The Indian Subcontinent had indirect relations with Europe by both overland caravans and maritime routes, dating back to the fifth century B.C. The lucrative spice trade with India had been mainly in the hands of Arab Merchants. By the fifteenth century, European traders had come to believe that the commissions they had to pay the Arabs were prohibitively high and therefore sent out fleets in search of new trade routes to India.
The arrival of the Europeans in the last quarter of the fifteenth century marked a great turning point in the history of the subcontinent. The dynamics of the history of the subcontinent came to be shaped chiefly by the Europeans' political and trade relations with India as India was swept into the vortex of Western power politics. The arrival of the Europeans generally coincided with the gradual decline of Mughal Power, and the subcontinent became an arena of struggle not only between Europeans and the indigenous rulers but also among the Europeans.
The British East India Company, a private company formed in 1600 during the reign of Akbar and operating under a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth-I, established a factory on the Hooghly River in western Bengal in 1650 and founded the city of Calcutta in 1690. Although the initial aim of the British East India Company was to seek trade under concessions obtained from local Mughal governors, the steady collapse of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858) enticed the company to take a more direct involvement in the politics and military activities of the subcontinent.
Capitalizing on the political fragmentation of South Asia, the British ultimately rose to supremacy through military expeditions, annexation, bribery, and playing one party off against another. Aside from the superior military power of the British, their ascendancy was fostered by the tottering economic foundations of the local rulers, which had been undermined by ravaging dynastic wars and the consequent displacement of the peasants from the land, which was the principal source of state revenue.
Nabab Siraj ud Daulah, governor of Bengal, unwisely provoked a military confrontation with the British at Plessey in 1757. He was defeated by Robert Clive, an adventurous young official of the British East India Company. Clive's victory was consolidated in 1764 at the Battle of Buxar on the Ganges, where he defeated the Mughal emperor. As a result, the British East India Company was granted the title of diwan (collector of the revenue) in the areas of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, making it the supreme, but not titular, governing power.
Henceforth the British would govern Bengal and from there extend their rule to all of India. By 1815 the supremacy of the British East India Company was unchallengeable, and by the 1850s British control and influence had extended into territories essentially the same as those that became the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947.
The British Raj:
Beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the foundations of British rule were effectively laid, the British government showed increasing interest in the welfare of the people of India, feeling the need to curb the greed, recklessness, and corrupt activities of the private British East India Company. Beginning in 1773, the British Parliament sought to regulate the company's administration. By 1784 the company was made responsible to Parliament for its civil and military affairs and was transformed into an instrument of British foreign policy.
Some new measures introduced in the spirit of government intervention clearly did not benefit the people of Bengal. The Permanent Settlement (Land lease Act) of Lord Charles Cornwallis in 1793, which regulated the activities of the British agents and imposed a system of revenue collection and landownership, stands as a monument to the disastrous effects of the good intentions of Parliament. The traditional system for collecting land taxes involved the Zamindars, who exercised the dual function of revenue collectors and local magistrates.
The British gave the zamindars the status and rights of landlords, modeled mainly on the British landed gentry and aristocracy. Under the new system the revenue-collecting rights were often auctioned to the highest bidders, whether or not they had any knowledge of rural conditions or the managerial skills necessary to improve agriculture. Agriculture became a matter of speculation among urban financiers, and the traditional personal link between the resident zamindars and the peasants was broken. Absentee landlord ship became commonplace, and agricultural development stagnated.
Most British subjects who had served with the British East India Company until the end of the eighteenth century were content with making profits and leaving the Indian social institutions untouched. A growing number of Anglican and Baptist evangelicals in Britain, however, felt that social institutions should be reformed. There was also the demand in Britain, first articulated by member of Parliament and political theorist Edmund Burke, that the company's government balance its exploitative practices with concern for the welfare of the Indian people. The influential utilitarian theories of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill stated that societies could be reformed by proper laws. Influenced in part by these factors, British administrators in India embarked on a series of social and administrative reforms that were not well received by the conservative elements of Bengali society.
Emphasis was placed on the introduction of Western philosophy, technology, and institutions rather than on the reconstruction of native institutions. The early attempts by the British East India Company to encourage the use of Sanskrit and Persian were abandoned in favor of Western science and literature; elementary education was taught in the vernacular, but higher education in English. The stated purpose of secular education was to produce a class of Indians instilled with British cultural values.
Persian was replaced with English as the official language of the government. A code of civil and criminal procedure was fashioned after British legal formulas. In the field of social reforms, the British suppressed what they considered to be inhumane practices, such as suttee (self-immolation of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands), female infanticide, and human sacrifice.
British policy viewed colonies as suppliers of raw materials and purchasers of manufactured goods. The British conquest of India coincided with the Industrial Revolution in Britain, led by the mechanization of the textile industry. As a result of the British policy of dumping machine-made goods in the subcontinent, India's domestic craft industries were thoroughly ruined, and its trade and commerce collapsed. Eastern Bengal was particularly hard hit. Muslin cloth from Dhaka had become popular in eighteenth-century Europe until British muslin drove it off the market.
Source: Bangladesh, a country study
Federal Research Division, Library of Congress
Edited by: James Heitzman and Robert L. Worden
Research Completed September 1988.
Sources of images and maps: collected from various sources on the internet.
Thanks a lot.
other related posts in this blog:
Early History of Bengal - Islamization from 1202 to 1757
Early History of Bengal - From 1000 BC to 1202 AD
History of Bengal Sultanate - Arabic and Persian - Part 1