The British East India Company: From Conquest to Control - Exploring its Rise to Power in India


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In 1686, the British East India Company initiated a war against the Mughals, with Aurangzeb reigning as the Mughal Emperor. However, this war proved to be a significant mistake for the company. Despite its smaller and weaker army compared to the formidable Mughal forces, the British East India Company was easily defeated, resulting in the capture of its factories in India, the arrest of many of its officials, and the submission of its incumbent Governor to Aurangzeb.

Surprisingly, despite this early setback, the British East India Company managed to exert control over the entire Indian subcontinent about 300 years later. In fact, it surpassed even the largest contemporary companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook in terms of size and power. This raises the question of how such a transformation was possible.

In today's article, we will dive into the captivating story of the British East India Company, the foreign entity that eventually ruled over India and a significant portion of the Indian subcontinent. We will explore the factors and strategies that contributed to its rise, examining the impacts of trade, land acquisition, warfare, and diplomatic negotiations.

Through a comprehensive analysis, we aim to understand the British East India Company's journey from initial defeat to its eventual dominance, shedding light on the historical events that shaped India's relationship with this multinational corporation. We will also delve into the broader impact of British colonization, including discussions on issues such as exploitation, expropriation, and economic theft.

The East India Company's Establishment and Shift to India:

Our story commences in the year 1600 when a group of merchants established the East India Company. Operating as a Joint Stock Company, its ownership rested in the hands of shareholders. Initially, there were only 125 shareholders who collectively raised £70,000 as capital. The primary objective behind its formation was to engage in the lucrative spice trade within the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia.

In 1601, the East India Company embarked on its maiden voyage, which led to the establishment of two trading outposts in Indonesia. However, this region already witnessed the presence of Spanish and Portuguese traders, with the Dutch traders also emerging as strong competitors. The Dutch possessed greater financial resources and a formidable military, ultimately establishing dominance in the area.

Recognizing the need to adapt and avoid direct conflict with the Dutch, the British East India Company began exploring alternative areas for trade. India emerged as a promising destination due to its abundant reserves of spices and textiles. Consequently, the company shifted its focus towards India, foreseeing potential opportunities for growth and profitability.

The East India Company's Journey in India: From Surat to Machlipatnam and Beyond

In the year 1608, the merchants of the East India Company reached the shores of India, specifically landing in present-day Surat, Gujarat. At that time, the Mughal Empire held dominion over the country, boasting a formidable army of four million soldiers. Recognizing the futility of engaging in direct conflict, the company officials devised a strategy to establish friendly relations, seeking permission to engage in trade.

Their first attempt to secure trading rights led Captain William Hawkins, the ship's captain, to embark on a journey to the Mughal capital of Agra. There, he sought an audience with Emperor Jahangir, appealing for permission to establish a trading factory in Surat. However, Jahangir declined the request due to existing favorable relations between the Mughals and Portuguese traders who already operated in Surat. Consequently, Jahangir saw no reason to grant permission to the English, as they would be competing with the Portuguese.

Unable to gain permission to trade within Mughal territory, the East India Company traders decided to explore other regions in India under the control of different rulers. In 1611, their perseverance bore fruit when they successfully established their first trading factory in Machlipatnam, located in present-day Andhra Pradesh. This achievement was made possible by obtaining permission from the local ruler.

Over the ensuing years, the East India Company diligently expanded its presence by establishing additional factories and strategically maneuvering to gain a foothold in the Indian subcontinent. However, their journey was not without challenges, as they often found themselves entangled in conflicts with other European traders vying for supremacy in the region.

Triumph and Expansion: The Battle of Swally and the East India Company's Rise in India

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In 1612, the East India Company made a decisive return to Surat, India, where they engaged in a significant conflict with Portuguese traders known as the Battle of Swally. Emerging victorious, the East India Company successfully diminished Portuguese influence, confining them mainly to the areas surrounding Goa. This triumph marked a pivotal moment, positioning the East India Company as the dominant player in the Indian subcontinent.

Buoyed by their success, the East India Company saw an opportunity to strengthen their position further by seeking support from the English Crown. In 1615, they approached King James I and requested the dispatch of a royal representative to the Mughal emperor, hoping that this endorsement would pave the way for future agreements. Sir Thomas Roe, a skilled diplomat, was chosen to represent the English Crown.

Unlike Captain William Hawkins' earlier attempt, Roe's diplomatic efforts proved successful. Presenting magnificent gifts to Emperor Jahangir, Roe impressed him and secured a royal edict granting the English permission to establish factories in Surat. This edict also bestowed exclusive rights upon the East India Company, designating them as the sole traders in specific territories. In return, the company agreed to make annual payments to the Mughal emperor.

With the establishment of their factory in Surat, the East India Company experienced a period of significant growth. Over the next few decades, they expanded their presence by establishing additional factories in prominent cities such as Madras, Ahmedabad, Bombay, Agra, and Patna. Their thriving business encompassed the trade of commodities such as cotton, indigo, silk, salt, opium, and tea. As a result, these cities witnessed economic prosperity and became magnets for migration.

The East India Company gradually established a monopoly in these cities, consolidating its power by constructing fortified bases. Until this point, the majority of their factories were concentrated along the western and southeastern coasts of the Indian subcontinent.

Negotiating Bengal: East India Company's Pursuit of Favorable Trading Rights

The East India Company's ambitions knew no bounds as they sought to expand their influence and establish factories throughout Mughal territories, particularly in Bengal, encompassing present-day West Bengal, Bangladesh, Bihar, and Odisha. Bengal was a commercially thriving region, making it a prime target for the company's endeavors.

Driven by their desire for both economic and political control, the East India Company aimed to obtain additional powers. Their objective was to facilitate trading operations and eliminate competition more easily. To achieve this, they approached the English King, requesting expanded privileges and authority.

Around 1670, King Charles II granted the East India Company a significant charter, endowing them with the rights to acquire territories, wield political power, mint money, and exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction within their territories. Astonishingly, the company was even granted the ability to maintain a private army, form alliances, and declare wars.

In contemporary times, the idea of corporations like Apple, Google, or Facebook possessing such extensive powers, including private armies, independent justice systems, and the authority to wage war, seems unimaginable. Thankfully, such powers are not bestowed upon companies in the present day. However, in the context of that era, the English monarchy sanctioned these extraordinary privileges to the East India Company, thereby positioning them as agents of imperialism.

In 1682, the East India Company embarked on negotiations with Shaista Khan, the Mughal Governor of Bengal at the time. Their objective was to secure a royal edict granting them favorable trading rights and tax concessions. Although the company had already established a presence in Bengal, it sought further privileges to facilitate smoother trade operations in the region.

A Costly Misstep: East India Company's Ill-Fated War Against the Mughals

When the East India Company approached the newly ascended Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb with their request to establish factories in Bengal, their proposition was met with disdain. Despite already operating numerous factories, the company's insatiable ambition drove them to seek further expansion. However, Aurangzeb rejected their petition, viewing their desires as arrogant and unwarranted.

The governor of the East India Company at the time, Josiah Child, was displeased with Aurangzeb's decision. Driven by the company's newfound power, including their private army, Child made a questionable choice: he declared war against the Mughals in 1686. This decision proved detrimental as the East India Company's army was no match for the might of the Mughal forces, resulting in a resounding defeat.

Facing the consequences of their actions, Josiah Child humbly bowed before Aurangzeb, seeking forgiveness. The Mughal Emperor pardoned the East India Company but imposed a substantial fine of Rs 150,000, equivalent to approximately Rs 350 million in present-day value. The trading privileges of the company were eventually restored, and the seized factories were returned.

A Famous painting of Josiah Child bowed before Aurangzeb

Despite these setbacks, the officials of the East India Company displayed patience and resilience. They continued their operations within the boundaries set by the Mughals, biding their time for a suitable opportunity to establish factories and gain a stronghold in Bengal. This opportunity presented itself in 1707 with the passing of Aurangzeb.

After Aurangzeb's Demise in the Mughal Empire:

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After the death of Aurangzeb, the Mughal Empire faced significant challenges and underwent a period of weakening. The empire became embroiled in constant power struggles and internal strife as contenders vied for the throne and the title of emperor. As a result, local Nawabs, kings, and landlords began asserting their sovereignty over their respective regions, effectively breaking away from Mughal control.

Amidst this backdrop, regional powers such as the Marathas, Rajputs, Jats, and Rohillas emerged, further reshaping the political landscape. The Maratha Empire, which had posed a threat to the Mughals even during Aurangzeb's reign, grew in prominence. From 1680 to 1758, numerous Maratha-Mughal wars took place, culminating in the Marathas decisively defeating the Mughal forces and expanding their territory northwards.

Meanwhile, the Mughals faced a new challenge in the form of the Persians. In 1739, the Persian ruler Nadir Shah launched an attack on India, resulting in the plundering and looting of treasuries. Several years later, in 1748, the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani invaded Mughal territory. To counter these threats, the Mughals joined forces with the Rajputs and Sikhs in an attempt to defeat Nadir Shah. However, the sustained conflicts depleted the Mughal Empire's finances, leading to financial troubles.

The repercussions of these conflicts were felt throughout the Indian subcontinent. The regional governors, who had previously contributed revenue to the central Mughal government, ceased their payments, resulting in the decentralization of power and the fragmentation of the Indian subcontinent into various regions.

Expanding Influence: East India Company's Technological Advances and Military Expansion

Amidst the political turmoil and fragmentation of the Mughal Empire, the East India Company focused on strengthening its position. They invested in new technologies, established additional factories, and expanded their private army by recruiting more soldiers from Great Britain. To further bolster their forces, the East India Company began training local Indians, who joined their ranks and became known as Sepoys.

Capitalizing on the frequent changes in Mughal rulers, the East India Company persistently pursued trading privileges in Bengal. They engaged in negotiations and manipulations, aiming to secure favorable terms from the new Mughal emperors. Finally, in 1717, Emperor Farrukhsiyar granted the East India Company tax-free trading rights in Bengal. This significant concession allowed the company to issue a trade permit called Dastak, which exempted them from customs and transit duties on their traded goods.

This grant of privileges proved to be a major victory for the East India Company. Not only did they gain permission to establish factories in Bengal, but they also exploited the Dastak system to their advantage. By utilizing the special trade permit, they effectively avoided paying taxes. Consequently, the revenue that was previously generated from Bengal for the Mughal Empire now dwindled, exacerbating the financial difficulties faced by the empire.

The Battle of Plassey: British Victory and Puppet Nawabs

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In the tumultuous political landscape of 18th-century India, the East India Company remained focused on its own interests. They invested in new technologies, established more factories, and expanded their private army by recruiting both British soldiers and local Indians known as Sepoys. Recognizing the weakening Mughal Empire, the company persistently pursued trading privileges in Bengal, employing various tactics to achieve its goals.

During this time, other European powers, such as the Dutch and the French, also sought to expand their influence in India. The French, under the leadership of Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix, aimed to establish a French empire in the region. The enmity between the French and the British led to conflicts both in Europe and in India, such as the Carnatic Wars in the south.

In 1756, the East India Company faced opposition from Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal. The company's continuous disregard for the Nawab's authority led to a confrontation. Siraj-ud-Daulah attacked Fort William in Calcutta, resulting in the tragic incident known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Seeking to remove Siraj-ud-Daulah from power, the East India Company formed alliances with the influential Jagath Seth family and Mir Jafar, a commander in the Nawab's army.

The decisive Battle of Plassey in 1757, despite Siraj-ud-Daulah's larger army, resulted in a British victory. Mir Jafar, now supported by the East India Company, became the puppet Nawab of Bengal. The French presence in Bengal diminished, and the British solidified their political power. However, conflicts and disagreements arose between the company and their puppet Nawabs, leading to the removal and replacement of Mir Jafar by Mir Qasim.

Mir Qasim, like his predecessors, became dissatisfied with the company's misuse of power and sought to free Bengal from British influence. His attempts to challenge the British led to the Battle of Buxar in 1764, which the East India Company ultimately won. As a result, the company decided to abandon the puppet Nawab system and directly rule Bengal.

In 1765, the Treaty of Allahabad was signed, making Robert Clive the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Bengal. The treaty also granted the East India Company Diwani Rights, giving them exclusive control over the collection of revenue in Bengal. With this treaty, the East India Company became the de facto ruler of Bengal, generating substantial revenue from their trading activities and tax collection.

With newfound resources and power, the East India Company expanded its territory and strengthened its military capabilities. The Bengal region came firmly under British control, marking a significant milestone in the company's quest for dominance in India.

The East India Company's Techniques for Establishing Control in India:

The East India Company employed various strategies to gain control over different regions of the Indian subcontinent. These techniques included diplomatic alliances, the Subsidiary Alliance system, military force, and the Doctrine of Lapse.

1. Diplomatic Alliances: The company appointed British officials known as Residents to establish friendly relations and form alliances with local rulers. They influenced these rulers indirectly, interfering in local politics to further their interests.

2. Subsidiary Alliance System: The company pressured local rulers to enter into a Subsidiary Alliance. Under this arrangement, the rulers relinquished their armies, and the East India Company formed and maintained an army on their behalf. The rulers paid the company for this service, and failure to meet payment obligations often resulted in territorial losses.

3. Military Force: If diplomatic alliances and the Subsidiary Alliance system failed, the company resorted to direct military intervention. They used their military might to occupy new territories and expand their control.

4. Doctrine of Lapse: Introduced in 1847 and enforced by Lord Dalhousie, the Doctrine of Lapse enabled the East India Company to annex territories if a ruler died without a natural male heir. This doctrine facilitated the company's control over several notable cities.

Administrative Reforms:

The East India Company implemented administrative reforms to efficiently govern the vast territories. The Regulating Act of 1773 created the post of Governor General of Bengal, with Warren Hastings being the first to hold the position. These reforms aimed to improve governance and facilitate control over the diverse regions.

The End of East India Company Rule:

Following the Revolt of 1857, known as the First War of Independence, the British government nationalized the East India Company through the Government of India Act, 1858. The company's territories, military forces, and accumulated wealth were transferred to the British government, marking the end of the East India Company's rule. The Mughal Empire also ended during this time, with the last emperor Bahadur Shah Jafar being exiled and his successors losing their lives.


The East India Company's journey marked a significant chapter in history, showcasing the rise of one of the world's most powerful corporations. Through their strategies and reforms, they steadily expanded their control over the Indian subcontinent, leading to the establishment of the British Raj and the eventual dissolution of the company in 1874.

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