The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Rivalry with France in India

Category: 18th century

French and British possessions lay alongside each other in India, North America and the West Indies. That made Britain concentrate on a profitable war upon the French colonial possessions.

There was little fighting of importance in the West Indies. The islands held by the rivals were interspersed but it was difficult to carry war from one island to another. The British naval superiority made it possible to seize many of the isolated French possessions prac­tically without resistance. The main seats of war were therefore India and North America.

The English East India Company had grown steadily throughout the century and by 1740 had a capital of £3,000,000 on which a dividend of 7 per cent was paid to the shareholders. But this was far from being the only profit taken from India. The East India Company used to pay its servants only a nominal wage: their real, and in the higher grades vast, incomes were de­rived from bribes, extortions and private trade. The Company kept a monopoly of the trade between India and Britain but left internal Indian trade entirely to its servants. Thus the temptations held out to adventur­ers in that part of the globe were such as flesh and blood could not withstand. Even the Directors of the Company were forced to condemn a system which they created and which finally threatened the profits of the shareholders. They openly complained of the corrup­tion and rapacity of their servants and admitted that the vast fortunes acquired in the inland trade had been obtained by a series of the most tyrannic and oppres­sive conduct that had been ever known in any country.

The French arrived in India only at the end of the 17th century, when the British East India Company was already powerfully established there. The new­comers were forced from the start to secure their po­sition by armed force. A naval base was established at Mauritius and a small army of native troops, armed and trained in the European manner, was raised. The English Company soon followed by creating its own private army. Since the main French depot, Pondicher-ry, was close to Madras and a second, Chandernagore, close to Calcutta, a clash was almost inevitable.

In the 18th century India was in a state of excep­tional weakness and confusion. The Mogul Empire was breaking up and its local officials were establishing themselves as independent rulers. The general situa­tion was not unlike that of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The immense superiority of the weapons possessed by the private armies of the English and French made it possible for them to intervene in the local wars of the native rulers with decisive effect. Both began to play at king-making, setting up puppet princes whom they could control.

This policy first led to open war around Madras, which the French captured in 1746 but gave up at the treaty which ended the European War of the Austrian Succession in 1748. In the next year the English and French inter­vened on opposite sides in the war in the Carnatic, of which province the English became the virtual rulers after the victory of Robert Clive at Arcot in 1751. The battle of Plassey in 1757, in which Clive’s troops num­bered 3,200 while their opponents totalled some 50, 000, was followed by the British conquest of the rich provin­ce of Bengal. This ensured British supremacy in this part of India.

The battle of Plassey was preceded by the inci­dent that gave rise to the most famous of all atrocity stories, that of the “Black Hole of Calcutta”. The facts are that the “Black Hole” was merely the ordinary pri­son of the British East India Company and that a num­ber of English, imprisoned because of a dispute between the Nawab of Bengal and the Company, died there owing to the place being overcrowded in the hot season.

Hostilities ended in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, which left the East India Company rulers of a great part of the country and confined the French to a few trading stations which they were forbidden to fortify. From this time there was no limit to the possibilities of exploitation. From Bengal alone the Company and its servants ex­torted over £6,000,000 in bribes between 1757 and 1766. In Madras and the Carnatic things were much the same.

Trading monopolies in important commodities like salt, opium and tobacco yielded immense fortunes. In 1769 and 1770 the English created a famine over wide areas by cornering rice and refusing to sell it except at exorbitant prices. Clive himself amassed one of the largest fortunes known up to that time by taking bribes and presents from Indian rulers.

In 1767 the British government insisted on taking a direct share of the plunder, and the Company was forced to pay £400,000 a year into the Exchequer. The Regu­lating Act of 1773 took the further step of securing to the government a partial control over the administration of the conquered provinces. Ostensibly aimed at check­ing the oppression of the Company’s rule, the real ef­fect of the Act was to systematize the exploitation of India. The exploitation of India became too profitable to allow private company to go on doing it. The Regu­lating Act of 1773 marked the beginning of the transi­tion from the first stage of British penetration, in which India was a source of certain valuable commodities which could not be produced at home, to the second stage in which it became an important market for Brit­ish manufactured goods, especially cotton textiles.

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