Empires - British Empire

The formal period of the British Empire in India covers less than 90 years, from 1858 when the East India Company lost its right to govern, until independence in August 1947. However, the reality of British rule over much of the sub-continent dates from almost a century before. The battle of Plassey in 1757 established British control of the province of Bengal, and significant influence in other parts of the country, notably around Madras (today known as Chennai) and Bombay (Mumbai).

Difficult beginnings

Painting of the crests and flags of all countries in the British Empire.
Countries of the British Empire.

The British Indian Empire took a further 50 years to consolidate after Plassey, with wars against the French, the Marathas, the Sikhs, the Gurkhas and some of the more powerful kingdoms in the South.

Indeed at the time of the rebellion of 1857 British rule had still not been accepted in many parts of the country. The size and spread of the rebellion, which was initially dismissed as a minor mutiny within the army, suggested a more widespread dissatisfaction with Company rule.

Princely states

The constitutional settlement that emerged in 1858 was complex. While the Mughal Empire was formally dissolved, the British entered into treaty relations with hundreds of Indian states still ruled by so-called native princes. These may not have been defeated but acknowledged British paramountcy, in addition to directly ruling in some areas. Some of these states were tiny, while others were bigger (and richer) than European powers.

Painting of  a Hindu priest decorating the flags of the 35th Bengal Light Infantry.
35th Bengal Light Infantry on Aydha Puja, 1850-54.

British rule

At the same time, the British modernised the government, created a judiciary, and introduced elements of constitutional government. Ironically much of the design was based on French administrative practice, though it also drew heavily on Mughal and pre-existing traditions, particularly with respect to land and land revenue matters.

British rule coincided with the great age of capitalism and technical innovation in Europe, and in many ways India was used to test some of these new ideas. A great network of railways and telegraphs, together with a commercial infrastructure, was established to help move valuable raw materials through ports to international markets, thus opening India up in ways that had never happened before.

All the great trading and commercial interests of the Empire found markets in India for their products on a scale and level unparalleled anywhere else in the imperial system. When wars came, India was a reservoir of manpower and production that often exceeded Britain's capacity. The Indian Empire was in many ways indispensable to, and inseparable from, the wealth and wellbeing of Britain itself.

Poverty and famine

But at the same time, a crisis was developing. The British class system seemed to reinforce rather than weaken the caste system, and traditions of racial superiority spurred calls for independence. For all India's wealth, poverty levels were intensifying: at independence life expectancy was only 29, while economic and social indicators had remained stagnant for almost a century. All the wealth and abundance of British India was enriching someone, but it was not Indians. The 20th century saw famines on a scale unprecedented in Indian history, particularly in 1942 (when 2 million died in Bengal) and 1946 (when 1.5 million died in Madras).

The success of the Japanese during the initial phase of the second war effectively doomed the British experiment in the Indian mind. Independence for India and Pakistan was to follow in 1947.

More images of Empires