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Britain's Wars In India

Updated on November 24, 2012

The British East India Company

The flag of the British East India Company from 1801 onwards.
The flag of the British East India Company from 1801 onwards. | Source

Background

It was in the year 1612, that the British East India Company established its first trading post or ‘factory’ on the Indian coast at Surat. By the beginning of the 18th century, they had established factories in Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta, (Kolkat) in Bengal and Madras. Other European countries including France, the Netherlands and Portugal had also established trading companies in India. However, the 18th century would mark a change in the way that the European powers behaved towards their Indian trading partners. It largely came about as a result of the decline of the Mughal Empire which had ruled over much of India since the early 16th century. The European powers saw the decline as an opportunity to expand their influence in India by intervening in the affairs of rival Indian princedoms.

It was under the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb that the Empire managed to achieve its greatest extent of control. However, by the time of his death in 1707, Mughal rule was restricted to an area surrounding Delhi. But it wasn't the Europeans who had caused the shrinking of a once vast empire. Instead it was the emergence of a new dominant power from the south, the Maratha Confederacy and also the flourishing of smaller states such as Hyderabad, Mysore and Bengal.

From 1742, the French, under governor-general Jean Francois Dupleix attempted to drive the British out of India completely and extend their influence over the subcontinent. In 1746 they successfully captured Madras, but it was returned to the British as part of the peace terms drawn up at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. The age old Anglo-French rivalry was given fresh impetus though by the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756. This is when the British takeover of India began in earnest in Bengal. Both the British and French East India Companies had been permitted to establish trading posts by the Nawab of Bengal (Siraj ud-Daulah). However, the outbreak of war compelled the British to bolster their defences in Calcutta just in case the French should decide to attack. But the Nawab saw things differently, viewing Britain’s actions as a direct snub to his authority. His forces seized the fort, allegedly causing the deaths of many British soldiers and Indian troops, known as Sepoy's, by imprisoning them in the infamous ’Black Hole of Calcutta’ which was in fact a small cell within the fort.

The Black Hole Of Calcutta

The infamous Black Hole of Calcutta where many British and Indian troops died during their internment by the Nawab of Bengal.
The infamous Black Hole of Calcutta where many British and Indian troops died during their internment by the Nawab of Bengal. | Source

Clive Of India

Robert Clive, more commonly known as Clive of India became the first British governor of Bengal after he instated Mir Jafar as the new Nawab.
Robert Clive, more commonly known as Clive of India became the first British governor of Bengal after he instated Mir Jafar as the new Nawab. | Source

The Redcoat

The typical battle dress for a British infantrymen from the mid 18th century onwards.
The typical battle dress for a British infantrymen from the mid 18th century onwards. | Source

Britain Goes On The Offensive

In response, the British sent a small force by sea from Madras, commanded by Colonel Robert Clive, which retook Calcutta at the start of 1757. With the support of French artillery men equipped with heavy cannon, the Nawab led an army of over 50,000 men to confront Clive, who had less than a thousand European troops and 2000 Sepoy's. However, British leaders had undermined the Nawab’s position through intrigue. They had promised the throne to a rival claimant Mir Jafar and bribed most of Siraj’s commanders. In the battle at Plassey or Palashi, on the 23rd June, barely a tenth of the Nawab’s forces actually fought. As a result the British won what appeared on paper at least to be an impossible victory, and thus took control of Bengal, with Jafar as the new puppet Nawab.

The British victory at Plassey was a setback for French policy in India, and worse followed. The major French settlement was at Pondicherry, which rivalled British Madras on the Carnatic coast. Britain shipped a newly raised infantry regiment, the 84th Foot to India in 1759 and, led by Sir Eyre Coote defeated the French under Count de Lally at Wandiwash (Vandavasi) in January of the following year. A year after that, Pondicherry was placed under siege, which ended fairly quickly with the French surrendering. The Seven Years War ended with the French only possessing a nominal presence in India. They failed to restore their position when war broke out with Britain again in 1778 during the American Revolution, and Napoleon’s later ambitions to rule India remained in the realms of fantasy.

The East India Company’s army, consisting of Indian Sepoy's under Indian NCOs and British officers, often aided by elements of the British Army paid for by the Company, was undoubtedly effective. The Company confirmed its control of Bengal with a victory over numerically superior forces, including the Mughal Emperor’s army, at Buxar in 1764. But it would be a mistake to exaggerate the impact of the European presence at this time or its military superiority. The largest battle fought in India in the mid 18th century was at Panipat in 1761, the two belligerents were the invading Muslim Afghan army led by Ahmed Shah Durrani and the defending Hindu Maratha's. There may have been over 100,000 troops involved in this costly but ultimately inconclusive encounter.

Defiance

It is better to die as a tiger than to live as a sheep


Tippoo Sultan, ruler of Mysore and sworn enemy of the British.

Rocket Power

The Battle of Pollilur saw the British experience a crushing defeat at the hands of the Tippoo Sultan and his formidable rockets.
The Battle of Pollilur saw the British experience a crushing defeat at the hands of the Tippoo Sultan and his formidable rockets. | Source

The Fall Of Seringapatam- 1799

This painting depicts the Tippoo Sultan fighting till the last, while his fortress falls into British hands.
This painting depicts the Tippoo Sultan fighting till the last, while his fortress falls into British hands. | Source

Two Highly Recommended Books

Sharpe's Tiger (Richard Sharpe's Adventure Series #1)
Sharpe's Tiger (Richard Sharpe's Adventure Series #1)

A fascinating novelised account of the fall of Seringapatam told through the eyes of the legendary fictional British soldier, Richard Sharpe.

 
Sharpe's Triumph: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Assaye, September 1803 (Richard Sharpe's Adventure Series #2)
Sharpe's Triumph: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Assaye, September 1803 (Richard Sharpe's Adventure Series #2)

A fascinating novelised account of the Battle of Assaye told through the eyes of legendary fictional British soldier, Richard Sharpe. In both books Cornwell does slightly alter the events of the actions to comply with the plot. But at the back of the book he highlights the differences between the fact and the fiction.

 

A Formidable Foe

One result of the battle of Panipat was to facilitate the rise of Hyder Ali, ruler of Mysore who took advantage of the temporary weakness of the Maratha Confederacy to extend his power in southern India. Between 1767 and 1799, first under Ali and then his son, the Tippoo Sultan, Mysore engaged in a series of hard fought battles against the British, urged on by the French, who provided arms and training. Mysore fielded armies that fought with discipline, incorporating much of the best of contemporary European tactics, including cannon. It also developed rocket brigades, consisting of units of several hundred soldiers armed with explosive rockets fired in salvos from iron tubes, which so impressed the British that they developed Congreve rockets of their own. The Tippoo Sultan managed to score impressive victories against the British, notably at Pollilur in 1780 and Tranjore in 1782. It was not until 1799, when Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt awoke British fears of a revival of French influence in India, that the Tippoo Sultan was finally defeated. As an ally of the French, it was absolutely imperative that he be dealt with once and for all. So the British invaded Mysore with a force that included Maratha Sepoy's from Bombay, British infantry under Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) and the army of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The campaign concluded with the capture of Mysore’s capital, Seringapatam (Srirangapatna) and the killing of the Tippoo Sultan.

The British now turned their attention to the Maratha Confederacy, a potential enemy weakened by divisions and fractures in its constituent semi independent states. The Maratha's traditionally fought as skirmishing light cavalry, but under French influence they also had infantry armed with muskets and field artillery. In 1803 the British defeated Maratha armies in the north, while Wellesley campaigned in central India. In September of that year, Wellesley blundered into a Maratha force at Assaye that was stronger than his own in regards to cavalry and artillery, as well as in overall numbers. He chose to attack across a river and carried the day despite suffering heavy losses.

These victories brought the British large territorial gains, but over the next two years they suffered reverses and a peace deal ratified in 1805 meant that the Maratha's were able to maintain their independence. It took more fighting, in 1817-18 to break up the Confederacy, leaving Britain in control of the Indian subcontinent up to the Punjab. Company rule extended to northern India after two fiercely fought wars against the Sikhs in the 1840s. The Sikh state had been rapidly expanding in the early decades of the 19th century, and its army, the Khalsa, was a highly motivated force that had European trained artillery and uniformed infantry. The key British victory at Sobraon in 1846 cost more than 2000 British and Sepoy's casualties. Once more victory came about for the British through having a slight edge rather than having military superiority.

A Documentary Highlighting The Indian Mutiny Of 1857

The Relief of Lucknow

A depiction of the British relieving the residency within the city of Lucknow which had been besieged by Indian rebels during the Mutiny of 1857.
A depiction of the British relieving the residency within the city of Lucknow which had been besieged by Indian rebels during the Mutiny of 1857. | Source

British Total Rule

In 1857, Bengali Sepoy's mutinied in an attempt to reinstate the Mughal emperor as ruler of India. However, sufficient Sepoy's remained loyal for the British to crush the rebellion, which included notable military actions at the siege of Delhi and the relief of Lucknow. The British used widespread reports of atrocities committed against British civilians as justification for the extreme brutality employed when suppressing the revolt. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was effectively the first war fought for Indian independence. But Britain’s victory marked the end of an era. The last Mughal was exiled, the East India Company was abolished and India became a possession of the British crown, with Queen Victoria becoming Empress of India.

Afghanistan is one of many countries that lie on the fringes of the Indian subcontinent, and even while the British were still attempting to subdue northern India, they were already turning their attention towards Afghanistan. In 1839 British forces invaded the country and installed a pro-British ruler, but they were driven out by an uprising in 1842. By the time they attempted another invasion in 1878, India had long since been subdued. This time the invasion met with more success in military terms, but they never quite managed to subdue the Afghans, who remained fiercely independent.

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    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Very interesting, JKenny-- as usual. It always amazed me how powerful some British companies were-- it was hard to tell where the government stopped and the company started. East India Company (with its American-looking flag yet), Hudson Bay Company and other companies ruling the New World. Kind of makes you wonder who's in control.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes that's very true. I remember hearing some wild conspiracy type rumour that the USA itself is a merely a corporation owned by the British Crown. But I don't think there's any truth to that personally. But still, you can't help but wonder...

    • claudiafox profile image

      claudiafox 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Nice Tiger quote! Is the USA still owned by the Queen? Maybe it is. Canada, New Zealand and Australia (are still) owned by the British Crown. This means The Queen owns each taxpayer. Weird, but true. For example, Fiji now controlled by the Army. The Fiji Army leaders learned coup techniques from the USA Military while the Fiji Military acted as mercenaries in the Iraq invasion) - the coup leaders created a new Constitution under which all the citizens of Fiji ceased to be "owned" by the Queen. They were transferred as goods, to the Fiji Army.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hmmm...that's interesting Claudia. Technically that means that if she wanted to, the Queen could order either one of us to be killed, and there's nothing we could do about it because she still 'owns' us. Spooky! Yes I came across the Tiger quote in one of the books I read and I just had to put it in. Thanks for popping by.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi James. Fabulous research and effort, so well presented. A really first class job.

      Graham.

      Voted up and all.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Graham, really glad you liked it. Appreciate you dropping by.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      This is a masterful account of an enduring 'love-hate' relationship with India.

      There are still Indians - even those who never even lived through the last years of the 'Raj' - who get misty-eyed about the era.

      My son-in-law is an Indian from Mumbai who met my daughter at Lord's (another direction of the British 'conquest' of the Sub-continent) who has gone through the 'trials' of gaining British citizenship, and there are countless other Indians working at Lord's. Since I've been at Lord's (as a part-time Museum Steward) the numbers of Indians coming through the gates on tour is nothing short of a minor invasion in reverse!

      Before anyone belittles British influence on India, (and to a lesser extent Pakistan and Bangladesh) they should witness the crowds who pour through the gates annually! If that isn't a conquest of sorts, I don't know what is!

      I've also read the Bernard Cornwell book 'Sharpe's Triumph'. Not being an expert I'd say it was well-researched and well-written, giving the atmosphere of a hot and dusty environment and impossible odds at Assaye.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Alan, yes I think if there's one thing the Indians are grateful to us for, and that's cricket. My mom has a couple of Indian friends and they're absolutely obsessed with it. They also get misty eyed about the Raj, even though they have no memory of it. Have you read Sharpe's Tiger and Sharpe's Fortress? As they're also set in India. Fortress deals with the British attack on the mountain fortress of Gawilghur.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      I have watched most of the Sharpe series on film, as opposed to reading the books. There is one in which Sharpe remembers the attack by the renegade ex-East India Company subaltern Dobson prior to the attack on the young Indian mogul's fortress in which Sharpe and Harper try to rescue the general's daughter. Can't for the life of me remember the title! Is that 'Sharpe's Fortress'?

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No, I know the one you mean- its called Sharpe's Challenge- its based loosely on all three of the Indian books. There was another Sharpe film set in India, which I think isn't based on the books at all, that's called Sharpe's Peril.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      A big subject to cover in one hub JKenny, but thanks for some great information. Apparently there was a prophecy after the Battle of Plassey that the rule of the East India 'John' Company would last 100 years, which in a way it did because after the Mutiny of 1857 the administration of the subcontinent was taken over by the crown. I think that the history of the Mutiny shows that violence only leads to violence as atrocities were committed by both sides, which then only further inflamed the situation and led to further violent acts. But we never seem to learn!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes I agree, you could apply that logic to virtually every single war ever fought by humans. I've always been of the opinion that the development of civilisation was actually the beginning of our downfall as a species. When we were hunter gatherers, we were fitter, healthier and lived in far greater balance with our surroundings, including our fellow humans.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Problem is that as we increase in number some want to gain glory, some want to gain reward and some just enjoy messing others about.

      If we hadn't taken over India the French would, and look at the ex-French colonies around the world. They didn't put much into the infra-structure, and look at what happened in Algeria or French Indo-China. The only French 'residue' around their empire is their language, as with the Spaniards and their former colonies.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Fascinating read, I see the french did all they can to cause trouble as usual! lol! but riveting stuff, it was such a confusing time, and I do agree with alan above, the french and spanish around the world took over, messed it up and then just left the names and languages, at least with us Brits we came saw conquered and built lots of lovely structures! lol!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yep, very true. One of the best quotes I've ever heard about empires goes something like this: 'All empires are doomed to fail...the further they expand from the capital, the harder they become to maintain'. The same could be said about humanity in general, in a sense we've built an empire that controls the natural world, but the further we go from nature, the harder our 'empire' is to maintain.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hahaha! Yes I can see your point Nell. I must admit finding it weird whenever I watch documentaries about Central Africa and hearing the people speak French, doesn't sound right to me lol. Thanks for popping by.

    • alikhan3 profile image

      StormsHalted 3 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan

      You should mention how Tipoo was defeated by the treachery of his own Viziers....... one of them told the british about the weakest point in the castles walls , they shut the gates while the sultan was fighting outside the castle and of course the gunpoweder was found wet in the storehouses

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks for the information and taking the time to stop by and comment.

    • alikhan3 profile image

      StormsHalted 3 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan

      you can see in the painting that sultan fought alone till the last moment ...... it is said that at least 19 corpses were found around sultan's body when it was recovered

    • emge profile image

      Madan 2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Very interesting and well written

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