The British Expansion in India – East India Company, Presidencies, Governor-generals, and Battles

The British Expansion in IndiaUnderstand the history of British expansion in modern India. How did the British who came to India for trade become the rulers of territories?

There had been trading relations between India and the west from ancient times itself (land route).

However, in 1453, the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople and this brought the regular trade routes under the control of the Turks. This urged the Europeans to search for new trade routes, especially by sea.

In 1492, Columbus from Spain set out to reach India and discovered America instead.

Later, in 1498, Vasco Da Gama of Portugal discovered a new trade route, travelling around Africa. He reached India at Calicut, Kerala (1498) acquiring the distinction of being the first European to reach India via the sea route.

The Portuguese were the first to establish colonies in India. Due to their superiority on the seas, they could easily maintain their positions against the powerful land forces in India. Also since they were mainly concentrated in south India, they did not have to face the might of the Mughal empire.

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In 1602, the Dutch East India Company was formed, and the people from the Netherlands were empowered by their government to make war, conclude treaties, acquire territories and build fortresses.

Growth of the English East India Company

In 1599, an English company was formed by a group of merchants to trade with the east, known as Merchant Adventurers. It was given the permission and exclusive rights to trade with the east, by the queen in 1600.

Mughal emperor, Jahangir, gave captain Hawkins the royal farman to set up factories on the western coast. Later, Sir Thomas Roe obtained the farman to establish factories in all parts of the Mughal empire.

Bombay passed into the British hands as dowry given by the Portuguese. The British conflicts with the Dutch were settled by giving up all claims to Indonesia.

The conditions in the south were apt for the English. They started from Madras, by building a fort there, called Fort St. George. The problems broke out when the English sacked Hugli and declared war on the emperor. They failed miserably. This was the first lesson they learnt. From then on, they relied on flattery and humble entreaties, waiting for their chance. In 1698, Fort William was built and Calcutta was founded. Madras, Bombay and Calcutta soon grew up to be flourishing centres of trade.

The French, under Dupleix, who had come to India by then had already started interfering in the affairs of the local princes using their well-equipped army. In 1742, a war had broken out in Europe between France and England.

Following the death of the nizam in 1748, his son Nasir Jung took over the crown. He was challenged by Muzaffar Jung, a grandson of the nizam. Similar situations were in the Carnatic, where Chanda Sahib was conspiring against the nawab Anwarudeen. The French took the sides of both the rebels, and won both of their claims for them, killing Anwarudeen and Nasir Jung. The English, naturally took the side of the fallen, under Muhammad Ali, a son of Anwarudeen. The wars were then won by the English side under the able generalship and cunning of Robert Clive. Finally, the French recalled Dupleix from India, according to their treaty in 1754.  Later, in 1796, the French were completely destroyed at the battle of Wandiwash. Thus, the English remained the sole masters of India.

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The farman granted to the British by the emperor enabled them to conduct free trade in Bengal. Neither did they have to pay dastaks for the movement of such goods. However, these were misused by the company’s servants and this meant the loss of revenue for Bengal. In 1756, the grandson of Alivardi Khan, Siraj-ud-Daulah came to the throne, he demanded the English that they should trade on the same basis as the Indian merchants. Matters took a turn for the worse when the English refused and strengthened their fortifications. This led to the Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which Siraj-ud-Daulah was treacherously defeated by the cheating by Mir Jaffar and Rai Durlabh. This brought the British immense prestige and revenue.

Later, when Mir Jaffar couldn’t keep up with the tribute promised to the British, they installed Mir Qasim on the throne. He was clever and knew that both revenue and an army was required to stand against the British. And finally, he abolished all the duties on internal trade. This angered the British, and they defeated Mir Qasim in the Battle of Buxar in 1764.

How did the British who came to India for trade become the rulers of territories?

  • In 1600, the East India Company acquired a charter from the ruler of England, Queen Elizabeth I, granting it the sole right to trade with the East. Then onwards no other trading group in England could compete with the East India Company.
  • However, the royal charter didn’t prevent other European powers from entering the Eastern markets.
  • The Portuguese had already established their presence on the western coast of India and had their base in The Dutch too were exploring the possibilities of trade in the Indian Ocean. Soon the French traders arrived on the scene.
  • The problem was that all the companies were interested in buying the same things. So the only way the trading companies could flourish was by eliminating rival competitors. The urge to secure markets, therefore, led to fierce battles between the trading companies.
  • Trade was carried on with arms and trading posts were protected through fortification.

East India Company begins to trade in Bengal

  • The first English factory was set up on the banks of the river Hugli in 1651.
  • By 1696 it began building a fort around the settlement near the factory where merchants and traders
  • The company persuaded the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to issue a farman granting the Company the right to trade duty-free.
  • Aurangzeb’s farman had granted only the Company the right to trade duty-free. The officials of the Company, who were carrying on private trade on the side, were expected to pay duty. However, they did private trades without paying taxes, causing an enormous loss of revenue for Bengal.
  • This behaviour led to a protest by the Nawab of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan.

How the trade led to battles?

  • We have already seen that with the decline of Mughal rule, many successor states emerged.
  • After the death of Aurangzeb, the Bengal nawabs asserted their power and autonomy, as other regional powers were doing at that time.
  • Nawabs refused to grant the Company concessions, demanded large tributes for the Company’s right to trade, denied it any right to mint coins, and stopped it from extending its fortifications.
  • The Company on its part declared that the trade could flourish only if the duties were removed. It was also convinced that to expand trade it had to enlarge its settlements, buy up villages, and rebuild its forts.
  • The conflicts led to confrontations and finally culminated in the famous Battle of Plassey.

The Battle of Plassey

  • Sirajuddaulah, then Nawab of Bengal, with his force, captured the English factory at Kassimbazar and then went to Calcutta to establish control over the Company’s fort.
  • Company officials in Madras sent forces under the command of Robert Clive, reinforced by naval fleets. Prolonged negotiations with the Nawab followed.
  • Finally, in 1757, Robert Clive led the Company’s army against Sirajuddaulah at Plassey.
  • Clive had managed to secure the support of one of Sirajuddaulah’s commanders named Mir Jafar by promising to make him Nawab after crushing Sirajuddaulah.
  • The Battle of Plassey became famous because it was the first major victory for the English East India Company in India.
  • The Company was still unwilling to take over the responsibility of the administration. Its prime objective was the expansion of trade.
  • But Mir Jafar protested with the British on administrative matters. He was replaced by Mir Mir Qasim. He too had conflicts with the East India company. The Company defeated him in the Battle of Buxar (1764).
  • East India company now started to shift from their primary objective from trade to expansion of territories.
  • In 1765 the Mughal emperor appointed the Company as the Diwan of the provinces of Bengal. The Diwani allowed the Company to use the vast revenue resources of Bengal.
  • Now revenues from India could finance Company expenses. These revenues could be used to purchase cotton and silk textiles in India, maintain Company troops, and meet the cost of building the Company fort and offices at Calcutta.

Company Rule Expands

  • After the Battle of Buxar (1764), the Company appointed Residents in Indian states.
  • Through the Residents, the Company officials began interfering in the internal affairs of Indian states.
  • Sometimes the Company forced the states into a “subsidiary alliance”. According to the terms of this alliance, Indian rulers were not allowed to have their independent armed forces. They will be protected by the Company but had to pay for the “subsidiary forces” that the Company maintain for the purpose of this protection. If the Indian rulers failed to make the payment, then part of their territory was taken away as a penalty.

Conflict with Tipu Sultan

  • Mysore controlled the profitable trade of the Malabar coast where the Company purchased pepper and cardamom. In 1785 Tipu Sultan stopped the export of these substances through the ports of his kingdom and disallowed local merchants from trading with the Company.
  • He also established a close relationship with the French in India and modernised his army with their help. All these made the British furious.
  • Four wars were fought with Mysore (1767- 69, 1780-84, 1790-92 and 1799). Only in the last – the Battle of Seringapatam – did the Company ultimately got a victory.
  • Mysore was later placed under the former ruling dynasty of the Wodeyars and a subsidiary alliance was imposed on the state.

Conflict with the Marathas

  • With their defeat in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, the Marathas’ dream of ruling from Delhi came to an end.
  • The Marathas were subdued in a series of wars. In the first war that ended in 1782 with the Treaty of Salbai, there was no clear winner.
  • The Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-05) was fought on different fronts, resulting in the British gaining Orissa and the territories north of the Yamuna river including Agra and Delhi.
  • The Third Anglo-Maratha War of 1817-19 crushed the Maratha power.
  • The Company now had complete control over the territories south of the Vindhyas.

The claim to paramountcy

  • Under Lord Hastings (Governor-General from 1813 to 1823) a new policy of “paramountcy” was initiated. Now the Company claimed that its authority was paramount or supreme, so it was justified in annexing or threatening to annex any Indian kingdom.
  • This view continued to guide later British policies.
  • These periods saw the British shifting the control the north-west because of Russian invasion fear.
  • British fought a prolonged war with Afghanistan between 1838 and 1842 and established indirect Company rule there. Sind was taken over. In 1849, Punjab was annexed.

The Doctrine of Lapse

  • The final wave of annexations occurred under Lord Dalhousie who was the Governor-General from 1848 to 1856 using Doctrine of Lapse policy.
  • The doctrine declared that if an Indian ruler died without a male heir his kingdom would “lapse”, that is, become part of Company territory. Many kingdoms were annexed simply by applying this doctrine: Examples – Satara (1848), Sambalpur  (1850), Udaipur (1852), Nagpur (1853) and Jhansi (1854).
  • Finally, in 1856, the Company also took over Awadh. Now this time the British mentioned that they took over Awadh in order to free the people from the “misgovernment” of the Nawab, which enraged by the Nawab who was deposed. The people of Awadh later joined the great revolt that broke out in 1857.

Setting up a New Administration

  • Warren Hastings (Governor-General 1773 to 1785) played a significant role in the expansion of Company power.
  • By his time the Company had acquired power not only in Bengal but also in Bombay and Madras and these were considered as administrative units called Presidencies.
  • Each was ruled by a Governor. The supreme head of the administration was the Governor-General.
  • Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General, introduced several administrative reforms, notably in the sphere of justice.
  • Under the Regulating Act of 1773, a new Supreme Court was established, while a court of appeal – the Sadar Nizamat Adalat – was also set up at Calcutta.
  • The principal figure in an Indian district was the Collector whose main job was to collect revenue and taxes and maintain law and order in his district with the help of judges, police officers etc.

Role of Governor Generals in the British conquests

We shall try to understand what happened after Plassey and Buxar. The two battles made the Brits unquestioned champions of the land, but they still had obstacles to pass. These were the small states throughout the territory of India. The way some of the governors-general handled the situation and finally made the British the sole power in India is worth understanding.

Robert Clive

We begin with Robert Clive (1765-72) who was given a second chance following his outstanding military leadership. He introduced a system known as ‘dual administration’ in Bengal. The company already had the power to collect its own taxes. Thus it was the diwan. Now, with the say in the appointment of the deputy subahdar, the company got the de-facto ownership of the nizamat too. Thus, in effect, the company had power without responsibility.

It was also during Clive’s time that the taxation in Bengal became so favourable to the British that they stopped bringing money from England to buy Indian goods. Instead, they invested the revenue they received from Bengal in buying Indian goods itself. Then they sold it in foreign countries. These were called the ‘investments’ of the company in India.

Warren Hastings

The next was Warren Hastings (1772-85), who had ‘war’ in his name itself. The interference in others’ territories continued. Initially, he fought Mysore with the help of the Nizam, and later intervened in the internal politics of the Marathas, by siding with Raghunath Rao, against the infant Peshwa Madhav Rao 2, who was represented by Nana Phadnis. This long Anglo-Maratha war lasted from 1775 to 1782. It was at this time that he had to face the combined forces of the Marathas, the Nizam, and Mysore. But through tactics and turning one ruler against another, he fought his way through. In the first Anglo-Maratha war, the British couldn’t do much. In the end, the treaty of Salbai was signed which maintained the status quo and gave them ample time to recover. This enabled them to fight with Hyder, in which they were helped by the Marathas.

War with Haider Ali started in 1780. Though Haider won initially, Hastings’ cunning tactics helped the British in choking out deals with Nizam and the Marathas through the cessation of territories. In 1781, Haider Ali was defeated by Eyre Coot and later died in 1782. His son Tipu carried on the fight from 1789 but was defeated in 1792. Half of his treaties were ceded by the treaty of Seringapatanam.

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Wellesley (1798-1805) was the next important Governor-General. By 1797, Mysore and Marathas were weakened in power. He knew it was the ripe time for rapid expansion. He followed the policy of ‘Subsidiary alliances’, outright wars, and assumption of territories of previously subordinated rulers. You know what the theory of a subsidiary alliance is. It was described as “a system of fattening allies as we fatten oxen, till they were worthy of being devoured”. The first was the Nizam in 1798 and 1800. Then came the Nawab of Awadh in 1801.

All this time, Tipu was strengthening himself. He had also asked for French help. But in 1799, before the French help could reach him, he fought a fierce war and died.

At this time, the Marathas were a confederacy of five factions namely the Peshwa (Poona), Gaekwad (Baroda), Sindhia (Gwalior), Holkar (Indore), and Bhonsle (Nagpur). Though Peshwa was the nominal head, these factions were constantly at war. When Peshwa Baji Rao 2 was defeated by Holkar, he took the treaty of Subsidiary alliance. Even then, it would have been really difficult for the British to defeat them, only if they stood together. But even in the face of imminent danger, they didn’t unite. Thus, one or more factions stood and watched when another one fought the British and were defeated one by one.

However, the expansionist policy of Wellesley was proving too costly to the government. Hence, he was recalled from India.


The next Governor-General was Hastings (1813-1823). The Marathas decided to push one last time. They united to form a small group, but by now, it was too late. They were easily defeated. The Peshwas territories were annexed to the Bombay presidency. To satisfy them, a small kingdom of Satara was given to Shivaji’s descendant who ruled it under the British.

Thus, by 1818, the entire subcontinent, except Punjab and Sind was under the British. They completed this task by 1857. The growing Anglo-Russian rivalry in Europe and Asia caused the fear of a Russian attack from the North-West. Sind was a friendly state to the British. Still, in 1843, Charles Napier conquered it. He later wrote, “We have no right to seize Sind, yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful humane piece of rascality it will be”.


Dalhousie (1848-1856) was the next Governor-General. He introduced the Doctrine of lapse, by which he annexed many small states like Satara in 1848, Nagpur and Jhansi in 1854, etc. This was a major cause of the Great revolt of 1857. He also wanted to conquer Awadh, but his doctrine wouldn’t work there because the Nawab had many heirs. Thus, he accused him of having misgoverned the state, and annexed it on that pretext, in 1856.

Learn more

This article is the 2nd part of the article series on Modern Indian History. Click the link to read the 6-part framework to study modern Indian History. This is an easy-to-learn approach to master the history of modern India as a story.

Apart from the 6-part approach, we have also published many other articles on Indian History, which can be accessed from the ClearIAS Study materials section.

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