A Case Study of British Imperialism in India

One of the best ways to learn about imperialism is to concentrate on an in-depth case study of a country before, during, and after it was colonized. This allows us to examine how imperialism changed a nation over time. India is an excellent candidate for such a case study on imperialism because it was by far the most valuable colony of the most powerful empire—the British Empire. It all started with a small global trading company—the East India Company—that grew and grew and eventually conquered much of South Asia. Before long, India became the “jewel in the crown” of the largest empire in the history of the world.

This case study raises some important questions about the imperial experience. How did a small company of a small nation take control of India? How did Indians respond to foreign intervention? How did imperialism change India? What was the legacy of British imperialism? Should the British be praised or condemned for their imperial efforts in India? We’ll start our inquiry by learning about India just before the British arrived.

Early Modern India: The Mughal Empire

When small European ships first landed on the shores of South Asia in the early 1600s in search of spices, they encountered merchants on the periphery of the Mughul Empire (1526-1858), a kingdom larger and more powerful than any country in Europe at the time. The Mughuls ruled over a vast and diverse land of deserts, large navigable rivers, thick forests, plateaus, grasslands, and mountains.

Many of these physical barriers separated various linguistic, religious, and ethnic groups. There were religious Sikhs in the Punjab to the West, Muslims in Bengal to the East, Hindu Maratha tribes in the Deccan Plateau, Tamil speakers in the South, and Hindu princes in Hyderabad. The highest mountains in the world—the Himalayas—blocked interaction with China. Invaders, before the British, came overland from the northwest from what is today Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Conquerors from these lands brought cultural influences such as Islam, the Persian language, and Afghani ethnic groups. The hub of the Mughal Empire was in the densely populated northern region along The Ganges River Basin. The rich soil and river system there was ideal for farming, transportation, and communication. The Mughal Empire’s weakest presence was along its coasts and this would be one cause of its eventual downfall.

To rule this diverse and vast land successfully the Mughal emperors often shared power with regional leaders. Unlike the Hindu majority, the Mughal rulers were Muslims of Afghan origin who spoke a Turkic language and were culturally influenced by Persia. As foreign monarchs, they needed cooperation of local rulers. For example, the most famous Mughal Emperor, Akbar (1556 -1605), enlisted Hindu Rajput warriors from the south to help build the empire. Rajput princes owed allegiance to the Emperor. But they administered their own territory and maintained the right to keep their regional customs and language (Asher 126). In this way, the Mughal tradition of involving local rulers in governing also had the effect of encouraging regional ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences. This strong regional identity throughout India prevented the growth of a single unified culture. It may have been Akbar’s awareness of the Mughal’s Muslim minority rule that encouraged him to implement policies in favor of religious tolerance. He enlisted Hindus and Jains into leadership positions and gave them equal rights as Muslims and even allowed a Jesuit Priest to teach him about Christianity (124).

Akbar and succeeding Mughal emperors established a politically and economically stable state by relying on regional leaders to collect revenue and govern. Local nobles, known as nawabs , agreed to supply taxes and military support to the Mughal rulers in return for a jagir —the right to control the revenue of a region (Peers 17). Like early modern China, India was primarily an agrarian land empire. Akbar taxed fifty percent of the agricultural yield, and peasants had to pay in a new silver coinage (Asher 128). By demanding that taxes be paid in cash, the emperor brought peasants into the market economy. By 1605, Akbar had left behind an empire of over 110 million people and a large army demanded 80% of the Mughal budget. (152 and 127) The economy thrived. For example, scholars estimate that India traded 400,000 articles of cloth to Indonesia for spices in just one year in the early 1600s (182). Mughal emperors in the 17th century lavished their wealth on many of the greatest architectural achievements in Indian history, such as the world famous Taj Mahal.

The Mughal Empire reached its peak around 1700 and for several reasons began to decline just as the British began to increase their presence. First, the majority Hindu population resented new religiously intolerant policies—such as increased taxes on non-Muslims. Second, emperors spent the wealth of the Empire fighting a prolonged military campaign in the South. The Hindu Marathas humiliated the powerful Mughal Empire for decades with unrelenting guerrilla tactics. As a result, the Empire went into debt and demanded more revenue from its nawabs elsewhere. Regional princes and religious groups, such as Hindus and Sikhs, resented Mughal leadership, sensed weakness, and looked for opportunities to break away (Asher 225-230). Third, the Empire weakened just when Europeans began to seek more profitable ways to extract revenue. Regional nawabs turned to Europeans for military support for short-term gain against other Europeans, local nawabs, or the Mughals. Coastal merchants grew wealthy from European gold and silver and became dependent on European trade. Fourth, since the Mughals traditionally received their revenue from agricultural taxes inland, they were uninterested in the burgeoning trade occurring at the shore. As a result, they had no navy at all guarding the coast. When the Europeans sailed to India, they found little evidence of an empire at all. On the periphery of the Mughal Empire, coastal merchants traded cotton textiles to the Middle East and South East Asia. India was well known throughout Eurasia for its high quality of manufactured goods.

By the middle of the 18th century, the Mughal Empire was a shadow of its glorious past. It could no longer hold off invaders from the northwest. In 1739, a Persian king sacked Delhi, the capital of the Empire, killing 20,000 people. The Persians stole the royal jewels, including the Darya-e Noor diamond, one of the oldest and largest diamonds in the world. As of 2012, the Darya-e Noor was still on display in Tehran, Iran; the Persians never returned it. They also took the famous peacock throne (Asher 253). Then the King of Kabul (Afghanistan) attacked Delhi in the 1750s and 1760s (255). After that, the Mughal Empire still claimed sovereignty over large areas but in practice was simply the seat of a small kingdom (247). For the next hundred years, independent successor states acknowledged Mughal rule but paid little or no tribute.

Unlike China, India had never been politically unified. The land and people were too vast and diverse. Before the Europeans arrived, no enemies had ever invaded India from the sea. Europeans came slowly at first in search of trade rather than invasion. They sought valuable spices from what they called the East Indies.

Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton