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History of India: The Colonial Period


In 1640, the East India Company established an outpost at Madras. In 1661 the company obtained Bombay from Charles II and converted it to a flourishing center of trade by 1668. English settlements developed in Orissa and Bengal. In 1690 Job Charnock, an agent of the East India Company established a factory in Bengal; almost a decade later the factory was fortified and called Fort William. Three adjoining villages Sutanati, Kalikata and Gobindpore were developed into a single area called Calcutta. Calcutta became a trading centre for East India Company.

Battle of Plassey

On June 23rd, 1757 at Plassey, between Calcutta and Murshidabad, the forces of the East India Company under Robert Clive met the army of Siraj-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal. Mir Jafar, one of the Nawab's trusted lieutenants, joined the British; a large number of the Nawab's soldiers were bribed to throw away their weapons, and surrender prematurely. Siraj-ud-Daula was defeated. The Battle of Plassey, which marked the first major military success for British East India Company.

Lord Clive

Battle of Wandiwash

During the major part of the1700s the French and English fought a series of battles for supremacy in the Carnatic region. In the Third Carnatic War (a.k.a battle of Wandiwash), the British East India Company defeated the French forces at the ending almost a century of colonial conflict in India.

Battle of Buxar

In June 1763 led by Major Adams British army defeated Mir Kasim the Nawab of Bengal. Mir Kasim fled to Patna to seek asylum, from Nawab Shujauddaulah and the (merely a figurehead) Emperor Shah Alam II. After winning the Battle of Buxar, the British obtained the right to collect land revenue in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Next, Robert Clive was appointed the governor and commander in chief of the English army in Bengal in 1765.

Warren Hastings was appointed the Governor of Bengal in 1772. Under the Regulating Act of 1773 passed by British parliament, a Council of four members was appointed, and Hastings was empowered to conduct the Company's affairs with the Council's advice. His task was to consolidate the Company's rule in Bengal. He brought about several administrative and judicial changes. However He faced stiff resistance from the Marathas in the north and Hyder Ali in the south. In 1773 he concluded the Treaty of Benaras with the Nawab of Avadh, in the process blocking alliances between the Marathas and the Nawab of Avadh. Under Warren Hastings the British army took part in the Rohilla War in 1774 which brought Rohilkhand in the company's jurisdiction.

Warren Hastings

The First Anglo-Mysore War

With easy success in Bengal, the English concluded a treaty with Nizam Ali of Hyderabad and committed to help the Nizam with the troops in his war against Hyder Ali. In 1767, the Nizam, the Marathas and the British joined forces
against Hyder Ali. But Hyder Ali beat the English at their own game by making peace with the Marathas and alluring the Nizam with territorial gains. Allying with the Nizam, Hyder Ali launched an attack on Arcot. The 18 month long fight inflicted heavy losses on the British. The panic-stricken British agreed to a treaty which was signed on April 4, 1769, on the basis of restitution of each other's territories.

During the period 1772-1785 the territory of the East India Company included Bengal. Bihar, Orissa, Benaras and Ghazipur, besides the Northern Sircars, the port of Salsette and the harbours of Madras and Bombay.

The fast declining Mughal territory included Delhi and surrounding areas. The autonomous territory of Avadh, was bound in an alliance with the East India Company since 1765. The North Western part of India was under the Sikh clans, who controlled region around the river Sutlej. Several Muslim chiefs ruled in North western Punjab, Multan, Sindh and Kashmir. The Marathas dominated over western India, parts of Central India from Delhi to Hyderabad and Gujarat to Cuttack. The Deccan was ruled by Nizam of Hyderabad. Hyder Ali ruled over Mysore. Tanjore and Travancore were ruled by Hindu kings.

Hyder Ali

Pitt's India Act

The British Parliament under Pitt’s India Bill of 1784 appointed a Board of Control, which provided for a joint government of the Company and the Crown. In 1786, through a supplementary bill, Lord Cornwallis was appointed as the first Governor-General, and he became the effective ruler of British India under the authority of the Board of Control and the Court of Directors.

Third Mysore War

The immediate cause of the war was Tipu Sultan (son of Hyder Ali)‘s attack on Travancore on December 29, 1789 following a dispute over Cochin. The Raja of Travancore was entitled to the protection by the English. Seizing the opportunity, the British, having made a triple alliance with the Nizams and the Marathas, attacked Tipu Sultan.

The war between Tipu Sultan and the allies lasted nearly two years. On January 29, 1791, Lord Cornwallis himself took over the command of the British troops. He captured Bangalore in 1791 and approached Seringapatnam, Tipu Sultan's capital. Tipu fiercely defended the city, forcing Cornwallis to retreat. Tipu Sultan subsequently captured Coimbatore. Lord Cornwallis soon returned to occupy all the forts enroute to Seringapatnam. On February 5, 1792 Cornwallis arrived at Seringapatnam. Tipu sued for peace, following which the Treaty of Seringapatnam was concluded in March 1792. Under the treaty, nearly half of the territory of Mysore got split up between the victorious allies. Tipu Sultan was compelled to pay a huge war indemnity and his two sons were taken hostage.

Tipu Sultan - the tiger
of the Deccan
Fourth Mysore war

Lord Wellesley became the Governor General of India in 1798. Tipu Sultan tried to secure an alliance with the French against the English in India. Wellesley questioned Tipu’s relationship with the French and attacked Mysore in 1799. The fourth Anglo-Mysore War was of short and decisive.Tipu Sultan died defending his capital, on May 4, 1799.
During the period 1814 to 1826 the British had to fight many wars against Gurkhas (residents of Nepal) in the North and Burmese in the North East. Having incurred several, the British signed peace treaties with both these communities. Between 1817 and 1818 the British had to fight against the Pindaris (a horde of cruel marauders, based in Central India who ravaged and plundered the neighbouring regions as well as some distant areas. They were employed by the Maratha armies as auxiliary forces). The Pindaris were eventually crushed by the British.
During this period, the Sikh power was growing in the North West region of Punjab. Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) of Punjab became very powerful. Afraid of his growing powers, the British signed a peace treaty with Ranjit Singh. But after the latter’s demise internal feuds grew among the Sikhs. The British tried to take advantage of this which led to the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1845, followed by a few other battles. The final battle of Sobraon on February 10, 1846. Owing to the treachery of their generals, the Sikhs lost all of these battles. The British were able to capture most of India after defeating Sikhs in the Second Anglo- Sikh War in 1849.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh
The Sepoy Mutiny

By early 1857, the kingdom of Avadh was annexed by the British, which resulted in the Indian Sepoys of that area losing their privileges. This led to a simmering discontent in the minds of the common people. However an immediate irritant was the introduction of the Enfield rifle, whose bullets had to be bitten, before being loaded into the rifle. Rumours began to spread amongst the Sepoys that the bullets had been smeared in pig and cow tallow.

Naturally many of the Sepoys refused to use the ammunition. A soldier named Mangal Pandey was the first tol lead his fellow soldiers to vehement protest against this sacrilege, and as a consequence were chained or even imprisoned. Incensed by this move of the British, their comrades revolted and freed them. Moreover they brutally killed several British soldiers. This arson and genocide went on for a few months.

The sepoys stationed at Meerut were the first to rebel marched towards Delhi. After capturing the city with the help of the local garrison, the rebels proclaimed the Mughal poet-king Bahadurshah Zafar, the sovereign ruler of India. The uprising spread like wildfire across central and Northern India with sepoys and civilians alike taking part in the ransacking and lawlessness. In the tiny kingdom of Jhansi, Rani Laxmi Bai, the teenaged queen (aided by other patriotic nobles like Nana Saheb and Tantya Tope) put up a brave fight to save her kingdom from the British, and lost her life in the process.

Shortly after, Cawnpore (modern Kanpur) was captured and Lucknow besieged. The retaliation by the British was violent and brutal. The British recaptured Cawnpore and Delhi in the July-September period of 1857. Lucknow was freed in early 1858
As a direct result of the Sepoy Mutiny, the Indian presence in the British army was reduced to almost a half. The Indian regiments which had been allowed to exist separately, were now incorporated into British regiments. Most importantly, India came under direct Crown rule as the British East India Company was dispossessed of its functions and, in 1877, Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India.

Mangal Pandey

Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi

Nana Saheb
Landmark Developments

In the year 1853 the first railway became operational between Bombay and Thane and first telegraph line started between Calcutta and Agra. These were a few positive contributions of the British rule in India. Though these were originally meant to improve the mobility and communication of the British troops, eventually they proved very useful for the general public.

Queen Victoria
Cultural Resurgence  
In the socio-cultural major changes and transformation took place during this period. Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), an erudite, cultured personality, stood firmly against all kinds of social bigotry, orthodoxy, idol worship and superstitions and advocated Western/English education for the common people.

In 1828, he founded a society known as the 'Brahmo Samaj' which believed in secularism, equality of all religions and worship of one supreme, formless being. Ram Mohan Roy’s greatest achievement was the abolition of 'Sati' (the burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband) in 1829, in which objective he received unlimited help and cooperation of the then Governor General Lord William Bentinck.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) was a reformer, feminist and thinker. He raised questions and aroused public opinion about social evils like early marriage of girls, polygamy, child widows among others. To him goes the credit of the enactment of the Act of 1856, legalising widow remarriage and the Civil Marriage Act of 1872, restricting bigamy and child marriage and encouraging widow remarriage.

Ishwar Chandra Vidysagar
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