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.
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.”