British Imperialism in India British East India Company



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British Imperialism in India

British East India Company: On December 31, 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a contract to 25 adventurers, giving them a monopoly on trade between England and countries in the East Indies. This British East India Company established trading posts in Bombay, on India's west coast, and in Calcutta and Madras on India's east coast. These cities became trade centers for Indian textiles of cotton, chintz, and calico cloths.

This is a photo of a muslin cloth factory in Bangladesh in 1872 owned by the East India Company.

The British Industrial Revolution increased the need for India’s raw materials. India was the major supplier of cotton, jute, coffee, tea, spices, as well as gold, jewels, and silk. Its 300 million people were also a market for British- made goods.

By the late 18th century, the East India Company grew in power as the ancient Indian Moghul Empire declined.

The Moghul Empire was founded in 1526 CE. The Moghuls came from central Asia. They were Muslims in religion, Turkish in ethnicity, and Persian in culture. The empire’s power declined by the 19th century. At its height, the Empire included most of India with a population of about 100 million people.



At first, India’s ruling Moghals kept European traders under control. But by 1707, the Empire was collapsing as civil wars broke out. Dozens of small states, each headed by a ruler or maharajah, broke away from Moghul control. In 1757, the East India Company defeated and killed the Moghul governor of Bengal. By 1765, the Company took control of the revenue systems on India's east coast, and became the largest power in India. In 1784 Parliament let the heads of the Company administer the government of India. Now the Company controlled India.
East India Co. Dominates India to gain commercial control. The British developed the Indian economy to expand trade. Officially, the British government regulated the East India Company, but through the early 1800s, the company ruled India with little interference from the British government. The Company had its own army, led by white British officers and staffed by sepoys or Indian soldiers both Muslim and Hindu.
British Expand Control over India to protect the Company: As the area controlled by the East India Company grew, Britain took control of neighboring territories and made them buffer zones or neutral areas to separate India from hostile nations surrounding it. To the east, Burma was taken. To the south, the island of Ceylon was purchased from the Dutch. To the north and northwest, Britain created a protectorate of Afghanistan and a sphere of influence of Persia [Iraq]. The northeast was protected from China by the natural barrier of the Himalaya Mountains. Great Britain also bought the tip of Malaysia and called it the port of Singapore.
India’s value to Britain meant new irrigation projects were undertaken to bring new land into the cultivation of cash crops like tea and coffee. They revitalized old cash crops of cotton, indigo, and jute. Railroads were built to bring cash crops to ports, transporting raw products from the interior to ports and bringing manufactured goods to the interior. Most raw materials were agricultural products produced on plantations. These crops included tea, indigo, coffee, cotton, and jute. Another crop was opium. The British shipped opium to China and exchanged it for tea, which they then sold in England.
The British government introduced new cotton and jute processing industries to India and opened coal mines to provide fuel. The growth of economics under imperialism made Great Britain and the Company rich but it came at a cost to Indians.
Results of Imperialism: A life altering uprising in India was a mutiny or revolt by sepoy troops under the command of the East India Comapny. When it began on May 10, 1857 it was a complete surprise to the British, many of whom were "blind to the unrest that was created by the rapid imposition of British control over two-thirds of India. The war to stop the revolt lasted until April 1859. These Indian units had become the largest part of the British forces in India, eventually outnumbering European troops ten to one by the time they revolted.

One reason the mutiny was a surprise had to do with the “superior” attitude of the British towards the Indian population. The British established a class society based on Anglo-Saxonism, used as a basis to suppress Indian society. Even British soldiers who were at the bottom of the British class society felt superior to the wealthiest of Indians. The caste system helped the British rule.




British Elite vs. the Indian Caste System: Social class determined the way of life for the British Army in India. Upper-class males were officers. Lower-class British were lesser rank and did not advance past the rank of sergeant. Only men with the rank of sergeant and above were allowed to bring their wives to India. Officers’ wives tried to re-create an England in India employing and bossing around an army of 20 to 30 native servants.

Indian Caste [Class or Status] System: This Class System of Hindus distinguished the degree of ‘purity’ [upper caste] and ‘pollution’ [lower caste] classes. The Caste System determined lower caste occupations, which were divided into categories. Civil servants were one group. House and personal servants were another. Jobs were strictly regulated, which is why such large servant staffs were required. Indians could not move out of their caste, it was hereditary.


The Sepoy Mutiny: By 1850, the British controlled 2/3 of the Indian subcontinent. Within there were many locations of discontent. Many Indians believed that not only controlled their land, but they were trying to convert them to Christianity and eliminate Hindu and Muslim religions. Indians also resented the British racism.

As economic problems increased for Indians, resentment grew and increased feelings of Indian nationalism. In 1857, gossip spread among sepoys, that cartridges of their new rifles were deliberately greased with beef and pork fat. To use the cartridges, soldiers had to bite off the ends. Both Hindus, who consider the cow sacred, and Muslims, who cannot eat pork refused to use the cartridges. It was said the British coated the cartridges this way on purpose to show disdain for the two ‘foreign’ religions.

A British East India Company commander at Meerut, where 2,357 sepoys and 2,038 British soldiers were stationed, ordered 90 sepoys to load their rifles. He was outraged when 85 sepoys refused. He stripped them of their uniforms, shackled them, imprisoned them, and sentenced them to ten years of hard labor for insubordination and mutiny. The Great Rebellion began.

The next day, sepoys started a bloody uprising at Meerut. All British officers were shot. Then the mutineers murdered every European and Indian Christian they found, including all women and children. They burned every house. Then they marched to Delhi and were joined by Indian soldiers. They captured Delhi, killing all Europeans and Christians they could find.

The rebellion spread. By June, Kanpur surrendered.  Kanpur was the area where Prince, Baji Rao II, left his title and $ 80,000 pension to his son. However, the British overruled the decree. So Rao’s son led sepoys against the British. He asked the British commander to surrender and he did because he was outnumbered. As the British evacuated, the sepoys attacked and killed the soldiers. They rounded up the surviving women and children, took them back Kanpur, and massacred them. Over 200 Europeans were murdered. 

The British government sent troops to put down the rebellion. The British retook Kanpur. Vengeance was swift: mutineers were tied to the mouths of cannons and blown up.  Both sides slaughtered each other. The East India Company took more than a year to regain control of the country.

The uprising of sepoys 1857 to 1859 was blamed on the East India Company's mismanagement of the territory. In 1858, after the Great Rebellion, Parliament stripped the Company’s right to administer governmental power in India and gave the British government administrative power over Indian territories. This marked the end of the Moghul Empire and the British East India’s Company.

The Turning Point: The mutiny marked a turning point in Indian history. The result was the abolishment of the East India Co. and the direct command of India by the British government. This period was known as Raj, referring to the British rule of India under Queen Victoria, crowned Empress of India in 1877. After 1877, the British official in charge of governing India held the title of viceroy.

Also after the mutiny, Sikhs, a religious group that was hostile to Moghuls and who remained loyal to the British during the Great rebellion, became the mainstay of Britain’s army in India.

To reward princes who remained loyal, the British promised to respect all treaties the Company made with them. They also promised that the Indian states that were still free after the mutiny, would remain independent.

Another result of the Sepoy Mutiny was the increased distrust between the British and the Indians. Now racist attitudes of the British were embedded, as illustrated by the quote below by Lord Kitchener, British commander in chief of the army in India:



It is this consciousness of the superiority of the European, which has won for us India. However well educated and clever a native may be, and however brave he may prove himself, I believe that no rank we can bestow on him would cause him to be considered an equal of the British officer.
Impact of Colonialism on India was harmful and beneficial.

On the negative side: the British had the political and economic power. They restricted Indian-owned industries. Also the emphasis on growing cash crops resulted in a loss of self-sufficiency for many village farmers. The conversion to cash crops reduced food production, causing massive famines in the late 1800s killing more than 30 million natives.

The British introduced measures to stop Indian practices considered morally wrong in the west. Sati or suttee is the practice of burning upper-caste widows alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres. The British abhorred the idea of a woman throwing herself on her husband’s burning grave so it was banned.

Britain suppressed thuggees, men who robbed and murdered travelers in the name of Hindu religion for the goddess Kali. British troops cleared central India of bandits and put an end to local warfare among competing local rulers. Missionaries sought to end religions which worshipped many gods. Racism and Anglo-Saxonism of most British officials threatened Indian culture.
On the positive side, the world’s 3rd largest railroad network was built in India. Railroads helped India develop a modern economy and unified regions. Infrastructure was expanded. Modern roads, telephone and telegraph lines, dams, bridges, and irrigation canals helped India. Sanitation and public health also improved.

English, as the official language, further unified a country with hundreds of dialects. Britain built schools using public revenues in India. Literacy increased. In 1849, English missionaries opened the first schools for girls. Prior to this only upper caste girls received a home-school education. These schools were crucial in the spread of Western values and knowledge.


Positive or Negative? Another result of Westernization was the Age of Consent Act of 1891. In India, the custom of child marriages among Hindus was common. In 1860 the age of consent to marry was ten. [Girls married male adults.] In 1891, British authorities raised the age of consent for relations [not marriage] to 12, creating a crime of marital rape if a child married at ten and had sexual relations with her husband. As a result, the age of consent regulated the consummation of marriage, ensuring that it was delayed until an age when Indian girls were considered likely to have begun menstruating. The issue of enforcing the law remained a problem.

In the End, by 1905, the British Empire was the largest and most powerful in world history. It covered about 11 million square miles, 6 continents, and had about 400 million inhabitants.


1. Make a vocabulary list and define each bold word or phrase.

2. What effect did the imperialism of the East India Company have on Great Britain? On India?



3. Whay was the Sepoy Mutiny important? What changes occurred because of it?

4. Was the impact of British imperialism more a positive or negative to India? Pick one and defend with facts.


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