The East India Company Masters of Indian subcontinent

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Anupama Nair


I had previously written how the British East India Company forced the other Europeans out of India and were soon on the way to become the masters of the entire Indian Subcontinent. The Battle of Plassey in 1757, paved the way of the rule by the Company, and it was a decisive victory of the British East India Company over the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies on 23 June 1757, under the leadership of the great British general Robert Clive. This victory was possible due to the betrayal of Mir Jafar, who was Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah's commander in chief. The battle helped the Company become the master of Bengal. Within a hundred years they, seized control of most of the Indian subcontinent, Myanmar, and Afghanistan.

The battle took place at  Plassey on the banks of the Hooghly River, about 150 kilometers north of Calcutta and south of Murshidabad  The combatants were the Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal , and the British East India Company. When Siraj-ud-Daulah become the Nawab of Bengal in 1756, he had ordered the English to stop the extension of their fortification. Lord Robert Clive bribed Mir Jafar, the commander-in-chief of the Nawab's army, and also promised to make him Nawab of Bengal. Clive easily defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah at Plassey in 1757 and captured Bengal.

The battle was preceded by an attack on British-controlled Calcutta by Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah and the Black Hole massacre. What is the Black Hole Massacre? In those days the British East India Company was a newcomer and was threatened by the French.  As a preventive measure, the Company decided to increase the defenses of its main fort in the city, Fort William. Upon hearing of the increased militarization of Fort William, Siraj ud-Daulah, with 50,000 troops, fifty cannons and 500 elephants marched to Calcutta. By June 19th 1756 most of the local British staff had retreated to the Company’s ships in the harbor, and the Nawab’s force attacked Fort William.

Unfortunately for the British, the fort was in a rather poor state. Powder for the mortars was too damp to be used, and their commander John Holwell was a governor with limited military experience. With 170 soldiers left to protect the fort, Holwell was forced to surrender to the Nawab on the afternoon of June 20th 1756. As the Nawab’s forces entered the city, the remaining British soldiers and civilians were rounded up and forced into the fort’s ‘black hole’ and many Britishers were killed.

When news of the ‘Black Hole’ reached London, a relief expedition led by Lord Robert Clive was immediately assembled and subsequently arrived in Calcutta in October. After a prolonged siege, Fort William fell to the British in January 1757. Robert Clive and a force of just 3,000 men defeated the Nawab’s 50,000 strong army at the Battle of Plassey. The success of the British at Plassey is often cited as the start of large-scale colonial rule in India, a rule that would last uninterrupted until Independence in 1947.

After major victories at the battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764), the East India Company was granted the diwani of Bengal i.e., control over the administration of the region and the right to collect tax revenue. At the same time, the company expanded its influence over local rulers in the south, until by the 1770s the balance of power had fundamentally changed. Expansion continued and rivals such as the Marathas in western India and Tipu Sultan of Mysore were defeated. By 1818, the Company was the paramount political power in India, with direct control over two thirds of the subcontinent’s landmass and indirect control over the rest.

The early years of Company’s rule were notorious for their corruption and profiteering i.e., the so-called ‘shaking of the pagoda tree’ or ‘rape of Bengal’. British generals amassed massive personal fortunes, often at the expense of their Indian subjects. India’s large population and sophisticated social, political and economic institutions made imperialistic ideas of ‘terra nullius’ or empty land inapplicable in India, and as a result the Company could not achieve the level of control over the resources of land and labor like British settler communities in USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Caribbean. India was only a ‘colony of exploitation’, rather than one of settlement and its value to the Company lay primarily in the profits that could be made by controlling its internal markets and international trade, appropriating peasant production and, above all, collecting tax revenue. These taxes paid for both a large sizeable army and employees who worked in India, but did not stay in India.

The Company’s rise to political power in India was the subject of many heated debate in Britain. “The activities after the Battle of Plassey as a company with huge influence and power  and one which is unafraid to further its interests by nefarious means were viewed with suspicion”. The poet William Cowper stated “East India Company build factories with blood, conducting trade — at the swords point, and dyeing the white robe  of innocent commercial justice red”.

The loss of the American Colonies and the American War of Independence in 1776, the emergence of the anti-slavery movement and the French Revolution in 1789, the ‘India Question’ took on considerable political importance in Great Britain. The corruption, immorality and cruelty of the Company began to be noticed, and the British feared a similar movement in India. The Governor General Lord Warren Hastings  was impeached for mis-management and personal corruption.

The British Crown made attempts to regulate the Company’s activities in the 1770s, with Lord North’s Regulating Act (1773) and Pitt’s India Act (1784), which both sought to bring the company under closer parliamentary supervision. Meanwhile a series of internal reforms under Governor General Lord Charles Cornwallis in the late 1780s and early 1790s radically restructured the Company in order to eradicate private corruption. After the acquittal of Hastings and the implementation of the Cornwallis reforms, the company attempted to rehabilitate its reputation. It aimed to reposition itself as a benevolent and legitimate ruler that extended the limits of civil society and brought both security of property and impartiality of justice to India.

The Company now justified its presence in India by using a ‘civilizing mission’, epitomized by the publicity given to social reform legislation such as the abolition of the Sati (widow-burning). However, the actual impact of its activities on local economies and societies was often very different.

The first half of the 19th  century was marked by economic depression in India. Excessive land tax and lack of investment stopped the agricultural development, while traditional industries such as textiles were decimated by the import of cheap manufactured goods. Catastrophic famines, most notably in Bengal (1770) and in the Agra region (1837–1838) were worsened by the tax policies, its non-judgmental attitudes towards the grain market, and failures of state relief.

It is said there was a curse that the Company will not rule for a century and it was proved true. Lord Canning the last Governor General of East India Company never imagined a rifle would bring the end of the East India Company. Let us see how that happened. Soldiers throughout India were issued a new rifle, the Enfield Rifle— a more powerful and accurate weapon than the previous one used for decades. To load both the old musket and the new rifle, soldiers had to bite the cartridge open and pour the gunpowder. Then, the rumor spread the cartridge was greased with the fat of pigs and cows. The news spread like wild fire and the soldiers refused to use the rifle, however,  British officers dismissed these claims as rumors and ordered them to use the rifle.

The rebellion started when Mangal Pandey, who was the leader of the Bengal Regiment started the revolt.  By March 1857, he was a private soldier (sepoy) in the 5th Company of the 34th  Bengal Native Infantry. On the afternoon of 29th March 1857, Lieutenant Baugh, of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry, then stationed at Barrackpore (West Bengal) was informed that several men of his regiment were in an excited state and planned to rebel against the British under the leadership of Mangal Pandey. The British tried to suppress the rebellion and executed Mangal Pandey. “The attack by and punishment of Pandey is widely seen as the opening scene of what came to be known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857”, stated many historians. Mangal Pandey’s rebellion was widespread amongst his fellow soldiers and is assumed to have been one of the factors leading to the general series of rebellion, that broke out during the following months. Mangal Pandey inspired many others to follow in the Indian Nationalist Movement like Veer Savarkar, who stated his “motive as one of the earliest manifestations of Indian Nationalism”. Modern Indian nationalists portray Pandey as the mastermind behind a conspiracy to revolt against the British.

In 1858, after the rebellion was crushed India came under the rule of Queen Victoria. And the next 90 years is a new story, read on…


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