In fact, the Indian ruler lost all vestiges of sovereignty in external matters and became increasingly subservient to the British Resident, who interfered in the day-to-day administration of the state. In addition, the system tended to bring about the internal decay of the protected state. The cost of the subsidiary force provided by the British was very high and, in fact, much beyond the paying capacity of the state. The payment of the arbitrarily-fixed and artificially-bloated subsidy invariably disrupted the economy of the state and impoverished its people. The system of Subsidiary Alliances also led to the disbandment of the armies of the protected states. Lakhs of soldiers and officers were deprived of their livelihood, spreading misery and degradation in the country. Moreover, the rulers of the protected states tended to neglect the interests of their people and to oppress them as they no longer feared them. They had no incentive to be good rulers as they were fully protected by the British from domestic and foreign enemies.
The Subsidiary Alliance system was, on the other hand, extremely advantageous to the British. They could now maintain a large army at the cost of the Indian states. This enabled them to fight wars far away from their own territories, since any war would occur in the territories either of the British ally or of the British enemy. They controlled the defence and foreign relations of the protected ally, and had a powerful force stationed at the very heart of his lands, and could, therefore, at a time of their choosing, overthrow him and annex his territories by declaring him to be ‘inefficient’. As far as the British were concerned, the system of Subsidiary Alliances was, in the words of a British writer, “a system of fattening allies as we fatten oxen, till they were worthy of being devoured”.
Lord Wellesley signed his Subsidiary Treaties with the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1798 and 1800. In lieu of cash payment for the subsidiary forces, the Nizam ceded part of his territories to the Company.
The Nawab of Awadh was forced to sign a Subsidiary Treaty in 1801. In return for a larger subsidiary force, the Nawab was made to surrender to the British nearly half of his kingdom, consisting of Rohilkhand and the territory lying between the Ganga and the Jamuna. His own army was virtually disbanded and the British had the right to station their troops in any part of his state.
Wellesley dealt with Mysore, Carnatic, Tanjore and Surat even more sternly. Tipu of Mysore would, of course, never agree to a Subsidiary Treaty. On the contrary, he was not reconciled to the loss of half of his territory in 1792. He worked incessantly to strengthen his forces for the inevitable struggle with the British, He entered into negotiations for an alliance with Revolutionary France. He sent missions to Afghanistan, Arabia and Turkey to forge an anti-British alliance.
The British army attacked and defeated Tipu in a brief but fierce war in 1799, before French help could reach him. Tipu still refused to beg for peace on humiliating terms. He proudly declared that it was “better to die like a soldier, than to live a miserable dependent on the infidels, in the list of their pensioned rajas and nabobs”. He met a hero’s end on 4 May 1799 while defending his capital Seringapatam. His army remained loyal to him to the very end.
Nearly half ofTipu’s dominions were divided between the British and their ally, the Nizam. The reduced Kingdom of Mysore was restored to the descendants of the original rajas from whom Haidar Ali had seized power. A special treaty of Subsidiary Alliance was imposed on the new raja by which the Governor-General was authorised to take over the administration of the state in case of necessity. Mysore was, in fact, made a complete dependency of the Company.
In 1801, Lord Wellesley forced a new treaty upon the puppet Nawab of Carnatic compelling him to cede his kingdom to the Company in return for a pension. The Madras Presidency as it existed till 1947 was now created, by attaching the Carnatic to territories seized from Mysore, including the Malabar. Similarly, the territories of the rulers of Tanjore and Surat were taken over and their rulers pensioned off.
The Marathas were the only major Indian power left outside the sphere of British control. Wellesley now turned his attention towards them and began aggressive interference in their internal affairs.
The Maratha empire at this time consisted of a confederacy of five big chiefs, namely, the Peshwa at Poona, the Gaekwad at Baroda, the Sindhia at Gwalior, the Holkar at Indore and the Bhonsle at Nagpur, the Peshwa being the nominal head of the confederacy. But all of them were engaged in bitter fratricidal strife, blind to the real danger from the rapidly advancing foreigner.
Wellesley had repeatedly offered a Subsidiary Alliance to the Peshwa and Sindhia. But the far-sighted Nana Phadnis had refused to fall into the trap. However, when on 25 October 1802, the day of the great festival of Diwali, Holkar defeated the combined armies of the Peshwa and Sindhia, the cowardly Peshwa Baji Rao II rushed into the arms of the English and on the fateful last day of 1802 signed the Subsidiary Treaty at Bassein.
The victory had been a little too easy and Wellesley was wrong in one respect: the proud Maratha chiefs would not surrender their great tradition of independence without a struggle. But even in this moment of their peril they would not unite against their common enemy. When Sindhia and Bhonsle fought the British, Holkar stood on the sidelines and Gaekwad gave help to the British. When Holkar took up arms, Bhonsle and Sindhia nursed their wounds.
In the south, the British armies led by Arthur Wellesley defeated the combined armies of Sindhia and Bhonsle at Assaye in September 1803 and at Argaon in November. In the north, Lord Lake routed Sindhia’s army at Laswari on the first of November and occupied Aligarh, Delhi and Agra. Once again the blind emperor of India became a pensioner of the Company. The Maratha allies had to sue for peace. Both Sindhia and Bhonsle became subsidiary allies of the Company. They ceded part of their territories to the British, admitted British Residents to their courts and promised not to employ any Europeans without British approval. The British gained complete control over the Orissa coast and the territories between the Ganga and the Jamuna. The Peshwa became a disgruntled puppet in their hands.
Wellesley now turned his attention towards Holkar, but Yeshwant Rao Holkar proved more than a match for the British and fought British armies to a standstill. Holkar’s ally, the Raja of Bharatpur, inflicted heavy losses on Lake who unsuccessfully attempted to storm his fort. Moreover, overcoming his age-old antagonism to the Holkar family, Sindhia began to think of joining hands with Holkar. On the other hand, the shareholders of the East India Company discovered that the policy of expansion through war was proving costly and was reducing their profits. The Company’s debt had increased from £17 million in 1797 to £31 million in 1806. Moreover, Britain’s finances were getting exhausted at a time when Napoleon was once again becoming a major threat in Europe. British statesmen and the directors of the Company felt that time had come to check further expansion, to put an end to ruinous expenditure, and to digest and consolidate Britain’s recent gains in India. Wellesley was, therefore, recalled from India and the Company made peace with Holkar in January 1806 by the treaty of Raighat, giving back to the Holkar the greater part of his territories.
Wellesley’s expansionist policy had been checked near the end. All the same, it had resulted in the East India Company becoming the paramount power in India. A young officer in the Company’s judicial service, Henry Roberclaw, wrote (about 1805):
An Englishman in India is proud and tenacious, he feels himself a conqueror amongst a vanquished people and looks down with some degree of superiority on all below him.
Expansion Under Lord Hastings (1813–22)
The Second Anglo-Maratha War had shattered the power of the Maratha chiefs but not their spirit. They made a desperate last attempt to regain their independence and old prestige in 1817. The lead in organising a united front of the Maratha chiefs was taken by the Peshwa who was smarting under the rigid control exercised by the British Resident. The Peshwa attacked the British Residency at Poona in November 1817. Appa Sahib of Nagpur attacked the Residency at Nagpur, and Madhav Rao Holkar made preparations for war.
The Governor-General, Lord Hastings, struck back with characteristic vigour. He compelled Sindhia to accept British suzerainty, and defeated the armies of the Peshwa, Bhonsle and Holkar. The Peshwa was dethroned and pensioned off at Bithur near Kanpur. His territories were annexed and the enlarged Presidency of Bombay brought into existence. Holkar and Bhonsle accepted Subsidiary forces. To satisfy Maratha pride, the small Kingdom of Satara was founded out of the Peshwa’s lands and given to the descendant of Chatrapati Shivaji who ruled it as a complete dependent of the British. Like other rulers of Indian states, the Maratha chiefs too existed from now on at the mercy of British power.
The Rajputana states had been dominated for several decades by Sindhia and Holkar. After the downfall of the Marathas, they lacked the energy to reassert their independence and readily accepted British supremacy.
Thus, by 1818, the entire Indian subcontinent excepting the Punjab and Sindh had been brought under British control. Part of it was ruled directly by the British and the rest by a host of Indian rulers over whom the British exercised paramount power. These states had virtually no armed forces of their own, nor did they have any independent foreign relations. They paid heavily for the British forces stationed in their territories to control them. They were autonomous in their internal affairs, but even in this respect they acknowledged British authority wielded through a Resident. They were on perpetual probation.
The Consolidation of British Power (1818–57)
The British completed the task of conquering the whole of India from 1818 to 1857. Sindh and the Punjab were conquered and Awadh, the Central Provinces and a large number of other petty states were annexed.
The Conquest of Sindh
The conquest of Sindh occurred as a result of the growing Anglo- Russian rivalry in Europe and Asia and the consequent British fears that Russia might attack India through Afghanistan or Persia. To counter Russia, the British government decided to increase its influence in Afghanistan and Persia. It further felt that this policy could be successfully pursued only if Sindh was brought under British control. The commercial possibilities of the river Sindh were an additional attraction.
The roads and rivers of Sindh were opened to British trade by a treaty in 1832. The chiefs of Sindh, known as Amirs, were made to sign a Subsidiary Treaty in 1839. And finally, in spite of previous assurances that its territorial integrity would be respected, Sindh was annexed in 1843 after a brief campaign by Sir Charles Napier who had earlier written in his diary: “We have no right to seize Sind, yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful humane piece of rascality it will be”. He received seven lakhs of rupees as prize money for accomplishing the task.
The Conquest of The Punjab
The death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in June 1839 was followed by political instability and rapid changes of government in the Punjab. Selfish and corrupt leaders came to the front. Ultimately, power fell into the hands of the brave and patriotic but utterly indisciplined army. This led the British to look greedily across the Sutlej upon the land of the five rivers, even though they had signed a treaty of perpetual friendship with Ranjit Singh in 1809.
The Punjab army let itself be provoked by the warlike actions of the British and their intrigues with the corrupt chiefs of the Punjab. In the autumn of 1845, news reached Punjab that boats designed to form bridges had been despatched from Bombay to Ferozepur on the Sutlej. Barracks for additional troops were built in the forward area and additional regiments began to be despatched to the frontier with the Punjab. The Punjab army, now convinced that the British were determined to occupy the Punjab, took counter measures. When it heard in December that Lord Gough, the Commander-in-Chief, and Lord Hardinge, the Governor-General, were marching towards Ferozepur, it decided to strike. War between the two was thus declared on 13 December 1845. The danger from the foreigner immediately united the Hindus, the Muslims and the Sikhs. The Punjab army fought heroically and with exemplary courage. But some of its leaders had already turned traitors. The Prime Minister, Raja Lal Singh, and the Commander-in-Chief, Misar Tej Singh were secretly corresponding with the enemy. The Punjab army was forced to concede defeat and to sign the humiliating Treaty of Lahore on 8 March 1846. The British annexed the Jullundhar Doab and handed over Jammu and Kashmir to Raja Gulab Singh Dogra for a cash payment of five million rupees. The Punjab army was reduced to 20,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry and a strong British force was stationed at Lahore.
Later, on 16 December 1846, another treaty was signed giving the British Resident at Lahore full authority over all matters in every department of the state. Moreover, the British were permitted to station their troops in any part of the state. From now on the British Resident became the real ruler of the Punjab which lost its independence and became a vassal state.
But the aggressively imperialist sections of British officialdom in India were still unsatisfied, for they wanted to impose direct British rule over the Punjab. Their opportunity came in 1848 when the freedom-loving Punjabis rose up in numerous local revolts. Two of the prominent revolts were led by Mulraj at Multan and Chattar Singh Attariwala near Lahore. The Punjabis were once again decisively defeated. Lord Dalhousie seized this opportunity to annex the Punjab. Thus, the last independent state of India was absorbed in the British Empire of India.
Dalhousie and The Policy of Annexation (1848–56)
Lord Dalhousie came out to India as the Governor-General in 1848. He was from the beginning determined to extend direct British rule over as large an area as possible. He had declared that “the extinction of all native states of India is just a question of time”. The underlying motive of this policy was the expansion of British exports to India. Dalhousie, like other aggressive imperialists, believed that British exports to the native states of India were suffering because of the maladministration of these states by their Indian rulers. Moreover, they thought that their ‘Indian allies’ had already served the purpose of facilitating British conquest of India and could now be got rid of profitably.
The chief instrument through which Lord Dalhousie implemented his policy of annexation was the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’. Under this Doctrine, when the ruler of a protected state died without a natural heir, his state was not to pass to an adopted heir as sanctioned by the age-old tradition of the country. Instead, it was to be annexed to British India, unless the adoption had been clearly approved earlier by the British authorities. Many states, including Satara in 1848 and Nagpur and Jhansi in 1854, were annexed by applying this doctrine.
Dalhousie also refused to recognise the titles of many ex-rulers or pay their pensions. Thus, the titles of the Nawabs of Carnatic and of Surat, and the Raja of Tanjore were cancelled. Similarly, after the death of the ex-Peshwa Baji Rao II, who had been made the Raja of Bithur, Dalhousie refused to extend his pay or pension to his adopted son, Nana Saheb.
Dalhousie was keen on annexing the kingdom of Awadh. But the task presented certain difficulties. For one, the Nawabs of Awadh had been British allies since the Battle of Buxar. Moreover, they had been most obedient to the British over the years. The Nawab of Awadh had many heirs and could not therefore be covered by the Doctrine of Lapse. Some other pretext had to be found for depriving him of his dominions. Finally, Lord Dalhousie hit upon the idea of alleviating the plight of the people of Awadh. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was accused of having misgoverned his state and of refusing to introduce reforms. His state was therefore annexed in 1856.
Undoubtedly, the degeneration of the administration of Awadh was a painful reality for its people. The Nawabs of Awadh, like other princes of the day, were selfish rulers absorbed in self-indulgence who cared little for good administration or for the welfare of the people. But the responsibility for this state of affairs was in part that of the British who had, at least since 1801, controlled and indirectly governed Awadh. In reality, it was the immense potential of Awadh as a market for Manchester goods which excited Dalhousie’s greed and aroused his ‘philanthropic’ feelings. And for similar reasons, to satisfy Britain’s growing demand for raw cotton, Dalhousie took away the cotton-producing province of Berar from the Nizam in 1853.
It needs to be clearly understood that the question of the maintenance or annexation of native states was of no great relevance at this time. In fact, there were no Indian states in existence at that time. The protected native states were as much a part of the British empire as the territories ruled directly by the Company. If the form of British control over some of these states was changed, it was to suit British convenience. The interests of their people had little to do with the change.