Of all the European nations who came as traders to India after new sea routes were discovered, England emerged as the most powerful and successful by the end of the eighteenth century. The major factors which can be attributed for the success of the English against other European powers— Portugal, the Netherlands, France and Denmark—in the world in general and in India in particular were as follows:

Structure and Nature of the Trading Companies

The English East India Company, formed through amalgamation of several rival companies at home, was controlled by a board of directors whose members were elected annually. The shareholders of the company exercised considerable influence, as the votes could be bought and sold through purchase of shares. The trading companies of France and Portugal were largely owned by the State and their nature was in many ways feudalistic.

In the French company, the monarch had more than 60 per cent share and, its directors were nominated by the monarch from the shareholders who were supposed to carry on the decisions of two high commissioners appointed by the government. The shareholders took very little interest in promoting the prosperity of the company, because the State guaranteed a dividend to the shareholders. The lack of public interest could be inferred from the fact that between 1725 and 1765, there was no meeting of the shareholders and the company was simply managed as a department of the State.

Naval Superiority

The Royal Navy of Britain was not only the largest; it was most advanced of its times. The victory against the Spanish Armada and against the French at Trafalgar had put the Royal Navy at the peak of the European naval forces. In India too, the British were able to defeat the Portuguese and the French due to strong and fast movement of the naval ships. The English learnt from the Portuguese the importance of an efficient navy and improved their own fleet technologically.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution started in England in the early 18th century, with the invention of new machines like the spinning Jenny, steam engine, the power loom and several others. These machines greatly improved production in the fields of textile, metallurgy, steam power and agriculture. The industrial revolution reached other European nations late and this helped England to maintain its hegemony.

Military Skill and Discipline

The British soldiers were a disciplined lot and well trained. The British commanders were strategists who tried new tactics in warfare. Technological developments equipped the military well. All this combined to enable smaller groups of English fighters defeat larger armies.

Stable Government

With the exception of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Britain witnessed stable government with efficient monarchs. Other European nations like France witnessed violent revolution in 1789 and afterwards the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, significantly weakened France’s position and from then on it was forced to side with Britain. The Italians were united as a nation as late in 1861. The Dutch and Spain were also involved in the 80-years war in the 17th century which weakened Portuguese imperialism. The Dutch East India Company, affected by bankruptcy in 1800 coupled with the revolution in 1830, was forced to sell its possessions to Britain and quit Asia.

Lesser Zeal for Religion

Britain was less zealous about religion and less interested in spreading Christianity, as compared to Spain, Portugal or Dutch. Thus, its rule was far more acceptable to the subjects than that of other colonial powers.

Use of Debt Market

One of the major and innovative reasons why Britain succeeded between the mid-eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century, while other European nations fell, was that it used the debt markets to fund its wars. The world’s first central bank—the Bank of England—was established to sell government debt to the money markets on the promise of a decent return on Britain’s defeating rival countries like France and Spain. Britain was thus enabled to spend much more on its military than its rivals. Britain’s rival France could not match the expenditure of the English; between 1694 and 1812, first under the monarchs, then under the revolutionary governments and finally under Napoleon Bonaparte, France simply went bankrupt with its outdated ways of raising money.


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Vishal Singh


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