Of all the European East India companies which came to India as traders in different periods of the 15th and 16th centuries, only the British and the French East India companies remained as dominant ones by the beginning of the 18th century.

In the first decade of the 18th century, the fortunes of the then mighty Mughal Empire began to decline and there emerged a number of successor states or regional powers or country powers in different parts of India.

The two European trading companies after realizing the weakness of the then country powers decided to make sincere efforts to become a strong political power and to expand and consolidate their sway in India. It is the trade interest that made the two European companies chart out this process of territorial expansion.

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The European trading companies established their factories on the western, eastern and southern coastal areas and in this process they extended their influence into the mainland territories of the Indian subcontinent.

The expansion and consolidation of the British influence was achieved in a span of one hundred years, i.e., 1757 to 1857 by using the tools of war and diplomacy. Rabindra Nath Tagore, very aptly in a poetic way described this as “darkness settled on the face of the land then the weighing scales in the merchant’s hand changed into the imperial sceptre”.

The Carnatic Wars:

The outbreak of the Austrian succession war in Europe in which the British and the French were in opposite camps and the outbreak of the succession war in Hyderabad, one of the country states, where the British and the French supported the claims of the rival claimants provided the first opportunity to the British and the French to put to test their relative military strengths and strategy of interfering in internal matters of regional powers. P.E. Roberts remarks aptly, “at the outbreak of the war the English and the French seemed about equally matched in strength and extent of possessions.


It cannot be doubted that in financial power, in commercial wealth and in material resources the advantage lay considerably on the side of the English”. In all the British and the French fought three wars, which are known as Carnatic wars between 1746- 1763?

The Carnatic wars ended in the resounding victory of the British, which ultimately resulted in the establishment of British hegemony in India. The first Carnatic war came to an end with the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle concluded in 1748. The first Carnatic war did not affect any territorial changes. But it was a war of significance. We can agree with Dodwell that, “it demonstrated the overwhelming influence of sea power, it displayed the superiority of European methods of war over those followed by Indian armies, and it revealed the political delay that had eaten into the heart of the Indian state”.

The second Carnatic war took place between 1748-54 and concluded with the treaty of Pondicherry concluded by the French Governor Godeheu in 1755. As a result of this war, the influences of the British increased in Carnatic as well as in Hyderabad as Muhammed Ali and Salbat Jung, respectively were well disposed towards the British.

Once again due to the outbreak of the seven years war in Europe, hostilities took the shape of third Carnatic war between the British and the French, in which the French wanted to revive their influence again but ultimately the fate of the French was sealed and they were made to give up their ambitious desire for political power. P.E. Roberts aptly remarks, “The fall of Pondicherry sounded the death knell of the French dominion in India”.


The French East India Company formally ended its career in 1769 and private traders continued to use the French factories. Many factors like the commercial superiority and better financial position of the British East India Company, the British employees’ keen and sincere interest in promotion of trade, the realization of the British that success in trade was more important than terri­torial gains, marked superiority of the British Generals and finally the naval supremacy of the British and access to the resources of Bengal which was acquired in 1757, enabled the British East India Company to be a winner in the struggle and to carry on further annexations in other regions. We may agree with the view of V.A. Smith, “Neither Alexander the great nor Napoleon could have won the empire of India by starting from Pondicherry as a base and contending with the power which held Bengal and command of the seas”.

The Battles of Plassey and Buxar:

While the Carnatic wars were going on between the British and the French in South India, Bengal was occupied by the British in the year 1757 by their victory in the battle of Plassey. Bengal became a hunting ground for all the European trading companies from the 17th century and by the 18th century Bengal provided 60 per cent of British imports from Asia. Thus, commercial viability of Bengal was the main cause of the British interest in this province.

Siraj-ud-daula was the Nawab of Bengal in 1756. But, his accession was opposed by his cousin Shaukat Jung and his aunt Ghasiti Begum and the dominant group consisting of jagat Seth, Unichand, Raj Ballesh and Mirjafar. Further, the relations between the British and the Bengal Nawab were strained because of the activities of the British East India Company like the fortification around Calcutta without the permission of the Nawab, the misuse of the company’s trade privileges by the officers of the East India Company for their private benefits and for granting shelter to Krishna Das son of Raja Ballesh, who fled with lot of money. Both Siraj and the British were suspicious of each other and in that situation the arrival of Robert Clive with a strong force deepened the suspicion of the Nawab of Bengal.

Already there was a secret understanding between the foes of Nawab and the British. Nawab Siraj-ud-daula attacked the British factory at Kasimbazar, seized it and advanced towards Fort William and besieged it with an army of 50, 000. This sudden attack surprised the British and the British were forced to surrender to the Nawab.

The British recaptured Calcutta on 2 January, 1757 and attacked Siraj. This made Siraj enter into a peace treaty with the British on 9 February, 1757. By this treaty the British gained many advantages and yet not content they insisted for further conces­sions. The Nawab did not yield and evaded the issue. The British attacked the French possession of Chandranagore and captured it in 1757. The Nawab in turn gave protection to the French refugees. Realizing that war with Siraj was inevitable; the British conspired with the opponents of Siraj and made prepara­tions to proceed to Plassey.

The British despatched a letter to Siraj charging him of betraying them and violating the treaty of 9 February, 1757. On 23 June 1757, the actual battle of Plassey took place and as planned and agreed upon Mirjafar and his army stood inactive and by the evening the success of the British became a reality. In this battle Siraj was captured and killed by the orders of Miraj, Mir Jafar’s son. Thus, political power in Bengal passed into the hands of the British by their success in the battle of Plassey and the other European trading companies were eliminated from Bengal. This victory made the British in Bengal king makers and placed their protege Mir Jafar on the throne of Bengal and Mir Jafar was replaced by his son-in-law Mir Kasim. As Mir Kasim did not agree to be a loyal subordinate and satisfy the desires of the British, they planned to place Mir Jafar on the throne of Bengal again.

A war broke out between the British and Mir Kasim in which Mir Kasim was driven away. Mir Kasim, Siraj-ud-daula and Shah Alam I joined together and fought with the British at Buxar in 1764. The British won victory in this battle and a treaty was concluded at Allahabad in 1765. By their victory in the battle of Buxar, the British became the political masters of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. In a span of 8 years from 1757 to 1765, the political power in Bengal gradually and slowly was transferred from the hands of the Nawab of Bengal to a trading company, the British East India Company.

We may conclude by stating that the economic and commercial interests of the company and its officials and the growth of factional politics in the courts of Nawab of Bengal and internal conflicts among different groups in the court acted as favourable factors for this political transformation of significance in the history of India. Thus by 1765, the British East India Company became a dominant political power in South India as well as in Bengal.

The Mysore Wars:

Next, the British East India Company turned its attention to the annexation of Mysore which was under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, who were opposed to the British East India Company and were ready to take the cooperation of the French in sustaining the kingdom of Mysore. Let us trace the backdrop that led to the actual wars between the Mysore state and the British East India Company.

The 18th century India, in general witnessed complex power struggle between various groups of powers – native as well as European trading companies. It was a struggle to establish political hegemony between the colonial power and the Indian states and also among the Indian powers themselves; the Nizam, Mysore and the Marathas. While the main cause for struggle between colonial power and the Indian state was economic and commercial interest, and the struggle between native powers was for territorial expansion to augment their resources to sustain their power.

In this backdrop, the rise of Mysore state under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan sent alarm signals of threat to the neighbouring kingdoms of the Marathas, the Nawab of Carnatic and the Nizam of Hyderabad as each kingdom was primarily interested in expansion and consolidation of their territorial boundaries. Each one was suspi­cious of the other power and there were syndicates of understanding and cooperation for immediate gain. This mutual suspicion and constant enmity among the country powers ultimately led to the effective intervention of the British and their success in establishing political hegemony.

The immediate cause for the British intervention was primarily the appre­hension of the commercial loss in the spices trade of Malabar due to the control of Haidar Ali over Malabar and a possible threat to the control of Madras under the British. Further, the French alliance with Mysore hastened the British to follow and implement a more aggressive expansionist policy in Mysore.

Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan fought four wars:

(i) The first Anglo-Mysore war (1767-69),

(ii) The second Anglo-Mysore war (1780-1784),

(iii) The third Anglo-Mysore war in (1790-92) and

(iv) The fourth Anglo-Mysore war (1799).

In the first Anglo Mysore war, Haidar Ali successfully thwarted the designs of the Nizam, the Marathas and the British and was successful in his war against the British and their allies. The British became friends of Haidar Ali and when the Marathas invaded Mysore in 1771, he approached the British to respond but when they failed to respond, he lost his battle against the Marathas. Haidar Ali for diplomatic reasons kept quiet and in 1779, he joined hands with the Nizam and the Marathas against the British. There was a war between the British and Mysore, the Nizam and the Marathas.

In the middle of the war Haidar Ali died in 1782 and his son Tipu Sultan continued the war and the peace treaty of Mangalore were concluded in 1784. The war ended indecisively. Again war broke out between Tipu Sultan and the British between 1790 and 1792 and in the end Tipu concluded the peace treaty of Srirangapatnam in March 1792. Tipu had to surrender half of his kingdom which was shared by the English, the Marathas and the Nizam. The final showdown between Tipu and the British took place in 1799, wherein Tipu lost his life fighting heroically and Mysore was placed under the earlier Odayar family.

Mysore became a dependency of the British by 1799. From the British perspective, the annex­ation of Mysore was a great event Majumdar, H.C. Raychaudhari and K.K. Dutta observe: “It secured for the company substantial territorial, economic, commercial and military advantages. It extended the company’s dominion from sea to sea across the base of the peninsula encompassing the new kingdom of Mysore on all sides except in the north. When in 1800, the Nizam transferred his acquisitions from Mysore to the company; his kingdom was entirely encircled by the Pax Britannica”.

The Maratha Wars:

As in the case of Mysore, the primary cause for the British interest in the affairs of the Marathas and the desire to expand their way into the Maratha territory was solely commercial, as the British developed lucrative cotton trade after 1784 to China from Gujarat through Bombay. Further, the growth of infantry and gunnery in Maharashtra created suspicion in the minds of the British that their objective of expansion of their territorial sway cannot be achieved unless the Marathas are reduced to submission.

As in the case of the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Carnatic, the rivalry for succession among Narayana Rao, the younger brother of Peshwa Madhava Rao and Raghoba or Ragunath Rao, uncle of Peshwa Madhava Rao and the subsequent events between 1772 and 1775, necessitated the intervention of the British in the Maratha affairs.

Conse­quently, there were three Anglo-Marartha wars:

(i) Anglo-Maratha war 1775-1782,

(ii) Maratha war 1803-1806, and

(iii) Maratha war 1816-1817.

In the first Anglo-Maratha war, the British supported the claims of Raghoba who approached them but Nana Phadnavis opposed the move of Raghoba. Consequently, the first Anglo-Maratha war took place between 1775 and 1782, and the war came to an end by the treaty of Saibai of 1782. The British obtained Salsette and Madhava Rao Narayan, the posthumous son of Peshwa Madhavarao was confirmed as the rightful Peshwa. There was peace for two decades and taking advantage of the peaceful situation the British made Mysore their dependency. During this period there developed dissensions between Gaikwad of Baroda, Bhonsle of Nagpur, Holkar of Indore and Scindia of Gwalior and at this juncture Wellesley wanted the Marathas to enter into Subsidiary Alliance system.

Understanding the real implications, the Marathas refused to oblige. At this juncture only. Nana Phadnavis died and taking advantage of this Jaswant Rao Holkar defeated Scindia along with the forces of Peshwa in 1800 and captured the city of Poona. This loss of Poona made the Peshwa once again to approach the British and thus started the second Aglo-Maratha war of 1803-1805.

The Peshwa, Bajirao II entered into subsidiary alliance in 1802 and accepted the treaty of Bassein, which was opposed by Scindia and Bhonsle but they were defeated by the British. In 1804, Holkar made an effort to retrieve the lost prestige of the Marathas but he failed. Thus, ended the second Anglo Maratha war as Wellesley was called from India to England. Again in 1817-1819, Peshwa Baji Rao II made efforts to form a united coalition to drive the British, but his attempt also failed.

Finally, the British succeeded in making the Marathas forgo their independence, and the dominions of Bhonsle and Holkar were annexed by the British. Thus by 1820, the British expanded their political sway over Carnatic, Nizam of Hyderabad, Mysore and the Marathas, and the British rule in India became a reality.

In northern India, the decline of the Mughal power led to the emergence of country states of Awadh, Rohillas, Jats and Sikhs. We also witness conflict and cooperation among these powers and with the British in their pursuit of expansion and consolidation of their dominions. After the success in the battle of Buxar, the British East India Company forced a subsidiary alliance on Ayodhya or Awadh. Awadh become a buffer zone between the territories of the British and the regions of Western India. Despite the opposition of the British, the Nawab of Awadh maintained his hold effectively by restricting the trade by the company and other Europeans in Awadh territories between 1765 and 1775.

As the defenses of Awadh weakened between 1775 and 1801, the hold of the company over Awadh increased and the ruler of Awadh was isolated diplomati­cally and reduced financially. Lord Wellesley succeeded in forcing the Awadh Nawab to enter into a new treaty in 1801 by which he ceded Doab, Gorakhpur and Rohilkhand to the company.

Further, by the third provision of this treaty the Nawab had to act with the advice in conformity to the council of the officers of the said Honorable Company. The British company slowly and gradually increased its hold over the mindset of the people of Awadh and made it a virtual dependent of the company and by 1856, Awadh was annexed to the British Empire and the Resident took over the administration of Awadh as the Chief Commissioner. The British intervention in Rohilkhand is linked with the interests of Awadh.

In the 18th century the Afghans who migrated to India in search of employment occupied artd settled between Delhi and Agra in the west and Awadh and Allahabad in the east. The Rohillas became politically important under the leadership of Dadu and AH Muhammad Khan. After the death of Ali Muhammad Khan, the possessions of the Rohillas were divided and there were skirmishes among the neighbouring states and by 1761 the Rohillas became independent.

As the Rohillas were attacked by the Marathas, they entered into a treaty with the Nawab Wazir of Avadh in 1772. By this treaty, they agreed to pay 40 lakhs as the price for their help. In 1713, the Marathas attacked Rohilkhand but left after the approach of the British and Avadh troops. The Nawab Wazir demanded the Rohillas to pay the amount as per the treaty but they refused. The British troops in association with the troops of Avadh attacked Rohilkhand and Rohilkhand was annexed to Avadh. The occupation of Rohilkhand by Avadh with the help of the British was unjustifiable on any ground. It reflects the avariciousness of the Avadh ruler and the British.

The British East India Company while making efforts to weaken Awadh and capture it was planning to repeat the same story of annexation in Punjab also. By the time the British East India Company developed into a political power in India, the Sikhs became a power to be reckoned with by occupying all the territory extending from Saharanpur in the east to Attock in the west and from Jammu in the north to Kangra in the south. The Sikhs were divided into 12 Misls and generally they used to fight against each other. It was Ranjit Singh, the son of Sardar Mahasingh of Sukar Chakia clan, who ruled from 1792 to 1839, united the Sikhs into a unified state structure.

Ranjit Singh with foresight maintained cordial relations with the British and never fought with them directly, in spite of the problems posed by them. Political instability that set in the Punjab after the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839 and quick succession of rulers in the Punjab and the high handedness of the military and Sikhs allies like Prime Minister Rajan Lal Singh, the Commander-in-Chief Misar Tej Singh and Dogra Raja Gulab Singh made the British intervention possible.

The Sikhs fought two wars:

(i) Sikh war 1845-1846 and

(ii) Sikh war 1848-49.

In the first Sikh war the British won and concluded the humiliating treaty of Lahore in 1846 and the British annexed the Jalandhar Doab and handed over Jammu & Kashmir to Raja Gulab Singh. A British resident was stationed at Lahore with extensive authority over all matters and expenses to be borne by the Lahore government.

The revolt of Mulraj against the Lahore Durbar in 1848 led to the beginning of the second Sikh war in which the British defeated the Punjab and Punjab was annexed to the British Empire in 1849. The British East India Company had chosen two tools of war and diplomacy to expand their political sway in India. In the preceding pages, we witnessed how the British expanded their territories by waging war with Bengal, Nizam, the Carnatic, Mysore, the Marathas, Avadh and the Punjab. Now, let us take up the aspect of diplomacy followed by the British.

The two important policies of diplomatic nature are:

(a) The subsidiary alliance of Wellesley, and

(b) The Doctrine of Lapse of Dalhousie.

a. The Subsidiary Alliance of Wellesley:

Besides the tool of war, the British East India Company, like a hungry wolf was anxiously waiting to use any means to expand its territorial holdings in India. Of such means Subsidiary Alliance is one. It is Wellesley, the Governor General of Bengal, who vigorously implemented this policy for the advantage of the company. Though, Wellesley is associated with Subsidiary Alliance, the author and originator was not Wellesley but Dupleix, the French Governor. Dupleix devised it and implemented it and later the same was followed by the British from Clive to Wellesley.

Alfred Lyall notices four stages in the evolution of this system. In the first stage, the British East India Company supplied weapons and armies to the native ruler, as we notice the supply of arms and armies to the Nawab of Avadh against Rohillas during the tenure of Warren Hastings. In the second stage, the British with the help of the native ruler took the field. In the third stage, the British took money from the native ruler for the maintenance of the army separately for the defence of such state, e.g., Oudh in 1797.

In the fourth stage, the British agreed to maintain a permanent and fixed subsidiary force within the territory of its ally in return for a payment of a sum or ceding certain territory permanently to the British. Further, Wellesley by this Subsidiary Alliance system made it mandatory for the ally to keep a British Resident in the court of the native ruler, not to employ any other European nationals in this service, not to maintain relations with any other native ruler without the prior approval of the British. The British agreed to protect the territory of such allies from foreign aggression and not to intervene in the internal affairs of such native ally who entered into this alliance.

A critical review of this policy clearly reveals that this is advantageous to the British and disadvantageous to the native ruler. The policy was designed in such a way that it served the main interest of the British East India Company in expanding its hold in new territories of its allies without spending money from its coffers and to make these allies its dependencies.

The Doctrine of Lapse:

Dalhousie, the last of the Governors General of the time of the Company was associated with this policy of the Doctrine of Lapse. By using this policy as a means, Dalhousie annexed the native states like Satara, Nagpur, Jhansi, Jaitpur and Sambhalpur. By denying the right of adoption to a Hindu native state as legitimate one, the British Governor General Dalhousie annexed the above native states to the British Empire in India.

His policy resulted in a political upheaval which threatened to destroy the solid foundations of the Company’s rule in India in 1857, because his annexationist policy based on the Doctrine of Lapse has no legal, moral or expediency justification. The British East India Company expanded its control over a vast territory and also extended its influence beyond India in Sri Lanka in the south, Mauritius in the south-west Afghanistan in the north-west, Nepal in the north to Andamans and Nicobar, Burma, Malaya, and Philippines in the south-east.

It can be said without any hesitation that it was mainly at the cost of India that England became the dominant power in the whole of South Asia and Asian lands on the Indian ocean by using the Indian sepoys like cannon fodder and draining the Indian treasury through unnecessary wars and diplomacy.