How did Britain gain control of India?

The complicated relationship between Britain and India began with the formation of the East India Company in 1600, by the command of Elizabeth I. the intention of the company was to explore and to compete with other powers in the East Indies. Britain was not successful here, so turned her attention to India. In 1640, a representative of the Company got a grant of land in southern India and built Fort St George. More forts followed, and Britain began to compete with the Dutch and the French who also had a presence in India. Britain then started exporting spices in 1690.

The decline of the Mughal Empire, signalled by the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, also gave Britain an opportunity to gain more control over India. The falling empire resulted in a power vacuum, which Britain took advantage of. The Bengalese and the French were defeated by the British in 1757, allowing Britain to add more land to their arsenal. The Company overshadowed other European powers, and using their large naval fleet to ferry more and more men to India. People also enjoyed trading with the Company, and Britain had a formidable presence and influence in the south, along with the French.

Warren Hastings’ took the position as the head of the Supreme Council of Bengal in 1772. There needed to be changes, as the East India Company had left land infertile in Bengal, which resulted in a famine two years prior, which caused millions of deaths. Hastings, as well as Robert Clive is credited with laying the foundations of the British Empire in India. Hastings emphasised the importance of learning about the culture and languages of India, believing that this was the only way to understand the country fully. In 1773, Hastings introduced a series of Regulating Acts which helped the East India Company avert bankruptcy. Calcutta was redeveloped and became the capital of British India. He ensured that English civil servants had some sort of understanding of the country and sought to document the history of India with the help of Indian scholars.[1]

The Anglo-Sikh Wars took place throughout the 1840s and saw Britain wage war on the Sikh Empire. Britain won, and as a result, fifteen year old Maharaja Duleep Singh was taken away from his family and homeland to be raised in Britain, under the watchful eye of Queen Victoria. The threat of the Sikhs had been neutralised. As a sign of subservience to Britain, Maharaja Duleep Singh handed Victoria the Koh-i-noor in 1849. Duleep became a favourite of Queen Victoria and was known as the ‘Black Prince’ in Britain.[2]

The Indian rebellion of 1857 rocked the Company. The Company employed local Indian people to work in the army, who were known as ‘sepoys.’ There was already tension present, as the Indian people continued to be exploited by the British, which resulted in a famine. Taxes were high, and the Indian textile industry was not supported. Indians also felt the pressure to convert to Christianity, which caused further unrest.

Word then went around that the bullets that the army were supplied with had been dipped in pig or beef fat, to ensure that the guns were easier to load. Cows are sacred in India, and this fact added to the already increasing unrest amongst the army. This led to a full-scale rebellion. Both sides committed atrocities, with both Indians and British being murdered, including women and children. The Indians were brutally suppressed by the British, and some were tied to cannons in order to be executed. This was an old Mughal punishment. The rebellion ultimately failed due to the differing intentions and religions of those involved, as well as the lack of organisation and funding.

Following the rebellion and bloodshed, the East India Company was disbanded, and India found itself under the control of the Crown. India formed the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Queen Victoria added ‘Empress of India’ to her title in 1877, under the Royal Titles Act passed by Benjamin Disraeli’s government. Britain also brought several new modes of transport to India during this time, including trains, telegrams and the steam ship.

As time progressed, Indians felt that they were owed independence. The Bengal famine of 1943, and Britain’s poor handling of it caused cries of independence to grow further. The debates continued, with Gandhi on one side and political figures like Muhammad Ali Jinnah on the other, who thought that India should be divided depending on religious territory. British Prime Minister Clement Atlee was sympathetic, and so India achieved independence in 1947. This was not without bloodshed however, as Partition displaced 10-12 million people. British India was split into two independent states, India and Pakistan. The redefining of the borders meant that people were displaced depending on their religious views, and there were numerous incidences of ethnic cleansing across the country. This post is just a snippet of the rich and turbulent history of India.[3]

Thanks for reading!

[1] Kopf, David, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization, 1773-1835 (Princeton, 1969), part I, pp. 13-42.

[2] Information taken from

BBC History Magazine, The Story of the Victorians, 2019.

[3] Information taken from:

And my own knowledge.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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