The British East India Company slowly and gradually expanded its trading activities in India by getting permission from the then ruling powers, the Mughals and the local rulers.
By the time the Mughal Empire’s decline started and it fragmented into successor states, the British East India Company developed designs of becoming a political power by the middle of the 18th century.
The British East India Company in its desire to become a political power realized that it had to eliminate the other European companies from trading activity and so obtained permission to build forts and to improve its military strength.
After making thorough preparations, the British East India Company acquired its foothold firmly in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa by its victories in the battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1765).
Since then, the British East India Company adopted a threefold strategy of ideological, military and colonial administrative apparatus to expand and consolidate the British Indian Empire. In this process, we witness a transformation of trading connections into colonial relations of unequal nature. Now, let us understand how the British East India Company tried to justify its policy of acquiring political power through its ideological bases of mercantilism, orientalism, utilitarianism and evangelicalism.
The British were not just crude blood-thirsty annexationists or conquerors like the Arabs and the Turks. The British who came to India as traders, in course of time realized that in order to obtain the optimum profits from Indian trade, they have to secure political power, backed by force. What had never happened in the world’s history so far happened in India and a trading company becomes sovereign political power.
The British knew what they did was morally and ethically incorrect and to justify their action, they used ideological bases to brainwash the natives of India and the world that what they did in India was in the interest of the progress and development of India and it was their ‘white man’s burden’ to ‘civilize India’ from a historical barbarian rule of the earlier centuries of Indian polity and culture. Romila Thapar rightly observes that the historical writings produced by the European scholars, beginning in the 18th century, were formulated in terms of the ideological attitudes then dominant in Europe.
Further she states, “the European ideologies entailed a set of attitudes towards India which were for the most part highly critical as that of unchanging India, unhistorical, barbarian and uncivilized”, in support of their design to conquer. In this backdrop let us take up the first aspect of expansion and consolidation of the British Indian Empire, the ideological bases.
By the beginning of the 16th century, we notice the decline of feudalism in Europe along with the emergence of new ideas which promoted the rise of nation state, urge for new geographical discoveries, seaborne long distance trade and colonization of new lands through migration and settlement of new colonies. Further, a new commercial outlook influenced by mercantilist ideas dominated Europe between the 17th and 18th centuries.
Added to these the growth of science and technology in England made England an industrially developed country. In consequence, England had become a colonial power and a capitalist country. All these developments necessitated England to search for raw materials necessary for the manufacture of goods in England and new markets for their finished mechanized products.
England wanted to achieve these objectives through colonialism in India, as merchants became an influential social class of England. Thus, by the 17th century the countries of Europe came under the impact of a set of economic ideas and practices called mercantilism.
Mercantilism presupposes the volume of world trade as more or less fixed, precious metals silver and gold form the desirable national wealth, balance of trade should be the norm and for that purpose should impose high tariffs on imports.
Colonization should be adopted and if necessary rival powers should be curbed by force of arms and finally colonial trade should be a monopoly of the mother country. The above-mentioned mercantilist ideas dominated the European nations between the 17th and 18th centuries and this system was criticized by Adam Smith, the author of Wealth of Nations published in 1776 and Maurice Dobb, the famous Marxist thinker as The Mercantile System was a system of state-regulated exploitation through trade which played a highly important role in the adolescent capitalist industry. It was essentially the economic policy of an age of primitive accumulation.
Orientalism is a concept that stresses the uniqueness of the culture and civilization of the Orient. Orientalists are also called Ideologists. But Romila Thapar is of the view that the term ‘Orientalist’ was used in the wider sense of scholars interested in Asia and the term Ideologists referred to those interested only in India. These orientalists started the first serious study of the past civilization and culture of India in particular in the late 18th century.
Orientalists, who were conservative by nature pleaded for providing a framework of security without interference in the working of the religio-social institutions and cultural traditions. They argued that peace would promote the trade and it would be to Britain’s advantage.
This view of the orientalists was supported by the right wing Tories and they also opposed missionary activity of any sort in India. This serious study of the past of India became inevitable as the British East India company authorities decided that it was essential for officers of the British East India Company to be proficient about Indian culture and civilization to rule them properly.
In order to encourage this type of study, the Asiatic Society was established in 1784 to undertake research into the past of Indian culture and civilization. William Jones, Wilkins, H.T. Colebrooke, W.H. Wilson and Max Muller who never visited India were the well-known orientalists. Owing to the efforts of the above orientalists, by the middle of the 19th century the interest in the past culture of India has become deep-rooted and spread to various parts of Europe.
The most significant revelation of the orientalists was the relation between Sanskrit and certain European languages. Translations of the important Sanskrit classics were carried by orientalists of the Asiatic Society. As a consequence of the efforts of the orientalists, there was an infectious spread of the romantic fascination of India and her culture throughout Europe.
Warren Hastings, the Governor General of Bengal not only patronized Asiatic Society but desired to reconcile the British rule with the Indian institutions. In order to translate the vision of Hastings, Halhead prepared the ‘Gentoo laws’ with a view to ensure stability to the acquisitions of the British in India. To encourage further the study of the past of India, Wellesley established the Fort William College at Calcutta in 1800.
The focus of the Fort William College was imparting scholarship in Indian languages to the students to enable them to become good administrators. The British consciously made every effort to educate every British officer to be aware of the customs and traditions of the locality of their posting. Besides languages, they also mastered the institutions like law and landed property as the British began to consolidate their conquests. The British followed the policy of learning about the Indian society to the extent that knowledge enabled the administrators to be conversant with laws and customs of Indians of various localities but never disturbing the Indian society by mediation or intervention.
Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement of England of the 18th century. This movement in contrast to the Orthodox Church emphasized on personal experiences, individual reading of gospel rather than the traditions of the established church. While some Christian missionaries attempted to reform the ‘degenerate Indian society’ quietly, the evangelists were openly hostile to ‘Indian barbarism’ and desired to ‘civilize India’.
The influential members of the Evangelicalism were Wilberforce, the confidant of Pitt, Charles Grant, a chairman of the directors and his son who was a cabinet minister. They advocated bringing Christian West to the East and “India will reform herself as a flower to the Sun” Charles Grant propagated the policy of assimilation of India into the great civilizing mission of Britain. This attitude coincides with the liberalism advocated by Macaulay.
The British East India Company too agreed upon this philosophy of civilizing India because they can acquire properties in India and they could have markets for their finished products in India due to the implementation of free trade policy. Charles Grant too supported this idea as civilizing process would lead to material prosperity. Thus, in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries the idea of ‘improvement’ became a part of the civilizing process. The then Governor General Cornwallis introduced permanent settlement in Bengal as a part of his vision of improvement as the magic touch of property would create capital and market in land.
Munro was critical of the permanent settlement idea as it was an alien concept of English rule of law with its strict division of judiciary and executive. Murnro argued for the preservation of the stable heritage of village committees by introducing Ryotwari settlements.
When Wiliam Bentink became the Governor General of India by the Charter Act of 1833, liberal minded Macaulay suggested that Indians should be civilized through the Western education system. There arose a debate between the orientalists who insisted that the old system of education be continued and the Anglicists who supported the move of Macaulay. Finally, the Western education system was introduced with the cooperation of the reformer, Raja Ramohan Roy.
The utilitarians too believed in the vision of civilizing and improving India like the evangelicalisms and liberals. The utilitarians were radicals and humanists and had a strong faith in reason. The most important advocate of utilitarian philosophy was James Mill, the author of History of India published in 1817. Though, his book was studied by the employees of the British East India Company as a Bible, it caused immense harm to Indian society by laying the seeds of communalist approach to the study of Indian history and civilization.
They advocated that introducing reforms into the problem of law and landed property they could attain the Benthamite principle of the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’. They believed that law could be an instrument of change and through enactment of laws; Indian society could be transformed into a modern society from that of superstitious society.
With the joining of James Mill in the East India Company’s London office, a systematic attempt began to give a concrete shape to a vision of political reform in the philosophical premises of utilitarianism. Resultantly, a series of laws and penal codes were enacted to make India civilized and improved. The utilitarians opposed any form of representative government in India at that time as well as in near future.
The utilitarian philosophy also influenced the views of Dalhousie in creating all-India departments with single heads. What we notice was the decline of the overall spirit of reform and the British administration was now dominated by the outlook of pragmatism and rationality.
In the span of a hundred years (1757-1857) in this process of expansion and consolidation of the British power, the mission of the British was to civilize and improve India from a society of historical unchanging barbarian image by providing a unity of action in spite of differences in the perception of the orientalists, evangelicalisms and the utilitarians led by Sir William Jones, Charles Grant and James Mill respectively. An objective analysis of the process reveals that these ideological bases and advocates of these ideologies were responsible in building the British Empire in India.