Rise of British Raj in India

The rise of the British Indian Empire during the second half of the 18th century was developed of great significance in Indian history because for the 1st time India became a colony of a foreign power. This British colonial rule in India lasted about two centuries but the nature of the emergence of the British Indian Empire had been a matter of serious debate & discussion among scholars.

While colonial historians had emphasized that Indian conquest was accidental & unplanned. The national historian had an emphasis on established the British Indian Empire was the result of careful planning and design. The closer examination of circumstances leading to the emergence of the British Indian Empire brings to light a different reality.

Establishment of the British Empire (Colonial Interpretation)

The controversy about the character of the establishment of the British Indian Empire was triggered by the comment of English Scholar John Seeley. He wrote a book titled “Expansion of England” in 1883 & in this book he emphasized that the British conquered India in a fit of absent in-mindedness. He thought that nothing great that had been greatly achieved by Englishman was achieved by incidentally & accidentally as the conquest of India.

John Seeley emphasized that the English came to India as merchants & they remained busy in traders & commercial activity & for more than a century they never participated in any politico-military conflict in India whatever the wars & battles East India company fought on Indian soil were unplanned & situational all of a sudden the East India Company shoulder the responsibilities of Indian administration. This interpretation of Seeley was supported by other colonial historians because it was absolving the English of any guilt associated with the conquest of India.

Nationalists’ Interpretation

Colonial interpretation of the established British Indian Empire was strongly opposed by Indians not scholars. These scholars emphasized that the established British Indian Empire was the result of careful planning and design. According to this view, the European colonizers reached everywhere in the world as merchants & traders, they carefully disguised their colonial ambition. As & when they got the opportunity the natives were political subject to the established Colonial empire.

National historian emphasized that the Englishmen Conquest of India was not different. English company entered India to practice trade & commerce. Mughal Empire was very powerful at those times & it was practically not possible to subjugate India politically. When the Mughal Empire started disintegrating under weak successors of Aurangzeb, the political ambition of East India Company started coming out in open and gradually it’s successfully established in an extensive Indian empire by defeating Indian rulers.

The reality of Nature of Established British Empire in India

A closer examination of the history of the establishment of the British Indian Empire reveals that the nature of British activities in India was marked by elements of continuity and change. During the 1st phase of their association with India, the Englishmen were busy in trade & commercial acts but gradually the English company started participating in politico-military matters. By the opening decades of the vision of the British Indian Empire had started grouping the imagination of Englishmen.

The Phase of Commercial Act (1608-1746)

The 1st English factory in India was established at Surat in 1608. In 1611, the company established the 1st factory in the South at Masulipattanam. In 1639, Company got the site of Madras from Raja Chandagiri. In 1651, 1st English Factory was established in Bengal at Hugli. These factories continued to expand with time but these were purely trade & commercial nature. During this, the company sought special privileges from rulers but these acts also aimed of increasing commercial profit. The company got Farman from Jahangir in 1612.

In 1651, Shah Shuja (Aurangzeb’s brother) governor of Bengal issued Farman to the company got the right of duty-free trade by paying lump-sum amount Rupaiya (silver) of 3000/- annum. A similar Farman was issued by Azimushan Governor of Bengal in 1698. In 1717, Mughal Empire Faruksiyar issued a Farman to the company which is known as the “Magna Carta” of East India Company in India. It expanded commercial privileges enjoyed by the company in Bengal, Bihar & Odisha.

Participation of East India Company in political-military activities (1746-1813)

Shah Alam transferring tax collecting rights to British Robert Clive
Shah Alam handing over the Firman to British Robert Clive

At the beginning of 1746, the East India Company started participating in a politico-military activity in India. During 1746-48, the 1st Carnatic war was fought. During 1749-54, the 2nd Carnatic war was fought. During 1756-63, the 3rd Carnatic war was fought. The 1st & 2nd Carnatic wars were having their roots in Europe the East India Company had to participate in the 2nd Carnatic war to protect English interest from the aggressive French design.

The battle of Plassey fought in 1757 was a personal adventure of Clive because the East India Company didn’t sanction it. The battle of Buxar (1764) was a war of circumstances rather than intention because at that time neither the East India Company her Mir Qasim wanted a fight. Haider Ali started the 1st & 2nd Anglo Mysore war (1767-69) & (1780-84). The 3rd Anglo-Mysore war fought in 1792 could have been avoided by Lord Cornwallis, but he declared war to prompt the threat posed by Tipu Sultan.

When the 1st Anglo-Maratha war commenced in 1775 it was initially opposed by Warren Hasting. This war was restarted by Warren Hasting only when the news of French participation in the war of American Independence reached India. Several French commanders were in Maratha service W. Hasting was apprehensive that the entire French element in India could join hands to challenge East India Company. The 2nd Anglo-Maratha war (1803-05) was started by Maratha.

The subsidiary alliance system imposed by Lord Wellesley on Indian rulers was largely a defensive instrument it was used to eliminate in India the native states signing subsidiary alliance treaty were not annexed they were just required to disband their forces & surrender foreign relation to East India Company. These wars & battles fought by East India Company during (1746-1813) were largely situational in most of the cases the East India Company got involved as a reaction to the prevailing circumstances to save their interest in India.

During this phase, the East India Company followed the policy of ring-fences the friendly native states were used as a buffer to keep the unfriendly powers away. The East India Company tried to avoid contact with an unfriendly state as much as possible so that the chances of conflict could be reduced. The elements of planning or vision of establishing a British India Empire were largely absent the English were interested in safeguarding their gains rather than expanding their territories in India in this phase.