India: The Jewel in the Crown


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
India: The Jewel in the Crown

Gresham College Lectures:

Professor Kathleen Burk

PICTURE 1: TITLE - My intention during my three years as Professor of Rhetoric has been to give an overview of British external relations. During my first year, I concentrated on Anglo-American relations; last year I focused on Anglo-European relations; and for my final year, I want to look at Britain and her Empire, beginning this evening with India.The perception of many Britons of the place of India in the Empire is coloured by the peaceful withdrawal of British authority and by the structures of politics and government left behind: a semi-representative political system, a trained civil service and a university system in which to train an élite to run the country. But the story is darker than such a summary implies. One shorthand might be greed, violence, despotism, adaptation, weakness and scuttle. Alternatively, it might be trade and commerce, defence and expansion, economic development, political development, and gradual withdrawal, leaving a former colony well able to govern itself and to develop successfully. The fact that the story ended more or less successfully can mask the fact that the first century and a half of British involvement in India was dominated by violence and despotism. The Great Mutiny of 1857, or the Great Rebellion, or the First War of Independence - all names by which this event is known - was a watershed, forcing changes in the manner in which the British governed India. The subsequent century saw the development of forces for change in both India and Great Britain which climaxed in 1947 and the independence of India - and Pakistan.

PICTURE 2: MAP OF THE MUGHAL EMPIRE - From 1526 until the British took hold, the territory of India was dominated by the Mughal Empire. ‘ India ’ as such did not exist: rather, the empire was split up into what were effectively regions, such as Bengal, each of which was ruled by a subordinate ruler, a nawab or viceroy, or perhaps a nizam or prince. Thus when the East India Company began establishing trade links on the sub-continent, it did so primarily with individual rulers. PICTURE 3: TEA CLIPPERS AT THE EAST INDIA DOCKS AT DEPTFORD - This is a picture of tea clippers at the East India Docks at Deptford. The East India Company was the great overseas trading company which dominated British trade with India until the mid-19th century. From the beginning of the 17th century, it held a monopoly of English trade east of the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa. By the end of the 17th century, its most important settlements were on the coast of India. PICTURE 4: MAP OF INDIA IN 1765 - It owned the island of Bombay outright, whilst at Madras and Calcutta, Indian rulers had given the English grants of territory that included growing towns. Although during the earliest years of trading the main focus had been pepper and spices, during the 17th century it was textiles: Indian cotton goods were desired through Europe, and there was a lively re-export market in the Americas and along the West African coast. At the beginning of the 18th century, the English operated out of the great Mughal port of Surat on the west and Madras on the east. Calcutta in Bengal in the north had been largely founded by the British; by this time, they had built a fort there and exercised control over the town. Bengal was very rich, and from the 1720s, the shipments from Calcutta usually amounted to at least one-half of all East India Company cargoes from India.

The 1720s are important for another reason, which is that from that period, the French East India Company was also trading on a considerable scale in Asia. Their headquarters were in Pondicherry, close to Madras. Anglo-French conflict is an important reason for the abrupt change in British activities in the sub-continent from largely peaceful trading in a period of stability to wars and conquests: the need to fight the French increased the size of the Company’s arm, thereby massively increasing the Company’s need for revenue. This would have repercussions in due course. Meanwhile, in 1744, fighting broke out between the British and French at sea, a reflection of the fact that a Franco-Spanish alliance had declared war on Great Britain. The French retaliated against the British seizures at sea by attacking and taking Madras in 1746. In 1746, hostilities began on land in south-east India in the territories claimed by the Nawabs of Arcot and later those of the Nizams of Hyderabad. The British and French fought out their own rivalries in part as allies of contestants for the succession in both regions of Indian ‘country powers’. War ebbed and flowed across southern India with little break between 1746 and 1761: in 1760, the British won a decisive victory at Wandiwash and the French stronghold of Pondicherry surrendered the following year. Arcot became a client state of Great Britain. Under British protection, a Carnatic state was gradually built up which the Company was formally to annex at the end of the 18th century.

PICTURE 5: SIRAJ-UD-DAULAH - Meanwhile, however, in 1756, relations between the Company and the Nawab of Bengal exploded into violence. This is a picture of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah. The Nawab, as had rulers in other parts of India, maintained the outward forms of rule by the Mughal Emperor in Delhi, but he was essentially the independent ruler of Bengal. The British presence was becoming too intrusive for an ambitious ruler to leave unregulated, and Nawab feared that he was losing control of part of his territory. He tried to impose constraints on the Company, which the Company, contemptuous of the fighting qualities of the Bengalis, rejected. As a result, he attacked and on 20 June 1756 took control of the British centre, Calcutta. The British who surrendered the fort were well treated, but later that night, some European soldiers got drunk and assaulted the native guards who, in their turn, sought justice from the Nawab. He ordered the confinement of those soldiers who had misbehaved. They were put in a room of 18 feet by 14 feet 10 inches, with only one window. The morning after that hot night, many were found to have died from suffocation. PICTURE 6: PUTATIVE PICTURE OF THE BLACK HOLE OF CALCUTTA -The incident gave rise to a huge outcry in England, primarily due to an exaggerated report by the defender of Calcutta, John Holwell: he claimed that 146 died, but modern historians consider that it was more likely 50 [Marshall], and that the Nawab did not intend it to happen.

PICTURE 7: ROBERT CLIVE, OR CLIVE OF INDIA - For the Company, it was vital that Bengal be grabbed from the Nawab. The hero was Robert Clive, known to his later admirers as ‘the conqueror of India ’. He first went out to India in 1743 as a civil servant for the Company, but soon transfered to the military service; he returned to England in 1753, where he lived, shall we say, in an ostentatious manner. However, he was summoned to return to India when the troubles in Bengal erupted, and he arrived in Madras in 1756, immediately securing the British forces there. He then moved to Calcutta, and in early 1757 he captured Bengal. On the 23rd of June, at the Battle of Plassey, the forces of the East India Company under Clive defeated the army of Siraj-ud-daulah. The battle lasted only a few hours - indeed, the outcome had been decided long beforre swords were drawn. There was another Bengali, Mir Jafar, who wanted the Nawab’s throne; he was persuaded to throw in his lot with Clive. In addition, the majority of the Nawab’s soldiers were bribed to throw away their weapons, surrender prematurely, or even to turn their weapons against their own army. In short, the Battle of Plassey was won by bribes rather than by bravery. PICTURE 8: CLIVE OF INDIA - Nevertheless, as demonstrated by this rather bad picture, Clive’s reputation in Great Britain did not suffer thereby.

The new Nawab, Mir Jafar, refused to make what the Company considered would be an adequate grant of funds, and he was deposed in favour of another ruler. Finally, in 1765, Clive took the decision to demand the diwani, the right to rule, from the Mughal Emperor: he had decided that only direct control of the whole resources of Bengal would give the Company the funds it required - maintaining an army was an expensive business. PICTURE 9: MAP OF INDIA IN 1765 - Therefore, by 1765, the East India Company had become the outright ruler of small areas in the south and of the whole of the great province of Bengal; it held the Nawab of Arcot in a tight grip, which gave it effective control over the Carnatic territories of the south-east; and it had taken the Wazir of Oudh under its protection and was maintaining garrisons in his dominions. In short, the Company had become an Indian territorial power. However, it is probably the case that in 1765, British supremacy over the whole of the sub-continent was envisaged by few.

During the second half of the 18th century, the balance of Great Britain ’s imperial interests began to shift from the west to the east, a swing which was greatly encouraged by the loss in 1783 of most of her American colonies. When the stimulus was perceived as commerce, no one objected; however, as the British political class gradually realised the form the Company’s activities were taking beyond trade, there was increasing unease. Conquest disturbed them, for a number of reasons. First of all, the resources devoted to military conquest would be better spent on developing commercial links; secondly, the reports of greed and corruption aroused fears that these forces might eat away at traditional British liberties and virtues; and thirdly, following from that, was the question as to whether the Company was the appropriate vehicle for British commercial and administrative activity in India. What began as limited governmental investigations into Company affairs and activities in India ended in 1813 by the British government assuming some responsibility for the Indian Empire.

It is fair to say that this decision was not taken quickly or lightly. The state hardly had the expertise or indeed the resources to deal with the problems of India. However, once Clive had taken Bengal, large territorial revenues poured into the coffers of the Company; this transformed the London view of India, and acted as a spur to those, such as the Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, who believed that the state had a ‘right’ to a share of the revenues, not least because the state had provided military and naval assistance to the Company in time of need. It took several years for this to be agreed - many in the Commons believed that the Government was illegitimately stealing private wealth - but by 1767, the government established its entitlement to £400,000 a year from the Company. Unfortunately for the Company, even beyond the loss of a proportion of its revenue, they became subject to parliamentary enquiries into its shortcomings: the collapse of the Company’s finances in 1772 threatened the stream of revenue from Bengal to Westminster, and acrid reports about greed and corruption refused to go away.

PICTURE 10: WARREN HASTINGS - The great set piece of this crisis was the parliamentary impeachment of Warren Hastings, charged with tyranny, rapacity and corruption while the first Governor-General of India from 1774 to 1785. In Bengal, Hastings did not pretend, as Clive had done, that the Nawab remained sovereign; rather, he stripped him of his powers. He required loans from Indian bankers, whether they would or no: essentially, it was claimed at his trial, he extorted money from them. However, he also created an efficient and economical system for collecting the land revenue, the main source of the Company’s financial stability. PICTURE 11: POLITICAL CARTOON ATTACKING THE EAST INDIA COMPANY - What he did not do was what virtually every other official in India did: trade on his own account, and extract what funds he could from the Indians, a habit greatly facilitated by conquest - as one Company official pointed out, it was a question of ‘whether it should go into a blackman’s pocket or mine’. The picture shows the reaction of one cartoonist to the activities of the Company and its servants. The approach of the Company to the payment of its employees was small salary and large perquisites; Hastings, rather, expended much of his princely salary on institutions in Bengal and on purchasing Mughal manuscripts and works of art. When he returned to England, he carried back a modest £80,000 - he later claimed that he was astonished at his own moderation. But he was dogged by implacable enemies from his days in India, and although he was acquitted of all charges, the ten-year ordeal destroyed his financial resources. Fortunately, the Company came to his rescue, and he was able to live out his years in some comfort. But he refused a peerage.

One outcome of the political fighting was the passage of the India Act of 1784, again under William Pitt. One real problem of the Company’s activities in India was the mixing up together of its commercial activities and its revenue-collecting activities. If it was primarily a company, why was it collecting taxes? If it was a government, why was it involved in trade? What this act required was that the government should review and if necessary revise the Company’s despatches sending out instructions to India. Because of the confusion of activities, the government began to interfere in commercial matters, causing a great deal of tension. However, it now had the upper hand, a power made manifest in 1813 with the renewal of the Company’s charter, which underlined the Crown’s ‘undoubted sovereignty’ over all of the East India Company’s territories.

The years after the passage of this act saw a social transformation in India. Under what was called the ‘Permanent Settlement’, tax levels on the land in Bengal were fixed ‘for ever’, but at a very high level, and rights to land were thereby created that could be bought and sold. Many of the old landowners, unable to pay the taxes, sold out, whilst tens of thousands of high-caste Bengali Hindus consolidated their position within the framework of the Permanent Settlement. Thousands of them entered the world of service and trade in what was now the pre-eminent town of Calcutta ; many of them were especially keen to have a liberal English education. A new élite was gradually created, one which had perforce to support the British. The members of this élite were vastly more influential with the British than were the Mughal noblemen and former Rajas: the hierarchy was truly turned upside down.

During the period of the late 18th century to the mid-19th century, the imposition of despotism, a terrible economic depression, and the displacement of Indians from leading offices of wealth and power all took place. The first of these stemmed from the change in ideas as to how to govern India. Whilst the earlier imperialists had notions about basing governance on English principles, those now in charge moved to the idea of Oriental despotism: they were primarily military commanders, and preferred to have all law and power centralised in the hands of the Company. Military power was to be used both for external defence and for the consolidation of power. Roughly two million armed men were wandering around the provinces looking for military jobs, and the countryside was also infested with bandits; the Company determined that these threats had to be eliminated. The problem here was that military justice clashed with ideas of the rule of law. As the military frontier made headroads into civil society, army commanders were inclined to suspend civil justice and enforce martial law, executing men on the slightest of pretexts. In other words, the rulers considered themselves above the law.

{Here are the begining seeds of the trend in TSP for despotism couched as dictatorship}

At the same time, changes instituted by the Company stimulated a terrible economic depression which lasted for over twenty years. For one thing, the sweeping away of native courts and soldiers eliminated their purchasing power; unfortunately, the new rulers bought Western, not local, goods, in addition to which wealth became increasingly concentrated in the main colonial centres. As well, much less money flowed into India in payment for Indian exports, which meant less domestic purchasing power. It did not help that the Company no longer used Indian commercial and banking systems, but ran its own. In short, demand contracted, unemployment rose, and millions descended into poverty.

This combination of despotic rule and economic depression was the context within which Indian society was forced into what the British thought of as their traditional way of life. Many of those who had been artisans, soldiers and servants now became peasants tied by heavy taxes to the land; the movement of travellers was restricted; and those who worked for the Company and its governing structures, whilst gaining privileges thereby, were nevertheless prevented from rising above a certain level: the soldier never became an officer, a business employee never a director. These privileged soldiers and servants were selected according to criteria of caste and race and blood, thereby emphasising their importance in a way never before prescribed, and freezing these attributes as marks of status. Privilege and power amongst the Indians themselves became frozen.

PICTURE 12: LORD DALHOUSIE - It was the British themselves who shook the aedifice. This is a picture of Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General from 1846 to 1856. Dalhousie had a strong belief in the superiority of British principles and procedures. It followed that British rule was more beneficial to the Indians than that of their own princes, and he therefore annexed teritories whenever he could. He fought the second Sikh War in 1848-49 and annexed the Punjab. He introduced the Doctrine of Lapse: formerly, when the ruling family of a state lacked a direct heir, they adopted one; Dalhousie now forbade the right of adoption, and if a ruling family lacked a natural heir, Dalhousie annexed the state. In this manner, six formerly independent states were added to the Indian Empire.

He made changes to the system. He re-organised the administration; he laid down the main lines of development of the railway system, set up telegraphs and reformed the postal system; public works projects, such as the construction of roads and bridges, were undertaken. He promoted mass education and laid plans for the first universities (the Universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were opened in 1857 after his departure). But he also encouraged Anglican missionaries, which threatened Hindu and Muslim religious leaders, whose authority had been enhanced by the earlier withdrawal of state authority over them; he attacked native customs, including suttee or the burning of widows; he spurned the new ‘aristocracy’, repudiated caste and threatened their status and economic privileges; and, most dangerous of all, he tried to produce a more disciplined, European-style, Bengal army, thereby threatening the status and privileges of the soldiers, not least that of avoiding flogging. He failed to restrain the blatant greed for land and money which drove the Briton in India, especially those of the lower middle class, which greatly offended Indians of rank, who were still looked up to by most Indians as their natural leaders. The combination of simmering discontent, economic depression and the mutiny of many of the Bengal soldiers sparked off the Great Rebellion of 1857, which threatened to destroy a substantial portion of the Indian Empire.

PICTURE 13: MAP OF THE REBELLION - This map shows the main areas of conflict. On the 10th of May 1857, sepoys or Indian soldiers, drawn mainly from Muslim units from Bengal, mutinied in Meerut. The rebels marched to Delhi and offered their services to the Mughal emperor; for the next year much of north and central India were in revolt against the British. Some of the long- and medium-term causes of the insurrection have already been indicated; the immediate cause was rifle cartridges. There was a very convincing rumour that the cartridges had been greased by a combination of pig and cow fat, offensive to the religious beliefs of both Hindu and Muslim; because the sepoy had to bite off the end of the cartridge, he had either to taste the fat or be flogged. Under threat by their British officers, the soldiers mutinied. The revolt of the Bengal Army neutralised British power in the central Ganges valley and opened the way for widespread attacks by the civilians as well, who attacked Company institutions such as courts and revenue treasuries, which had strengthened the rights of the new landlords against the peasants; they also attacked Europeans, both male and female.

PICTURE 14: THE MUTINY - Here is a contemporary picture of the fighting. One point which emerges is that sepoys fought on both sides - indeed, the majority sided with the British. The Punjab remained loyal, and provided a stready stream of Sikh and Pathan recruits; the Madras and Bombay armies remained loyal; and most of the princely states remained untouched. In the areas of fighting in the north and in central India, it was effectively a civil war. The unprepared British were terrified; however, the prompt arrival of British troops re-directed from duties in China and the Persian Gulf enabled them to neutralise Bengal and most of Bihar. As they regained strength, they attacked the rebels with a savagery which was matched by that of their enemies. For the British both in India and in Great Britain itself, the slaughter at Kanpur was convincing evidence of the essential barbarity of the Indian. The Nana Sahib, with some reluctance, became leader of the rebels in that area and, after a three-week siege, took the surrender of the 400 British in Kanpur, to whom he gave a safe-conduct. As they boarded boats to take them downriver to Allahabad, many were massacred. Passions were running high, because reports had arrived of vicious British reprisals at Varanasi, followed by the news of a line of gibbets along the road to Allahabad. However, the Nana Sahib, far from ordering the massacre, organised the rescue of some British women who had been abducted during the chaos. They, along with other surviving women and children, perhaps 200 in all, were lodged under his protection. With the avenging British advancing rapidly from Allahabad, the idea seems to have been to use them as hostages. But they were not. As the insurgent commanders discussed escape, the order was given to kill them all. The soldiers did not wish to do it, so five men, two of whom were actually butchers, were recruited from the baszaar, and they proceeded to hack them to death. As one historian has noted, ‘for sheer barbarity this “massacre of the innocentsâ€
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