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
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 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
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 4:49
  • It's been said that a united India is only possible at all because the British taught all Indians English; and educated every Indian of importance at Oxbridge. Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 2:19

8 Answers 8


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. The British and the French fought the Carnatic Wars, which the British won decisively - making the British the foremost colonial power.
  • 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.

  • Look at the Anglo-Zanzibar war. It was a protectorate, and when the sultan was deposed in a family feud, the British took 1h to kick the pretender and impose their guy back. Similar issue in Wutuland en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wituland. "Protectorate" really meant something - better to be a dependent king than an independent prisoner of a pretender. But these were small states, the local British military knew they could handle issues. In the larger Indian Kingdoms, were there similar issues? Did the "Protectors" keep the asses of "their" guys safe? The sense of security was really "false"?
    – Luiz
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 13:58
  • The Doctrine of Lapse is not uniquely Indian. Monaco until recently would lapse into France if the prince had no heirs. Again, the prince's ass is safe, as well as his dynasty.
    – Luiz
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 14:08
  • Interesting Lapse doctrine: are the British known or suspected to have kills heirs of Indian kings in order to capture the kingdom with this rule? Also, did they face revolts when they try to enforce this rule? I guess some Indian potential indirect heirs were not happy of this rule Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 19:35
  • @totalMongot There were revolts in princely states like Kittur, Jhansi against this. Actually this was one of the triggers for the 1857 Revolt too. Commented Jun 27, 2023 at 12:17

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
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 15:02
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    @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
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 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. Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 22:30

Disunity at the Federal level is not a good answer because every Indian State encountered by the British had a much larger population and resource base than could be fielded by the Company. In any case, even had India been united, so long as it remained a land based military power, for logistical reasons, it could never secure its own littoral and would have been bound to concede essentially what the Manchus did after the Opium wars. The Japanese, it is true, first united their country and then westernized it but, unlike the Indians, they had actually improved on Dutch technology when first exposed to it. They also had a great maritime tradition. Though ultimately marginalised by Hideyoshi's successors, this small 'modern sector' could rapidly expand in response to the shock of the U.S Navy's demand for the opening of Japanese ports. Nothing similar could be said of India.

The real problem faced by the Indian Polity lay in the intense competition for the throne and the perquisites of power within each State. It was a case of brother against brother, Uncle against nephew and, even if the dynasty was cohesive, there was the ever present danger that the head of the Army or the Administration would launch a coup.

Why was this the case? One reason is that the principle of primogeniture (i.e. the eldest son takes everything) had not taken root. There were two reasons for this

1) Unlike Christian Europe, India had polygamy. In the short term, this meant Princes could make multiple marriage alliances and thus a potential rival might accept the Prince's suzerainty in the hope that his own grandson, from the daughter he has married off to the Prince, will gain the throne. However, this meant that the sons of the Prince saw each other as rivals and were supported by their maternal Uncles in scheming against, and even killing, each other. The Chinese got round this problem by enforcing Confucian morality which stressed one's duty to one's elders. Here a younger brother's rebellion against an elder could be condemned as filial impiety and evoke a feeling of horror. To some extent, Hinduism achieved a similar result by holding up Lord Rama as 'purushottam'- the ideal man. However, Turko-Afghan dynasties had no similar tradition. Indeed, a conflict between the sons of the Emperor could result in the best soldier/intriguer coming to the top- e.g. Emperor Aurangazeb. However, his successors paid a heavy price partly because of their own incompetence and decadence but also because loyalty to the dynasty was wholly divorced from loyalty to the present incumbent of the peacock throne.

2) The other reason the principle of primogeniture, which would have granted indefeasible legitimacy to the eldest son and greatly reduced factionalism within the state, did not take root has to do with the traditional pattern of land-holding. Looking at this 'bottom up', we find that Indians preferred co-parcenary inheritance such that all the descendants of a sept had a notionally equal interest in land. It was in the interest of the 'big man' of the sept to leave the question of who was entitled to what ill-defined and to direct the energies of 'have-nots' within the sept to prey upon their supposed 'tenants' or the territories of rival septs. Naturally, this made for disunity at the local level. Looking at things 'top down', we find that the Prince could not put an end to local anarchy because his revenues derived from feudal land-grants. Originally the members of a sept whose coparcenary title in land had been recognized by the Prince in exchange for the military service of a given number of troops, would have shown loyalty & esprit de corps and performed well militarily. However, longer term, as the Prince required more and more money (for example to pay for the import of horses, or artillery and foreign mercenaries to operate the canons) rather than war-bands, the feudal land grant lost its military character and became an instance of 'tax farming'- i.e. entrepreneurs would bid for the right to collect taxes from a territory in return for a fixed payment of tribute.

In practice this meant the rise of a new type of 'Feudal Lord' from the trading castes as well as enterprising members of the clerisy (generally members of either the 'Writer' caste (Kayastha) or secularized (niyogi)Brahmins.

This meant that the Feudal principle of Legitimacy itself, let alone primogeniture, went by the board. Instead, tenants took military service during the campaigning season for a money wage which they could use to pay their own taxes. But, what incentive did they have to fight rather than run away if their side appeared to be losing? Similarly, what great attachment could the tax-farmer feel for the Prince he was obliged to pay? In those European Kingdoms which made a successful transition from Feudalism to Modern Nation States, land-holding was first fully delinked from feudal obligation and found a new legitimacy in the legal forms underpinning the commercial practices of 'Civil Society'- i.e the Third Estate.

The King, in order to finance his military establishment, had to do a deal with a Parliament which represented those who remitted the taxes he could levy. Prussia, in this respect, was exceptional, but then the Prussian period of dominance ended in disaster for Germany.

Nothing of the sort happened in India. True, the Merchant's guild might have a countervailing power over the King but there was no mechanism such that the two parties could agree a mutually advantageous agenda. One reason for this was that the Merchant guilds- though claiming a hoary antiquity and reinforced by draconian caste based rules- could easily split. Brother might separate from brother and decide to back a rival Prince. Timur Kuran, the Turkish economist, has pointed to Islamic inheritance law- which tends to terminate a business enterprise on the death of its founder so as to divide its assets among his heirs- as the reason for Islam falling behind the Christian West. Hindu inheritance law could militate against this- Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, quoted this as the reason Muslims couldn't compete on a level playing field with Hindus and thus must have their own country- but,in practice, this was seldom the case because Political uncertainty was so severe as to make long term considerations irrelevant.

To reiterate- Uncertainty and the concomitant path-dependence of the economyin the face of random shocks- had a lot to do with lack of clarity as to who legitimately owned what. Lack of primogeniture at the top together with coparcenary land title at the bottom were important systemic contributors to this Uncertainty. These factors, by themselves, without any outside intervention, would have been enough to ruin most of India's export industries unless the Indians were able to secure safe sea routes for their merchandise and thus had an alternative market overseas when and if domestic conditions became chaotic.

As a case in point, South India had been famous for its 'wootz' steel swords for a thousand years. This industry did not collapse because foreigners had a superior product but because of excessive uncertainty and random shocks in the domestic market. Essentially, the investment of agricultural surpluses in cottage industries would tend to break down under conditions of political chaos unless one could both import food and export manufactured items by a safe route. Britain, once it gained Naval Mastery- which only happened because its Parliament was successful in forcing the King to do what was advantageous to the propertied class- did indeed experience an Industrial Revolution such that its Textiles and Steel and so on dominated the World market for almost a hundred years. India's political uncertainties as well as its rulers neglect of the one safe avenue of trade- the Sea- meant that its skilled workers declined or disappeared while their peers in England went from strength to strength. We have all heard the name 'Wilkinson Sword' or 'Wedgwood Pottery'. The Wootz sword has disappeared from history though, no doubt, it once boasted a Nock or a Wilkinson. The same thing can be said about Dacca Muslin or Madras Chintz and so on.

This brings me to the real reason the East India Company was able to take over India.

The propertied class in Britian was able to get their King and his Cabinet to do things which made them safer and richer. The working classes of Britain showed great patriotism and esprit de corps when press-ganged into the Navy or made so drunk by the recruiting sergeant as to accept the 'King's schilling'. The result was that the productivity and force projection capability of the British (and by mimetic effects, their European rivals or imitators) greatly increased in a manner which ultimately made them irresistible by any save an equally industrialized and technologically advanced force. However, at the core of this forced productivity improvement in the military sector was the Civilian Control of the bourgeoisie demanding an ever bigger 'bang for the buck' in the shape of access to yet bigger markets and larger distributions of prize money. In return, Britain, uniquely, came out of its wars with sounder money and a declining per capita military burden. By contrast, the Maratha merchants were crushed by the Peshwa's taxes and increasingly defected to the territories of John Company. But this trend only reinforced the solvency and credit-worthiness of the admittedly corrupt and often incompetent E.I.C. (Though, in justice it must be said, that some Collectors appointed by the Company showed entrepreneurial genius of a high order- for example in the opening up of Sylhet towards Meghalaya.) Indeed, as Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, it was the Indian merchants of Surat who were the first to realize that a British 'hoondi' (Bill of Exchange) was gilt edged. Soon Indian Princes and Captains got the message. When the Brits said 'we'll give you a pension of Rs. x per annum' that pension would in fact be paid for all eternity. One final point, the Brits, unlike the French, initially discouraged Missionaries and respected all Religions. They took the trouble to administer Justice according to local practices and in conformity with precepts of the relevant Religious authorities.Thus,the true paradox of British rule in India was that, at the ground level, it seemed more 'timelessly Indian' than the chaos that preceded it. Indeed, during the course of the Nineteenth Century, the Anglophile 'comprador' (i.e. a guy who gets rich working with the new overlord)shed his obnoxious Westernized veneer and, more often than not, invented a fake pedigree for himself as an upholder of traditional values.

Of course, there are many other explanations for the success of the E.I.C, all more or less paranoid or motivated by some obviously silly political ideology. Some are backed by impressive empirical research. However, they all cash out as instances of 'kakathaliya'- coincidence not causation.

  • Could you please use paragraphs? This is so utterly unreadable.
    – Rajib
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 14:26
  • This could be a really great post, but I don't understand your point 2) on coparcenary, especially what that has to do with your later point on the military and empowerment of the Bourgeiouse. In fact I don't quite understand how that gave England an edge either. Also what is a sept? Basically if you clean up your middle bit this would be a great post. Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 13:29

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, later Major-General and 1st Baron of 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.

  • @Ken Graham: I moved the "Major General," to "later." Clive was only a Colonel at Plassey (and lower ranked earlier). Unlike e.g. Wellington, who was already a General at Waterloo.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Dec 24, 2016 at 17:20

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.


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.**


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.