How the British conquered the Indians


I recently came across a review written in 1893 (March 19) in New York Times of book “The Rise of the British dominion in India” by Sir Alfred Lyall.  The piece describes the view of the “other side” on how British came to conquer India.  Some of the observations are very potent – especially with regards to how the local Armies would fight battles against the British.  It is apparent that the Indian rulers were nothing more than a bunch of megalomaniacs and rich idiots who had no more than rag tag group being called as an Army.

It is obvious that these rulers would have only anticipated fighting dacoits and / or neighborhood Maharaja, who themselves were nothing great.  Under the patronage of the Mughals – while acting subservient to them and gaining their protection – these Maharajas didn’t even think that defense was a major subject.  What is exceptionally amazing is that any person of ordinary sense of defense and understanding of threats that existed around the world, would have known or understood that having small and thin armies over many rulers was far inferior to having one confederate army of the many rulers.  And yet, there was no one to bring about the alliance?!

It seems to be the case even today.  The movement for letting Kashmir go and talking of “National Anarchy” is the favorite subject of not the traitors but of “well meaning” intellectuals.  Scale and convergence of interests strangely is a thing that completely escapes these self-proclaimed “experts”.

It is under the very influence of these “experts” that India and its people have suffered the atrocities of invaders who came in with malafide intention.

Throughout history, “Freedom” for a group or a province in India has always come at the cost of poverty and unimaginable subjugation for all! That is a verity that is completely lost on most intellectuals. They trade a twisted sense of freedom for long years of inhuman subjugation and poverty for all.

*******  *******  *******  *******  *******

Sir Alfred Lyall has already printed brief treatises on Indian topics that were recognized as valuable contributions to a complicated subject.  His present volume aims not only to give a brief account of the rise of the British power, but also to explain it.  Nothing in modern Asiatic history has been more remarkable than this extraordinary control exercised in an Asiatic land by a Toutonic race, and Sir Alfred aims to point out the causes and convergent influences which brought it about.

No parallel case is afforded in history, so immense is the extent of India in territory and population and so great its distance from the controlling power, and Sir Alfred reminds us how unlike the case is to any case in history of Rome.  Rome’s dominions, embracing as they did subject provinces, protected alies, and client kingdoms, werecompact and closely knit by a solid series of communication lines, whereas England is knit to India only by steamship lines traversing thousands of miles of water.  Rome, however, in some other respects, as in her administrative organizations, anticipated the English methods that have met with success in the East.

In another way, the English conquest has been exceptional.  All previous conquests began at the North, in the mountains, whence they proceeded southward to the sea, whereas the English began at the sea, and after a long series of years, ended a generation ago aong the mountains.  Sir Alfred is prompt to observe how this remarkable change of method has been due to sea power, a topic on which Capt. Mahan might enlarge in interesting fashion.

Not more remarkable than the magnitude of the English exploit is the ease with which it has been accomplished.  A conquest of India from an early time has often been regarded as a thing of ease.  Contemporary opinion, however, is that England won the prize by incalculable and unprecedented chance, and yet when the Emperor Baber came down from Central Asia in the sixteenth century, he had with him only 12,000 men, with which he overthrew an enemy said to have 100,000 foot soldiers and more than 1,000 elephants.  It was Baber’s victory at Panipat which virtually made him the master of the northern provinces and founded the Moghul Empire.  The great force which he routed was “a far more formidable army than the English ever encountered in India until they met the Sikhs”.  Baber’s resources were smaller than those of the English, and what he had done ws simply to be done over again, when, at the opening of the eighteenth century, the empire he founded was tottering to its fall.

Sir Alfred affirms that the idea had already become current that Europeans would be the next conquerors of India.  A French physician toward the close of the seventeenth century had declared that Conde’ or Turenne, with 20,000 men, could conquer the whole country, and fifty years later an man who had been twenty years in the country laid before the Austrian Emperor a scheme for the feasible conquest of Bengal.  Hence, when Clive met the great emergency in his own career and in the history of Asia, the victory he won at Plassey derived its interest not from the enormous results that flowed from it.  It was the first important occassion on which the East India Company’s troops were openly arrayed against a native army commanded in person by the ruler of a province.  None of these troops were British regulars.

Bengal at that time, as was the case with other provinces on the sea, was much more defenseless than provinced in the interior.  In a practical sense the province had no master.  It was without defense, without efficient goveernment, and inherently feeble, so that the master stroke of Clive was as easily as it was brilliantly successful.  Had Bengal possessed a vigorous and able Viceroy, Clive must have failed, for later contests with the natives showed what an Indian army might do under competent leadership.  The earlier battles belong simply among victories gained over troops composed of a rabble of hired men having neither coherence nor loyalty.  Very often Indian leaders took into the field crowds of men who were so mutinous that they fled at the first shot, following their leaders in tumultous flight.  After Clive’s victory came the occupation of the province, by which English resources were so largely increased that the overthrow of the French became a mere question of time.

Sir Alfred prints several maps of India, showing by means of colors the growth of European footholds.  Earliest among the maps is one which has merely a dew cities along the Eastern and Western coasts divided among the British, French, Portugese and Dutch, with England possessing in Bengal the only territory of large extent.  Later maps show the extraordinary spread of English inflience under Warren Hastings and others, bringing us down to the year 1857.

At the time of the mutiny, Sir Alfred closes his volume, since the rise of British dominion was practically completed with the suppression of that outbreak.  when the uprising had been swept away, England felt compelled to obliterate the last shadow of names and figures that had once been illustrious and powerful.  From Delhi vanished the phantom of an Emperor and Court, and from Cawnpore the last pretender to the honors of teh Maratha Peshwa, while in 1859 the direct government of the whole country passed finally from the East India Company to the British Crown.

In his final observations Sir Alfred points out how the isolation of India from the politics of Europe henceforth must altogether cease.  He says that now ‘she is drifting rapidly within the recognized sphere of European diplomacy,” and henceforth her external policy, as well as her military establishment, will be regulated, not in the Asiatic manner, but in the European.  No longer is it a case of jealousies among the commercial companies or of occassional wars between rival settlements and against native Princes, for now “we had the greatest military powers of the world – RUssia, France and England – feeling their way toward each other across wide deserts, difficult mountain ranges, and the debatable lands that skirt the Oxus in the north or the Cambodia River on the far southwest of our dominion.”

Of the future, Sir Alfred writes more hopefully than Mackintosh or Spencer Walpole, the former of whom was uncertain whether American was any real loss to England or India any permanent gain, and the latter incliing toward the view that in the end nothing will have been achieved for civilization in India.  Sir Alfred remarks that India is the sole important ground in Asia that has been recovered for centuries, and he is positive that civilization, while it may not go forward, is at least unlikely against to go backward there.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Drishtikone - Online Magazine on Geopolitics and Culture from Indian Perspective.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.