Rise of British as an Imperial Power In India

What were the factors responsible for the rise of British imperialism in India? Here we have made an attempt to address this question by analyzing the causes of the involvement of British East India in Indian politics and its role in the establishment of British imperialism in India.   

British arrival in India 

The British landed in Surat, an important seaport in Gujarat, on August 24, 1608. The first British setting their foot on the Indian land were officials of the British East India Company (EIC). The EIC was a joint-stock company of the merchants of London, founded in 1600 under a royal charter to trade with countries of South Asia and South-East Asia. The company traded in spices, silk, cotton, tea, indigo dye, etc. 

Royal permission to trade

At the time of the arrival of the British, India was ruled by the Mughal King Jahangir, who initially declined to grant trading rights in India. However, the British managed to receive a royal Farman granting permission to construct a factory in Surat in 1613. Captain William Hawkins, a representative of the company received the Farman from the Emporer at the royal court. 

Two years later in the year 1615, the company received another royal Farman which gave the right to establish factories in regions across the Mughal empire. This time it was Thomas Roe, the Ambassador to James I, who received the farman from the king.  

Permission to trade from Vijayanagar Empire

During the reign of Jahangir, there existed another kingdom called the Vijayanagara Empire in the Southern part of India with its quarters centered in the Deccan Plateau. This empire contained important seaports in the areas of  Madras and Mumbai. 

The Vijayanagara Empire with seaports made it strategically important for the British. Hence, it was important for the British to get trading rights from this empire also. The Vijayanagara king did not grant permission for trade.  Once the Mughal king granted a farman, the British also managed to receive trading rights from the Vijayanagara Empire to build a factory in Madras. 

The royal grants of trading rights enabled the British to emerge as the dominating European power in India. 

Establishment of Trading Posts 

Once done with the acquisition of trading rights from the two major ruling powers in India,  the British now concentrated on setting up trading posts in Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. With this the British established their monopoly in the trade all over the east and west coasts of India

British entry to Indian politics

After their arrival till the death of Aurangzeb, the British concentrated on trade in spices, cotton, indigo dye, etc. They did not meddle in the politics and internal state affairs of the Indian subcontinent. However, they had been involved in skirmishes and small-scale wars with other European power i.e. French, Dutch, Portuguese as all of them struggled to establish their basis in India.

British were however successful in thwarting other Europeans in their efforts to establish trading bases in India. Moreover, over a course of one hundred years of their trade-in India, they knew the psyche of the locals along with their strengths and weaknesses. 

Being in continuous war with France and other European nations, the British enjoyed the privilege of being too good in modern warfare, armament, and governance. They would just need a chance to jump into the political arena of India. They got involved in local politics with the gradual downfall of the Mughal empire finally establishing British imperialism in India. 

The Mughal Empire started to gradually decline after the death of king Aurangzeb. Owing to a multitude of reasons the kingdom disintegrated bit by bit. New states and kingdoms were carved out of the once great Mughal empire. The new petty states that came into being remained at loggerheads with one another over possession of more and more lands. 

The company and its workers had been paying taxes and duties to the Nawab of Bengal who now had claimed his independent state and did no longer worked under the control of Mughal. Similarly, Awadh and Orissa also had become independent states as the successors of Aurangzeb failed to assert their writ in these areas.

By the time of Aurangzeb’s death, the company had evolved into a strong, disciplined force equipped with modern weapons and warfare tactics. Moreover, the trade had put them in a comparatively better economic position than any local ruler. They could assert their influence to a great extent in absence of a strong local empire which they had failed to do until the death of Aurangzeb. 

Thus the death of Aurangzeb and the subsequent decline of the Mughal empire provided the much-awaited opportunity for the company to jump into the local politics and weave its way over a course of one and half-century to set up British Imperialism in India.  

The Battle of Plassey 1756

By 1717 India was not under a single power hold. It was divided into many smaller states which continuously fought each other. A weak India with petty states always at loggerheads with each other encouraged the British to decline to pay the taxes to local rulers. They declined to abide by the initial agreement of trade with the Mughals.

British decline to pay taxes, misuse of trade privileges, etc. led to the Battle of Plassey in 1756.  The British East India troops led by Robert Clive emerged victorious in the war. The main reason for the defeat of the Nawab was the treachery committed by his commander, Mir Jafar.  

Historians consider the British win in the Battle of Plassey to be company’s first biggest success as it opened the door for British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent.

The British appointed Mir Jafar as the Nawab of Bengal for his treachery against the Nawab Siraj Ud Doula. The English company also wanted to use Mir Jafar as a rubber stamp with actual powers in their own hands. Mir Zafar as per his promise gave the British the right to collect revenues in Bengal.

The Battle of Buxar 1764

The excesses of the British in Bengal and its expansionist designs provoked three of the local ruler to fight the British. The disgruntled Nawab of Bengal, Mir Qasim, Mughal king Muhammad Shah II and Nawab of Awadh formed a military alliance. The alliance led to the Battle of Buxar in 1764 in which again the British again turned out victorious. 

The Mughal king, Shah Alam had to come into a realignment with the British to surrender the sovereignty of Bengal to the company. Lord Robert Clive, the arbiter of the battle of Plassey assumed the position of the first governor of Bengal.

Along with Bengal, the Awadh, and Bihar, the whole Ganges valley came under the direct rule of the company. The British now could collect revenue from Bengal, Orrisa, and Awadh. Mughal Emperor also agreed to avoid any anti-British designs for which he would be protected by the company. The company also agreed to pay Rs. 26 lac per year which the British stopped paying soon after.

Likewise, the nawab of Awadh became dependent on the British by agreeing to pay the company’s troops who would defend the Nawab against any outside invasion. The officials of the company made huge personal profits by extorting money from the Nawab.

With the conclusion of the Battle of Buxar 1764,  the British emerged as the De-facto rulers of Bengal, Bihar, and Orrisa.   

Anglo-Mysore Wars (1770-1798)

After the Battle of Buxar. the main obstacle in the British way towards the rest of parts of India was the Kingdom of Mysore. British fought a number of battles with Sultan Haider Ali and his son Sultan Tipu but in vain. 

Lasting from 1770 to 1798, the Anglo-Mysore wars came to end with the defeat of Sultan Tipu because of the treachery of his own commander. Similarly, the support of Marathas and Nawab of Hyderabad Decan to the British also contributed to his defeat. With this victory, the main obstacle in the British way to its advance towards the rest of India was removed. 

Anglo-Maratha War

After the defeat of the Mysore kingdom British control further increased. Now they turned towards Marathas to further pave way for their ultimate aim of establishing British Imperialism in India. The company troops engaged in their third war with Marathas in 1817-1818 and emerged victorious. 

The British first supported one local force against each other,  and did not hesitate to betray them if it suited their interests. Thus, slowly and steadily, the British East India Company started to transform itself from a trading company to colonial power.

Annexation of Sindh 1843

At the time of the British attack,  a group of Amirs ruled Sindh. In neighboring Punjab, a strong Sikh Empire existed with its control on today’s  Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Kashmir.

British annexed Sindh in 1843 without any strong resistance. Three Amirs, viz, the Amir of Mirpur, the Amir of Hyderabad, the Amir of Khairpur separately ruled Sindh. Hence when the British attacked Sindh in 1843, the Sindhis could not put up a united front

What was next? Sikh Empire ruled by Ranjit Singh from Lahore was the last local power that British had to fight before they made all of Indian subcontinent part of British empire in 1858. 

Annexation of Punjab 1849

Sikhs had anticipated the attack of the British on Punjab. As part of preemption, the Sikh army attacked British settlements along the river Sutlej. There was no outcome of the war as neither of the party could claim victory. 

In 1949, the Second Anglo-Sikh war broke out. The British attacked Sikh Empire and emerged victorious in the ensuing battle. This time British again managed to buy one of the Sikh commanders, Ghulab Singh Dogra to side with them. This was the last war with any local political force before the 1857 War of Independence. British gave Kashmir to Ghulab Singh Dogra for his treachery and for helping the British win.    

The British East India Company acted as an agent to establish British Imperialism in India over the centuries.  After the local revolt in 1857, the British Crown disbanded the company and proclaimed India. The crown ordered the exile of the last Mughal emperor thereby bringing India under its direct control. 


The East India Company thereafter took political control by subduing the local rulers one by one. They managed to do it through bribery, making alliances, switching sides amidst the continuing battles and wars among the locals.  Moreover, the use of modern warfare tactics, the discipline of troops along with advanced weaponry provided an edge over locals. 

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