December 4, 2020

How did the British colonize India?

The nature of India, as a British colony was a constantly evolving one. Its purpose wasn’t the same in 1930, as it was in 1757, and it had a lot to do with the aims and objectives, as well as methods of colonisation. In fact, there is an entire debate, which surrounds the colonisation of India mainly between two schools of historians, the Cambridge School (also known as theimperialists), the Revisionists and the Marxists.

The Cambridge School of Historiography

We seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind -Sir John Robert Seeley
The Cambridge School implies that colonialism was largely the result of actions in the peripheries. Wars between local rulers, the interference of the authorities in the trade, in accidents of birth and death, and the sub-imperialism of the men at the peripheries. Differences in military technology and tactics, and apparently freak accidents of nature like rains and lack of tarpaulins are used to explain major historical trends.

Siraj lost the Battle of Plassey to Robert Clive because his army apparently failed to cover their gunpowder with tarpaulin during heavy rains.

The lack of unity among the Indian rulers is also emphasised, along with the weakness of the Mughals. The later Mughal emperors are described as weak and indolent, incapable of holding on to their empire. The emergence of regional polities like the Marathas, the Nawabs in Bengal, Awadh, Hyderabad, were understood as the result of the weakness of the emperors. The conflicts between the Muslim and Hindu identities of the Mughals and Marathas are emphasised upon, which is presented as a major reason for the disunity of the Indian rulers. The British are only presented as agents, who were best suited to fulfil the role, which the circumstances were demanding.

The lack of a disciplined army of any native ruler, allowed the Europeans to dominate any battlefield, where they participated. While the French and the Dutch did manage to maintain a degree of balance earlier, the Seven Years War changed the game. The British were now in a position to dominate India militarily as its competitors were gone. Its dominant military disallowed any challenge to its overseas trade, and the British position in Southern India were strengthened even further after the Carnatic Wars.

The fractured southern polities, which would ease British hold on South India.
The strengthening of the British position in Madras is important as this is the region, which supplied it with troops for the Battle of Plassey and the subsequent domination of Bengal.

The Marxists

Hindostan is an Italy of Asiatic dimensions, the Himalayas for the Alps, the Plains of Bengal for the Plains of Lombardy, the Deccan for the Apennines, and the Isle of Ceylon for the Island of Sicily. -Karl Marx

The Marxists have always emphasised on the role of economics as a major source of all political and social change.
The initial historiography emphasised on the Asiatic Mode of Production where smaller villages formed the basis of the Indian economy. This meant that almost all production on Indian soil was primarily subsistence, and left little for the market. This meant that the profits from the trade in India were not as high as the East India Company, a joint stock company by a group of London merchants, expected. Some years, they even turned in losses. This was a major reason for the company to look for dastaks and other such advantages.

Modern Marxists reject the idea of Asiatic Mode of Production as a flawed concept formed from Marx’s lack of understanding of Indian society, and the biases in the sources, from which he formed his conclusion. The argument now looks at deeper sources in the rise of capitalism in Europe itself, and the flow of silver from the mines of Latin America into China and India. The dynamic rise of Capitalism and the Merchant class in Europe, especially England, would result in a contest for markets in India. This would result in a crisis for the ruling class in India, who did not have pockets deep enough to hold on to the local markets. The British could use their superior mechanism for the extraction of surplus, which they would subsequently employ in India, and would wring out a much greater revenue than Indian rulers ever could. This revenue in turn would be employed as capital in the markets, in turn driving the local rulers into further isolation.

The colonisation of India, according to the Marxists was a part of a much larger and global process, which the capitalist transformation had initiated. It wasn’t in a fit of absent mindedness, but rather carefully planned and charted out. The annual payment of the Company to the British government of £ 400,000 is a clear indication that both the crown and the company were well aware of the implication of their actions. It was in the mines of Potosi in Spanish America that the British global empire was conceived.

The strength of the arguments of the Marxist school lies in its explanation of the economic relations, which shaped the political discourse of the Indian subcontinent, and also connects it to broader global trends. The roots of de-industrialisation, and the formation of a market colony in India is also explained similarly.

The Revisionists

The reason they are known as revisionists is because they challenge the notion of the decline of the Mughal empire itself. The argument here is that there was no significant decline in the Mughal empire. Mughal expansionist tendencies meant that the empire was internally stable, and the period of prosperity allowed the regional polities to become more powerful.

While the theory may appear absurd at first, it is supported by evidence of the growth of regional polities, which flourished, while maintaining necessary contact with the Mughals and paid the required revenue to them. The
credibility of the theory increases, when we bring the profits of the European traders into account. The surplus revenue, which would otherwise have been gobbled up in unnecessary war and conflict, could now be directed towards imports and trade. The regional elite could now concentrate on stabilising themselves in their regions, rather than prepare for another expensive military campaign.

Murshid Quli Khan continued to pay taxes to the Mughals, even as he ran a virtual independent reign in Bengal.

The British found a share in this prosperity. As the British joined the courts of the colonial elites, and started taking interest in the administration process in order to eliminate their colonial rivals, they discovered newer sources of profits. The merchants of the East India Company often indulged in private trade, even at the cost of profits for the company.

The East India Company had multiple centres in India, and could coordinate their actions. They could source their profits much better than the regional rulers, which in turn allowed them to dominate the scenario soon enough.

The British and other Europeans peppered the coasts of India. The process of colonisation wasn’t a straightforward one. It is sprinkled with gains and reversals, and factors emerging from Indian, as well as global politics. It is impossible to pinpoint the exact point of the formation of the British empire in India. One needs to draw their own conclusion from the data and its interpretations.

Source:-Aishik Saha On Quora.


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