Private Enterprise Under the Umbrella of Empire (Conclusion)
Patrick Harris -For part 1, please look here
Throughout the 18th century, the British East India company continued its expansion into the Indian Subcontinent. Following the Anglo - Maratha Wars and the dissolution of the Maratha empire, the company would come into conflict with Mysore and the Tippu Sultan. Mysore was allied to France, the other major European power attempting to gain influence in India. The Tippu's forces were officered and trained by the French under European lines, and were a force be reckoned with. There were several Anglo - Mysore wars, ending with the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799, which features prominently in Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard Cornwell.
The Company was quickly becoming a country unto itself. It ruled most of India, either directly or through client states, and had very little oversight. It created massive armies, comprised of loaned regiments from the British Army and Indian Sepoys. Originally, these armies were mostly lower caste Hindus, but later they would evolve to be higher caste and Muslim outfits. Indians could become officers, but an Indian officer was always subordinate to a British officer, no matter the experience. By 1857, there were over 280,000 troops in the service of the East India Company. In broad strokes, the company was aligned with British foreign policy, and often assisted in the goals of empire.
The company would also become noted for it's numerous atrocities and portrayal of the Indian's as the aggressor. For instance, the Battle of Plassey was immediately preceded by an attack by the Nabob of Bengal on Calcutta, in which 146 Englishmen were captured. They were placed in a twenty foot square room, and by the next morning, only 23 men emerged from the "Black Hole of Calcutta". This act became an immediate justification for the continued British subjugation of India, and would serve as Robert Clive's motivation in his following wars. The only problem being that this probably did not happen in this way. It was reported by a single witness, John Holwell, whose reliability is in doubt. It is therefore highly likely that the number of prisoners and the number of deaths is highly inflated, if not entirely false. I have no doubt that this act was exaggerated to become a means of inflaming British public opinion toward a policy of unchecked imperialism. The company would also become heavily involved in the opium trade, and the terror it unleashed on China.
Eventually the company overstepped itself, as all things do. The company was aggressively expanding, but it was also implementing the even more sickening arm of Imperialism, assimilation. British society, the Protestant religion and Western customs were being forcibly pushed down the throats of the Indian masses, especially the Sepoys in British service. Despite some progress in the area of recognizing the Indian faiths, the British were still causing problems when they tried to deal with some aspects of Indian culture, specifically the caste system.
The expansion of British India was also causing resentment among the Sepoys. Previously, they had served mostly garrison duty in their home region. Now they were marched off to war in far off and culturally disparate places, such as Burma and Afghanistan. The Sepoys were also unhappy with being led by European officers. The Indian promotions were based on merit, but as said previously, they were subordinate to all Europeans. Indians would often only become officers very late in their career, too late to be of much use.
All of these events were contributing factors to the straw that broke the camels back, as it were. The Company had begun issuing greased cartridges for a new rifle, and they were rumoured to be coated in beef tallow (offensive to Hindus) or pig fat (offensive to Muslims). This enraged the Sepoys and would serve as the catalyst to several acts of defiance, which would eventually lead to the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, but that's a story for another time, though I will mention the disproportionate response of the British, including the killing of over 100,000 Indians in revenge, mostly civilians.
Following the rebellion, the Company's policies were viewed as a major contributor to the events that occurred. It was nationalised in 1858 with the Government of India Act, striped of its lands, armies and assets. It would remain in charge of the tea trade until 1873, when it was formally dissolved.
The East India Company was a power unrivalled in history. It was both a private enterprise and an instrument of Empire. It conquered and killed much, all for a profit. It accomplished much, but at great and almost irrevocable cost to the people of India. Its actions still have consequences today, in the conflict between India and Pakistan, and in the vast social inequality that will plague the subcontinent for some time to come.