The arrival of Europeans
First European contacts.
In 1497, the Portuguese king Manuel I sent the navigator Vasco da Gama to find a sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Da Gama reached the port of Calicut on the Malabar coast on June 18, 1498, and his fleet returned to Lisbon, Portugal, in 1499. The news of the Portuguese success in crossing the Indian Ocean and reaching the richest spice port in India caused great alarm in Venice, Italy. The Venetians were Europe's main traders in Asian spices, which they bought in Egypt. This trade was highly profitable, and the Venetians feared the Portuguese as rivals. Portuguese merchants would sell spices more cheaply by using the new sea route. The Portuguese set up a trading empire in the Indian Ocean, capturing and fortifying all the leading trading ports. They controlled the major sea routes between India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The Portuguese made Goa their capital in India. The city became an important European settlement.
East India companies. The British East India Company was founded in 1600. The Dutch East India Company was formally incorporated two years later, although the Dutch merchants of Amsterdam had been trading in the Indian Ocean as early as 1595. The arrival of the British and the Dutch in India was unwelcome to the Portuguese, who tried to keep control of the Asian trade. Portuguese hostility, and the long war between Holland and Portugal's neighbour, Spain, resulted in the Dutch East India Company deciding to drive the Portuguese out of the spice trade. The Dutch were much stronger at sea than the Portuguese, and within 50 years they had reduced the Portuguese maritime empire in India to a shadow of its past.
Rivalry between Britain and France.
In the 1720's the French government granted a charter to a French East India Company to trade with India. The French made their headquarters at Pondicherry in southern India. Within 20 years or so the French had become very powerful in India and were competing successfully with the British. The commercial competition between the two companies soon led to political quarrels. In the 1740's the French and British supported rival Indian rulers in internal wars. Military and naval conflicts resulted from these political involvements, with a victory for the British in southern India.
Foundation of the British Empire in India. Historians regard the year 1757 as the starting point of the British Empire in India, even though large parts of the country remained under the rule of Indian princes. It took nearly another hundred years for the East India Company and the British government to extend British rule to northern and western India.
Growth of the East India Company.
By 1765, the East India Company had decided to set aside the nominal Mughal governor of Bengal province, the nawab. The company itself became the dewan, or financial controller, holding its office under a farman (edict) granted by the Mughal emperor in Delhi. Bengal's prosperous rice agriculture yielded enormous tax revenues to the East India Company. This financial advantage helped the company to raise a large army of professional Indian soldiers, trained and commanded by British officers. From 1772, under the company's first governor general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, the British began to expand toward northern India.
Warren Hastings was not alone among British officials in committing acts which many people in India and Britain regarded as corrupt and unacceptable. Many officials of the East India Company took the opportunity to build up large fortunes through illegal means.
Reform of company administration. These corrupt administrative practices were ended by Lord Cornwallis, who was appointed governor general of India in 1786. The British Parliament had passed Acts in 1773 and in 1784 to bring the East India Company under the control of a British government minister. Lord Cornwallis was given the task of reforming British administration in India and of establishing good relations with the Indian princes. He set up an independent judicial system, prevented the company's government servants from conducting private trade and holding government contracts, and reformed the police and criminal justice system.
The permanent settlement. Cornwallis's greatest achievement in India was the reorganization of the land taxation, known as the Permanent Settlement of 1793. Agricultural land in Bengal was cultivated by a large number of small farmers, who paid rent to a group of zamindars (landowners). Under the Mughals, the government had collected taxes from the zamindars. The East India Company, however, had tried to set aside the zamindars, and collect land taxes either directly through company officials, or through revenue-farmers, who collected the rent from peasants and paid a lump sum to the government. The new system led to widespread corruption, and the peasants suffered severely. Cornwallis decided to go back to the old Mughal system. He granted legal ownership of their land to the zamindars. In return, they had to pay the government 90 per cent of the rent which they collected from the farmers. These arrangements were to last for ever, hence the title "permanent settlement."
British territorial expansion. After the conquest of Bengal in 1757, British political influence and territorial control expanded rapidly. The two major Indian powers who challenged the British expansionist plans were Tipu Sultan, the nawab of Mysore, and the Marathas. Tipu Sultan was conscious of European advances in science and technology. He sent a mission to France seeking political alliance and scientific collaboration. He also modernized his state and raised an efficient army. The British regarded him a dangerous enemy, particularly because he was striving to form a confederacy of all major Indian powers against the British. Tipu did not succeed in his efforts. He was killed in the battle of Srirangapatnam (1799).
The Marathas were still a formidable power, with their territorial and political influence extending over western and northern India. Several small Indian principalities accepted their overlordship. Even the Mughal emperor, who by the end of the 1700's had lost all authority, had sought their protection. Lord Wellesley, governor general from 1798 to 1805, waged two wars against them, in 1798-1800 and 1803-1805, and annexed a major part of their territory. The Marathas were finally defeated in 1818 by Lord Hastings.