Ghurkas of 1815
Raja is a Sanskrit word for king or ruler. Raj, a shortened version of the word, means "rule." The British Raj references to British colonial rule. It was originally a word used to describe Indian nobles and rulers. After the British arrived, rajas and maharajas were replaced by a single raj: the British, first in the form of the British East India Company and then the British government.

The British raj officially began in 1858 when the British Government officially took over the East India Company after the Sepoy Rebellion, but the term is also sometimes embraces the period when India was ruled by the British East India Company. India at under the British Raj was called the “Jewel in the Crown”— the centerpiece of Britain's empire.

The East India Company ran India under the company for centuries before the Government had to step in because it was ridiculous to allow a single company to administer such a large tract of territory, particularly after the Mutiny made it clear that the Company was not running the place properly.

Under the British Raj, India was ruled by the British Crown under the Secretary of State for India and a 15-member India Council. The Crown’s representative in India was the Viceroy. He ruled with almost absolute power. Under him was an Executive Council made up of British members and a legislative Council of British and Indian representatives.

A multiplicity of motives underlay the British penetration into India: commerce, security, and a purported moral uplift of the people. The "expansive force" of private and company trade eventually led to the conquest or annexation of territories in which spices, cotton, and opium were produced. British investors ventured into the unfamiliar interior landscape in search of opportunities that promised substantial profits. British economic penetration was aided by Indian collaborators, such as the bankers and merchants who controlled intricate credit networks. British rule in India would have been a frustrated or half-realized dream had not Indian counterparts provided connections between rural and urban centers. External threats, both real and imagined, such as the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815) and Russian expansion toward Afghanistan (in the 1830s), as well as the desire for internal stability, led to the annexation of more territory in India. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Political analysts in Britain wavered initially as they were uncertain of the costs or the advantages in undertaking wars in India, but by the 1810s, as the territorial aggrandizement eventually paid off, opinion in London welcomed the absorption of new areas. Occasionally the British Parliament witnessed heated debates against expansion, but arguments justifying military operations for security reasons always won over even the most vehement critics. *

Book: “Raj, the Making and Unmaking of British India” by Lawrence James.

British Government Replaces the British East India Company

The transfer of power for the British East India Company to the British Raj took place over time and began long before 1858, when the official take over took place. After the Sepoy Mutinee (See Separate Article) the company that was signed into existence by Queen Elizabeth was signed out by Queen Victoria. The Governor General was replaced by the Viceroy of India. The East India Company became the Indian army.

At the end of the 18th century the British East Company was already having financial difficulties. Despite the success of some its employees—namely Robert Clive—the East India Company itself teetered near bankruptcy. The company was bailed out with 1.4 million pound loan from the Bank of England, but the loan was granted on condition that company was to be overseen by an English government representative based in Calcutta who quickly outlawed "private trade" and "presents." The was the first step in which control of India was passed from the East India Company to English government (the raj). In 1813 parliament stripped the East India Company of it trade monopoly in India. Twenty years later its assets were liquidated and the ships were dispersed. "This was due in large part," wrote Pico Iyer, 'to a groups of thoughtful Englishmen who saw themselves as guardians of a fledgling state and who committed to preparing the Indians for eventual self-government."

The British Parliament enacted a series of laws, among which the Regulating Act of 1773 stood first, to curb the company traders' unrestrained commercial activities and to bring about some order in territories under company control. Limiting the company charter to periods of twenty years, subject to review upon renewal, the 1773 act gave the British government supervisory rights over the Bengal, Bombay, and Madras presidencies. Bengal was given preeminence over the rest because of its enormous commercial vitality and because it was the seat of British power in India (at Calcutta), whose governor was elevated to the new position of governor-general. Warren Hastings was the first incumbent (1773-85). The India Act of 1784, sometimes described as the "half-loaf system," as it sought to mediate between Parliament and the company directors, enhanced Parliament's control by establishing the Board of Control, whose members were selected from the cabinet. The Charter Act of 1813 recognized British moral responsibility by introducing just and humane laws in India, foreshadowing future social legislation, and outlawing a number of traditional practices such as sati and thagi (or thugee, robbery coupled with ritual murder). [Source: Library of Congress]

British Conquest Strategies in India

Taking advantage of a lack of central power, the British Raj took control of India by directly controlling only a small portion of the subcontinent's territory. Using Calcutta and Bengal as a beachhead, Britain expanded southward and then eastward and westward.

The British employed a divide and rule strategy against India’s rulers. The idea was to weaken them and their ability to make trouble for the colonial government by dividing them, and pitting them against one another. The rulers, who had been fighting their neighbors for years, often welcomed the British help. Resistance was easy to crush. The undisciplined Indian forces were no match for the disciplined British forces and their superior firepower and technology.

The British fanned religious rivalry and conflicts between local rulers to keep India as a whole from unifying against them. Among the divide and rule laws were prohibitions against an Indian of one faith marrying someone from a different faith.

The British took control of large states by granted sovereignty of a portion of it to local maharajas and nawabs and were granted political power in exchange for protection and subsidies. The remaining territory they seized for themselves. By 1818, the British controlled Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and a tract of land running north of the Ganges to Delhi. By the mid-19th century, Britain controlled almost all of India either directly or through alliance with semi-autonomous "native states" ruled by rajas or the Mughal puppet-emperor.

The British soon forgot their own rivalry with the Portuguese and the French and permitted them to stay in their coastal enclaves, which they kept even after independence in 1947. The British, however, continued to expand vigorously well into the 1850s. A number of aggressive governors-general undertook relentless campaigns against several Hindu and Muslim rulers. Among them were Richard Colley Wellesley (1798-1805), William Pitt Amherst (1823-28), George Eden (1836-42), Edward Law (1842-44), and James Andrew Brown Ramsay (1848-56; also known as the Marquess of Dalhousie). Despite desperate efforts at salvaging their tottering power and keeping the British at bay, many Hindu and Muslim rulers lost their territories: Mysore (1799, but later restored), the Maratha Confederacy (1818), and Punjab (1849). The British success in large measure was the result not only of their superiority in tactics and weapons but also of their ingenious relations with Indian rulers through the "subsidiary alliance" system, introduced in the early nineteenth century. Many rulers bartered away their real responsibilities by agreeing to uphold British paramountcy in India, while they retained a fictional sovereignty under the rubric of Pax Britannica. Later, Dalhousie espoused the "doctrine of lapse" and annexed outright the estates of deceased princes of Satara (1848), Udaipur (1852), Jhansi (1853), Tanjore (1853), Nagpur (1854), and Oudh (1856). [Source: Library of Congress]

British Administrative Strategies in India

As governor-general from 1786 to 1793, Charles Cornwallis (the Marquis of Cornwallis), professionalized, bureaucratized, and Europeanized the company's administration. He also outlawed private trade by company employees, separated the commercial and administrative functions, and remunerated company servants with generous graduated salaries. Because revenue collection became the company's most essential administrative function, Cornwallis made a compact with Bengali zamindars, who were perceived as the Indian counterparts to the British landed gentry. The Permanent Settlement system, also known as the zamindari system, fixed taxes in perpetuity in return for ownership of large estates; but the state was excluded from agricultural expansion, which came under the purview of the zamindars. In Madras and Bombay, however, the ryotwari (peasant) settlement system was set in motion, in which peasant cultivators had to pay annual taxes directly to the government. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Neither the zamindari nor the ryotwari systems proved effective in the long run because India was integrated into an international economic and pricing system over which it had no control, while increasing numbers of people subsisted on agriculture for lack of other employment. Millions of people involved in the heavily taxed Indian textile industry also lost their markets, as they were unable to compete successfully with cheaper textiles produced in Lancashire's mills from Indian raw materials. *

British Leaders in India

The first English government representative, Governor Council Warren Hasting, changed the tone of English involvement in India from profit-seeking ways of East India Company representatives. He woke up early, rode eight miles before breakfast, abstained from alcohol, enjoyed cold baths and retired before 10:00pm almost every night. Fluent in Persian and Bengali, he set about forming alliance with Indian rulers, teaching his employees to respect Indian culture, and exporting this culture to rest of the world.

Hastings was replaced by George Cornwallis, the same general who surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, and he in turn was replaced in 1798 by Lord Wellesley, who expanding British authority out of Bengal and Madras to almost the entire subcontinent by annexing territory and defeating troublesome threats to British power. He also opened Fort William College in Calcutta, where Englishmen could learn Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit.

One of the most enlightened British rulers was Charles Metcalfe, an Eton-educated Englishman who was named to the powerful position of Resident of Delhi at the age of 27 after he struck up a friendship with Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Ruling over an area half the size of Britain, he managed to quadruple revenues in only six years by encouraging agriculture. At the same time he outlawed capital punishment and abolished slavery.

Important Military Campaigns

During the Mysore war of 1780, a 3,700-man battalion led by Col. William Balliee was defeated by Haider Ali, the sultan of Tipu. Balliee died as a prisoner. The British got revenge in 1799, attacking the sultan's palace, opening the way for he British conquest of South India.

In 1849, the British defeated the Sikhs and took the Punjab Valley and Peshawar Valley. One of the results of this war was that Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu, was given Kashmir as a prize for providing the British with help in their campaign against the Sikhs. This planted the seed for the dispute over Kashmir by Pakistan and India.

Some British officers were very cruel and brutal but many were regarded as fair and were respected. One Pathan old-timer told National Geographic in the 1970s: "The British were good to fight. They were honorable men. When they were about to bombard our villages, they always warned us before hand so we could move our women, children and old people to safety. When the fighting was over, we could sit down and be friends. The “shorawi” [Russians] are not like that." One Sikh man told National Geographic in 1996, "The British did not come here for the climate. They robbed us blind. But they did have a sense of public propriety."

Legal and Education Systems in British India

Beginning with the Mayor's Court, established in 1727 for civil litigation in Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, justice in the interior came under the company's jurisdiction. In 1772 an elaborate judicial system, known as adalat , established civil and criminal jurisdictions along with a complex set of codes or rules of procedure and evidence. Both Hindu pandits and Muslim qazis (sharia court judges) were recruited to aid the presiding judges in interpreting their customary laws, but in other instances, British common and statutory laws became applicable. In extraordinary situations where none of these systems was applicable, the judges were enjoined to adjudicate on the basis of "justice, equity, and good conscience." The legal profession provided numerous opportunities for educated and talented Indians who were unable to secure positions in the company, and, as a result, Indian lawyers later dominated nationalist politics and reform movements. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Education for the most part was left to the charge of Indians or to private agents who imparted instruction in the vernaculars. But in 1813, the British became convinced of their "duty" to awaken the Indians from intellectual slumber by exposing them to British literary traditions, earmarking a paltry sum for the cause. Controversy between two groups of Europeans — the "Orientalists" and "Anglicists" — over how the money was to be spent prevented them from formulating any consistent policy until 1835 when William Cavendish Bentinck, the governor-general from 1828 to 1835, finally broke the impasse by resolving to introduce the English language as the medium of instruction. English replaced Persian in public administration and education. *

The company's education policies in the 1830s tended to reinforce existing lines of socioeconomic division in society rather than bringing general liberation from ignorance and superstition. Whereas the Hindu English-educated minority spearheaded many social and religious reforms either in direct response to government policies or in reaction to them, Muslims as a group initially failed to do so, a position they endeavored to reverse. Western-educated Hindu elites sought to rid Hinduism of its much criticized social evils: idolatry, the caste system, child marriage, and sati. Religious and social activist Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), who founded the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahma) in 1828, displayed a readiness to synthesize themes taken from Christianity, Deism, and Indian monism, while other individuals in Bombay and Madras initiated literary and debating societies that gave them a forum for open discourse. The exemplary educational attainments and skillful use of the press by these early reformers enhanced the possibility of effecting broad reforms without compromising societal values or religious practices. *

After the British Raj Took Over India

After the East India Company was replaced by the British Raj in 1858 many existing economic and revenue policies remained virtually unchanged in the post-1857 period, but several administrative modifications were introduced, beginning with the creation in London of a cabinet post, the secretary of state for India. The governor-general (called viceroy when acting as the direct representative of the British crown), headquartered in Calcutta, ran the administration in India, assisted by executive and legislative councils. Beneath the governor-general were the provincial governors, who held power over the district officials, who formed the lower rungs of the Indian Civil Service. For decades the Indian Civil Service was the exclusive preserve of the British-born, as were the superior ranks in such other professions as law and medicine. The British administrators were imbued with a sense of duty in ruling India and were rewarded with good salaries, high status, and opportunities for promotion. Not until the 1910s did the British reluctantly permit a few Indians into their cadre as the number of English-educated Indians rose steadily. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The viceroy announced in 1858 that the government would honor former treaties with princely states and renounced the "doctrine of lapse," whereby the East India Company had annexed territories of rulers who died without male heirs. About 40 percent of Indian territory and between 20 and 25 percent of the population remained under the control of 562 princes notable for their religious (Islamic, Sikh, Hindu, and other) and ethnic diversity. Their propensity for pomp and ceremony became proverbial, while their domains, varying in size and wealth, lagged behind sociopolitical transformations that took place elsewhere in British-controlled India. A more thorough reorganization was effected in the constitution of army and government finances. Shocked by the extent of solidarity among Indian soldiers during the rebellion, the government separated the army into the three presidencies. *

British attitudes toward Indians shifted from relative openness to insularity and xenophobia, even against those with comparable background and achievement as well as loyalty. British families and their servants lived in cantonments at a distance from Indian settlements. Private clubs where the British gathered for social interaction became symbols of exclusivity and snobbery that refused to disappear decades after the British had left India. In 1883 the government of India attempted to remove race barriers in criminal jurisdictions by introducing a bill empowering Indian judges to adjudicate offenses committed by Europeans. Public protests and editorials in the British press, however, forced the viceroy, George Robinson, Marquis of Ripon (who served from 1880 to 1884), to capitulate and modify the bill drastically. The Bengali Hindu intelligentsia learned a valuable political lesson from this "white mutiny": the effectiveness of well-orchestrated agitation through demonstrations in the streets and publicity in the media when seeking redress for real and imagined grievances. *

Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh

The British largely stayed out of what is now Pakistan as they took control of India. In 1839 established a presence near Karachi and took over the Sindh in 1843 since it was a corridor to Afghanistan, where the Great Game between Britain and Russia was being played out.

After the British government took control of land occupied by the British East India Company after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, the British continued to expand their territory until they occupied present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In the 19th century Britain conquered Nepal and Sri Lanka, incorporating them for a time into India. The British nearly took Tibet but in the end decided it was too much trouble for what is was worth.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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