The British East India Company was founded in 1600, during the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, for trade in the East Indies, which had been opened to European trade by the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama.
Because of rivalries for the spice trade in the East Indies, the English East India Company armed its merchantmen to fight the galleons of Spain, Portugal, and, later, the Netherlands, all of which threatened British trade with the East. Because of its setback in the Spice Islands at the hands of the Dutch, the English East India Company decided to focus its energies on India, where the Dutch presence was far less powerful. The relative ease with which the British would be able to expand in India during the late 17th and 18th centuries was due to the decline of Mughal central power.
In 1757 the British East India Company—or John Company, as it was often called—took a critical step. Taking advantage of the worsening situation in India, it went from being a trading company to taking control of Indian territory as circumstances dictated. By this time the French Compagniedes Indes had taken the place of the Portuguese and Dutch as the main rival of the British in India. In 1756 the Seven Years’ War broke out in Europe and quickly spread to India, where Robert Clive decisively defeated the French client in Bengal. In 1758 Robert Clive became the first governor of Bengal, signaling the transition of the British East India Company from a trading company to the ruler of a large province of India. A year before Clive’s death, Parliament passed the 1773 Regulating Act, which made the governor of Bengal the governor-general, a title the chief company officer in India would hold until the British Crown took over the government of India after the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
Warren Hastings set in motion future British expansion in India. He instituted direct British rule, but where possible, he left native Indian rulers on their throne, but under British tutelage. Between 1784, when Hastings left India, and the beginning of the 19th century, the company’s British troops continued to enlarge its domains due to the anarchy caused by the collapsing Mughal Empire. As company territory expanded, so did its direct rule. Its magistrates dispensed justice, impervious to bribery, something that local Indians had never before witnessed.
The peace the company brought to India helped undermine Indian society. The company permitted English Protestant missionaries to come to India in 1813,establishing missions and schools among the Indian population. Gradually, British authority began reforms in India. For example, William Bentinck, who was governor general from 1833 to 1835, outlawed the practice of sati (suttee), by which a Hindu widow was burned on her dead husband’s funeral pyre.
The flash point of conflict between the company administration and the Indian governor-general came under the marquess of Dalhousie, who served from 1848 to 1856. He aggressively sought to enlarge lands under the company’s control by the doctrine of lapse, which allowed the company to annex Indian principalities. Many points of friction culminated in a violent outbreak.
The Indian Mutiny broke out in Meerut in 1857 when some of the company’s Indian soldiers rose in revolt. A terrible massacre took place at Cawnpore when an Indian ruler, Nana Sahib, had British prisoners brutally killed. Inflamed by the tales of mass murder, the British troops who retook territory that had fallen to the mutineers and their Indian princely allies showed no mercy. By the time the mutiny ended with Sir Hugh Rose’s victory at Gwalior in June 1858, thousands had been killed.
The mutiny also ended the rule of the British East India Company. Although it would continue as a trading organization until 1873, in August 1858, the British parliament passed the Government of India Act, which formally passed the administration of British India from the company to the British government. A secretary of state for India became responsible for the administration of British India under the prime minister. For its complicity in the mutiny, the last impotent Mughal emperor was dethroned. In 1877, under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria became empress of India.
John F. Murphy, Jr.