First European contacts.
In 1497, the Portuguese king Manuel I sent the navigator Vasco da Gama to find a sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Da Gama reached the port of Calicut on the Malabar coast on June 18, 1498, and his fleet returned to Lisbon, Portugal, in 1499. The news of the Portuguese success in crossing the Indian Ocean and reaching the richest spice port in India caused great alarm in Venice, Italy. The Venetians were Europe’s main traders in Asian spices, which they bought in Egypt.
This trade was highly profitable, and the Venetians feared the Portuguese as rivals. Portuguese merchants would sell spices more cheaply by using the new sea route. The Portuguese set up a trading empire in the Indian Ocean, capturing and fortifying all the leading trading ports. They controlled the major sea routes between India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The Portuguese made Goa their capital in India. The city became an important European settlement.
The Portuguese supremacy in the Indian Ocean lasted for just over a hundred years. Portuguese ships could carry a large amount of cargo, and were also heavily armed with a number of heavy cannon. Indian ships were smaller and made of planks held together with coir (coconut fibre) ropes, instead of with iron nails. Before the Portuguese arrived in India, Indian ships carried no weaponry.
The armed trading methods of the Portuguese in India had important consequences. Dutch and British merchants adopted very similar methods in the 1600’s.
East India companies.
The British East India Company was founded in 1600. The Dutch East India Company was formally incorporated two years later, although the Dutch merchants of Amsterdam had been trading in the Indian Ocean as early as 1595. The arrival of the British and the Dutch in India was unwelcome to the Portuguese, who tried to keep control of the Asian trade. Portuguese hostility, and the long war between Holland and Portugal’s neighbour, Spain, resulted in the Dutch East India Company deciding to drive the Portuguese out of the spice trade. The Dutch were much stronger at sea than the Portuguese, and within 50 years they had reduced the Portuguese maritime empire in India to a shadow of its past.
The British East India Company, by contrast, was much weaker. At first, it did not engage in wars of expansion. In the 1600’s it acquired three independent sovereign settlements in India, Madras (now Chennai), Bombay (now Mumbai), and Calcutta (now Kolkata), and each grew into substantial trading ports. The ports were all fortified with sea walls and cannon. The British company, like the Dutch, raised a small army of professional soldiers. After 1700, the British East India Company was strong enough to equip a large number of well-armed ships for trading in the Indian Ocean.
Rivalry between Britain and France.
In the 1720’s the French government granted a charter to a French East India Company to trade with India. The French made their headquarters at Pondicherry in southern India. Within 20 years or so the French had become very powerful in India and were competing successfully with the British. The commercial competition between the two companies soon led to political quarrels. In the 1740’s the French and British supported rival Indian rulers in internal wars. Military and naval conflicts resulted from these political involvements, with a victory for the British in southern India.
In 1755 an unexpected blow fell on the British East India Company. The Muslim nawab of Bengal province, Siraj al-Daulah, disagreed with the company over commercial privileges claimed by the British. The nawab led an army against Calcutta, and captured the city. The British governor and leading officials had fled from the town, but many British people living in Calcutta were taken prisoner. Confined in a small room overnight, a number of people died from suffocation and heat. The exact number of deaths is disputed, but the so-called Black Hole of Calcutta incident further worsened relations between British and Indians.
When the news of the fall of Calcutta reached Madras, the British sent Colonel Robert Clive to Bengal to regain Calcutta. Clive was a brilliant soldier, who had already successfully fought against the French. He was also a skilful politician. Clive not only recovered Calcutta, but also led the company’s troops to victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Siraj al-Daulah was replaced by a puppet ruler, Mir Jafar, who was under the control of the East India Company’s officials in Calcutta. Mir Jafar was forced to pay large sums of money to the company. Robert Clive was rewarded with the grant of a large estate in Bengal.
Foundation of the British Empire in India.
Historians regard the year 1757 as the starting point of the British Empire in India, even though large parts of the country remained under the rule of Indian princes. It took nearly another hundred years for the East India Company and the British government to extend British rule to northern and western India.
Growth of the East India Company.
By 1765, the East India Company had decided to set aside the nominal Mughal governor of Bengal province, the nawab. The company itself became the dewan, or financial controller, holding its office under a farman (proclamation) granted by the Mughal emperor in Delhi. Bengal’s prosperous rice agriculture yielded enormous tax revenues to the East India Company. This financial advantage helped the company to raise a large army of professional Indian soldiers, trained and commanded by British officers. From 1772, under the company’s first governor general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, the British began to expand toward northern India.
Hastings was a skilful diplomat and politician. He contributed much to the success of the East India Company’s government in Bengal. But his use of violent methods to suppress Indian opposition, and his treatment of fellow British officials in India, aroused great anger in Britain. On his return home, Hastings was impeached by the British Parliament on charges of corruption, but after a trial lasting from 1788 to 1795, he was declared free from all blame.
Warren Hastings was not alone among British officials in committing acts which many people in India and Britain regarded as corrupt and unacceptable. Many officials of the East India Company took the opportunity to build up large fortunes through illegal means.
Reform of company administration.
These corrupt administrative practices were ended by Lord Cornwallis, who was appointed governor general of India in 1786. The British Parliament had passed Acts in 1773 and in 1784 to bring the East India Company under the control of a British government minister. Lord Cornwallis was given the task of reforming British administration in India and of establishing good relations with the Indian princes. He set up an independent judicial system, prevented the company’s government servants from conducting private trade and holding government contracts, and reformed the police and criminal justice system.