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Expansion of British Rule in India – (1757 to 1857)

Expansion of British Rule in India – (1757 to 1857)

Expansion of British Rule in India :- The process of imperial expansion and consolidation of British paramountcy was carried on by the Company during the 1757-1857 period through a two-fold method:

  1.  policy of annexation by conquest or war; and
  2.  policy of annexation by diplomacy and administrative mechanisms.

We have already discussed how the Company defeated and subjugated, one by one, the major Indian powers like Bengal, Mysore, the Marathas and the Sikhs, mainly by waging wars against them and through considerable deceit. But in the case of many other powers, the British applied diplomatic and administrative policies. In this context, we may cite examples of Warren Hastings’ ‘ring-fence’ policy, Wellesley’s system of ‘subsidiary alliance’ and Dalhousie’s ‘doctrine of lapse’ to see how the British dominion expanded in India.

Note :- This post will be available in Hindi soon

Expansion of British Rule in India

The Policy of Ring-Fence

Warren Hastings took charge as the governor-general at a critical period of British rule when the British were to encounter the powerful combination of the Marathas, Mysore and Hyderabad. He followed a policy of ring-fence which aimed at creating buffer zones to defend the Company’s frontiers. Broadly speaking, it was the policy of defence of their neighbours’ frontiers for safeguarding their own territories.

This policy of Warren Hastings was reflected in his war against the Marathas and Mysore. The chief danger to the Company’s territories was from the Afghan invaders and the Marathas. To safeguard against these dangers, the Company undertook to organise the defence of the frontiers of Awadh on the condition that the Nawab would defray the expenses of the defending army. The defence of Awadh constituted the defence of Bengal during that time.

Thus the states brought under the ring-fence system were assured of military assistance against external aggression—but at their own expense. In other words, these allies were required to maintain subsidiary forces which were to be organised, equipped and commanded by the officers of the Company who, in turn, were to be paid by the rulers of these states.

Wellesley’s policy of subsidiary alliance was, in fact, an extension of the ring-fence system which sought to reduce the Indian states into a position of dependence on the British government.

Subsidiary Alliance

The subsidiary alliance system was used by Lord Wellesley, who was governor-general from 1798-1805, to build an empire in India. Under the system, the allying Indian state’s ruler was compelled to accept the permanent stationing of a British force within his territory and to pay a subsidy for its maintenance. The Indian ruler had to agree to the posting of a British resident in his court.

The Indian ruler could not employ any European in his service without the prior consultation with the Company. Nor could he go to war or negotiate with any other Indian ruler without consulting the governor-general. In return for all this, the British would defend the ruler from his enemies and adopt a policy of non-interference in the internal matters of the allied state.

One of the objectives behind Wellesley’s strengthening of the subsidiary alliance system was to keep the French from reviving and expanding their influence in India. Around this time, the fear of Napoleon’s expedition towards the East was very real for the British who felt that the French could attack the western coast of India from their colony of Mauritius.

Hence the clause in the alliance treaty requiring the Indian rulers to dismiss Europeans (other than the British) from their service and not employ any. By means of this system, the Company could station its forces at strategic locations and keep the French at bay. Besides, the subsidiary alliance would expand the Company’s hold over the Indian states and gradually bring more and more territory into the Company’s fold.

The Indian rulers lost their independence by buying security. They were not free of interference from the British Resident. They lost much of their revenue, paying for the British troops. Also, the alliance made the Indian rulers weak and irresponsible; the subjects were exploited and it was practically impossible to depose the oppressive rulers as they were protected by the British.

Evolution and Perfection

It was probably Dupleix, who first gave on hire (so to say) European troops to Indian rulers to fight their wars. Since then, almost all the governor-generals from Clive onwards applied the system to various Indian states and brought it to near perfection. The first Indian state to fall into this protection trap (which anticipated the subsidiary alliance system) was Awadh which in 1765 signed a treaty under which the Company pledged to defend the frontiers of Awadh on the condition of the Nawab defraying the expenses of such defence.

It was in 1787 that the Company first insisted that the subsidiary state should not have foreign relations. This was included in the treaty with the Nawab of Carnatic which Cornwallis signed in February 1787. It was Wellesley’s genius to make it a general rule to negotiate for the surrender of territory in full sovereignty for the maintenance of the subsidiary force.

Stages of Application of Subsidiary Alliance

There were four stages in the evolution of the subsidiary alliance. In the first stage, the Company offered to help a friendly Indian state with its troops to fight any war the state might be engaged in. The second stage consisted of making a common cause with the Indian state now made friendly and taking the field with its own soldiers and those of the state. Now came the third stage when the Indian ally was asked not for men but for money.

In return, the Company promised that it would recruit, train, and maintain a fixed number of soldiers under British officers, and that the contingent would be available to the ruler for his personal protection as also for keeping out aggressors. In the fourth or the last stage, the money or the protection fee was fixed, usually at a high level; when the state failed to pay the money in time, it was asked to cede certain parts of its territories to the Company in lieu of payment.

The Company’s entry into the affairs of the state had begun; now it would be for the British resident (installed in the state capital under the treaty) to initiate, sustain and hasten the process of eventual annexation.

Wellesley converted the British Empire in India to the British
Empire of India. From one of the political powers in India, the
Company became the supreme power in India and claimed the
whole country as its sole protectorate. From Wellesley’s time
onwards the defence of India was the Company’s responsibility.

—Sidney J. Owen (Selection from Wellesley’s Despatches)

States which Accepted Alliance

The Indian princes who accepted the subsidiary system were: the Nizam of Hyderabad (September 1798 and 1800), the ruler of Mysore (1799), the ruler of Tanjore (October 1799), the Nawab of Awadh (November 1801), the Peshwa (December 1801), the Bhonsle Raja of Berar (December 1803), the Sindhia (February 1804), the Rajput states of Jodhpur, Jaipur, Macheri, Bundi and the ruler of Bharatpur (1818). The
Holkars were the last Maratha confederation to accept the Subsidiary Alliance in 1818.

A 1950 Colonial Office paper disarmingly says that Britain ‘as
a seafaring and trading nation… had long been a “collector of
islands and peninsulas”’. In a much-quoted remark, Sir John
Seeley, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge,
said something similar in 1883: ‘We seem, as it were, to have
conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.
That didn’t mean quite what it seemed to say: what Seeley meant
was that there had not been a coherent policy behind Britain’s
imperial expansion. There had been an incoherent set of policies.
The 1950 paper explained that the collection of islands and
peninsulas was assembled to protect trade and the sea routes.
The motive for Empire was selfish… the motivation consisted
of desires which interlocked: desires for wealth, for strategic
possessions from which to defend the wealth, and for prestige,
the inevitable concomitant of wealth. In the process, numberless
hundreds of thousands of native populations were slaughtered,
… Almost always, the subject races, even the most sophisticated
and educated amongst them, were regarded as and made to
feel inferior to the ruling caste.

—Walter Reid, Keeping the Jewel in the Crown


In the hundred years after Plassey, the East India Company,
with an army of 260,000 men at the start of the nineteenth
century and the backing of the British government and Parliament
(many of whose members were shareholders in the enterprise),
extended its control over most of India. The Company conquered
and absorbed a number of hitherto independent or autonomous
states, imposed executive authority through a series of high-born Governors General appointed from London, regulated the
country’s trade, collected taxes and imposed its fiat on all
aspects of Indian life.

Shashi Tharoor, An Era of Darkness

Doctrine of Lapse

In simple terms, the doctrine stated that the adopted son could be the heir to his foster father’s private property, but not the state; it was for the paramount power (the British) to decide whether to bestow the state on the adopted son or to annex it. The doctrine was stated to be based on Hindu law and Indian customs, but Hindu law seemed to be somewhat inconclusive on this point, and the instances of an Indian sovereign annexing the state of his vassal on account of ‘lapse’ (i.e., leaving no issue as heir) were rather rare.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh had annexed a few of his feudatory principalities on account of ‘lapse’. Likewise, the Company in 1820 acquired a few petty Cis-Sutlej states on the absence of heirs. Nonetheless, there was no clear-cut instance of an adopted son being deprived of an entire state or of such a state being regarded as a ‘lapse’.

Though this policy is attributed to Lord Dalhousie (1848-56), he was not its originator. It was a coincidence that during his governor-generalship several important cases arose in which the ‘Doctrine’ could be applied. Dalhousie showed too much zeal in enforcing this policy which had been theoretically enunciated on some previous occasions. His predecessors had acted on the general principle of avoiding
annexation if it could be avoided; Dalhousie in turn acted on the general principle of annexing if he could do so legitimately.

Annexation of Awadh

Awadh was the oldest of the surviving states brought under the Subsidiary Alliance and the cruel impact of the system resulted in its continuous maladministration under profligate and extravagant nawabs for a long spell of 80 years.

The people suffered from the heavy taxes imposed by the Nawab as also the illegal exactions by his officials and the talukdars. The chronic bankruptcy of the treasury was partly due to the heavy charges realised by the British government for maintenance of the subsidiary troops. In addition, large contributions were realised by Lord Hastings, Lord Amherst and Lord William Bentinck for purposes entirely unconnected with the affairs of Awadh. In 1819, the Nawab was given the title and status of a king.

Lord Dalhousie directed Sleeman, the Resident in Awadh, to make a tour throughout the state and ascertain the actual situation by personal inspection. The resident submitted a report describing the anarchical condition in the state. He was succeeded as resident in 1854 by Outram who submitted a report supporting that of his predecessor.

Dalhousie hesitated to take the extreme step, i.e., annexation; he preferred permanent British administration, with the Nawab retaining his titles and rank. But the Court of Directors ordered annexation and abolition of the throne (1856). Wajid Ali Shah refused to sign a treaty giving away his rights, and was exiled to Calcutta. It was a political blunder for which the British had to pay a heavy price during the Revolt of 1857.

Annexed Lapsed States

It was a matter of chance that during Lord Dalhousie’s term many rulers of states died without a male issue and seven states were annexed under the Doctrine of Lapse. The most important of these were Satara (1848), Jhansi and Nagpur (1854). The other small states included Jaitpur (Bundelkhand), Sambhalpur (Orissa), and Baghat (Madhya Pradesh).

Lord Dalhousie annexed Awadh in 1856 after deposing Nawab Wajid Ali Shah on grounds of misgovernment.

Thus Dalhousie annexed eight states during his eight-year tenure (1848-56) as governor-general. In these eight years, he annexed some quarter million square miles of the territory of India. His reign almost completed the process of expansion of British power in India, which began with the victory over Siraj-ud-daula at Plassey in 1757.

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Vishal Singh

Vishal Singh

“Hi, I am Vishal Singh. I completed my Graduations in Physics in 2020 at VKSU, Arrah. Now I'm Preparing For Civil Service Exams. I'm Interested Physics as well as History, Polity, Geography, Technology & Science.

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