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The British Empire in India, British Expansion

The English East India Company continued to extend its control over Indian territory throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Treaties made with Indian princes provided for the stationing of British troops within these princely states. To pay for the troops the British were often given revenue-collecting rights in certain parts of the states; this gave them indirect control over these areas. Many of these states were annexed when succession to the throne was in doubt or when the ruler acted in ways that seemed contrary to British interests.

The British made even more significant gains by military means. In the late 1700s they were drawn into a three-way conflict when the nizam of Hyderabad asked for British assistance against his rivals: the Marathas, and Tipu Sahib, the sultan of Mysore. In 1799 the British marched on Seringapatam, Tipu’s capital, and defeated his troops. Tipu was killed defending the city. The British annexed much of Mysore outright; they controlled the remainder through a new sultan they installed. After a series of battles (1775-1782, 1803-1805, 1817-1818) with the Marathas, the British also succeeded in bringing Maratha lands under their control.

In 1773 the British Parliament passed the Regulating Act, the first of a series of acts that gave British governors greater control over the English East India Company. Under the Regulating Act the company was still permitted to continue handling all trading matters and to have its own troops, but its activity was now supervised by parliament. The act also established the post of governor-general of India and made the holder of the office directly responsible to the British government. Warren Hastings became the first governor-general of India in 1774.

The British proceeded to make major changes in the administration of their realm. The three presidencies (administrative districts)—Bengal, Bombay, and Madras—adopted different systems of fixing responsibility for the payment of land taxes. In Bengal, the local landed gentry accepted responsibility for a fixed amount of taxes in return for ownership of large estates. Under this arrangement the British did not share in the gains of any potential improvements in agricultural productivity. By contrast, in Madras and Bombay, peasant cultivators paid annual taxes directly to the government. The tax rate could be adjusted at fixed intervals, so in this case the British could reap the benefits of agricultural expansion. A civil service system was developed that admitted British officers through a merit examination, trained them in an administrative college, and paid them handsomely to reduce corruption. Meanwhile, the development of the textile industry in Britain forced a transformation of India’s economy: India had to produce raw cotton for export and buy manufactured goods—including cloth—from England, while the cottage industries that produced textiles in India were ruined.

At the same time British attitudes about Indian culture changed. Until about 1800 the East India Company traders adapted themselves to the country, donning Indian dress, learning Sanskrit, and sometimes taking Indian mistresses. As British rule strengthened, and as an influential evangelical Christian movement emerged in the early 19th century, India’s customs were judged more harshly. Missionaries, who had been kept out by the company for fear they would upset Indians and thus disrupt commerce, were now brought in. Laws were passed to abolish Indian customs such as suttee (the immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre). The 18th-century company officers, such as Sir William Jones, a scholar of Sanskrit who discovered the relationship of Indo-European languages, were replaced by British subjects who felt Indian thought and literature was of virtually no value. In 1835 English was enforced as the language of government.

Under the leadership of Governor-General James Andrew Broun Ramsay, 10th earl of Dalhousie, the empire continued to expand. After two wars with the Sikhs, the Sikh state of Punjab was added in 1849. Governor-General Dalhousie also annexed Satara, Jaipur, Sambalpur, Jhansi, and Nagpur on the death of their native rulers, taking advantage of a British doctrine that declared Britain’s right to govern any Indian state where there was no natural heir to the throne. The absorption of Oudh, long under Britain’s indirect control, was the last major piece added to the company’s possessions; it was annexed in 1856. Dalhousie’s tenure was also marked by various improvements and reforms: the construction of railroads, bridges, roads, and irrigation systems; the establishment of telegraph and postal services, and restrictions on slave trading and other ancient practices. These innovations and reforms, however, aroused little enthusiasm among Indian people, many of whom regarded the modernization of their country with both fear and mistrust.

 

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