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The Decline of Mughal India's Effect on European Traders

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  • 0:02 Mughal Weakness
  • 2:16 Capitalizing on Fractures
  • 4:05 Bigger Investment,…
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Mughal Empire was one of the most powerful countries on the planet, and its downfall was largely preventable. This lesson explains why and provides details on how the British made the most of the situation.

Mughal Weakness

By the dawn of the 18th century, the Mughal Dynasty was dying. While the reign of Akbar the Great was widely remembered as a time of great power, prestige, and wisdom for the occupant of the Peacock Throne from which the Mughal Emperor ruled, by now it was much less so. Granted, the intervening years had seen the construction of the Taj Mahal by Shah Jahan, Akbar's grandson, but this had been a highpoint of architecture, not necessarily rule. Soon, a group known as the Maratha Confederacy was gaining power in the countryside, generally terrorizing the citizens and treating the lands as their own, but providing none of the advantages of governance. The Mughals were too weak to oppose them.

By the time that Shah Jahan's son, Aurangzeb, came to power, weakness had become a byword for the Mughal Dynasty. Seemingly, Aurangzeb was quite eager to help sabotage his empire through any method he could think of. He abolished the idea of religious plurality that his great-grandfather Akbar had instituted, despite the fact that his Islamic beliefs were very much the minority view among his people. More tellingly, he taxed officials at enormous rates, including 100% tax on any assets left after they died, meaning that rather than plan for the future, Mughal officials were more inclined to spend all their time in a mindset of conspicuous consumption.

Aurangzeb himself epitomized this ideal, preferring hashish and his harem to the duties of actually governing. Needless to say, by the time that an Afghan army threatened the capital of Delhi and, a year later in 1736, a Persian army sacked the city and took the Peacock Throne back to Iran, not many average people in the Mughal Empire really cared.

Capitalizing on Fractures

One group of people who did care were those European merchants who had been trading on the Indian coast since Vasco da Gama had opened the sea route from Europe to India in 1498. These merchants had long been subject to heavy oversight from the Mughals, most especially the English, who the Portuguese had successfully convinced the Mughals to largely ignore. Needless to say, the Europeans readied themselves to make the most of the new reality. In fact, the Dutch and English, relative newcomers to the subcontinent, set up some of the world's first corporations, respectively the Dutch East India and the British East India companies, in order to allow greater access to funds in order to make these efforts possible.

Other groups also prepared to act on the instability created by the leaders of the Mughal Empire. Obviously, the Maratha Confederacy had the greatest ability to capitalize on the downfall of the Mughals, but it was plagued by a lack of vision, with no one leader emerging throughout its history to unite and lead the confederacy. The same could also be said about the smaller states of India. This provided an ample playing field for European agents, who after centuries of lagging behind the rest of the world could now offer technologies, such as cannon, cavalry, and naval vessels, that would create the difference in any struggles between Indian states. Those advantages were doled out to Indian rulers in exchange for extensive trading rights, making the European India Companies at play very wealthy in the process.

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