British Trade in India History

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

British Trade in India

England first established trade relations with India in 1608, with the arrival in India of the British East India Company. Its purpose was to make profits from trade between India and Europe. Such trade had been proved highly profitable by the experience of the Dutch and Portuguese in Southeast Asia. England was soon sailing west with shiploads of Indian cotton. As England’s textile mills were the cornerstone of its economy, the trade with India assumed enormous importance. England could not grow its own cotton because it did not have the right climate.

Belatedly realizing that the British were establishing a trade monopoly with India, France formed the French East India Company in the 1700s. Hostility and resentment between the two companies broke out in 1744; during the Seven Years’ War, the British drove France from India. As of 1765, Britain con- trolled one of the richest provinces in India—Bengal, on the east coast of India at the mouth of the Ganges River.

The collapse of India’s Mughal Empire in the late 1700s allowed Britain to take over the entire nation from its power base in Bengal. This was a slow process, not completed until the annexation of Punjab in 1849. Many Indians resisted the British takeover, most famously during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. (Sepoy is an Indian term meaning “soldier.”) In May 1857, Indian troops mutinied against British commanders at Meerut, near New Delhi. This touched off a wave of other mutinies and popular uprisings in central and northeastern India. The resistance was swiftly crushed, in part because different segments of Indian society were not united against the British; some even fought on the British side. In 1858, the East India Company was dissolved and Britain formally annexed India.

England maintained an exploitative and paternalistic relationship with India, which it valued not as an ancient civilization but as a source of manpower and a market for British manufactured goods. Since it was impossible to rule India effectively from faraway Britain, the British established both a bureaucratic and a military presence on the subcontinent. British military officers commanded both British and Indian troops, and British civil servants—along with Indians in subordinate positions—carried out the day-to-day business of governing. The British would occupy India until after World War II.

The British takeover and occupation had mixed effects on India. On the positive side, English became the one common language in a nation where hundreds of dialects were spoken; Britain also introduced Western ideas of education and women’s rights to India. On the negative side, the British maintained an attitude of racial and cultural superiority throughout their stay in India, which the Indians naturally found both objectionable and unjustified, given that Indian culture, literature, and art long predated British. The spirit of nationalism was not confined to Europe; it arose in India too.

While Western European nations had a shared Classical heritage, a common way of life, a common cultural understanding, and a common religious history, Britain and India did not have these things in common. The Indian and European civilizations had created two cultures so different that there was almost no mutual understanding, and a great deal of suspicion and mistrust.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

World Trade and Empires in Europe Practice Test

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