The chaotic conquest of India

The East India Company's predilection for paranoia and aggression soured Britain's relations with the subcontinent for 350 years. Jon Wilson investigates...

Bombay, the East India Company's port on the Malabar Coast of India, 1755. Company trading vessels are depicted in the foreground and quayside warehouses and buildings behind. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In 1720, a group of Muslim merchants came to visit Simon Cowse, a British trader at the small fort of Anjengo, 70 miles north of India’s southern tip. Rather than negotiating a deal to sell pepper as they intended, they were attacked and daubed with coloured paint by Christian employees of the British East India Company. It was Shrove Tuesday, a day local Catholics celebrated. But the festive mood was used as an excuse to humiliate members of a rival religious community. The merchants angrily took their complaint to the British chief of the fort. But William Gyfford compounded the merchants’ disgrace by breaking their swords on their heads and throwing them out. These insults sparked a small war that different social groups in southern India took part in, many of which had their own reasons to challenge the East India Company’s power.

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The Company’s stores of pepper were burnt; its fort was almost stormed. Four heavily armed British ships arrived and imposed peace for a few months. The six-foot walls around their fort protected the British from the local population; but they also insulated them from the scale of animosity against them. So when, in April 1721, Gyfford decided to show the Company’s strength by marching in full military regalia to the local queen’s castle, his retinue was attacked. All but a handful of the 120 merchants and soldiers were massacred. Simon Cowse was the only Briton who got away. But while fleeing back to the fort he was killed by a man who owed him money.

These events could have led to the British conquest of Kerala had the East India Company not been embroiled in bigger battles elsewhere. A fleet and a small army sailed down from Bombay to take revenge, and “a considerable acquisition of land was conquered from the natives”, as one British officer put it. The aim was to “restore the honour of the English nation”. But the fight in Kerala was quickly abandoned. In 1721 the British ships and troops were more badly needed to defend Bombay against the power that dominated western India, the Marathas.

The common view of Britain’s empire in India emphasises its stability and success. Whether to praise or condemn it, popular accounts describe British power in India as a system with clear interests and intentions. Conquest was driven by the rational pursuit of profit. It occurred when traders decided that building an empire was a good “business proposition”, as historian and defender of empire Niall Ferguson puts it. The British were “ruthless” in their pursuit of wealth, suggests the Indian author Shashi Tharoor. Writers with otherwise very different perspectives concur that the British were rational, powerful and fully sovereign over their actions.

But this standard story about the British is based on a narrow set of sources, principally on tales told by the empire’s governors and generals once they returned to Britain and tried to persuade contemporaries of their power and virtue. It imputes far too much rationality and order to British actions; it presumes the British possessed an unrealistic degree of control. Looking in detail at events such as the Anjengo massacre shows a different picture. British actions were messy and chaotic, driven by short-term responses to circumstances they could rarely direct. Chaos came from the fact that Britain’s empire in India was a profoundly emotional enterprise. It was driven by the fluctuating response of Britons far from home, concerned to advance national and personal pride, to assuage fear, to prevent and avenge humiliation. Power was asserted not only to make money but to project a sense of being in control.

England (Britain was created by the Act of Union in 1707) was, after all, a late-comer to Asia. After Vasco da Gama discovered a sea-route to Asia in 1498, the Portuguese established forts and settlements around the coast of India and south-east Asia. The Netherlands sent dozens of ships in the 1590s, each returning with large profits. The first English voyages were disasters; only one of six ships returned from the first two fleets. The East India Company was formed in 1600 to undo the humiliation English merchants felt about the failure of their commercial expeditions to Asia.

It was a peculiar kind of enterprise. Not merely a collection of merchants, the Company was a mini-state with power to defend itself and fight, to issue regulations and make treaties with foreign powers. Power was centralised in London offices that issued instructions to officers overseas. Most importantly, Queen Elizabeth I gave the Company a monopoly on England’s trade with Asia. From 1600, the Company zealously protected its monopoly even though it wasn’t always the most efficient way for Britons to profit from trade with Asia. The Company justified this centralised structure by arguing India was a land of infidels, whose states didn’t abide by the rules of international relations. They claimed trade could only be profitable if conducted by an organisation able to wage war.

But private merchants trading in defiance of the Company’s monopoly thought this argument ridiculous. They found that Muslim and Hindu Indian states could be trusted as well as Christian European governments. It didn’t take armies and forts to profit from Asian trade. The Company’s critics argued its officers were protecting their own corporate power and status, not England’s commercial relationship. The Company’s aggressive approach created a tense relationship with Indian merchants and political leaders. Its officers hid behind the walls of forts, like Anjengo, or cantonments (military garrisons) whenever they could. They were quick to use force to resolve difficult situations. Negotiations were usually short, conflict was common.

The first major clash began in 1686, when Company officials were anxious that the Mughal empire wasn’t letting them trade without paying taxes. They also worried that Mughals were collaborating with private English traders to flout the Company’s monopoly. Customs duty of 3.5 per cent was seen as an egregious impost, even though it wasn’t undermining profitability. Nonetheless, officers thought they would only be secure if they “resolve[d] to quarrel with these people”.

War was declared on the Mughal empire. A fleet of 19 ships and six army companies was sent to liberate the English from the “misery and thralldom” they believed they suffered from the Mughals. The war was an absurd mismatch. The Company’s ships were scattered by bad navigation; they were easily frightened by the Mughal military at Chittagong in the east and were defeated at Bombay in the west. The conflict ended in abject disgrace. Officers were imprisoned and the Company had no choice but to sue for a demeaning peace.

The Mughal empire had been recognised as the over-arching sovereign throughout the Indian subcontinent from the 1500s, but by 1710 its practical power had begun to fragment. Nonetheless, its authority had been transferred to powerful regional governments that still owed a loose allegiance to the Mughal emperor. Until the mid-18th century India’s political system was powerful enough to hold the Company’s aggressive inclinations in check. Indian rulers saw the benefit of allying with an organisation that offered a passage for Indian goods to Europe, as long as it didn’t become too powerful.

But a short-lived political crisis undermined this state of affairs. The Persian ruler Nader Shah invaded India in 1739, overthrowing the Mughal order and stripping treasuries of their cash reserves. The invasion provoked factional conflict in the capitals of India and set loose bands of raiders and warlords to ransack the countryside. In the crisis-torn 1740s and 1750s, the Company’s officers became more anxious, but also saw the opportunity to expand profits and power.

The battle of Plassey, in June 1757, was the most important moment in the sequence of events that led to the Company’s conquest of India. On a battlefield 100 miles north of the Company’s base at Calcutta, Company forces led by Robert Clive defeated the army of Bengal’s Siraj ud Daula, replacing him with the (apparently) more pliant Mir Jafar. This was the first occasion in which the Company defeated and overthrew the ruler of an Indian state.

By 1757, the state of Bengal had been weakened and nearly bankrupted by Maratha raiders from central India. When Nawab [governor] Alivardi Khan had died in 1756, his 24-year-old successor Siraj ud Daula had had to contend with numerous challengers for power. Siraj worried that the Company would ally with his rivals to oust him, offering support from their fortified base at Calcutta. Just as 35 years earlier at Anjengo, violence escalated in a spiral of mistrust and fear. The Company had fortified Calcutta because it feared attack. Siraj ud Daula interpreted British armament as a challenge to his power. When the Company refused to back down, Siraj marched on the British town, driving the British from Calcutta.

The language Company officers used with the Nawab had the tone of an exchange between street-gangs, not negotiation between states and merchants. Clive sailed from Madras to recapture Calcutta with 800 Europeans, who he described as “full of spirit and resentment” in October 1756. “We have come to demand satisfaction,” he wrote. After Calcutta was retaken and Siraj ud Daula signed a peace treaty granting all they demanded, the British did not stop and enjoy their profits. With “minds still angered”, as one officer put it, they marched on to depose the Nawab. “[T]he tempting opportunity of pursuing further revenge” could not be resisted.

Plassey was not part of a deliberate plan to found an empire. It was the unintended consequence of the British assumption that trade and honour could only be protected with violence. That assumption meant the East India Company was unable to sustain a stable relationship with Indian allies for long. The plan was always to put more pliant Indian rulers in power rather than govern directly. In Bengal, Clive placed Mir Jafar, paymaster of Siraj’s army, on the throne. But always interpreting Indian actions through a lens of paranoia, trust continually broke down. Allies turned into antagonists, and the British began to assert power over wider circles of territory.

Mir Jafar was blamed for the fact that conquest didn’t lead to quick profits and was quickly ousted. His successor didn’t last much longer. By the 1770s eastern India was directly administered by British bureaucrats. The main objective was to sustain the Company’s authority in the pockets where Britons resided, not construct an effective regime that kept the peace across every square of Indian land. There was no effective regime in Bengal until well into the 19th century. As a result, violence was rife and poverty became more common.

The same process occurred in other parts of the subcontinent. Western India was fragmented between different Maratha rulers after Nader Shah’s invasion, many of which began as British allies. But the Company’s efforts to protect its security created a united Maratha opposition, which the British fought in a succession of wars in the late 18th and early 19th century. The British were victorious in these battles simply because they could borrow money on global credit markets to pay their troops, and their opponents could not: there was no European technical or tactical advantage. But by 1818, its combination of geopolitical anxiety and financial clout meant the East India Company, and Britain, was India’s overwhelmingly dominant power.

But conquest didn’t create a stable, effective state. It didn’t even create peace. Opposition was no longer concentrated in powerful states, but scattered among political leaders and communities quick to ‘rebel’ if provoked by British authorities. During the 1820s the British faced a succession of insurrections that needed more troops and more money to be suppressed than the conquest itself.

British officers assumed British power would be disliked, but thought its assertion made rebellion impossible. “Superiority must be met by more or less hate”, the Commissioner of Meerut, Harvey Greathed, wrote in April 1857. But, he went on, “as long as our power of combination increases and theirs decreases”, the British “had “nothing to fear”. Less than a month after Greathed wrote these words, the north Indian city where he was stationed became the epicentre of the greatest-ever insurrection against British power anywhere in the British empire. During the rebellion of 1857 much of north India was ruled by leaders hostile to the Company. But it was not an uprising against a settled, powerful state. It was the final moment in the cycle of violence that marked the East India Company’s presence in India since the 17th century.

Just as in 1686, 1757 and countless other moments of Anglo-Indian fighting, the East India Company was attacked for its aggressive attitude to Indian society. In the run-up to 1857, many Indians thought the British wanted to erase the characteristics that gave different social groups their identity. British officers and soldiers then fought frenetically to undo the humiliation of being overthrown. It was only in 1858, as British soldiers arrived from every part of the British empire and managed to enlist allies, particularly from Punjab, that the conquest came to a final end. Its last days were brutal. Delhi was completely evacuated, and many rebel villages burnt to the ground.

British power was exercised differently after 1858. The Company was abolished and Queen Victoria was proclaimed India’s direct sovereign. Power was exerted through law courts and public works, railway timetables and codes of law, not just military violence. Even so, imperial power was patchy, limited and chaotic, belying the image of order British governors tried to project. Many areas never came under direct British rule. With no serious Indian allies, British institutions didn’t extend deeply enough into Indian society to effectively protect life or property. The response to threat remained the same: to retreat and counter with overwhelming violence. The British only left in 1947 when such violence was no longer possible.

The legacy of the conquest of India is the idea that overwhelming force is a rational and efficient means to uphold the power of the state. In fact, as in the 17th century as much as now, the use of force is often driven by the most visceral, short-term passions – and it usually does little more than create further cycles of violence and, with them, breed chaos.

Jon Wilson is senior lecturer in British Imperial and South Asian history at King’s College London. His latest book is India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire (Simon and Schuster, 2016).

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This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine