Why was Britain Able to Colonise India?

By Yaqoob Malik

1858 saw the establishment of the British Raj; the rule of the British East India company was transferred to the British Crown, establishing British rule in India.  The British Empire, at its peak in the early 20th century, covered a quarter of the world’s landmass, making it the largest empire in history. This, however, was only possible through the exploitation of Britain’s colonies, resulting in an increase of 248% in Britain’s GDP per capita between 1600 and 1871[1]. Edmund Burke, a British politician in the 1780s, criticised the East India Company, accusing them of ruining India’s economy. Historian Rajat Kanta Ray followed this viewpoint, building on Dadabhai Naoroji’s drain theory, he argued that Britain crippled India by sapping its wealth and blamed Britain for the famine of 1770. India at the time was going through a period of severe instability, with the economically draining rule of Aurangzeb ending with turbulent wars of succession, followed by the invasion of Northern India by Nadir Shah in 1738, signalling to the European powers to make their moves. India was seen as an immensely valuable resource by many of the European countries, being the producers of cotton, textiles, spices and opium, the last of which could be sold to China for tea. Encouraged by the vast potential of India, the European powers sought to establish trade and conquer India for benefit of their economies, with the first oceanic route to India being discovered by Vasco da Gama in 1498, allowing for the establishment of the Portuguese State of India 1505. The French, Dutch, and Danish attempts to colonise India all failed, overshadowed by the vast success of Britain. This essay aims to explain why Britain was able to take control of India between the 17th and 19th centuries, more specifically, what factors played the most significant role.

Popular opinion today suggests that Aurangzeb was a racist oppressor of Hindus and other cultural minorities, as Katherine Butler Brown puts it: “The very name of Aurangzeb seems to act in the popular imagination as a signi?er of politico-religious bigotry and repression, regardless of historical accuracy.”[2] However, since his reign ended in 1707, Aurangzeb’s image has been distorted by Indian nationalists to the point where his repression of the Hindu culture was sufficient to be able to portray him in such a light that the Taliban was compared to him as being the pinnacle of cultural destruction.[3] Aurangzeb did destroy temples, but the figures that have been used are grossly inaccurate. Indian historian Harbans Mukhia comments: “In the end, as recently recorded in Richard Eaton’s careful tabulation, some 80 temples were demolished between 1192 and 1760 (15 in Aurangzeb’s reign) and he compares this figure with the claim of 60,000 demolitions, advanced rather nonchalantly by ‘Hindu nationalist’ propagandists.”[4] The claims of Aurangzeb’s wanton and widespread destruction of Hindu temples holds little value; he sponsored the temples of loyal nobles[5] and eliminated political opposition through his powers as emperor, such as the Sikh guru Tegh Bahadur[6] [7], It was not a purge of non-Muslim citizens. Evidence for Aurangzeb’s tolerance Hindus can be seen from how 33% of positions of eminence under Aurangzeb were occupied by Hindus in the fourth decade of his rule, as opposed to the 24.5% in the time of his father Shah Jahan.[8] However the facts still stand that Temples were destroyed, and in some cases replaced by mosques, and that people were killed (most usually non-Muslims due to the circumstances; those who are most likely to oppose him politically typically wouldn’t be Muslim) regardless of whether the motive was political or not. To prepare for the Deccan campaign, the Jizya tax was reintroduced, which was a tax on non-Muslims who weren’t fighting for the empire and another discriminatory tax was levied on Hindu merchants at a rate of 5% compared to the 2.5% the Muslims had to pay. This discrimination of Hindus, who formed the majority of the population of India lost Aurangzeb his Hindu sympathisers, and in the long run, increased the desire for a new ruler, and so helped the British gain popularity.

During the mid-1600s, a threat had arisen in the form of the Marathas, led by Shivaji, who were encouraging insurgencies.[9] Aurangzeb led an army triple the size of Shivaji’s, but was repelled by a series of forts.[10] In 1980 Shivaji died, and the Mughals launched their attack, but it still took until 1689 for the Mughals to make any progress, when Shivaji’s successor Sambhaji was caught and executed. The Marathas defence continued until 1707, when Aurangzeb died, but the war had taken a huge toll on the country financially, crippling the empire. Historian Stanley Wolpert commented:

the conquest of the Deccan, to which Aurangzeb devoted the last 26 years of his life, was in many ways a Pyrrhic victory, costing an estimated hundred thousand lives a year during its last decade of futile chess game warfare. The expense in gold and rupees can hardly be accurately estimated. Aurangzeb’s encampment was like a moving capital – a city of tents 30 miles in circumference, with some 250 bazaars, with a ?1?2 million camp followers, 50,000 camels and 30,000 elephants, all of whom had to be fed, stripped the Deccan of any and all of its surplus grain and wealth … Not only famine but bubonic plague arose … Even Aurangzeb, had ceased to understand the purpose of it all by the time he was nearing 90 … “I came alone and I go as a stranger. I do not know who I am, nor what I have been doing,” the dying old man confessed to his son, Azam, in February 1707[11]

One of the reasons the war lasted so long was because of the number of Maratha sympathisers; The Marathas were Hindus and so naturally disliked Aurangzeb because of his repression of Hinduism. Aurangzeb had clearly overextended militarily, and one of the ramifications of this were that the government was bankrupt by the time his successor took the throne. Following Aurangzeb’s death, his son, Azam took the throne, only to be killed 3 months later by his brother Bahadur, starting the 12-year wars of succession, which saw 5 different emperors through its duration.[12] Which contrasts heavily to Aurangzeb’s 49-year rule, highlighting the instability of central authority. The very nature of the Mughal succession process is precarious; the emperor is to be succeeded by the son that overthrows him and eliminates any opposition from their family.

The Mughal empire was now considered by most historians to be in it’s state of decline, and quite rightly so; it is impossible for one man to control a whole empire. The Mughal empire was split into states that pledged allegiance to the emperor, who paid a tribute, and states that were under the emperors control, which had local rulers called Nawabs, to govern them. After the death of Aurangzeb, the bankrupt government’s authority collapsed; tributes stopped being paid and Nawabs stopped sending their revenues to Delhi, but instead took them for themselves.[13] The situation was made worse by the invasion of Nadir Shah, the ruler of Iran, in 1738, where the north-westerly territories were occupied by the Persians, including Lahore, by the end of 1738. Nadir Shah then defeated the Mughals at the Battle of Karnal in February 1739, looted Delhi and massacred around 30,000 citizens.[14] The Mughal Emperor was losing his power, and so the deep-rooted divisions between the different cultures that were kept in check by the emperor were surfacing, allowing the European powers to exploit them to gain support.

Britain did exactly that; in 1757 Robert Clive won the battle of Plassey against the Nawab of Bengal. Clive bribed Mir Jafar, the commander in chief of the Nawab, with control of Bengal, leading to their victory and control over Bengal. Clive claimed £3 million from the Nawab’s treasury and Mir Jafar became the Nawab, but in name only, as Britain took over the trade of Bengal. Mir Jafar was Later replaced by Mir Kasim, who wanted to reclaim land in North Bengal, however, Britain wouldn’t stand for this, leading to the Battle of Buxar, where Britain defeated the Nawab of Awadh and the Mughal emperor. This secured the Company revenue collecting rights for Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, giving them a huge economic advantage over their European rivals[15] The East India Company has had a strong footing in India since 1617, when the Mughal emperor Jahangir granted Britain trade rights at certain ports.[16] Britain’s navy was one of her greatest advantages over her European rivals, which was exploited to it’s full potential, allowing for the control of major ports.[17] Britain’s establishment in Indian ports and later Bengal through the use of her navy and exploitation of fragmented Nawabs allowed her to gain a very strong economic advantage over her rivals, further amplified by the industrial revolution that was taking place in Britain.

In 1662, Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, the Princess of Portugal, and as a result of the marriage treaty, Britain received Tangiers and Bombay, and trading access to Portugal’s Brazilian and Asian colonies. Britain and Portugal were now considered allies, further cementing Britain’s position in India. To further secure territory for themselves, Britain would enter into subsidiary alliances with local rulers, which stopped the rulers from maintaining their own army and from working with each other without the permission of Britain. This lessened the threat of an uprising, as no one was allowed to keep an army. Britain also implemented the doctrine of lapse, which allowed Britain to annex land if the ruler was either incompetent or died without a legitimate heir. This was exploited as the British were to decide whether an heir is suitable or whether a leader is competent enough. Britain used the doctrine of lapse to annex 6 states between 1848 and 1854,[18] gaining them territory without much financial or military struggle.

The other European powers vying for control in India were the Dutch, the Danes, the French and the Portuguese. Britain had an alliance with Portugal, and the Danes didn’t have enough influence to pose a threat, which left the Dutch and the French as their main rivals. The Dutch held a significant presence on the global market as a trader of tea, however, Britain began to enter the tea market when they started trading Indian opium for Chinese tea. Britain engaged the Dutch in 1780 in the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. The battle was a one-sided victory to Britain due to the Dutch Navy being no match for Britain’s. France was struggling financially, regardless of whether they pursued India. The Austrian Wars of Succession drained the French navy, and then the Napoleonic Wars took place between 1803 to 1815, which put a huge strain on French resources. Napoleon also tried to make a junction with Tipu Sultan in 1798 to increase French presence in the colonies, however this failed due to the unsuccessful siege of Acre and battle of Abukir. If not for the overextension of Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars, France may have had the military resources necessary to oppose Britain.

The French East India Company differed in nature to the British Company; the French Company was financed by the King, whilst the British Company was financed by shareholders. This meant that France had very little freedom compared to Britain[19] and consequently, the British were very motivated, as the harder they work, the more money they receive, but this is not the case with the French. Due to the French’s establishment in Pondicherry, which was ill equipped, Britain was able to cut off their supply source and defeat them.[20]  The French leaders also seemed to be ineffective, as G. S. Chhabra writes: “Dupleix made a cardinal blunder in looking for the Key of India in Madras; Clive sought and found it in Bengal.”[21] The shortcomings of the French East India Company show that there was a problem on the management side, if France had a better leader and had chosen a more strategic location, then they may have stood a chance.

To conclude, the main reason why Britain was able to colonise India was because of the divisions within India. The long-term divisions created by the intolerance of non-Muslims and the erratic wars of succession fragmented India into many small states, the majority of whom paid lip service and nothing more to the emperor. This vulnerability was the reason that Britain was able to succeed. The Battle of Plassey most likely would have resulted in Britain’s defeat if they were facing a unified empire, the same can be said about Britain’s use of the doctrine of lapse and the subsidiary alliance; if not for the lack of central authority, Britain would have never been able to annex territory. The strength of Britain plays a large part in the colonisation of India, as after taking Bengal, they gained a very strong economic advantage, boosted by their industrial revolution. However, if there was a strong central authority, then Bengal would have remained in Mughal control. The shortcomings of the other European powers may have played a major role if Britain didn’t have such an advantage in resources; Although Britain does have the strongest navy, if the French had chosen a more suitable location than Pondicherry and had a more suitable leader, then we may have seen French control of India only if Britain hadn’t become an economic powerhouse.


[1] Stephen Broadberry and Bishnupriya Gupta, Indian GDP Before 1870: Some Preliminary Estimates and A Comparison with Britain (2009) http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/sbroadberry/wp/indiangdppre1870v2.pdf

[2] Katherine Butler Brown, Did Aurangzeb Ban Music? Questions for the Historiography of His Reign (2007) https://www.scribd.com/doc/81299631/Did-Aurangzeb-Ban-Music

[3] Katherine Butler Brown, Did Aurangzeb Ban Music? Questions for the Historiography of His Reign (2007) https://www.scribd.com/doc/81299631/Did-Aurangzeb-Ban-Music

[4]Harbans Mukhia, The Mughals of India (2004) page 26 http://historydepartmentphilos.weebly.com/uploads/2/6/6/1/26612531/harbans_mukhia_themughalsofindia.pdf

[5] Barbra D. Metcalf,Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India Second Edition (2006) page 21

[6] Barbra D. Metcalf, Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India Second Edition (2006) page 21

[7] Audrey Truschke, A Much-Maligned Mughal (2017) https://aeon.co/essays/the-great-aurangzeb-is-everybodys-least-favourite-mughal

[8] S. C. Bhatt, Land and People of Indian States and Union Territories: In 36 Volumes. Delhi, Volume 34 (2006) page 65

[9] Jamal Malik, Islam in South Asia: A Short History (2008) page 193

[10] http://historiarex.com/e/en/414-deccan-wars-1680-1707

[11] Stanley A. Wolpert, New History of India (7th edition) (2008)

[12] Firas Alkhateeb, Lost Islamic History (2014) page 186

[13] Barbra D. Metcalf, Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India Second Edition (2006) page 30 – 31

[14] https://www.britannica.com/place/India/Aurangzeb#ref485859

[15] Barbra D. Metcalf, Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India Second Edition (2006) page 52 – 53

[16] Barbra D. Metcalf, Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India Second Edition (2006) page 47

[17] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/britain_empire_01.shtml

[18] https://www.britannica.com/topic/doctrine-of-lapse

[19] http://www.historydiscussion.net/history-of-india/failure-of-french/top-8-causes-for-the-french-failure-in-india/5920

[20] G. S. Chhabra, Advanced Study in the History of Modern India (Volume-1: 1707-1803) (2005) page 126 – 130

[21] G. S. Chhabra, Advanced Study in the History of Modern India (Volume-1: 1707-1803) (2005) page 128

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