B. EUROPEAN IMPERIALISM IN INDIA
As you know from the previous chapter, the Indian subcontinent had long been a destination of European traders eager to get their hands on India’s many luxuries, such as tea, sugar, silk, salt, and jute (an extremely strong fiber used for ropes). By the early eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire (remember that?) was in decline following decades of fighting wars and by renewed religious conflict between Muslims and Hindus. Lacking a strong leader and a unified people created an opening (as it so often does) for external powers to move in. And that is precisely what Britain and France decided to do.
In the 1750s, the rivalry between France and England reached fever pitch. During the Seven Years’ War (more on it later), the two countries battled each other in three theaters: North America, Europe, and India. England won across the board. The British East India Company, a joint-stock company that operated like a multinational corporation with exclusive rights over British trade with India, then led in India by Robert Clive, raised an effective army that ridded the subcontinent of the French. During the next two decades, Clive successfully conquered the Bengal region (present-day Bangladesh), quite a feat given that the East India Company was a corporation. It wasn’t British troops who conquered the region, but corporate troops!
Over the next hundred years, the company took advantage of the weakening Mughals and set up administrative regions throughout the empire. In 1798, the large island of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) fell to the British. In the early 1800s, the Punjab region in northern India came under British control, and from there the Brits launched excursions into Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Sepoy Mutiny: Too Little, Too Late
To help it administer the regions under its control, the East India Company relied on Sepoys, Indians who worked for the Brits, mostly as soldiers. By the mid-1800s, the Sepoys were becoming increasingly alarmed with the company’s insatiable appetite for eating up larger and larger chunks of the subcontinent. What’s more, the company wasn’t very good about respecting the local customs of the Sepoys, and respected neither Muslim nor Hindu religious customs. When, in 1857, the Sepoys learned that their bullet cartridges (which had to be bitten off in order to load into the rifle) were greased with pork and beef fat, thus violating both Muslim and Hindu dietary laws, the Sepoys rebelled. The fighting continued for nearly two years, but the rebellion failed miserably.
The consequences were huge. In 1858, the British parliament stepped in, took control of India away from the East India Company, and made all of India a crown colony. The last of the Mughal rulers, Bahadur Shah II, was sent into exile, thereby ending the Mughal Empire for good. Nearly 300 million Indians were suddenly British subjects (that’s as many people as currently living in the United States). By 1877, Queen Victoria was recognized as Empress of India.
Full-Blown British Colonialism: England on the Indus
In the second half of the nineteenth century, India became the model of British imperialism. Raw materials flowed to Britain; finished products flowed back to India. The upper castes were taught English and were expected to adopt English attitudes. Christianity spread. Railroads and canals were built. Urbanization, as in Europe, increased dramatically. But all of this came at the expense of the Indian culture and Indian institutions. Still, as the upper castes were Anglicized, they gained the education and worldly sophistication to begin to influence events. Increasingly, they dreamed of freeing India from British rule.
In 1885, a group of well-educated Indians formed the Indian National Congress to begin the path toward independence. It would take the impact of two world wars before they would get it. In the meantime, Indians, especially those that lived in the cities, continued to adapt to British customs while trying to hold on to their traditions.