A brief history
In order to avoid confusion, the story refers to the soldiers who appear In Times of Peril as part of the British army. In fact in India the soldiers – Indian natives, British officers and NCOs – were all a part of an army under the control of the East India Company, which was colloquially called John Company and in Hindustani Company Bahadur (the Brave Company). It had a long history.
The first merchants sought permission from Queen Elizabeth I to form a corporation with a monopoly of trade in the Indian Ocean, and after initial problems with storms and shipwrecks, the queen granted a royal charter to the Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies in 1600. In its first form, the Company was led by a Governor and 24 directors, who enjoyed a monopoly of trade in the East Indies for a term of 15 years, but King James later renewed the charter on an indefinite basis. Whenever this was challenged – which it was, often successfully, on a number of occasions – subsequent monarchs found it personally beneficial to renew it again. The Company frequently found itself at war with Dutch and Portuguese traders as well as with envious British counterparts. But the big profits returned to the London directors enabled them to form a powerful lobby which ensured their continued grip on the fringes of the subcontinent.
By the mid-17th century, the Company had established factories in several coastal locations, including Surat, Bombay, Madras and slightly later at Calcutta after the Mughal emperor granted extensive trading rights in the Bengal region. The principal goods imported to Britain were cotton, silk, saltpetre and tea, and – after dominating the Dutch in the Malaccan Straits – they engaged in the lucrative spice trade. Later still, Indian-grown opium would become a mainstay of profits, some of it exported to Europe, but mostly to China. Warfare was as much a part of the East India Company’s remit. Getting the goods safely home was no easy feat, and the Company’s merchantmen were heavily armed to resist attacks by other European nations as well as pirates. In time, it became necessary to fortify the trading bases and garrison them with soldiers. Once you have troops permanently stationed, they need something to do, other than protect trading posts. Territorial expansion soon became a norm.
Expansion of the Company’s territory in the mid-18th century brought it into conflict with local rulers. In 1757 the Company’s governor general, Robert Clive (Clive of India) defeated forces of the last independent Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa at Plassey, resulting in the conquest of the huge Bengal region. As a result, relations with the Mughals became strained and would have had serious consequences if the empire had not already been in severe decline, having been losing out to the aggressive Maratha federation of central India. Clive also faced threats from France, which had established several trading posts around the coast. Towards the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) Clive won a great victory against the commander of French forces in India, and the final defeat of France in Europe and the Americas stunted French ambitions in India.
Despite its territorial acquisitions towards the end of the 18th century, the East India Company – at least the directors and shareholders back in Britain – still saw its role in the subcontinent as primarily mercantile. In 1784, the British Parliament passed an act which forbade any further annexation. Nevertheless, the raj (rulers) on the ground in India felt obliged to occupy ‘hostile’ territory or form ‘protectorates’ to protect trading interests. When Tipu Sultan of Mysore attacked Travancore in 1789 he lost more than half of his dominions in the ensuing war conducted by the governor general, Lord Cornwallis. Warfare was resumed against the Maratha princes in 1803. A hero of these conflicts was Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington).
The fear of a French assault during the Napoleonic wars hardened the British government’s attitude towards India, which effectively gave an unprecedented degree of autonomy to the Company. The new aggressive approach saw whole swathes, such as the independent principality of Hyderabad, placed under British military control. While Britain provided the officers, men and equipment, the minute the soldiers arrived in India, they came under the authority of the East India Company. After the French threat had passed, further expansion continued to counter Burmese aggression in the east and to guard against Russian incursions from the north. In every case, the Company’s grasping nature coincided with British political aims. Only in Afghanistan (1838–42) did Company troops fail to dominate the country. Sind was acquired in 1843, while two ferocious wars against the Sikhs brought control of the Punjab in 1849.
Lord Dalhousie (governor general 1848–56) adopted a novel policy called the doctrine of ‘lapse’, which had no real basis in law. When a Hindu prince had no natural heirs his lands and revenues passed to the Company. This was the cause of Nana Sahib’s disgruntlement (as described in Chapter 10 of A Storm of Peril). Dalhousie had no such argument to make towards the Muslim King of Awadh, but he used the pretext of incompetent government to annex the independent state in 1856. It was clear that the Company, which had started as a trading concern was now acting more like a nation.
In keeping with ‘nationhood’, the East India Company had been instituting sweeping administrative reforms. These had begun with revision of land revenue collection – the main contribution to revenues – and a reorganisation of he judicial system along British lines. These reforms led to native unease and localised outbreaks of rebellion, such as those James Outram countered. The British Parliament issued a directive urging respect for people’s rights and customs, but this was largely ignored. Lord Bentinck (1828–35) tried to ban thuggee (ritual robbery and murder), suttee (the burning of Hindu widows) and infanticide. Obviously, from a company perspective, these customs were an outrage to Victorian sensibilities, but his edicts confirmed a suspicion among the Indians that the British intended to suppress all their traditions.
Along with the soldiers came the ubiquitous missionaries, bent on converting the heathens. Christian conversion, unwisely given free reign by the Company authorities, plans to extend the road and rail network and an insistence on English as the language of commerce and education all threatened the traditional values of both Hindus and Muslims alike. It all came to a head in January 1857, and the Indian Mutiny – or the First War of Independence – erupted in Bengal.
Although there were outbreaks of rebellion in many towns across the subcontinent, the Presidencies of Bombay and Madras were largely unaffected and their native garrisons remained loyal. As A Storm of Peril shows, the most terrible violence was confined to a curving swathe following the Ganges and Yamuna (Jumna) rivers from the northwest in Punjab to Calcutta in the east. The East India Company’s success in putting down the rebellion was overshadowed by its incompetence in sparking it and in its military officers’ failure to quench the first sparks with intelligence or despatch. In consequence, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act in 1858, which transferred sovereignty from the East India Company to the Crown. The doctrine of ‘lapse’ was ended, but few other necessary reforms were made.
© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England
This map shows the spread of British control of the Indian subcontinent from the late 1700s to the point of the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Within another 30 years even the green portions, protectorates or vassal princely states, were under firm British dominion.
Click to download the map — 300 kb JPEG.
The East India Company flag at the time of the Mutiny. The same standard was adopted by the American colonies until the Union flag of Great Britain was discarded and substituted for stars on a blue field.
With Madras and Calcutta, Bombay Island was one of the East India Company's major trading stations. Modern Mumbai covers more than the entire area of this map and a wide causeway links Colaba to Old Woman's Island and the main island. Throughout the first half of the 18th century, the Company fought with Angrian pirates, who were effectively sponsored by the growing federation of Maratha states of central India.
Click to download the map — 60 kb JPEG.
Appears throughout in the background