By the beginning of the 18th century, the Mughal governor of Bengal was virtually independent from Mughal control, but he lost control to the British East India Company, which after 1775 was the effective ruler of the vast area, which also included the Indian states of West Bengal, Odisha (Orissa), Jharkhand, and Bihar.

The Indian subcontinent had had indirect relations with Europe by both overland caravans and maritime routes, dating back to the fifth century B.C. The lucrative spice trade with India had been mainly in the hands of Arab merchants. By the fifteenth century, European traders had come to believe that the commissions they had to pay the Arabs were prohibitively high and therefore sent out fleets in search of new trade routes to India. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The arrival of the Europeans in the last quarter of the fifteenth century marked a great turning point in the history of the subcontinent. The dynamics of the history of the subcontinent came to be shaped chiefly by the Europeans' political and trade relations with India as India was swept into the vortex of Western power politics. The arrival of the Europeans generally coincided with the gradual decline of Mughal power, and the subcontinent became an arena of struggle not only between Europeans and the indigenous rulers but also among the Europeans.

Colonial Powers in Bangladesh

Beginning in the 15th century, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English traders all showed interest in Bangladesh. Portuguese traders and missionaries were the first Europeans to reach Bengal in the latter part of the 15th century. They traded extensively out Chittagong where they established their own quarter and established several churches.

The Portuguese were followed by representatives of the Dutch, the French, and the British East India Companies. By the end of the 17th century, the British presence on the Indian subcontinent was centered in Calcutta, which is in Bengal. The arrival of the French and British East India Companies in the early 18th century coincided with Mughal decline, the death of Emperor Auranzeb, and an intense period of competition and conflict between Britain and France. By the middle of the 18th century, the British emerged supreme in what they created as the Bengal Presidency, establishing themselves in Calcutta and expanding with alacrity into all of what is now Bangladesh, as well as the Indian states of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Orissa. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

From Calcutta, British traders and administrators successfully played off rivalries among the satraps of the late Mughal empire to gain control of most of the subcontinent in the years between the Battle of Plassey in 1756 and the assumption of the company's domain by the British Crown in 1859. Calcutta remained the seat of British power in the subcontinent and the center of British control over the Indian Empire until 1931 when the capital was moved to the new city of New Delhi, adjacent to the traditional seat of Mughal power in old Delhi.

British Claim Bengal and Bangladesh

The British East India Company, a private company, was formed in 1600 during the reign of Akbar and operating under a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I. It established a major settlement in Bengal in 1633 and opened a factory on the Hooghly River in Bengal in 1650 and founded the city of Calcutta in 1690.

Although the initial aim of the British East India Company was to seek trade under concessions obtained from local Mughal governors, the steady collapse of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858) enticed the company to take a more direct involvement in the politics and military activities of the subcontinent. Capitalizing on the political fragmentatian of South Asia, the British ultimately rose to supremacy through military expeditions, annexation, bribery, and playing one party off against another. Aside from the superior military power of the British, their ascendancy was fostered by the tottering economic foundations of the local rulers, which had been undermined by ravaging dynastic wars and the consequent displacement of the peasants from the land, which was the principal source of state revenue. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Encouraged by the French, Siraj ud Daulah, nawab (ruler) and governor of Bengal, unwisely provoked a military confrontation with the British at Plassey in 1757. He was defeated by Robert Clive, an adventurous young official of the British East India Company. Clive's victory was consolidated in 1764 at the Battle of Buxar on the Ganges, where he defeated the Mughal emperor. With the Mogul empire in decline, the Nawab of Bengal sold his land in Bengal. Upon entering Dhaka in 1757, Clive said, "This city is as extensive, populous and rich as the city of London." For many years Bengal was the richest part of the British Empire.

As a result of their victory ar Plassey, the British East India Company was granted the title of diwan (collector of the revenue) in the areas of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, making it the supreme, but not titular, governing power. In 1765. The British East India Company establishes control over the administration of the territory of Bengal. Henceforth the British would govern Bengal and from there extend their rule to all of India.

By the middle of the 18th century, the British established themselves in Calcutta and expanded quickly into all of what is now Bangladesh. By 1815 the supremacy of the British East India Company was unchallengeable. By the 1850s British control and influence had extended into territories essentially the same as those that became the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947.

British traders and officials gained control of most of the Indian subcontinent by 1859, when the British Crown replaced the East India Company, extending British dominion from Bengal, which became a region of India, in the east to the Indus River in the west. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

British Rule in Bangladesh

Beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the foundations of British rule were effectively laid, the British government showed increasing interest in the welfare of the people of India, feeling the need to curb the greed, recklessness, and corrupt activities of the private British East India Company. Beginning in 1773, the British Parliament sought to regulate the company's administration. By 1784 the company was made responsible to Parliament for its civil and military affairs and was transformed into an instrument of British foreign policy. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Some new measures introduced in the spirit of government intervention clearly did not benefit the people of Bengal. The Permanent Settlement (Landlease Act) of Lord Charles Cornwallis in 1793, which regulated the activities of the British agents and imposed a system of revenue collection and landownership, stands as a monument to the disastrous effects of the good intentions of Parliament. The traditional system for collecting land taxes involved the zamindars, who exercised the dual function of revenue collectors and local magistrates. The British gave the zamindars the status and rights of landlords, modeled mainly on the British landed gentry and aristocracy. Under the new system the revenue-collecting rights were often auctioned to the highest bidders, whether or not they had any knowledge of rural conditions or the managerial skills necessary to improve agriculture. Agriculture became a matter of speculation among urban financiers, and the traditional personal link between the resident zamindars and the peasants was broken. Absentee landlordship became commonplace, and agricultural development stagnated.

British policy viewed colonies as suppliers of raw materials and purchasers of manufactured goods. The British conquest of India coincided with the Industrial Revolution in Britain, led by the mechanization of the textile industry. As a result of the British policy of dumping machine-made goods in the subcontinent, India's domestic craft industries were thoroughly ruined, and its trade and commerce collapsed. Eastern Bengal was particularly hard hit. Muslin cloth from Dhaka had become popular in eighteenth-century Europe until British muslin drove it off the market.

Reminders of British rule include the English language, the railway system, the style of government, the bureaucracy, policemen uniforms,

British Cultural Influence on Bangladesh

Most British subjects who had served with the British East India Company until the end of the eighteenth century were content with making profits and leaving the Indian social institutions untouched. A growing number of Anglican and Baptist evangelicals in Britain, however, felt that social institutions should be reformed. There was also the demand in Britain, first articulated by member of Parliament and political theorist Edmund Burke, that the company's government balance its exploitative practices with concern for the welfare of the Indian people. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The influential utilitarian theories of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill stated that societies could be reformed by proper laws. Influenced in part by these factors, British administrators in India embarked on a series of social and administrative reforms that were not well received by the conservative elements of Bengali society. Emphasis was placed on the introduction of Western philosophy, technology, and institutions rather than on the reconstruction of native institutions. The early attempts by the British East India Company to encourage the use of Sanskrit and Persian were abandoned in favor of Western science and literature; elementary education was taught in the vernacular, but higher education in English. The stated purpose of secular education was to produce a class of Indians instilled with British cultural values. Persian was replaced with English as the official language of the government. A code of civil and criminal procedure was fashioned after British legal formulas. In the field of social reforms, the British suppressed what they considered to be inhumane practices, such as suttee (self-immolation of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands), female infanticide, and human sacrifice.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “Well-to-do Hindus in Bengal generally prospered under the British, apparently taking more easily to British ways and British law than the numerically dominant Muslims. The Muslim aristocracy of eastern Bengal — feudal barons under the Mughals — resisted British rule. By the turn of the 20th century, both communities had begun to develop a political-cum-cultural consciousness of their own in reaction to the Western culture brought by the British.” [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Sepoy Mutinee

On May 10, 1857, Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army, drawn mostly from Muslim units from Bengal, mutinied at the Meerut cantonment near Delhi, starting a year-long insurrection against the British. The mutineers then marched to Delhi and offered their services to the Mughal emperor, whose predecessors had suffered an ignoble defeat 100 years earlier at Plassey. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The uprising, which seriously threatened British rule in India, has been called many names by historians, including the Sepoy Rebellion, the Great Mutiny, and the Revolt of 1857; many people of the subcontinent, however, prefer to call it India's "first war of independence." The insurrection was sparked by the introduction of cartridges rumored to have been greased with pig or cow fat, which was offensive to the religious beliefs of Muslim and Hindu sepoys (soldiers). In a wider sense, the insurrection was a reaction by the indigenous population to rapid changes in the social order engineered by the British over the preceding century and an abortive attempt by the Muslims to resurrect a dying political order.

When mutinous units finally surrendered on June 20, 1858, the British exiled Emperor Bahadur Shah to Burma, thereby formally ending the Mughal Empire. As a direct consequence of the revolt, the British also dissolved the British East India Company and assumed direct rule over India, beginning the period of the British Raj. British India was thereafter headed by a governor general (called viceroy when acting as the direct representative of the British crown). The governor general, who embodied the supreme legislative and executive authority in India, was responsible to the secretary of state for India, a member of the British cabinet in London.

Reappraisal of British Policy

The uprising precipitated a dramatic reappraisal of British policy — in effect a retreat from the reformist and evangelical zeal that had accompanied the rapid territorial expansion of British rule. This policy was codified in Queen Victoria's proclamation of 1858 delivered to "The Princes, Chiefs, and Peoples of India." Formal annexations of princely states virtually ceased, and the political boundaries between British territories and the princely states became frozen. By this time the British territories occupied about 60 percent of the subcontinent, and some 562 princely states of varying size occupied the remainder. The relationship the British maintained with the princely states was governed by the principle of paramountcy, whereby the princely states exercised sovereignty in their internal affairs but relinquished their powers to conduct their external relations to Britain, the paramount power. Britain assumed responsibility for the defense of the princely states and reserved the right to intervene in cases of maladministration or gross injustice. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Despite Queen Victoria's promise in 1858 that all subjects under the British crown would be treated equally under the law, the revolt left a legacy of mistrust between the ruler and the ruled. In the ensuing years, the British often assumed a posture of racial arrogance as "sahibs" who strove to remain aloof from "native contamination." This attitude was perhaps best captured in Rudyard Kipling's lament that Englishmen were destined to "take up the white man's burden."

As a security precaution, the British increased the ratio of British to Indian troops following the mutiny. In 1857 British India's armies had had 45,000 Britons to 240,000 Indian troops. By 1863 this ratio had changed to a "safer mix" of 65,000 British to 140,000 Indian soldiers. In the aftermath of the revolt, which had begun among Bengalis in the British Indian Army, the British formed an opinion, later refined as a theory, that there were martial and nonmartial races in India. The nonmartial races included the Bengalis; the martial included primarily the Punjabis and the Pathans, who supported the British during the revolt.

The transfer of control from the British East India Company to the British crown accelerated the pace of development in India. A great transformation took place in the economy in the late nineteenth century. The British authorities quickly set out to improve inland transportation and communications systems, primarily for strategic and administrative reasons. By 1870 an extended network of railroads, coupled with the removal of internal customs barriers and transit duties, opened up interior markets to domestic and foreign trade and improved links between what is now Bangladesh and Calcutta. India also found itself within the orbit of worldwide markets, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Foreign trade, though under virtual British monopoly, was stimulated. India exported raw materials for world markets, and the economy was quickly transformed into a colonial agricultural arm of British industry.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.