Britain and India – A loving romance or a regrettable affair?

Part One – Trade Post to Trade Monopoly

Mary Tudor the child of a broken marriage and false promises grew up with a deep suspicion of Protestantism. During her reign she earned the regrettable ‘Bloody Mary’ moniker as hundreds of protestants were publicly burnt while almost a thousand fled the country. When she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 42 England was a troubled island state and a featured extra on the stage of European theatre. Yet thousands of miles away Akbar the Great ruled over an expanding Indian empire. A devout Muslim, he pursued a policy of religious tolerance and welcomed Hindus and Christians alike to his court. In 1575 when a cloud of sectarianism hung over Europe, Akbar built his House of Worship for all religious and spiritual matters to be discussed openly. Yet given this context some historians remind us that Britain ought to be thanked for delivering civilisation to this corner of the globe. So let us discuss over the next few articles whether Britain used the jewel in their crown as a milch cow for it’s other conquests or were they really a source of benevolence in a troubled region.

The East India Company, founded in 1600 to diversify an ailing English economy, created it’s first trading post in India 13 years later. Within forty years another twenty two bases were created. Their notable trading posts include Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, all developed before 1700. In 1634 the Mughal emperor waived all taxes in trade and the cotton, silk, dye, opium and tea businesses thrived.

With the development of modern finance and lending in post-Civil War London, the East India Company lined it’s pockets and created a fearful lobby in parliament. In 1708 an act was passed granting exclusive trading rights to the company for nothing in return! Well, other than a low interest loan of £3.2 million. By 1720 15% of British imports came from India and were facilitated by the company.

But it was not only the English who had opened for business on the Indian sub-continent; the French were setting up shop too. However following the battle of Plassey in 1757 when Sir Robert Clive defeated the old enemy, followed by the defeat of France in Europe and America 6 years later allowed Britain to pursue her Indian interests alone.

The private army of the EIC grew from 26,000 in 1763 to 67,000 in fifteen years and British expansion continued at an unprecedented rate. However parliament was not willing to watch this from the sidelines no matter how powerful the lobby had become. Two acts in 1773 and 1784 transferred political control of the colony to the crown. British judges and magistrates were dispatched to administer the legal system (1773) and a Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India with key positions nominated by the king was created (1783).

By the mid-1800s British rule had extended to Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. The Industrial Revolution at home vastly increased the demand for raw materials in factories from the Thames valley to the banks of the Clyde. The Government of India Act (1833) removed the company’s trade monopolies, transferred control of the colony to the Board of Control, increased centralisation of the Indian government and stated that no Indian could be prevented from holding any office for racial or religious reason.

But as the company’s coffers swelled, there were rumblings of discontent from the colony. The unbridled capitalism of the Victorian era waited for no man yet the Indians were ready for their voice to be heard.

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