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The East India Company ruled an entire country of huge size for 101 years (1757–1858). During this time they did almost everything they wanted to do and won almost every battle in India.

What was the principle of the successful gradual takeover of India by Britain?

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disunity,lack of good military,lack of knowledge,caste system were the reasons for british rule in india. –  user4580 Apr 28 '14 at 4:27
Also, good politics on the British side (exploiting needy local rulers), and economically sounds plans. Any of the colonies (Spanish/Portugese in Latin-America and French in North America) suffered from the lack of economy (trade and industry) that could more efficiently use that products of colonies. Mining gold/silver or hunting for fur is pretty weak business model, and made colonies as well as colonizers bankrupt. –  Greg May 11 at 4:49

7 Answers 7

up vote 29 down vote accepted

There are a good number of reasons why the British were able to do so, and in fact rule over India effectively for over a century.

  • Disunity among Indian princely states. India was more a collection of warring princely states, at loggerheads with each other. The British sucessfully used this to play off one state against another. Add to it there was no dearth of people willing to betray the kingdom for a few pieces of silver. Robert Clive succeeded at Plassey, because Mir Jaffar was willing to betray his master Siraj-Ud-Daulah in lie of being the Nawab. Mir Jaffar himself was betrayed by Mir Qasim later on.Tipu Sultan one of the most redoubtable fighters against the British rule, was finally defeated, as the Marathas, King of Mysore, Nizam of Hyderabad all joined hands with the British.
  • Superiority over other colonial powers. The other colonial powers in India competing for the share of resources were France,Portugal,Denmark, Holland. Of the 4, Denmark and Holland could never really be serious competitors to the British, they had their own trading posts, scattered around, but were never a serious threat. Portugal focussed primarily on the Western coast, Goa, parts of Kerala, Karnataka, and this left the British with vast swathes of unoccupied territory. That left France as the major contender to Britian in the race for colonialism. The British Army was more well equipped, more professional, more disciplined compared to the French army, suffering from indiscipline and corruption. This made the British win key battles all over the East Coast, as they effectively grabbed control.
  • Doctrine of Lapse. One of the most effective tactics, the British used to take over most of India. Instead of waging an all out war against some of the princely states, they signed a treaty with them, where in if the ruling king died without a heir, the East India company could take over that. And that is how Satara became one of the first states to end up under British rule. And that was also the main reason for the conflict in Jhansi.
  • Subsidiary alliance was also an effective instrument. According to this alliance, the kingdom which signs the treaty will have to maintain the following rules:

    • The British agreed to maintain a permanent and fixed subsidiary force within the territory of their ally.
    • In return, they didn't take money but took over a part of the territory of the ally.
    • A British officer called "resident" was placed at the court of the ruler.{he could interfere in the internal matters of the kingdom}
    • The ally could not maintain any relation with any other ruler without the approval of the British.{so,when the rulers wanted to revolt against the British they are alone.}

    The Indian rulers felt a false sense of security but in reality they were losing their independence. On the other hand the Britishers maintained large forces at the expenses of the Indian rulers and also increase their area of influence. Some states brought under control through this policy are Hyderabad, Tanjore, Awadh, etc.

At the end of it all, the British had the advantage of better manpower, were militarily more powerful and stronger, and add to it they had some very canny strategists too. And the disunity among Indian princely states, their constant warring with each other, just added to the advantage.

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Welcome to History.SE –  E1Suave Aug 24 '12 at 12:34

The British East India Company did not set out to conquer and rule India, nor did that situation manifest itself overnight, nor by any single battle or treaty.

The British

  1. built ties with stable commercial interests in India, leaving the freedom to act opportunistically in Indian politics as the Mughal Empire crumbled
  2. outmaneuvered European rivals in expanding and consolidating their presence
  3. amassed great wealth, increasingly taking on governmental and military functions to protect that wealth, and arguably becoming "too big to fail" for the British government

The Cambridge Concise History of Modern India is available online, and from where I draw most of the following.

Unlike China, which was first unified relatively early, no single kingdom in the Indian subcontinent predominated for long until Babur established the Mughal Empire in 1526. His successors expanded the empire across the subcontinent, but the realm was weak internally. Most regions were not ruled directly but through princely intermediaries who paid tribute, and Mughal rule (and misrule) was deeply resented. The empire was in sharp decline by the late 17th century.

The British East India Company's first conflicts were not with the Mughals or with the locals, but with other Europeans. The EIC defeated the Portuguese in a 1612 battle to gain a lucrative foothold in India, but found themselves in rivalry with not only the Portuguese but the Dutch and the French as well. As Mughal authority declined, English bases were raided more often, leading to company to hire security forces and arm its ships.

After the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession in 1744, the French in Pondicherry intervened in succession disputes in Arcot and Hyderabad, backing one rival in exchange for favorable trade terms after that rival was in power. Having been in India for much longer, however, the EIC played this game better. They had maintained close ties with Indian financiers and producers, negotiated the most lucrative monopolies, and secured the best ports at Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai), and Calcutta (Kolkata). By the end of the Seven Years' War, although France and Portugal retained trading posts in India, Britain had no serious rivals for domination of the subcontinent, and thus there were no foreign powers with which local rulers could ally themselves to resist the British.

Direct Company rule is reckoned to have begun with the Battle of Plassey on June 23, 1757, when the EIC deposed the nawab of Bengal and installed a puppet. But again, things did not change overnight with Plassey. The EIC was extracting internal taxes and maintaining an army, but for a while it continued to collect those taxes through the nawab's agents, and acted in the name of the emperor. Judicial matters were left to the civil government. The Company's inexperience in running a state was highlighted in the Bengal famine of 1770, when as many as a third of the local population may have died.

What rule in Bengal did provide was control over what was then the richest part of India, giving it resources with which it could pursue its interests with aggression in the 19th century. By the time the notorious Doctrine of Lapse (whereby the EIC would annex lands whose rulers were deemed "incompetent" or who died without heirs) was promulgated in 1848, the Company had already extended control across India after a long series of wars and intrigues that would have been unimaginable a hundred years earlier— in the process overextending itself and requiring bailouts from Parliament, which in turn set the stage for its nationalization after the rebellion of 1857.

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It would be wrong to say that Mughal rule was resented in India. The Mughals were instead widely respected. The Mughal dynasty, since Akbar's rule, successfully integrated the Hindus into India's administration and earned respect throughout the country. Even Aurangzeb's bigoted policies could not entirely reverse this. For this reason alone, most of India's independent kings accepted nominal suzerainty of the Mughal emperor. Evidence can be seen in the rebellion of 1857, where the rebel sepoys immediately after rebelling sought the Mughal emperor's support. –  Arani Aug 23 '12 at 15:02
@user571376 Perhaps I used "Mughal rule" too loosely. "Mughal-era" rule is more accurate. Tension lies not only between a ruler and the people, but also between either party and intermediate authorities. The local zamindars as well as the centrally appointed nawabs, by the early 18th century, were increasingly autonomous, and as rivalries intensified and the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiscal-military_state became commonplace, many nawabs became increasingly confiscatory in their taxation. –  choster Aug 23 '12 at 16:26

Well, as a matter of fact yes. It seems a little odd today, but during the period of European supremacy (aka: The colonial era), it was quite common for companies to band together to exploit European military superiority for financial gain when, for whatever reason, the country they were operating in had scruples against doing so itself.

In fact, Wikipedia has a disambiguation page for East India Company with six entries. The most famous aside from the English one is undoubtably the Dutch East India Company, which effectively went to war with an entire nation (Portugal), and took over their overseas empire. (Note that the Dutch nation was at war with an alliance including Portugal in Europe at the time, so this isn't quite as weird as it may sound). At one point this company controlled all of modern-day Indonesia. This essentially places the two in the exact same relationship modern-day India has with the British East India Company.

The British and the Dutch both also chartered West India companies too. They weren't as successful as their namesakes in the east, but they were important actors in the discovery and settlement of the New World.

Another private empire of the era was the Beligan Congo. Contrary to the name, the Belgian government did not run the country. Instead, it was the personal property of Leopold II of Belgium. This may seem like splitting hairs, but he wasn't king for this whole period, the position wasn't one of absolute monarch, and he kept the two operations more or less separate.

The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Léopold II, King of the Belgians through a dummy non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine. Léopold was the sole shareholder and chairman.

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Not to mention the Hudson's Bay Company, which owned much of present-day Canada. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 21 '12 at 22:30

The reason it was possible for "Britain" to conquer India was because it was so fragmented. There was a multi-way struggle between the British, French, and various Indian factions. For instance, after a small British force under Robert Clive "stood off" a larger French force at Arcot, the two European powers agreed to "live and let live." This enabled Clive to deal only with the Indians. His main enemy among the "natives" was one Surajah Dowlah, the pro-French Nawab, but other Indians, under Mir Jafar, deserted Dowlah and went over to Clive, securing Dowlah's defeat. In what had become a "free for all," the British emerged as a "giant among pygmies."

In the end, the British were able to do what they did because of the outstanding leadership of this Robert Clive. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Clive,_1st_Baron_Clive But this was by no means unprecedented in colonial history. With less than 2,000 Spanish troops Hernan Cortes was able to overthrow the Aztecs with the help of disaffected neighbors, and Francisco Pizzarro overthrew the Inca empire with about 200 soldiers because of a civil war between two brothers.

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East India company came into India with an Charter to trade given to them by Queen Elizabeth. One can say from their early efforts they dint have a plan as such to Rule over India.

It started with Battle of Bauxer(1764) and Plassey(1757) after which prime victim Shah Alam II signed Treaty of Allahabad, which gave Diwani rights(to collect and manage revenues) to British East India company. India one must admit was at that time divided on basis of religions, hatred in blaze of old inhuman customs(like sati), where East India company saw a chance to move in and take advantage of this situation. One important thing to note is that Battles fought by company dint have soldiers from Britain(who would afford that!) those where the Indian's who were out castes to whom the society dint accept in, the untouchables British were the one who paid them well and promised of a decent life(anyone in their place would have done the same).

After this important and decisive battles East India Company realized it can actually take over all of India by looking at situation around and the path from there was planned carefully executed to rule over India, which lasted till 15th Aug 1947.

Other aspects Doctrine of Lapse, Divided States etc are already covered in other answers.

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There was no nationalism feeling for the whole but it was only for its kingdom. There was no unity between the regional kingdoms after Mughal rule was declined. This was a good oppurtunity for british to take over rule by raising conflicts between kingdoms.**

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The main reason was that the British approached the Brahmins dethroned by the Moghuls and through them conquered all of India. At its peak, Britain had no more than 10,000 soldiers while the total number of Indian forces numbered over a million. The Brahmins then ordered Hindus, like the Marathas, to fight for the British promising them a prosperous Hindu state. Many millions of Indians were killed in the British controlled and Hindu executed conquest of India. One of the consequences of this is that even today, India is not a independent country. It is a permanent colonial country. The oldest civilization in the world, bar none. What a shame.

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