I’ve been doing some small research on the history of India and it just struck me how a small slip of an island (or two, or not, or maybe-but-just-barely…) was able to grab and hold a subcontinent that has always had not only a large population advantage but the home ground and reason to dislike its captors.
From what I’ve read, the Battle of Plassey in 1757 marked the beginning of the period I’m talking about. Robert Clive managed to defeat 50,000 soldiers who also had artillery with his own force of 3,000, 2,000 of which were Indian. Capsule summary. It was such a small event (even if you count the outright betrayal) compared to the giant size of the territory in question, and the huge numbers of people it would directly impact.
Subsequent to that, the only armed uprising of note I can find was the War of Independence of 1857, also called the Sepoy Mutiny. This went nowhere (in terms of freeing India) and, instead, caused the British East India Company to be replaced with India as a crown colony. Subseqent to that, Gandhi’s pacifist independence movement was what finally freed India in 1947.
So, 190 years (plus or minus a few months) of bondage under the British was resisted with one large-scale armed uprising, unsuccessful, and one very large-scale peaceful rebellion, successful. How was Britain able to maintain suzeranity over so many people and so much land for so long with so little loss of British life or money?
Interesting. I’ve also been doing some research on India, more on India since the independence, not after. But I agree with you - we’ve* been a nation of farmers for a long time, but our history is replete with stories of warriors and battles…it’s not as though we didn’t fight when we had to!
I wonder if it was simply superior tactics? Or cannons or something like that?
Also you should look up Jahnsi Ki Rahni who also stood firm in the face of British rule. There are a few exceptions to the rule.
But yes, a country that had its people consistently referred to as “savage” and insulted by British intelligentsia should not have been ruled for three hundred years. True, Britain did a great many good things for us. Perhaps it was a case of the devil we knew?
What kinds of books are you reading? Where are you doing your research? Feel free to e-mail me, I’d love to discuss. email@example.com.
The conquest of India took a long, long time. A large part was captured from the French (who took it from the locals).
Once conquered, much of India was run for a long, long time by local strongmen (Princes and whatnot). British power was spread very thin on the ground. The effort to smite the Thugee Cult for example did not go easily. (And took 70 years.)
The British let the Indians more-or-less rule themselves. (How could they not? There were darn few European administrators in India at any given time.) To the average villager, an Englishman was seldom seen. His life under the local power broker continued much as it always had.
Also of course, the Indians were (and are) prone to splitting into warring factions. The British took advantage of that.
****: All my research is online, and done via Google. I haven’t bought any books on the topic. I’m really very lazy.
Jhansi Ki Rani is the only spelling I can find via Google. (I’m guessing Rani Lakshmi Bai is who you are thinking of, the great hero of the War of Independence of 1857?) Wikipeida article, About.com article. She certainly fought bravely, albeit to no immediate success.
Paul in Saudi: That (all of it) makes a lot more sense. I guess I’m not going back far enough: My research hasn’t touched on the French. Maybe I do need to buy a couple books.
I was not suggesting you buy books, certainly! I don’t have money for that myself. I was thinking maybe at the library.
As for the spelling, Hindi is a phonetic language and a different alphabet anyway, so translations are often spelled different.
I don’t know, really. Most of what I know is from my family, etc… Some say very much, some say “meh” (or the equivalant). I’m sorry I can’t help you.
Generally speaking, the East India Company drove out much of the French and Portugese traders (after King William’s War). The trade was obviously lucrative for the the British, but also for the various Great Moguls. Keep the Mogul happy and gain more trade. Trade more and insinuate yourself more into the country. And don’t forget that the British East India Company was almost a “nation” unto itself. Of course it answered to the British throne (and nominally Parliament), but this is a company that was minting its own currency in India in the early 1700s (maybe very late 1690s, can’t remember). This is all prior to military invasion. Lots of groundwork was laid by the East India Company before a shot was ever fired.
That’s an important point. The villagers had essentially no contact with the cities, let alone the British administration.
I’ve heard that in 1952, to mark five years of independence, the Indian government commissioned a survey to see if the rural villagers had heard that the British had left yet. They abandoned it in some embarrassment when preliminary results indicated that many villagers had no idea that the British had ever arrived in the first place.
Alive At Both Ends: I didn’t know how extremely rural India was back then. I think that’s the biggest revelation in this thread so far. When George Orwell remarked in the 1940s that India “slept in the Middle Ages” during the 1930s, well, he certainly was in a position to know. (No, I’ve never traveled abroad beyond Western Europe and Canada. I’m a provincial.) I suppose the local rulers wouldn’t have any reason to tell their serfs who was really in charge. It is far, far outside my experience.
Paul in Saudi: I read some of those and I should have read more. Particularly the ones where India was first conquered and parted off to French and Portuguese interests. My biggest false assumption was that the British conquered India the way they conquered Australia.
They also had reasons to like them and plenty of reasons to dislike themselves. The battle of Plassey ( Palasi ) was won because a large part of those 50,000 troops on the Nawab of Bengal’s side never entered the fight because they were bought off. Much of the money that bought them off came from the fabulously wealthy merchant prince Jagat Seth, who found the unreliable Nawab bad for business and thus formed an alliance with Clive to replace him. The Nawab’s treacherous uncle who withheld his aid on the battlefield, was afterwards, as per agreement, promoted to puppet Nawab under British tutelage.
The really decisive battle however was at Buxar, five years later.
At any rate India was conquered slowly, incompletely and with a great deal of local aid. The conquest only became possible at all when the Europeans ( first the French, then the British ) realized that native recruits, trained and equipped to European standards, were a more than adequate replacement for scarce European manpower. It was largely Indian troops that conquered India.
Moreover the British were excellent at exploiting political rivalries. The Sikh kingdom in the Punjab, which later bloodiest the British nose the most, was a firm ally earlier. Gurkha Nepal - enemy, then ally. Different factions of the Maratha Pentarchy were courted in opposition to each other. Attempts at pan-Indian unity ( for example Tipu’s attempt to align the Nizamate of Hyderabad, the Marathas and his own state of Mysore ) foundered on mutual hostility and distrust.
European drill was a key factor in its eventual victory, but Indian armies learned to emulate it with some degree of success. The aforementioned Sikh state being a fine example, with their high quality field artillery.
But unity of purpose, abundant resources, both local and imported and the disunityy of their foes ultimately won the Raj. It was probably not a foregone conclusion before the 1790’s however and I probably wouldn’t consider it complete until the conclusion of the second Anglo-Sikh War in 1858.
Are you counting the Anglo-Sikh wars? The Anglo-Maratha wars? The Anglo-Mysore wars?
At the battle of Chillianwala for example, 12,000 Anglo-Indian troops w/66 field guns faced down 23,000 Sikh troops w/60 field guns. A British victory, but an ugly cost - over 2300 British casulaties. They also lost as many at the earlier battle of Sobraon.
The Brits even lost a few, as to Tipu on the Coleroon river, or to the Marathas at Wadgaon. Not to mention that 20,000 man expedition that vanished into the maw of Afghanistan, from which a single survivor emerged.
Cooperative native princes and other wealthy elites - 650 native princely families continued to hold power under British auspices, sometimes administering very large territories ( i.e. Hyderabad ). An undeniably efficient administration and military system that incalculated esprit de corps and loyalty. Major famines that swept India, reducing the impetus to do anything but survive. Internal disunity- political, religious, ethnic.
I think several of the preceding replies have covered a range of factors involved here, but I think it’s worth pointing out more explicitly that there are some incorrect assumptions implicit in your question.
By the mid-19th century, Britain was not “a small slip of an island.” It was a world-class military power and in possession of the most current technology. Take note of Diamond: Although the “germs” in this case favoured the Indians, the British had the guns and the steel.
Also, as noted, the eventual success was not due to sending over large numbers of British soldiers, but co-opting the Indians themselves to do their work for them. And what’s really key here is that military force was not the Brits’ only or even their most important weapon. The British made trade and political alliances with hundreds of local rulers.
They didn’t necessarily have any more reason to dislike the British than anyone else who happened to be around.
I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. Plassey resulted in the British takeover of Bengal, not of all of India. And it was merely the first step in a very long process.
I think this point has been debunked.
Very generalized answer to a very generalized question: They got the Indians to do it for them.
One of the interesting things about the Indian Mutiny is that one of the contributing factors was (allegedly) the type of lubricant used on musket-balls issued to the Sepoys. (Some reference works say the problem was with cartridge lubricant- this is incorrect, as the first cartridge-loading long-arm used by the British was the Snider-Enfield, a mid-1860s conversion of the 1853 Enfield Rifled Musket).
Some of the Sepoys thought that their musket-ball lubricants were, in fact, animal fat (and therefore offensive on a religious and cultural level), even though this wasn’t the case (I forget exactly what it was- beeswax or vegetable oil, I believe).
Nonetheless, it didn’t help matters…
You’re also forgetting the Indian National Army- Indians who sided with the Axis during WWII, on the “The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Friend” theory.
I have a great deal of respect for the Indians- they fought valiantly for the British Empire and for themselves, have made many cultural contributions to the world, have become a massive, technologically advanced, democratic country, and their food is kick-ass, too!
Ironically, in a number of remote areas in India, including the North-West Frontier, some Indian Army Indian Police auxiliary units are still armed with Ishapore- made SMLE Mk III* .303 bolt-action rifles and Ishapore 2A1 7.62x51mm bolt-action rifles, because they know the rifle will A) Work in all conditions without being cleaned or maintained, and B) If they shoot someone with it, they stay shot- the .303 has rather a lot of stopping power behind it…
Considering that North-West Frontier is widely known as the proper name of a Pakistani province and is frequently referred to in the news, popular culture, and scholarly works, I’d be surprised to learn that the India-Pakistan border is commonly referred to as “the north-west frontier” in those terms. I could be wrong, though.