The rise and fall of the British East India Company

Source: Public Domain.
Source: Public Domain.

The British East India Company, once a mere trading entity, evolved into a colossal force that reshaped the destiny of India.


From its humble beginnings in the bustling ports of England to its meteoric rise as a quasi-imperial power in the heart of Asia, the company dominated India for over  200 years.


But how did a group of English merchants come to wield such unparalleled power?


What challenges did they face in their quest for dominance?


And what impact did they have on the peoples and cultures of India? 


The East India Company was founded on the 31st of December 1600, with the goal of establishing trade relations between England and the East Indies.


The company was established by a group of more than 200 English merchants who appealed to Queen Elizabeth I, who was then the queen of England.


As a result, the Queen issued the company with a Royal Charter, allowing it to monopolise trade in the Far East.


In 1601, the East India Company built its first trading posts in Bantam and Moluccas.


The company then began to expand its operations, eventually establishing a network of trading posts across the Indian subcontinent.

The East India Company and the Mughal Empire

The East India Company's expansion into India was not without its challenges. The most significant challenge came in the form of the Mughal Empire, which was then one of the most powerful empires in the world. 


In 1612, the English king James I sent a request to the Mughal Emperor Nur-ud-din Salim Jahangir, asking for permission for the British East India Company to enter Indian territory.


The Mughals were initially reluctant to allow the East India Company to establish itself in India.

The British East India Company sought coveted trading privileges in India in exchange for British pledges to send the Mughal emperor exclusively manufactured products from Europe.


Jahangir eventually accepted the conditions of the British proposal.


Even though the British East India Company began operations in India from around 1607, it was only after the Mughal acceptance of their presence that their influence began to be felt.


By 1647, The East India Company had established 23 factories in India, including ones in Bengal, Madras, and Bombay.


Cotton, silk, dyes, saltpetre, and tea were the main commodities sought by the company at this time.


In 1670, the English king, Charles II, passed several laws to strengthen the British East India Company's position in India, grant the company more autonomy and privileges.


In general, these statutes permitted the firm to expand into new areas, establish its own currency, and build fortresses.


The British East India Company's success in the textile industry was due, in part, to factors such as this.


As a result, during the 17th and 18th centuries, it became the world leader in textile trade with India.


Most significantly, the British East India Company began to create its own private armies in order to spread their dominance throughout India.


For example, the European powers in India frequently recruited and employed Indian males into their own military forces, called sepoys.


Sepoys were Indian troops who fought for European colonial powers or trading companies during the colonial period.

The East India Company and Colonialism

The company quickly grew in power and influence, and by the mid-1700s, it had become one of the most powerful organisations in the world. 


On 23 June 1757, the British East India Company routed the Nawab (the title of the Muslim ruler) of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, and his French allies in the Battle of Plassey.


The French had chosen to assist the Nawabs, who had their own economic motivation in the area, but their defeat in the battle only reduced their power in the country.


The British East India Company's victory in the Battle of Plassey was crucial for two reasons: it provided the company a foothold in Bengal from which to extend throughout India, and it secured its future.


The company then began to expand its territory, eventually colonising India.

The British government and the East India Company established a dual system of control in 1757, dividing duties between them.


Important political matters were kept for the parliament, while commercial issues were handed over to the company.


In 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt issued the 'India Act', which placed the company under the direct control of the British government.


From 1757 until 1858, therefore, the British East India Company ruled India as a sort of colony.


Because of this, historians have dubbed it 'Company Rule'. By 1857, the British East India Company had at least 267,000 troops under its command.


The company's power began to decline in the early 1800s, due to a number of factors including internal corruption and external pressure from other European powers. 


The British East India Company's rule over India came to an end with the Indian Rebellion of 1857.


The rebellion was sparked by a number of factors, including the company's high taxes, its mistreatment of Indians, and its policy of favouring Europeans over Indians.


The rebellion quickly spread across the country, and it took several years for the British to regain control.

In 1858, the British government took over control of India from the East India Company, and began ruling it as a colony.


As a result, the East India Company was eventually dissolved during the 1870s. This began the period of Indian history known as the British Raj.


The British Raj was the period of British rule over India until 1947.


During this time, the British government controlled India's economy, politics, and society. Indian culture and traditions were also greatly influenced by the British Raj.


The legacy of the British East India Company is a mixed one. On the one hand, it was a powerful force that shaped the history of India and played a significant role in the development of the country.


On the other hand, its rule was often harsh and oppressive, and it left a legacy of division and conflict that continues to this day.


Nevertheless, the company's impact on India cannot be denied.