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European Imperialism in India & the British East India Company

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  • 0:01 The Importance of India
  • 1:34 Early Imperialism in India
  • 2:18 The East India Company
  • 4:25 The Indian Rebellion…
  • 6:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about European imperialism in India. We will explore the relationship between European powers and India and examine the role of the British East India Company.

The Importance of India

To begin this lesson, we are going to start in what might seem like an unusual spot, but just stay with me, and it will all make sense. Go back in your mind to the Age of Exploration. You know, Christopher Columbus and all that jazz. Where was Columbus trying to go? Boom! The Indies - basically India and other parts of Asia. See, for centuries Europeans had traveled via the Silk Road to India and Southeast Asia. The Silk Road? What was that? The Silk Road was actually not one specific trail, but rather a series of trade routes extending between Europe and Asia.

But why were Europeans so keen to travel to India and Southeast Asia? One word: trade. They traveled to these places in order to obtain exotic goods that could not be found anywhere else. The Indian subcontinent was thought by many Europeans to be a sort of paradise. This region had all kinds of exotic things Europeans wanted - things like silk, all kinds of spices and foods, opium, and foreign animals. So, for centuries India was a critical place of trade and of prime importance for Europeans. I mention all of this so that you understand why Europeans, especially the English, wanted control over India in the first place.

Early Imperialism in India

During the 16th and 17th centuries, countries like France, Portugal, and England all basically competed for influence along the southeastern coast of India. These countries established trading posts along the coast and sought to gradually obtain greater control of the region, and guess who came out on top? Yep, England. In time, the English came to dominate the region, and the other countries were more or less pushed out. Conflicts between the English and various native Indian groups broke out regularly, but increasingly, England came to subdue the area.

The East India Company

The English East India Company was a joint-stock company set up in 1600 to pursue trade with the Indian subcontinent. It was in operation from 1600-1874. The company was founded by royal charter, and wealthy aristocrats made up the company's shareholders. The East India Company basically had a monopoly on trade in the region. In time, the company became extremely powerful and wielded tremendous political influence. Although technically independent from the Crown, the East India Company became the primary agent for English imperialism throughout Asia. The East India Company raised its own private army and eventually assumed control over vast swathes of the subcontinent. The East India Company engaged in the exportation, trade, and sale of products like tea, opium, spices, silk, and other resources.

By 1707, England and Scotland had merged to form what we know as Great Britain. The indigenous people of India resented being subjected to British rule. The Battle of Plassey was a battle fought in 1757 between the East India Company and the native Bengal peoples. Incidentally, the French allied themselves with the Bengals. The East India Company won the battle, and following it, assumed direct governance over much of India.

Between 1757 and 1858, the East India Company was basically the official government of India. This was called Company Rule, or Company Raj ('Raj' being the Hindi word for 'rule'). So, the bottom line you need to remember here is that the British East India Company ruled India. Through exportation and trade, the company also funneled vast sums of money into the British treasury. Colonial India was a huge financial asset.

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the British Raj

Now, remember when I said the East India Company had its own army? Well, not all members of the army were British. Especially among the lower ranks, it was common for Indians to serve, and of course, even though they were serving in the company's army, many native Indians held nationalist sentiments and deep down inside resented British rule.

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 took place between May 1857 and June 1858 when Indian members of the East India Company's army rebelled and took up arms against their British rulers. The rebellion erupted into a virtual war as the British government sent additional troops, while various Indian tribal groups sent their soldiers to help support the rebels. After a year of fighting, the rebellion was suppressed, but its effects were profound.

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