Why was Britain able to establish an Empire in India?

Clive of India after Plassey [1]

Britain was able to dominate the Indian sub-continent, that includes modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka from the mid-eighteenth century. The British were able to effectively rule the sub-continent for almost two centuries, until 1947, with relatively little opposition and unrest. How was Britain, several thousand miles away and with a much smaller population come to dominate an entire sub-continent? The reason for this was as a direct result of a unique series of circumstances that allowed Britain to establish its authority over hundreds of millions of people. Among these factors were the decline of the Mughal Empire, a lack of unity among the local inhabitants, no real rivals, technological advantages and a clever policy of retaining local elites in power and gaining their cooperation.

Establishment of the East India Company

The British first established trading posts in India, in order to purchase spices that were much in demand in Britain and Europe. They first came to trade and not to conquer. The Anglo-Indian trade was monopolised by the East India Company. This was a company, that was owned by private shareholders, including wealthy merchants and aristocrats. Over time, the company earned spectacular profits from the trade with India and they became increasingly influential in the affairs of Britain. They eventually even established a private army, at first to defend its interests, but later they were used for offensive purposes. The East Indian Company had an army by the 1750's, that was comprised of British officers and Indian soldiers. The forces of the Company in the 1750's were led by Rober Clive (later Clive of India). In 1757, Clive, who proved to be a brilliant general, defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies at the Battle of Plassey. This victory turned the Company into perhaps the strongest power in India. Soon Clive and other Company commanders defeated Indian, French and other forces that were contesting British influence in India.[2]

By 1760, much of the sub-continent was under the direct or indirect influence of the East India Company [3]". The Company was in turn influenced by the British government, who used it to further its interests in India. London effectively let the East Indian Company rule Indian in its name. In the remaining decades of the eighteenth century, the British, through the East India Company expanded their influence. They were resisted by native monarchs such as Tipu Sultan and the powerful Sikh Empire. Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, achieved significant victories against those Indian states that defied British influence [4]

By 1800, the majority of the Indian sub-continent was under the de-facto control of the East India Company, which was supervised by the British government. It must be remembered that the Company did not seek to conquer India, they sought to exploit the subcontinent's wealth and to extend their influence. There was no concentered policy to dominate India and its rulers, rather they came to gradually rule, because of their own strengths and the Indians weakness. [5]

Decline of the Mughal Empire

Death of Tipu by Henry Singleton By Henry Singleton (1766 - 1839)

In 1700, the Indian sub-continent was largely unified under the powerful Mughal dynasty. This Muslim dynasty had conquered much of South Asia and brought a degree of peace and prosperity to the land. They were efficient rulers, great patrons of the arts and their huge army overawed any opposition.[6] However, by 1750, the Mughal Empire was in decline. Even at the height of their power, they were unable to directly administer their territories and they often delegated authority to appointees. These local rulers were to supply soldiers and equipment to the Mughal army and pay taxes. Over time, these local leaders became increasingly powerful and became independent of the Mughal Court. This weakened the Mughal Empire. The dynasty had also been undermined by the invasion of the Empire by an Afghan warlord who even sacked Delhi, the capital if the Empire.

The last truly effective emperor was Aurangzeb. He had been Islamic fundamentalist and he had departed from the traditionally tolerant policies of the Mughals and this led to much resentment among the majority Hindus. This was to spark a series of Hindu revolts by groups such as the Marathas and further weakened the dynasty. Furthermore, he had engaged in unceasing war, as he tried to conquer the few remaining areas on the subcontinent that were not directly controlled by the Mughals. The cost of his wars was ruinous and they left the Mughal Empire almost bankrupt. By 1750, much of Indian only paid a nominal obedience to the Mughal Empire and the Emperor was only a figurehead in Delhi. In reality, power was now in the hands of a multitude of Muslim and Hindi local rulers, known as Rajahs or Sultans. India was politically fragmented by the time that the British started to expand in India and this greatly facilitated their growing influence in the sub-continent[7] If Britain had been faced with a strong government, it is highly unlikely that they would have been able to establish their empire in South Asia.[8]

Indirect Rule

India was not only weak at this time it was also divided among many competing local leaders. The fragmentation of the Mughal Empire meant that there was a great deal if instability over much of Indian. The local rulers fought each other endlessly, Muslim and Hindus fought each other and their co-religionists. Warfare was endemic in much of the sub-continent by the early decades of the eighteenth century. [9]". Many Indians welcomed the stability that the British brought, especially in the late eighteenth century, although they resented the various taxes that were imposed on them, by the foreigners.

The British adopted a clever strategy in India when it came to administering their new territories. They did not directly administer the majority of their new territories at least at first. They often left the local rulers in place, with all their privileges and wealth. They also did not interfere with the local landowning elites. The British tended to rule through these elites. They used them to collect taxes and enforce law and order, and in return, they were allowed a measure of autonomy in their local areas. These tactics meant that many local Indian elites, both Hindu, and Muslim, accepted British influence. [10]"

Instead of simply annexing many of the states, they made an agreement with the local Rajs, Nawabs, and Sultans. They agreed not to attack local rulers as long as they made the British their heirs. This meant that many small states were bequeathed to the British upon the death for a ruler. The British also entered into treaties with local rulers, which allowed them to peacefully absorb these territories. They would agree to station military forces in a princely state and would not seek taxes but some territory. They also appointed a 'resident' to advise the ruler. Slowly, the local rulers found that they were becoming the mere puppets of the East Indian Company.

Attractions of British Rule

Many Indians proved willing to accept rule and they did not try to oppose or rebel against the British presence in their lands, for they recognized the benefits of their rule. For decades, war had been endemic.[11]" However, the areas that came under the direct and indirect influence of the British tended to be more stable. They discouraged those local rulers who were under their influence to restrain from attacking their neighbors and as a result, the level of violence in the country began to decline. This persuaded many to accept the British even though they were aware of their exploitation of their lands. With the growing stability trade and economic activity increased over years of decline and this ensured that many local elites cooperated with the British. [12]

Furthermore, the British tolerated all the various creeds and beliefs in India. They did not seek to impose any religion or ideology on the Indians and in a sense they revived the tolerant policies of many Indian rulers such as Ashoka and Akbar the Great. This reconciled many Indians, especially Hindus to the British Raj.[13] Furthermore, the British adopted a light-touch approach to government and they did not interfere with Indian customs and way of life. In fact, many Indians had no direct contact with the British in the early decades of their rule and this meant that there was relatively little popular opposition to their rule. These all helped to ensure that the British were able to rule a vast and diverse territories.

Lack of a National Consciousness

Warren Hastings

Nationalism is a modern phenomenon. In the eighteenth century, there was no real national identity in India. The many people in the Indian sub-continent did not regard themselves as Indians. It was only in the twentieth century that the people of the sub-continent had a sense of belonging to a nation. The majority of people identified with their tribe, clan ethnic group or religion. This meant that the peoples of the sub-continent were very divided among themselves. This allowed the British to use some of the natives to help them in running and governing the Empire. This is best seen in the British policies on the Indian army.

The British East India Company regularly used native Indian troops in order to defend and expand their territory in the sub-continent. Without these Indian troops, it is highly unlikely that the British would ever have been able to establish their ascendency in the sub-continent. It was also a factor in the conquest of large areas of Asia and Africa by Europeans at this time and later [14] Furthermore, because there was a lack of unity among the Indians, they were more than willing to work with the British and to betray each other. The victory of the British at the Battle of Plassey was due to the treachery of one of the Nawab of Bengal's ally.[15]. At one time or another, the various local rulers were allied with the British as they pursued their own political interests. The lack of national unity meant that the British were able to adopt a classic divine and rule policy. This all greatly facilitated the British piece-meal take-over of the lands of India until they had assumed a pre-eminence in the sub-continent.[16]

Lack of Colonial Rivals

By the 1740s, the British were not the only Europeans in India. The Danes, Dutch, Portuguese and the French all had a presence in the region. These nations all have trading posts in the region and some such as the Portuguese had possession of some territories. The French had a particularly strong presence in the South of India and had a network of alliances with local rulers. However, none of their rivals was able to seriously challenge the British. They East Indian Company was able to defeat all of its rivals and become the sole and dominant power in India. They were able to do this for several reasons. [17] Firstly, the British were able to draw on the some remarkable administrators, such as Warren Hastings and soldiers like Clive of India.

The British were also able to draw on more resources that their competitors in India. They could draw on more ships and sailors and this allowed them to isolate their rivals in India and cut them off from their home countries and without supplies and reinforcements they were easily picked off or defeated by the British, this in particular was the main factor in their defeat of the French. The East India Company was also able to draw on the support of the Royal Navy the largest maritime force in the world, in the period. The British also had a lot more financial resources and they could assemble larger armies, often composed of native soldiers and this gave them a decisive military advantage. [18] These factors all meant that by at least the 1760's that the British were not to have any serious European rival for two centuries.


Britain on the face of it- should never have been able to conquer India. It had no direct presence in the country, had a smaller population and it was very far away. Indeed, they left the conquest of India, to a private company, the East Indian Company. However, the British East India Company was able to lay the foundation of an empire in the Indian sub-continent because from a British perspective, a fortuitous series of circumstances. These included the decline of the Mughal Empire, the country was divided red years politically, a lack of European rivals and there was no sense of national unity. The British were also shrewd in the manner of their conquest, they cleverly used the local elites to administer their new domains and adopted a piecemeal approach to extending their authority and rule. It was these factors that helped to establish British rule in India, that lasted almost two hundred years until Indian independence after the Second World War. [19]


  1. By Francis Hayman - Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=565912
  2. Bence-Jones, Mark. Clive of India.(London, Constable & Robinson Limited, 1974), p. 89.
  3. Bence-Jones, p. 45#.
  4. Harrington, Jack. Sir John Malcolm and the Creation of British India (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 119.
  5. Faught, C. Brad. Clive: Founder of British India. (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc. 2013),p. 34.
  6. Harrington, p. 67.
  7. Faught, p. 67.
  8. Spear, Percival, A History of India, Volume 2, New Delhi and London: Penguin Books.1990) p. 298.
  9. Spear, p. 98 #.
  10. Spear, p. 98 #.
  11. Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar. From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India (New Delhi and London: Orient Longmans, 2004), p. 59.
  12. Spear, p. 98.
  13. Peers, Douglas M. India under Colonial Rule 1700–1885 (Harlow and London: Pearson Longmans, 2003) p. 163.
  14. Smith, Simon. British Imperialism 1750–1970 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994), p 145.
  15. Smith, p 78.
  16. Smith, p. 134.
  17. Faught, p. 111.
  18. Bandyopadhyay, p. 78
  19. Smith, p. 78


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