The ‘rise’ of the East India Company in South Asia

from trade to domination to hegemony

The East India Company was founded by Royal Charter in 1600, and began trading in India through official firman or proclamation issued by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, in 1615. By the end of the 17th century it had established factories, followed by forts, in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. Through the 17th century, however, the EIC had been one among many players competing for the Indian trade.

Though its name suggested the Company was an ‘India’ company, the word ‘India’ was used in a general sense. The concept of India, as a ‘country’ or a separate entity, was alien to the European imagination. The trade with ‘India’, or more specifically, the ‘Indies’ referred to almost everything in the vast Indian Ocean region, to the South and South East of Asia, and included trade with China, and even Japan and Korea. In the ‘Indies’, the English faced competition not only from other European rivals, the well established Portuguese and Dutch companies, and later a French company, but also with the well established local trading networks.

the Indian Ocean trade network

The Indian Ocean region has a long history of interactions and exchanges, predating, by centuries, the European arrival. One of the cornerstones of European trade in the Indies had been to establish its own supremacy over these pre-existing networks. The Portuguese, who had been the first European power in the Indian Ocean, had sought to monopolize Indian Ocean trade, especially in the Western Ocean, through the use of force against local merchants and rulers. While this had never been wholly successful, it had allowed the Portuguese to become the most powerful naval force in the region. At first, the Dutch and the English had competed amongst themselves, and often with the Portuguese who, by the end of the 17th century were a waning power. Later, the English gained a new rival in the French East India Company. But after outcompeting the Dutch, defeating the French, and relegating the Portuguese into insignificance, the English emerged as the most powerful naval force in the Indian Ocean by the middle of the 18th century. The Portuguese had begun the European domination of the Indian Ocean and it was completed by the English. Local powers had been conspicuous by their absence in the Indian Ocean by this time, and it is imperative to note the almost absolute dominance the English had in terms of naval power compared to local powers. (This was not always so. The Marathas has previously maintained strong navies, which had waned with time.)

Dominance of the seas would, then, remain fundamental to the British Empire, first in India, and then globally. The importance of sea power would only gain in importance with the rise of British land power.

territorial power and buffer zones

From the late 1750’s the English East India Company began to gain territorial rights in India. After gaining revenue rights in Bengal, the Company gained further territories from the French, and expanded its ‘control’ still further through the subsidiary alliance system, mostly in Peninsular India. Trade had been the motive for the English entry into the Indian ocean. Revenue from land rights became the motive for the rise of the Company as a territorial power in India.

From this period, English strategic circles began to comment on the importance of ‘buffer zones’ around key territorial holdings to protect them from external threats. This was referred during the Governorship of Warren Hastings as a ‘ring fence.’ John Keay quotes the historian K.M. Panikkar’s summarization of this idea as ‘the defense of your neighbor’s territories, of course at his expense, in order to protect your own territories’. These ‘zones’ would be established through the use of military force, which grew more and more ‘effective’ with the rapid growth of the Company army through this period. The province of Bengal, in Eastern India, remained, in these ‘early years’, the ‘bridgehead’ of the EIC’s control in the Indian Ocean, providing, as it did, substantial amounts of land revenue to the Company in its newly acquired role as revenue agent for the Mughal Emperor, a title of convenience more than a reflection of reality. The ‘security’ of Bengal prompted the ‘expansion’ of control to neighboring regions which seemed to threaten the emerging ‘Colonial Order’ in Bengal.

synergy of land and sea geopolitics

Territorial control around the bridgehead of Bengal had to be further substantiated by continuing mastery of the sea lanes which ‘connected’ Bengal to the Company’s other territorial positions in the Subcontinent, in Bombay and Madras. The building of forts around coastal factories had given a ‘synergy’ to the land and sea strategies of the East India Company since the beginning of its activities in India – with the defense of coastal forts being dependent on the control of the sea lanes between them. Till the mid 18th century, this control had been contested, most recently, with the French. But by the time of establishment of control in Bengal, British control of the Western Indian Ocean, around the Indian peninsula, was complete.

For the most part of the British Empire in India, threats from the seas would remain almost unimaginable. While projection of power through the navy would remain a key strategy of the British Imperialism around the globe, it would be threats from the ‘land’ which would occupy most strategic thinkers in British India. The only exception was, perhaps, during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, when it was believed, justifiably, that a French army could be transported through the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and landed in India. Even then, the naval security of India would be the responsibility of the British Crown rather than the British Colonial State in India. And, eventually, it would be the defeat of Napoleon’s navy in the Mediterranean by the Royal Navy which would remove the threat of a naval invasion. Land and sea security would come to lie, in time, in two separate domains, with the focus of the British Colonial State being on land based threats to India.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Colonial Order had expanded to cover almost the whole of South and Central, and most of North India. The northern border of this emerging ‘British Colonial State’, in 1809, was fixed at the river Sutlej, beyond which were the domains of the Kingdom of Punjab, with its capital at Lahore.

the conquest in context

The 18th century in Indian history was a period of great dynamism, with a multitude of changes occurring in the social and political landscape of India. The establishment of British Colonial control should not be taken as an inexorable and unchallenged rise of the most powerful nation. There always were multiple challengers and it is only in hindsight that they seem less significant. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the larger context of the British control of India.

This larger context is to refrain from explaining away the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of Colonialism in India and to focus on the ‘what’ – specifically the ‘what’ of the geopolitical order. We have discussed the importance of understanding geostrategy – with its land/sea dichotomy in this context, but we must further contextualize the theme with a discussion of the geoeconomic logic.

The conceptual basis for a geoeconomic logic arises with the beginnings of the East India Company’s trade in the Indian Ocean. The pursuit of profit, through cross oceanic space, was achieved only through the ‘mastery’ of that space. The first sense of mastery was technological. The advances in European shipping and navigation since the end of the 15th century made the ‘mastery’ of the ‘high seas’, gradually over the next couple of centuries, a European monopoly. But trade from port to port, and ocean to ocean, became a high stakes game with the rise of mercantilist competition between European powers. The monopolisation of the Indian Ocean space was the consequence of the interaction between the geoeconomic logic of mastery of space and the geostrategic logic of the monopoly of space. With the transformation of the East India Company into a territorial power, after gaining revenue rights in Bengal, to the mastery/monopoly of oceanic space was added the importance of the security of the territorial base. This was secured through the geostrategic logic of secure buffer zones which we discussed above. But the geostrategic logic is not the only explanation for the rapid expansion of the Company’s territorial order. The primary, and one could even say, fundamental, logic of the Company was geoeconomic, the pursuit of profit through trade, and mastery and monopolization of space, even through force. was an acceptable and even integral strategy. Sekhar Bandopadhyay in his comprehensive review of the colonial period says that while, since its inception, the trade of the Company ‘was always armed trade’ but the ‘central pre-occupation of imperial policy’ would remain the pursuit of revenue, in the interests of the metropole – especially the Company’s backers in London but also the Crown – as also for the maintenance of the Company’s affairs in India. By the turn of the 18th century, there was increasing pressure from the British textile industry to sell its manufactures in India, reversing the pre-existing export of textiles from India to Britain. This required a consequent ‘opening up’ of new markets in the wider Indian Ocean world, especially China, but, importantly, for our purposes, even in India in South Asia. ‘Frontiers’ could be geoeconomic as much as they were geostrategic.

some conclusions (for now and later)

The expansion of territorial control through the Indian subcontinent had, in a way, also followed the broad contours of this ‘logic’. The fundamental motives of British colonial expansion in India can be understood through these interactions.

Through the subjugation, whether by annexation or through the subsidiary alliance system, regional powers were incorporated into the territorial order of the newly emerging Colonial State. The prevention of ‘disorder’ was one justification for the enforcement of order. So, whenever a local power was seen as ‘threatening’ the ‘Colonial order’, it was brought ‘to order’ within the Colonial system through the application of force. But just as important was the integration and development of a new system of economic exchange geared towards the revenue requirement of the Colonial State. The making of captive markets.

So, the geopolitics of control of the British Colonial State had its logic in an emerging geoeconomic order of Empire and was buttressed through the geostrategic doctrines of land and sea power. Power and economics – these were the foundations of the Empire.


(To he continued/series.)


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