About this Photo
The Chennai Central Railway Station in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu
Explore the Topic
India's colonization supplied Europe with raw materials and a market for its exports for centuries, a commercial exchange that would closely entwine the economies, cultures, and people of India and Britain.
Vasco da Gama's 1498 arrival in India established a sea route from Europe, and during the following centuries, the Dutch, British, Portuguese, and French would build settlements in port cities throughout the region. The collapse of the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century after the reign of Aurangzeb left a power vacuum that the British East India Company and the French East India Company were eager to fill.
By the late 18th century, the French had lost power in the region, and the British dominated trade through protectionist measures that required Indian exports to be transported on British ships. The British focused on consolidating their sovereignty, acquiring lands by military conquest and by exploiting divisions among Indian states and religious groups. British territory included the Punjab province and lower Burma (which would come under their complete control in 1886), and the British spread new technologies such as the telegraph, railroad, and steam transportation throughout the region. This transportation network continues to flourish and grow to this day, as evidenced by the Chennai Central Railway Station.
After the violence of the Great Rebellion of 1857, Parliament transferred the administration of the region from the British East India Company to the Crown, initiating the era of the British Raj, which would end in 1947 with India's independence.
Vasco da Gama
In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut, on the southwest coast of India, and became the first person to navigate a sea route from Europe to India, forever changing the world economy. Neither da Gama's proffered gifts nor his behavior (the Portuguese mistook the Hindus for Christians) impressed Calicut's leader, Saamoothirippadu (or Zamorin), and he refused to sign a trade treaty with the explorer. However, da Gama's successful voyage established Lisbon as the center of Europe's spice trade, a position Portugal would dominate for almost a century. In 1510, the Portuguese gained control of Goa, 400 miles north of Cochin on India’s west coast, and made it the hub of their maritime activities in the region.
Da Gama would return to India two more times—in 1502 to violently avenge the deaths of Portuguese traders by bombarding Calicut, and as viceroy in 1524 to correct corruption among Portuguese authorities. On his last trip, da Gama died in Goa, where a town, Vasco, was named for him in 1543. In 1600, the British East India Company was chartered, and throughout the 17th century English, Dutch, and French traders traveled this sea route and established posts in India's port cities.
The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526 CE, peaked around 1700 and steadily declined into the 19th century, severely weakened by conflicts over succession. Mughal rule began with Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, who invaded northern India from his post in Kabul, and overthrew Ibrahim Lodi, the last of the Delhi sultans. At its height, the Mughal Empire included most of the Indian subcontinent and an estimated population of 100 million people.
The empire's primary activities of war and expansion were supported by a strong central administrative and political system fully developed under Akbar, the third Mughal emperor. Under Akbar's rule (1556-1605), the empire expanded north to Kabul and Kashmir, east to Bengal and Orissa, south to Gujarat and southwest to Rajasthan. Establishing himself as a spiritual as well as military and strategic leader, Akbar promoted a policy of tolerance for all religions. His son, Jahangir (1605-27), and Jahangir's wife, Nur Jahan, who was highly influential in court politics, carried on Akbar's policies of centralized government and religious tolerance.
India's economy grew under the Mughals as a result of the empire's strong infrastructure, expansion and trade with Europeans, who established bases in various Indian ports. Shah Jahan (1627–58), Jahangir's son, diverted wealth away from the military toward magnificent building projects including the Taj Mahal and a new capital city, Shajahanabad, site of a royal fortress and the largest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid. Shah Jahan's reign marked a turn toward a more Muslim-centered government, which his son Aurangzeb favored in contrast with his other son Dara Shikoh, who favored a more diverse court.
After a two-year fight for succession that resulted in Shah Jahan's imprisonment and Dara's death, Aurangzeb (1658–1707) assumed the throne. He reversed many of Akbar's policies supporting religious tolerance, and Islamic religious law (sharia) became the foundation of Mughal government. By the late 17th century, the empire was in decline, weakened by succession conflicts, an entrenched war waged by Aurangzeb in the south, growing inequality between rich and poor and loss of support from nobles and gentry. By the mid-18th century, the once great Mughal Empire was confined to a small area around Delhi.
Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was the third son of Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. After a false report spread through the empire that Shah Jahan had died, Aurangzeb embarked on a brutal power struggle with his three brothers, including Dara Shikoh, which he won in 1659 to become the sixth ruler of the Mughal Empire. He imprisoned his father Shah Jahan for eight years; the old emperor died in captivity.
A deeply pious man, Aurangzeb practiced a much more orthodox form of Islam than his father, and was fundamentally intolerant of the Hindu religions. He ushered in a number of anti-Hindu policies, such as the jizya, a tax on non-Muslims, and imposed higher customs duties for Hindus than for Muslims. Worse still, he reversed the policies of Akbar the Great, demolishing many Hindu temples; he also persecuted the Sikhs, executing their ninth guru, prompting the Sikhs to form an "Army of the Pure" (Khalsa) to protect themselves. The transformation of the Sikhs into a militant order dates above all from his time.
Aurangzeb expanded the Mughal Empire, conquering additional territories in southern India, but his policies created great unrest within his empire. He was continually forced to put down rebellions from a group of Hindu warrior clans called the Marathas, led by the charismatic Hindu leader Shivaji Bhosle, who practiced guerrilla tactics and eventually formed a new Hindu kingdom. After Aurangzeb's death in 1707 CE, the Marathan Kingdom continued to grow, ultimately forming the Marathan Empire. Aurangzeb meanwhile had left four sons, who battled among themselves for power; the wars that he had fought left the treasury empty, which contributed to the Mughal Empire's slow decline, and eventually to its feeble capitulation to the British.
British East India Company
On December 31, 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to a group of 25 adventurers, giving them a monopoly on trade between England and the countries in the East Indies. The Company established settlements in Bombay, on India's west coast, and on India's east coast, in Calcutta and Madras. They became centers for Indian textiles that were in high demand in Europe, including cotton cloth, chintz, and calico.
The company's two primary competitors in the region were the Dutch East India Company and the French Compagnie des Indes Orientales. Armies of Indians hired as soldiers and supplied with European weaponry increased the Company's might against its western competitors and were even used to control the courts of Indian princes.
The decline and fall of the Mughal Empire in the mid-18th century contributed to the East India Company's accumulation of power in the region. In 1757, the Company defeated and killed the Mughal governor of Bengal, Sirajud-Dawla, after he captured Calcutta in an attempt to hinder the Company from depriving merchants and the government of revenue. By 1765, the Company had acquired control of the revenue systems of Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar, on India's east coast, and became the largest territorial power in India. The India Act of 1784 gave Parliament control of the company's affairs in London, but the heads of the Company oversaw the governance of India. Parliament transferred the Company's power over administration of the Indian territories to the Crown in 1858 after the Great Rebellion of 1857, an uprising of Indian soldiers (sepoys) that was largely blamed on the Company's mismanagement of the territory.
French East India Company
In 1604, a charter granted by King Henry IV established France's first trading company in India, but the venture never gained traction for lack of funding. In 1664, King Louis XIV's finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, revived the company with money from the royal treasury and by granting trade monopolies to investors. Between 1664 and 1789, the company would be restructured and renamed repeatedly, known variously as the French Company of the East Indies, Company of the Indies, French Company of the Indies, and the Perpetual Company of the Indies.
Weak rulers of the Mughal Empire and the empire's gradual dissolution created conditions conducive to France's rise to power. (Although remnants of the great Mughal Empire would continue into the nineteenth century, the empire effectively fell in 1707 with the death of its last emperor, Aurangzeb.) The French established a capital at Pondicherry (now Puducherry) in south India, where silk and textiles were collected from surrounding regions, and founded trading posts at Surat, on India's central west coast, and Chandannagar (or Chandernagore), in the northeast. Mauritius became a French colony in 1721 and Mahé followed in 1724.
By the 1730s, the French Company had been granted nawab, or local governor, status that gave them authority to collect land revenue, maintain an army, and mint rupees. The British East India Company and the French Company both tried to consolidate power through control of the local princes. Vying to gain dominance in trade and place their own candidates in positions of power in the key posts of Hyderabad and Arcot, England and France fought the Carnatic Wars (named for the region in southern India) intermittently between 1746 and 1763. England's victory over France in the final Carnatic War and the Seven Years' War led to the end of France's power in the region, though they retained Pondicherry until 1954 and French is still an official language in the local legislature.
Chennai Central Railway Station
The Chennai Central Railway Station, commissioned in 1873 and opened around the turn of the 20th century, is South India's central railway hub. Chennai (formerly called Madras), known as the "Gateway of the South," was founded as a British trading post in 1639, and became an administrative and commercial capital of the British East India Company.
The station initially had four platforms; subsequent additions in the 1930s and 1950s increased the number of platforms and amenities for the growing numbers of passengers. The red brick structure with a white roof and landmark clock tower reflects Gothic and Indo-Saracenic elements. The Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, pioneered in Madras, was developed by British architects in India during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Buildings built in this style combine Muslim designs and Indian materials and may feature pavilions, vaulted roofs, towers, and minarets.
Great Rebellion of 1857
The Great Rebellion of 1857 (also called the Indian Mutiny, Sepoy Rebellion, and First War of Independence) began as a mutiny by Bengal army soldiers, or sepoys, against their commanders in the army of the British East India Company. The rebellion came out of the sepoy's long-held grievances about unfair assignments, low pay, limited opportunities for advancement, and the reorganization of Awadh, a region from which a third of them had been recruited. A more immediate cause of insult to the sepoys was the new Lee Enfield rifle that required soldiers to reload by biting off the ends of cartridges greased with pig and cow fat, substances offensive to both Muslim and Hindu religions.
On May 10, 1857, the sepoys posted in Meerut attacked officers and marched on Delhi after their colleagues had been punished for refusing to use the new cartridges. Once in Delhi, the uprising gained legitimacy when the sepoys made the 82-year-old Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II the leader of their rebellion. Other soldiers, primarily those stationed in northern India, joined the revolt, and popular uprisings also broke out in the countryside. Central India and the cities of Delhi, Lucknow, and Cownpore (Kanpur) became the primary areas of unrest while areas further south, where the Bombay and Madras armies and many princes and elites remained loyal, were largely untouched by the rebellion.
By September, the British had regained control of Delhi, exiled Bahadur Shah, and killed both of his sons. After the siege of Gwalior in the summer of 1858, the British regained military control, and those sepoys who had revolted were severely punished—a number of captured sepoys were fired from cannons. The army was reorganized to include a higher ratio of British to Indian soldiers, recruitment focused on regions that had not revolted, and units were composed of soldiers representing many Indian ethnicities, so as to prevent social cohesion among sepoys.
Loss of British revenue as a result of the rebellion was severe, and in 1858, an act of the British Parliament transferred the East India Company's rights in India to the Crown. The new administration of India included a British secretary of state, viceroy, and 15-member advisory council. In 1876, Queen Victoria declared herself Empress of India.
The British Raj (Hindi for rule) under England's Queen Victoria began in 1858 after the Great Rebellion of 1857 and subsequent transfer, through an act of Parliament, of administrative power from the British East India Company to the Crown. British rule extended over present-day India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan together about a fifth of the world's population. Under the new administration, a governor-general with a five-member council governed in India, while a secretary of state and 15-member council oversaw Indian affairs in Britain. Provincial governments included executive and legislative councils and were divided into districts, each overseen by a commissioner. The Indian Civil Service, composed of magistrates, revenue officials, commissioners, and other bureaucratic positions, formed a fundamental segment of the new government. After 1923, examinations required for entry into the civil service were held in India, not only Britain, and by 1947, most Civil Service officials were Indian.
Policies of nonintervention in religion and recognition of regional princes—numbering approximately 675—were among the first issued under the British administration, perhaps reflecting the religious causes of the Great Rebellion of 1857. A newly restructured army that included more British officers had the foreign policy responsibility of keeping Russia out of Central Asia, leading to the Anglo-Afghan Wars during much of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
By 1910, India had the fourth largest railway system in the world, one that unified the country geographically and economically. However, under British rule, the generally positive advances of social reforms, public works, and unification of the India's disparate regions were coupled with racism and economic exploitation. Lack of Indian representation in government and an economic system that was perceived as a drain on India's wealth were the primary causes of agitation against British rule in India.
In 1885, the first meeting of the Indian National Congress, composed of 73 self-appointed delegates, was held in Bombay. Nationalist opposition increased following World War I and World War II, and in 1946/7, the Congress, guided by its leader Mahatma Gandhi, negotiated Indian independence from Britain.
- Why did the British push the development of railroads in India? What was the practical and symbolic nature of a British controlled railroad system in India?
- Why is the bureaucracy the British created to control India considered impressive?
- Why did the British allow the Indian National Congress to start meeting?
- Evaluate the new power of British Empire after the defeat of the French in India, North America, and Europe in 1763.