The British Imperial History
Expansion and Consolidation of British Power in India :- The entire imperial history of Britain can be periodised into two phases, the ‘first empire’ stretching across the Atlantic towards America and the West Indies, and the ‘second empire’ beginning around 1783 (Peace of Paris) and swinging towards the East—Asia and Africa. The imperial history of Britain started with the conquest of Ireland in the sixteenth century. The English then sprang up as the ‘new Romans’,
charged with civilising so-called backward races throughout the world. For this, the post-Enlightenment intellectuals of Britain, in particular, and of Europe, in general, started certifying themselves as civilised vis-a-vis the Orient peoples and others. Owing to various spatial and situational forces the nature of imperial ideology of Britain changed over time but its fundamentals remained the same.
Was the British Conquest Accidental or Intentional?
Historians have debated over the fundamental query, whether the British conquest of India was accidental or intentional. John Seeley leads the group which says that the British conquest of India was made blindly, unintentionally and accidentally, and in a “fit of absent-mindedness”. This school of opinion argues that the British came to trade in India and had no desire to acquire territories or to squander their profits on war waged for territorial expansion. The English, it is argued, were unwillingly drawn into the political turmoil created by the Indians themselves, and were almost forced to acquire territories.
Our acquisition of India was made blindly. Nothing great that
has ever been done by Englishman was done so unintentionally
and so accidentally, as the conquest of India.
The deeper reasons of intention and motive for the Company’s
acquisition of vast areas of territory are more obscure…for the
expansion occurred in such different parts of India at different
times. In each particular situation the precise British interests
at stake varied, and the perceived danger to them; as did the
relative weight in decision-making of different British groups
concerned in Indian affairs.
The other group says that the British came to India with the clear intention of establishing a large and powerful empire, a plan which they completed by working on it bit by bit over the years. They dismiss as propaganda the claim of the peaceful intent and political neutrality of the English East India Company in its early days.
Both the schools of opinion appear to be overstating their viewpoints. Initially, perhaps, the Company officials started acquiring territory just to promote and protect their trade interests, especially when they saw how factionalised the political situation was. They came to realise how easily they could pit one local ruler against another and began to interfere in local politics and, in the process, acquired territories. But later on the British politicians back in Britain and the administrators sent by them to India worked on a clear desire and plan to acquire territories and establish an empire.
The enormous profits from the trade in the East, notably India, attracted the English traders (the Company) as it did other Europeans. A desire for quick profits, personal ambitions of individuals, plain avarice and effects of political developments in Europe were some of the factors that made the British increase their political clout in India. At times, they waged wars to protect their commercial interests and,
at others, they did so to protect their Indian allies from the attacks of potential rivals. B.L. Grover writes: “Lord Wellesley resorted to aggressive application of the subsidiary alliance system to extend British dominion in India as a defensive counter measure against the imperialistic designs of France and Russia. From 1798 to 1818 the British motives were consciously imperialistic. Lord Hastings further carried the policy of Wellesley and treated India as a conquered rather than an acquired country. Thereafter, the British seemed to
work on a set design to conquer the whole of India, and even some neighbouring states.”
When did the British Period Begin in India?
In mid-18th-century India, various historical forces were at work, consequent to which the country moved towards a new direction. Some historians regard the year 1740, when the Anglo-French struggle for supremacy in India began in the wake of the War of Austrian Succession in Europe, as the beginning of the British period. Some see the year 1757, when the British defeated the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey, as the designated date. Still others regard 1761, the year of the Third Battle of Panipat when the Marathas were defeated by Ahmad Shah Abdali, as the beginning of this phase of Indian history. However, all such chronological landmarks are somewhat arbitrary because the political transformation which began around that time took about eighty years to complete.
For instance, as we think of 1761, the British would certainly come to mind (because of their victory over the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey and over the French) but we would not entirely write off the Marathas and would probably also consider the prospects of Haidar Ali. In fact, it was a period of Indian history which it would probably be a mistake to interpret in terms of what we know in the present. Nonetheless, the circumstances under which the British succeeded are not clear, and the few bottlenecks which they faced were not of a serious nature. It is this paradox which makes the causes of British success in establishing an empire in India a matter of considerable interest.