British Empire—British India

1526 to 1914
Baber founds Moghul Empire to First World War

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—British India

The East India Company, which originally set up British trading centers in Asia, was first charted by Elizabeth I in 1600. It was not uncommon for European governments to charter private companies to establish colonies—many of the thirteen American colonies had started out as such. These quasi-governmental institutions had the right to make autonomous decisions and to defend their interests in far flung regions, but were required to make a report to their sovereign and have their charter extended every twenty to thirty years.

Carnatic Wars and British Conquest of Bengal—During the first 150 years of its existence, the British East India Company established several trading posts in India, first at Surat; then at Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. During most of this time, much of India was ruled by the Great Mogul Jehanjir, who was on good terms with the traders, but the Mughal empire was in decline, there was strife between Hindus and Moslems, and other trading companies, from Portugal, Holland and France, competed with the British for trade in India. After the death of the Aurangzeb, much of the power of the Mughal empire devolved to local princes, and these princes, who were often at war with each other, were aware of the advantages of western military power. The French, under Dupleix, governor at Pondicherry, were particularly astute at making alliances with the Indian Princes (Nawabs), and in a short time the French were the predominant power in Bengal. When the War of the Austrian Succession broke out in Europe, the French used the opportunity to attempt to drive England from India altogether, and thus began the Carnatic Wars.

At this point, there appeared on the scene, Robert Clive, a lowly and miserable company clerk, stationed at Madras, with no military experience. When the French besieged Ft. David, he distinguished himself with such valor, that a few years later the Company entrusted him to embark on a nearly hopeless quest, to take the enemy capital of Arcot. In spite of tremendous odds, Clive took and held Arcot, and greatly improved Britain's standing among the local princes, whose main concern was to make alliances with the predominant European power. Although Dupleix was a brilliant statesman, his generals were no match for the youthful and fearless Clive. Six years, and many battles later, he had greatly improved Britain's reputation with the local princes. Finally, in 1757, at the Battle of Plassey Clive won a brilliant victory over a combined French and native force fifty thousand strong, with only 800 British, and 2000 Native troops. From this point on, Britain controlled Bengal, the riches province of India, and was the most influential foreign power in the entire region.

The first few years of the British rule in Bengal, however, were utterly miserable. The East India company was accustomed to trade and to fight, but not to govern or bring justice to a foreign country. These duties were neglected, to the near ruin of the country, until Warren Hastings was appointed the first Governor of all British Provinces in India, but only after a terrible famine had brought the problems to a crisis point. Hastings was a very controversial governor, and though he did much to improve the situation, many problems were left unresolved, and he made powerful enemies. He ruled for twelve years, but upon his return home was tried for corruption, and acquitted after a contentious trial. Whether or not he deserved to be condemned, his highly publicized trial raised many of the problems of the British rule in India to the public eye.

Expansion of British Territory in India—Several well-known Indian governors followed, including General Cornwallis, of American Revolutionary fame, and Marquess Wellesley, an elder Brother of the Duke of Wellington. Britain continued to bring more of India under its sway. In some case, as in the Mysore Wars against Tipu Sultan, they conquered a Nawab and annexed his region. In other cases, they simply made a "mutual defense" treaty with a local prince that gave Britain great advantages. Finally, a policy was established that in cases when no direct heir was left to a region, Britain annexed the area, and appointed its own governor. Yet expansion did not bring peace, nor did it bring good government. The British government continued to put more constraints on the East India Company to curb abuses, but there was not a clear consensus about what the ruling policy should be—only a consensus that more money should be raised. Yet the goals of ruling India well, and at the same time extracting money from her, were at cross purposes.

After numerous missteps, years of misrule, several rebellions and mutinies, and numerous wars against the Marathas, Gurkhas, and Burmah, the British government reformed the East India Company to such an extent that it was no longer allowed to carry on trade at all, and was to focus only on more effective government of the provinces. Indian ports were thrown open to merchants of every country so in this way, the native Indians were not cheated by traders who held a monopoly. This reform occurred in 1833 and was part of the "free trade" movement that was being gradually implemented throughout the growing empire. Soon after, Lord Dalhousie became was appointed Governor and was one of the best rulers of India. He expanded British territory, adding the Punjab to British domains, but accomplished it in such a way that the Sikhs, or native Punjabis, became loyal British subjects, instead of seething rebels. He also built many roads, railways, and telegraphs, which greatly improved communication in the region.

Indian Mutiny—Yet just when conditions had begun to improve in India, disasters struck. First, in 1841, due to some foolish statesmanship, the British forced an unpopular ruler on Afghanistan, and stationed thousands of British soldiers along with their families in Kabul. In the middle of winter, the garrison was surrounded and forced to retreat from through Khyber Pass on its way back to India. Of the entire garrison of ten thousand, only one man survived to tell the tale. It was the worst massacre in British Imperial History. Fifteen years later, the Indian Mutiny broke out in Cawnpore, Lucknow, and Delhi. It was an enormous disaster that cost thousands of lives, and nearly succeeded in driving Britain from Indian soil. But after many atrocities and heroics, the British forces with their loyal Indian allies prevailed, and after consolidating their power, embarked on several important reforms, with the hope of preventing future outbreaks. It was at this time that the East India Company was completely dissolved, and the British Government took full responsibility for development of the Indian colonies.

Characters—British India

Character/Date Short Biography

Early India

Mahmud of Ghazni
Moslem general who invaded India in the 11th century. Destroyed temples, collected tribute, then left.
Mohammed Ghori
Moslem general who invaded India in the late 12th century. Massacred thousands of Hindus.

Portuguese India: 1497-1580

Vasco da Gama
Portuguese explorer who voyaged to Calicut, India by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
Francisco de Almeida
Portuguese general who served in the wars against Granada, and was appointed the first governor of Portuguese India.
Alfonso de Albuquerque
Portuguese commander who won numerous naval conflicts in Asia and helped establish a colony in India at Goa.

Mughal Empire: 1526-1739

Founder of the Moghul empire in India.
Second of the Indian Mogul dynasty, and father of Akbar. Lost his kingdom but regained it with Persian help.
Akbar the Great
Reconquered, unified and expanded the Mughal Empire.
Son of Akbar, and Great Mogul of India when the British first tried to establish trading posts in the region.
Nur Jehan
Favorite wife of Emperor Jahangir. Engaged in much legendary palace intrigue.
Moslem ruler of largely Hindu India. Consolidated the Mughal empire, but oppressed Hindus.
Founder of the Maratha emperor. Resisted the Moghul ruler under Aurangzeb.
Nadir Shuh
Great Persian General who attacked the Moghuls in India, and massacred civilians.
Muhammad Shah
Ruler of the Moghul Empire in India, when it was over-run by Nadir Shah of Persia.
Connaji Angria
d. 1729
Pirate prince who controlled the Malabar coast of India. His base at Geriah was attacked by Popock in 1756
Baji Rao I
Most famous Peshwa of the Maratha Confederacy. Extended the Maratha kingdom to its greatest range.

Early British Era: 1740-1814

Governor of the French trading company in India; rival of Clive for control of Bengal;
Mir Jafar
Succeed to the position of Nawab of Bengal after Clive won the Battle of Plassey.
Robert Clive
British soldier, who rose to be a hero in the Carnatic Wars and delivered Bengal to Britain at the Battle of Plassey.
Siraj Ud Daulah
Last independent Nawab of Bengal. Lost his kingdom to Clive at Plassey.
Tipu Sultan
Took over the Mysore Kingdom on the death of his father Hyder Ali. Fought the British in a series of Anglo-Mysore wars.
Warren Hastings
Early Governor of India. Was tried for corruption, but acquitted after a lengthy trial.
Mir Cossim
d. 1777
Son-in-law of Mir Jafar, who was raised to the Nawabship by the British, but rebelled against them.
Mahadaji Sindhia
Leader of the Sindhias of Gwalior. Fought at Panipat. Exceptional General who defeated British at Wargaom.
Hyder Ali
Muslim Ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India. Allied with the French against the British.
Tipu Sultan
Took over the Mysore Kingdom on the death of his father Hyder Ali. Fought the British in a series of Anglo-Mysore wars.

British Raj: 1814-19??

Jeswunt Rao Hoklar
d. 1811
Leader of the Holkars of Idore. Fought Britain in the First and Second Maratha Wars.
Sindhia of Gwalior
Leader of the Sindhias of Gwalior. Fought Britain in the Second and Third Maratha Wars.
Lord Amherst
British ambassador to China, and then governor of India. Fought first Burmese War.
William Brydon
Surgeon in the Bengal army; sole surviver of the massacre at Khyber pass in Afghanistan.
Henry Havelock
Led a division to relieve Lucknow during the Sepoy Rebellion. Died during the siege.
Lord Dalhousie
Made major reforms and increased British holding in India, shortly before the mutiny.
Colin Campbell
Commanded the Highland Brigade during the Crimean War. Also served in India.
James Outram
Hero of the sieges of Cawnpore and Lucknow during the Sepoy Rebellion.
Lord Roberts
Career officer, saw service in Indian Mutiny, Afghanistan, Abyssinia, India and South Africa.
Marquess Wellesley
Governor-general of India, fought Second Maratha and Mysore wars. Later, promoted Catholic emancipation.
Nana Sahib
Adopted son of the Marthi Peshwar. Leader of the Indian Mutiny.
Baji Rao II
d. 1851
Peshwa who fled to Britain for protection after loss to one of his enemies
Ranjit Singh
Sikh emperor of the Punjab. Ruled the Punjab well, as an independent state until his death.

Afghans, Burmese, Gurkhas, etc.

Alombra the Hunter
Burmese King. Founder of the Konbaung dynasty which bordered on Bengal.
Dost Muhammed
Afghan ruler during the first Anglo-Afghan War
Siddhartha Gautama
563–483 BC
Nepalese prince who left his throne to meditate and became the Buddha.

Timeline—British India

AD YearEvent
1497 Vasco da Gama establishes a trade-route by sea between Portugal and India.
1510 Alfonso de Albuquerque Conquers Goa and establishes a permanent Portuguese colony.

Mughal Empire: 1526-1740

1526 Baber founds the Mughal empire in India.
1566-1605 Reign of Akbar greatest of the Mughal emperors.
1658-1707 Reign of Aurangzeb—strict adherence to Islamic law alienates Hindu subjects.
1674 Shivaji founds the Maratha empire in the Deccan as the Mughul empire began to collapse.
1739 Nadir Shuh, a Persian general invades India, sacks Delhi, and steals the Peacock throne.

Early British Era: 1740-1815

1600 British East India Company granted a charter.
1612 First British trading post established at Surat.
1650 More British trading Trading posts established at Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras.
1751 Siege of Arcot is Clive's first great success in India.
1756 Over a hundred British citizens perish in the "Black Hole of Calcutta".
1757 With the help of the traitor Mir Jafar, Clive wins Bengal for Britain at the Battle of Plassey.
1773 Warren Hastings appointed first Governor of India. Later, tried in Britain for corruption.
1775-1803 Victories over the Mahratta kingdoms in the Deccan increase Britain's influence in central India.
1799 Death of Tipu Sultan bring thirty years of wars with the Mysore Kingdome in southern India to a close.

Later British Era: 1815-1947 AD

1842 First Anglo-Afghan War—Massacre at Khyber Pass.
1845 Sikh Wars results in the annexation of Punjab.
1852 Burmah is annexed to British territory.
1857 Indian Mutiny—worst rebellion in history of the British empire.
1858 East India Company is dissolved—India made colony of the British Empire.

Recommended Reading—British India

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Marshall - Our Empire Story   Part V—India to The Empress of India (28)
Home - India: Peeps at History    entire book

Supplemental Recommendations

Gaskoin - The Hanoverians   Our Indian Empire (1)
Surridge - India    entire book
Gilliat - Heroes of the Indian Mutiny    entire book
Younghusband - The Story of the Guides    entire book
Steel - The Adventures of Akbar    entire book
Wood - The Boy's Book of Battles   Plassey to Delhi (2)

Easy Reading Selections

Lang - The Story of Lord Clive    entire book
Sellar - The Story of Lord Roberts    entire book