There is sometimes a little confusion about what we mean by the term British. The best definition of the of British is from Britain, which means England, Scotland, wales and Ireland. Imperialism from the root word “empire”, it means one nation taking over and ruling other countries. Great Britain started this, and ruled in this way that’s why it called British Imperialism.(


  • Warren Hastings (1732-1818) came to India as a youth to work for the Company[EIC].
  • He learnt Arabic college at Calcutta.
  • The terrible famine of 1769-1770 had killed about half the population of Bengal and the area was in great disorder.
  • When  Hastings became Bengal Governor in 1771 he brought stability, introducing an English-style legal system and setting up an efficient tax collection system.
  • He respected Indian culture and as a result was popular with local people.
  • He did not believe that he should try to ‘ civilise’ Bengal but instead aimed to make its administration more efficient.
  • Later Hastings was given a new post as ‘Governor general’ over all areas of India controlled by the British.


In the later 18th century powerful Sunni Muslim rulers of Mysore, Haider Ali Khan and later his son , Tipu Sultan, were a threat to British rule. They were a threat not only on their own account, but because they were allies of France, Britain’s great enemy. In 1780 Haiden Ali joined forces with the Marathas of the Deccan and defeated Company armies,  Hastings made peace with Marathas but Haidar Ali asked the French for help against the British. Before the French could arrive Haider Ali died (1782). His son , Tipu ‘the Tiger’ Sultan, became ruler of Mysore and continued to cause trouble for the British.

Mysore was a prosperous area in wealth coming mainly from trade in sandalwood, betelnuts, and cardamom. Tipu Sultan, (1749-1799) was well educated and a brave soldier. As a Muslim ruling a largely Hindu people, his religious policies kept him popular; ‘ Religious tolerance is the fundamental tenet of the Holy Quran’, he declared. Tipu thought of himself as being like a tiger. His possessions were decorated with tiger designs. ‘I would rather live for two days as a tiger than two hundred years as a sheep.’ he said. He was a man of ideas –he was fascinated by new inventions and had a variety of swords and guns made and decorated with tiger patterns or Persian and Arabic verses. He was interested in agriculture and began silk production in Mysore. He introduced a new calendar and coinage, set up good administration, and gave new names to places he ruled-Mysore, for example, became ‘Nazarabad’.

Tipu spent much of his reign trying to defeat the Brutish. He built up a large European-style army, hiring French soldiers to teach his men about European weapons and battle techniques. In 1785 he sent ambassadors to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to warn the rulers of the Ottoman Empire about the British threat to Muslim power in the subcontinent. In 1788, only a year before the French Revolution , Tipu sent 45 ambassadors to visit the French king, Louis did not offer Tipu military aid but did answer his requests for a different type of  help. When the ambassadors went home they were accompanied by French craftsmen- including weapon makers, watchmakers, printers, three doctors, and two gardeners who took plans and seeds with them.

After the French Revolution of 1789 Tipu opened relations with the new French government. He invited French envoys to his court, who planed a ‘tree of liberty’ at Tipu’s capital, Seringapatam. Now Tipu called himself  ‘Citizen Tipu’ and, asked for the help of the new French ruler, Napoleon, against the British. In 1779 the British stormed Tipu Sultan’s palace at Seringapatam, and the brave Tiger fought to the death.


Lord Charles Cornwallis was Governor-general from 1786 to 1793. His Cornwallis Code’ reorganized the Company so that Company employees were paid much higher wages. This stopped them from trying to get money through unfair means and established the tradition of law-abiding, incorruptible British rule in India. Believing  that Indians were corrupt and not capable of ruling themselves, Cornwallis did not allow them to hold positions of responsibility.


Lord Wellesley, Governor-general from 1797 to 1805, was a real empire-building who sincerely believed that he best way to help Indians was to extend British influence and power over them. He was an aristocrat who loved grandeur; when he visited Cawnpore in 1802 he rode on a splendidly decorated elephant and handed out money to the people. Lord Wellesley’s younger brother Arthur (1769-1852) was a general who fought against Tipu Sultan and the Marathas. In 1815 he went on to defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.


Before Wellesley’s reign the areas under the control of Indian rulers had no fixed boundaries. Now the British began to ‘draw lines’ and make maps, dividing the subcontinent up to show who ruled what. This mapping made it easier for the British to rule. By the end of Wellesley’s time most of the subcontinent, except for the Punjab, Sindh, and Rajputana, was under British control. Wellesley built ‘Government House’ in Calcutta, at that time the subcontinet’s finest public building. He spent so much money on this and other schemes that Company directors and the government in England became worried. India, with its population of about 186 million had, they felt, become too large and expensive to manage. In 1805 Wellesley was ordered back to England. Meanwhile the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam, had been captured by the French. In 1803 British troops entered Delhi and took him under their protection. Shah Alam was  allowed to keep their title of Mughal Emperor and to use the Red Fort at Agra as his palce. However, the British held on his power to become India’s  ‘new Mughals’.


Many areas of modern-day Pakistan were at this time ruled by Sikh and Afghan Pathan chiefs who had taken power due to the weakness of the Mughal. In 1790 the Sikh leader Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), ( known as the ‘Lion of the Punjab’) became Governor of the important trading city of Lahore, where he took control of the profitable trade in salt, gain, and textiles from Kashmir. He built up an army of 40,000 Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus, then proclaimed the Punjab a Sikh kingdom and himself Maharaja. In this way the Punjab can be said to be certain of Ranjit Singh. New coins were issued featuring the Sikh Gurus. In 1802 Ranjit Singh’s forces took control of Amritsar, the sacred city of the Sikhs and an important centre of trade.


Lord Minto (Governor-general from 1807 to 1813), concerned about Ranjit Singh’s rising power, sent an army to the Punjab in 1809. As a result Singh agreed to become a British ally and signed the ‘Treaty of Amritsar’, which stated that Sikhs would have power only as far east as the Sutlej River. Greatly impressed by the power and discipline of the British forces, Singh began to train the soldiers. They were given large salaries  and the French officer built a French-style house at Anarkali, Lahore.

Soon the Sikh army was enormous, with 80,000 men and 500 guns. However, it used up most of the Punjab’s wealth, which hampered the area’s development but at the same time helped Singh extend his power. By 1820 his troops had captured Multan, the Pathan stronghold of Peshawar, and Kashmir. Now Singh ruled over the Punjab between the Sutlej and Indus rivers. Meanwhile, trouble arose in the Punjab between Sikhs and Muslims. A reform movement began, which called on Muslims to keep to a pure form of Islam, one not influenced by Hinduism. The group launched a jihad (1825-1831) against the Punjab Sikhs led by Sayyad Ahmad Brailvi. The reformers captured Peshawar but were then defeated by the Sikh army.


The British began to fear that the Russians would advance towards the subcontinent. What if they came through the Khyber Pass? Governor-general Lord Auckland (1836-1842) was sent to stop them. At that time Shah Shoja, the exiled Afghan king, was living in the Punjab. Ranjit Singh had spared his life in return for a large diamond, called the ‘Koh-I-Noor’. Now Lord Auckland decided to put Shah Shoja back on the Afghan throne but for this to happen the existing ruler, Dost Muhammad, had to go.

The British wanted to send their army , called the ‘Army of the Indus’, to Afghanistan. They asked Ranjit Singh for permission to pass through the Panjab but he refused. The British had no choice but to march through Sindh and Baluchistan to the Bolan Pass, but by doing this they broke the treaty made in 1832 with the ruling Amir’s of Sindh. The agreement had stated that ‘no person shall bring any description of military stores by the … rivers and roads; that no armed vessel or boats shall come by the said river (Indus).’ On their way to the Bolan Pass the British seized control of Karachi, Hyderabad, and Sukkur. The Army of the Indus gathered at Firozpur ( today in Panjab state, India, five miles (8 km) from the Pakistan border). It travelled down the Sutlej and Indus Rivers by paddle-steamer to Shikarpur and from there marched to the Bolan Pass. The First Afghan War (1838-1842) was soon to begin.

The British reached Kabul and at first things went well. Dost Muhannad fled –there were rumours that he had gone to ask the Russians for help. Shah Shoja took the throne. But eventuallly matters began to go wrong for the British. They were continually attacked, and Shah Shoja was very unpopular. After two years the situation deterioted to such an extent that Lord Auckland ordered the British to leave Afghanistan. In January 1842, 4,000 soldiers and 12,000 othersheaded for the Khyber Pass. Immediately they began to die from the intense cold and attacks Jalalabad was a man called Dr Brydon.

The British were completely humiliated and tried to cover up the disaster. In disgrace, Lord Auchland was ordered back to London, where he had a mental breakdown. Meanwhile, in Kabul Shah Shoja was murdered and Dost Muhammad regained the throne. The First Afghan War had cost twenty thousand lives and a huge amount of money-all for nothing.


After the disaster of the First Afghan War the British wanted to get control of Sindh and the Punjab in order to save their reputation. They occupied Karachi and in 1843 forced the Amirs to sign a treaty giving the British power in Sindh. The Amirs rebelled and Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853) led forces and defeated them in battle near Hyderabad. There is an old story, probably untrue, that to inform the British of his victory Napier sent a one-word message, ‘Peccavi’. In the Latin language this means ‘ I have sinned’ – but Napier meant ‘Ihave Sindh’. At that time an ‘unlucky sign’ appeared in the night sky- a comet, people thought, had caused them to lose Sindh to the British.


Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab, died at Lahore in 1839; his four wives and seven other women threw themselves on to his funeral fire. Members of his family took power, including his son Dalip Singh, but had difficulty keeping control. Now the British wanted to take the Punjab. By 1844 they had 32,000 troops and 68 cannons lined up on the east bank of the River Sutlej. The following year the Sikh army crossed the river, breaking the Amritsar Treaty that Ranjit Singh had made with the British. The First Sikh War began. Three months later nearly 20,000 Sikhs, sepoys, and European soldiers were dead- and the British had captured Lahore.

They now had control of the whole of Panjab and Kashmir. They sold the latter to the Hindu Rajah, Gulab Singh of Jammu, for eight million rupees.

In the year that Lord Dalhousie became Governor-general (1848-1856) there was a Sikh uprising at Multan which developed into the Second Sikh War. The British marched against the Sikhs and defeated them in Gujarat in 1849, making peace through the ‘Treaty of Lahore’. Under the treaty, Dalip Singh was allowed to stay on the throne, but the great Koh-I-Noor diamond became the property of the British. Lord Dalhousie personally carried the great stone from Lahore to Bombay: ‘ It was sewn double sewn into a belt secured round my waist, one end of the belt fastened to a chain around my neck. It never left me day or night’, he recorded. Later the diamond was presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in London.

Lord Dalhousie was a man of action. Believed that Western civilisation was greatly superior to Indian civilisation, he wanted to spread in benefits in the subcontinent. He took a keen interest in the reform of the Punjab and during his reign a new style of rule was created there. It had several features- a strong leader who took a personal interest in the administration, quick and firm action to sort out problems, social reforms, and equal treatment of people of different religions. Many building projects were begun including canal irrigation schemes, roads, and schools in which Western education systems were followed.



In 1795 the East India company declared the killing of baby daughters to be murder. It was easily said but hard to enforce. One hundred years later it was still important to check that daughters were still alive several years after their birth.


The Hindu religion seemed to permit the ritual burning of widow on the funeral pyres of their husbands. At first the British were reluctant to get involved but the loud demands of Christian missionaries and Ram Mohan Roy, an Indian campaigner for justice, forced the East India Company to outlaw the practice in Bengal in 1829, and then in the rest of the country. In fact, there was very little opposition to this change. Lord Bentick was the Governor General who took this bold step.


In central and upper India groups of armed robbers-thugs-claimed they were serving a goddess. They used a ritual way of murdering their victims and people were terrified of them. The East India Company used force to once and for all destroy thuggee. In 1830, under Colonel Sleeman’s command one thousand thugs were caught and dealt with. This step was welcomed by all.


In 1835 English was declared to be the official language. Until then Persian had been the main language for rulers, diplomats and officials. This had a westernizing effect as it brought educated people into contact with English books.


Following the language change, the government set up schools across the country to teach western ideas using the English language. This was the brainchild of Thomas Babington Macaulay. He believed that European ideas were far better than anything that came from India. He aimed to educate a group or class of Indian who would take on Western values and help the British to govern the millions of other Indians. Following Macaulay’s ideas the British imposed on Educated Indians a European culture which was probably not appreciate for them. An important result of all this, however, was that the use of English as a common language began to unite India.


The British invented the railway. The first public railway using steam powered locomotives opened in England in 1825. It was the start of Railway age as British engineers constructed railways all over the world. They were to transform India. The first public train journey in India took place on 16 April 1853, from Bombay to Thane. For the British, they were yet another means of extending their powers and ideas across the subcontinent. They helped British Industry to profit by transporting raw materials to the ports, and manufactures goods to be sold all over the country. Railway also helped the British to control the country. Troops were moved speedily to wherever they might be needed. Civil servants and businessmen could journey anywhere quickly and comfortably. But there were advantages for the Indian people as well. In times of famine, food could be moved more easily. Family visits over long distance as well as pilgrimages became possible. Later on, of course, political organizers and campaigners could also move about easily recruiting people to their causes, including opposition to British rule.


By 1856 the British had completed a 4000-mile Indian telegraph system linking Calcutta, Agra, Bombay, Peshawar, and Madras. William O’Shaughnessy had gone to India to work as an assistant surgeon with the East India Company. By 1839 he had devised his own system of telegraphy. He was unaware of Samuel Morse’s invention of telegraph, in the USA two years earlier. Lord Dalhousie, Governor General 1848-56, saw the potential values of O’Shaughnessy telegraph. He authorized him to build a system which was completed in just three years. It proved its worth to the British in the violets events of 1857.


The French and American revolutions had influenced Britain, bringing new ideas of equality, freedom, and of a government being responsible for the well- being of the people. As laws were passed giving people more rights, the British began to discuss what their role in the subcontinent should be, and how they should treat Indians.

In the 18th century the British respected Indian culture- many men, for example, married Indian women. But the map shows that by the mid 19th century the British had complete political control of the region either by direct rule or through Indian rulers. Now they began to develop moral arrogance- an attitude by which people say ‘ I behave better than you, therefore I am better than you.’ For example, when some people in England heard of aspects of Indian life such as suttee and the treatment of women and children, they were horrified. Religious, political, and social pressure groups demanded change. Party as a result, in 1813 the British introduced new laws:

  • The Company lost its trade monopoly-subcontinent trade was opened up to others with two exceptions: the Company kept its monopolies on the salt and opium trades. The highly profitable opium trade saved Britain large sums of money. How? Chinese tea and silks had become very popular in Britain. Rather than using silver or gold the Company grew opium in Bengal and exported it to China as payment
  • Ten thousand pounds was to be spent on Eastern and Western education every year
  • Christian missionaries were allowed free entry into the subcontinent. Earlier they had been kept out because the Company feared they would cause unrest and disrupt trade


As the 19th century advanced, Christian missionaries brought challenges to traditional religious beliefs. Social reforms made Hindu practices such as suttee, thuggee ( the gang murder and robbery of travellers in the name of the goddess Kali), and infanticide ( the killing of babies) illegal.


The laws of 1813 gave Governor-generals more freedom to make reforms. An important reformer was Lord Hastings (1813-1823), who;

  • Encouraged education
  • Began the ‘Indianisation’ of the legal system by setting up courts with Indian judjes
  • Supported a centre for Christian missionaries at Serampore (Shrirampur) in Bengal, where a college was set up. One missionery there, William Carey, had been a poor shoemaker in England but became a brilliant language expert in India and advanced the study of many languages. Carey wrote the first dictonaries in several Indian languages and translated the Christian Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit, and parts of it into 29 his interest greatly advanced horticulture in the subcontinent. He also introduced the steam engine. He made many sicial reforms, introducing the idea of the ‘savings bank’ to protect people from money-lenders. He campaigned for better treatment for women, children lepers, and old people, and it was due to his influence that Lord Bentinck banned suttee in 1829.


Governor-general Lord William Bentinck (1828-1835) was another important social reformer, and was responsible for making suttee illegal in 1829. He also made English( instead of Persian) the language of the government and the legal system and introduced Western-style education which included the teaching of the English language and the study of Western science and technology. Learning English became especially popular with Hindus, who under new rules were allowed to take up responsible posts in the British administration. This was another move to strengthen to British imperialism in Indian subcontinent.


How did Indians respond to British imperialism? By the mid 19th century there were various groups with different reactions to the British imperialism :

  • People ( often part of the old ruling classes) who rejected everything Western and looked back to the past glories of India
  • People who kept their own culture but studied Western ideas in order to improve their careers
  • People who ‘borrowed’ from the West without feeling disloyal to rheir own culture

As time went on those Indians who liked to ‘borrow’ from the West began to call for their society to accept some good aspects of Western ideas into Indian culture. In 1815 a group formed under the leadership of a high-caste Bengali Hindu, Rammohun Roy. He introduced Christian ideas into Hindu society and supported English-style education as a way of bringing Western knowledge to India. Together with missionary William Carey, he published pamphlets and articles attacking ‘social evils’. He believed that Hindu wives and widows should be treated  better, and supported monotheism ( the idea that there is one god). Roy’s modernized type of Hinduism was later to influence the Indian National Congress. In this way British imperialism flourished in Indian subcontient.(


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