The British first arrived in the subcontinent as traders in the shape of the British East India Company (EIC). The EIC Established itself as a dominant European power by a mixture of military victories and alliances with local princes. British rule brought benefits to Bengal, but it also brought enormous suffering. Let’s know the whole history of the arrival of the British colonial to Asian subcontinent.
Background: The East India Company and reasons for British involvement in the subcontinent
Timeline showing the main events in the history of the East India Company
- 1600 Company formed
- 1615 Diplomatic agreement between Sir Thomas Roe and Mughal emperor Jahangir
- 1633 Foothold in Bengal
- 1670 King Charles II granted the company a series of charters.
- 1757 Battle of Palashi
- 1769-70 The Great Famine
- 1784 India Act: British government takes control
- 1793 The Permanent Settlement Act
Foundation of the British East India Company
- 1769-70 The Great Famine
- 1784 India Act: British government take s control
- 1793 The Permanent Settlement Act
Foundation of the British East India Company
The British East India Company (EIC) was founded in December 1600 as The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies by a group of businessmen, who obtained the Crown’s charter from Queen Elizabeth I for exclusive permission to trade in the East Indies for a period of fifteen years.
Attention shifts from East Indies to India
The Company initially had 125 shareholders, and a capital of £72,000. At first, it made little impression on the Dutch control of the spice trade and could not establish a lasting outpost in the East Indies(modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia).
Eventually, ships belonging to the EIC arrived in India. Docking at Surat. which was established as a trade transit point in 1608.
Establishment of the first factory in India
By 1610, the company built its first factory in the town of Machilipatnam in the Coromandel Coast in the Bay of Bengal. The high profits (some as high as 200%) reported by the company after landing in India.
Initially prompted King James I to grant subsidiary licenses to other trading companies in Britain, such as the Scottish East India Company. But warned that poor profits would lead to the cancellation of the charter.
A forward base for China
The trading posts in the subcontinent were also used as forwarding bases for trade into China. In 1611, the Company established a trading post in Canton (Guangzhou), China, to trade tea in return for silver.
Agreements with Mughal Emperor Jahangir
The company traders were frequently engaged in hostilities with the Dutch, as they competed for the rich spice trade. The company asked the British government to open diplomatic relations with the Mughal Empire so as to have an ally against the Dutch.
James, I sent Sir Thomas Roe to the court of the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, and he gained for the British the right to establish a factory at Surat. In return, the company offered to provide European goods to the Imperial Court. Gradually the EIC flourished under the good graces of the Mughal Empire, trading in silk, indigo, cotton, and saltpeter.
Trade in Bengal
In 1633, the East India Company set foot in Bengal by establishing a factory at Hariharpur on the Mahanadi delta On 2 February, the English obtained a Farman from Emperor Shajahan permitting them to pursue trade and commerce in Bengal.
The most important privilege was obtained from the Bengal governor. Shah Suja, who permitted the English to carry out trade in Bengal without any customs duties, in lieu of an annual lump sum of just Rs. 3000.
It was this unique privilege which would take the company to the political domination of Bengal in course of time. In 1668, a new factory was opened at Dhaka the capital of Bengal. The founding of Calcutta by Job Charnock in 1690 completed the process of factory settlement and began the process of establishing political dominance by the company in Bengal.
The rebellion of Shobha Singh in 1696 offered the company an opportunity to obtain permission to fortify the Calcutta settlement and thus arrange its own defense.
The Company profited forms the restoration of the monarchy in Britain in the form of King Charles II.
The British acquired the port of Bombay from Portugal, which came as the dowry of Catherine dowry of Catherine de Braganza when she married Charles II. (Surat had gradually lost importance as a trading center, to be replaced by Bombay).
King Charles II also granted the company rights to allow in owning territory. Establish its own coinage, build forts, establish an army and form alliances.
The Company, often surrounded by hostile powers. Needed protection. The freedom to manage its own military affairs was welcome indeed. The company rapidly raised its own armed forces, or spays, in the 1680s, mainly drawn from the local population.
By 1689, the Company’s influence had grown so that it had three main bases, Bengal, Madras and Bombay, which it called presidencies, and a substantial military force to protect them.
The next step was to extend the Company’s influence by purchasing the zamindari of Calcutta, Sutanuti, and Govindapur, thus increasing the Company’s power.
Merger with a rival company
In 1698, a rival company to the EIC was formed, called the General Society Trading to the East Indies, but the two rival East India Companies were amalgamated in 1702 with a new charter and a new name-‘The United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies’. though the popular name ‘East India Company remained until the last days of the company.
Events leading up to British annexation of the sub-continent
Struggles with France over control of India
In 1756, the European powers went to war in the Seven Years War. The British and French fought in the subcontinent. The war began badly for the British in India. The French, under their commander Dupleix, managed to win some important victories.
But then the tide turned under the EIC General, Robert Clive. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 relegated the French to small enclaves in Pondicherry, Mahe, and Chandernagar.
British take advantage of the collapse of the Mughal Empire
The war with France had seen the triumph of the Company army that was now needed more than ever due to the collapse of the Mughal Empire.
As mentioned in chapter 3, the collapse of the Mughals had led to independent states being set up all over the subcontinent. The Marthas, the Sikhs and the Nizam of Hyderabad were a few of the numerous groups that aimed to expand their kingdoms.
These war-mongering states, though creating problems for the British territories, also gave them a chance to increase their territorial acquisitions.
British use of internal divisions in Bengal
The Nawab of Bengal, Sirajuddaula, was the grandson of Nawab Alivardi Khan. He sided with the French against the British. However, he faced local opposition from disgruntled relatives and bureaucrats, as explained at eh end of chapter 3. The British exploited this opposition against the Nawab and used every opportunity to weaken his position.
British use of internal divisions in Bengal
The Nawab of Bengal, Sirajuddanula, was the grandson of Nawab Alivardi Khan. He sided with the French against the British. However, he faced local opposition from disgruntled relatives and bureaucrats, as explained at the end of Chapter 3. The British exploited this opposition against the Nawab and used every opportunity to weaken his position.
The conflict between the Nawab and the British
There were many factors that brought Sirajuddaula into direct conflict with the British-these are mentioned at the end of chapter 3. Briefly, these factors are:
- Firstly, the British were misusing certain trade privileges in Bengal, which were given to them earlier. This irritated Sirajuddaula, and he demanded stricter trade practices from the British, which made relationships deteriorate.
- Secondly, the father of Sirajuddaula, Alovardi Khan, had not permitted the British to fortify their settlements in Bengal. However, in anticipation of the breaking out of the Seven Years War, the British and the French began to fortify their settlements in Bengal without the Nawab’s permission. The Nawab become irritated at this and ordered them to demolish their fortifications. The French carried out his order, but the British did not pay any heed to it.
- Lastly, the British lack of respect enraged Sirajuddaula. The British refused to hand over one of Sirajuddaula’s officers, Krishnadas, whom they were protecting. They also insulted one of the Nawab’s special envoy to Fort William. This prompted Sirajuddaula to attack Calcutta and take control of the city. He had the moral support of the French to do this. He renamed the city Alinagar after the name of his grandfather.
The British retaliated. Soon, reinforcements came from Madras under the command of Robert Clive. Clive recaptured Calcutta (2 January 1757) and stormed the port of Hoogli in reprisal. He came to a secret agreement with the Murshidabad Darbar faction, who opposed the young Nawab.
Mir-Jafar, the recently dismissed Bakhshi of the Nawab, was chosen to be the next Nawab of Bengal. Then Clive’s forces met those of Sirajuddaula at Palashi on 23 June 23, 1757.
The Battle of Palashi
The battle started at about eight in the morning. Mir Mardan, Mohanlal, Khawaja Abdul Hadi Khan. Naba Singh Hazari and a few others put up a brave resistance, while others under Mir-Jafar, Yar Litif and ray Eurlabh Ram avoided any serious involvement.
The British had not expected even this much resistance and it was reported that at the one point Clive had thought of retreating. However, argon three in the afternoon. Things took a turn for the better for the British when Mir Mardan was struck by a cannonball and killed.
Siraj then sought the help of Mir-Jafar, who advised the Nawab to suspend action for the day in order to renew his efforts the next day. This message was also relayed to Clive who, upon finding the Nawab’s men in retreat, launched a fresh assault on them.
This ultimately led to a general rout. The battle was over by five in the afternoon with Clive marching towards Sirajuddaula’s capital city, Murshidabad.
Thus, the unfortunate Nawab with his huge army was completely defeated by the British. Until the end; he tried his utmost to retaliate against the British with the help of the French and his loyal subjects. But even in this he failed and was later brutally murdered.
The Nawab’s body was found in a river after the battle. With his death ended the rule of the last independent Nawab of Bengal.
Consolidation of British economic and political power in Bengal
The EIC strengthened its position by installing Mir-Jafar as the puppet Nawab in Murshidabad, thus removing French influence in Bengal. The 24 Parganas were obtained from the new Nawab as a gift to the company immediately after Palashi.
In 1760, three large and resourceful districts of Bengal (Burdwan, Midnapur, and Chittagong) were acquired. The revenue administration of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa was acquired in 1765.
From 1765 to 1772, the company shared revenues from Bengal but took no responsibility in administering it, This system came to be known as dual administration.
Wider control than Bengal
The Battle at Palashi gave the British control of not only the province of Bengal but also the whole of Sirajuddaulah’s empire that encompassed the regions of Bihar and Orissa.
This was legitimized when the figurehead Mughal Emperor gave the British completed administrative rights to the conquered provinces. This was the beginning of British rule in India established.
The battle of Palashi is considered as one of the most significant battles in the history of the subcontinent. It decided not only the fate of Bengal but whole subcontinent (Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) for the next two hundred years.
Rule by the East Indian Company in Bengal
After the battle of Palashi, the East India Company ruled Bengal through a series of puppet rulers, such as Mir-Jafar. The Diwani Treaty, negotiated by Clive in 1765, allowed the region to be governed by collaborators including Mir-Jafar and Mir-Kaseem in return for surplus revenues which were channeled to the company.
The company made huge profits by operating a monopoly on trade, and company merchants became accustomed to receiving personal gifts which increased their wealth.
Great Famine of 1769-70
Whilst the British made huge profits in Bengal, the local people suffered. The consequence was the rapid decline of agriculture and manufacturing and, finally, the great famine of 1769-70, which destroyed one-third of the total population of Bengal.
EIC forced to provide good government
Two-thirds of Bengal’s productive land became uncultivated due to lack of cultivating manpower. This calamity finally forced the British government to act. In 1773, it passed an Act of Parliament which required the EIC to provide good government to stop this anarchy.
British government takes direct control
Then in 1784, the British government passed the India Act and took direct control of the Indian possessions. It appointed a Governor-General, who would have control of the three presidencies. There would also be provincial governors and a Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
The EIC continued to trade but lost most of its administrative powers. Robert Clive’s opponents in Britain carried out an investigation into his behavior in India. Although he was not found guilty of the charge of plundering India, the disgrace, coupled with his addiction to opium, caused him to take his own life in 1773.
The Permanent Settlement of 1793
Lord Cornwallis had been Governor-General of India since 1786. His most notable reform was the introduction of Permanent settlement in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa Under this system, the method of taxation was reformed.
Problems with tax collection
Previously, the right to collect taxes was given to the highest bidder. As a result, the poor were often harassed as the bidder wanted to make maximum money out of the business.
The government sometimes suffered, too, when bidders could not pay the Government. As a result of this unsatisfactory system, the Government, the zamindars, and the peasants suffered a lot.
Sympathy with landowners
Lord Cornwallis belonged to the landed aristocracy of England. It was only natural for him to sympathize with the landowners. In England, the landed aristocracy were the hereditary owners of the soil and it was in their interests to improve the land.
Cornwallis wanted a similar system in Bengal, so he made a ten-year settlement with the zamindars in 1789, which was later converted into the Permanent Settlement in 1793.
Role of the Permanent Settlement
The main features of the Permanent Settlement were that the zamindars who had so long been more collectors of revenue were made the permanent owners of the land, subject to the payment of a fixed sum to the British.
The British revived a fixed share of the total collection-about 10/11th of the zamindars collection in 1793. The zamindars were given security of ownership as long as there was no non-payment of revenue.
Impact of the Permanent Settlement
There is no doubt that the Permanent Settlement secured the financial interest of the East India Company and gave stability to its administration. It also helped Bengal to become the most flourishing and the wealthiest province in India.
The zamindars became rich and spent money on educational and cultural progress. Moreover, the Permanent settlement also created a body of zamindars in Bengal who were loyal to the Government.
However, the system had some fundamental flaws:
- Firstly, the areas of the zamindari estate were unknown, and the areas of rent-free grants and maintenance, the areas of pasturelands and wasted lands were not identified, when the settlement was declared permanent. This led to endless confusion and litigation.
- Secondly, though the positions of zamindars were improved, the interests of the peasants were not considered. They were helpless against their new landlords. Moreover, the expectation of Cornwallis that the zamindars would improve a lot of their subjects and develop their estates did not come true. As there was fear of losing their lands, the zamindars did not pay attention o its improvement.
- The peasants also did nothing to improve the land, as they had no rights in the land.
- The British administration received a fixed share of the revenue, but as time went they had to introduce various taxes to keep up with the rising expenses.
The Permanent Settlement was undoubtedly a success for the British Empire. It strengthened the administration and took power away from the masses.
It created an aristocracy who, although they overlords, and most importantly paved the way for another 150 years of British rule in India.
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