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British India

Coloured pink, the map shows the British possessions of the Indian sub continent.

British India British India Independent India India since 1947


British involvement in India started with the East India Company, a chartered company of London merchants which gradually transformed trading privileges in Asia into a territorial empire centred on India. By 1700 it had secured important trading ports in, Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, which became the capital of British India. Anglo-French hostility in the mid-18th century meant a struggle for supremacy with the French East India Company, the English commander Robert Clive, out-manoeuvered the French in south India, leaving them with just a few small enclaves. In 1756 the Prince of Bengal captured the company's trading station at Calcutta and put the 146 Europeans he caught into the prison cell known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Only 23 survived the night. Clive defeated the Prince at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 securing Bengal for the Company. This made the East India Company the greatest European trader in India. Increasingly the company acted as an instrument of colonial government serving as Britain's administrators in India. In 1774 Warren Hastings, Governor of Bengal, was made the first Governor General of India. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 caused the India Acts, which transferred control of India from the company to the British government in 1858. This was the time when the Hindi term ‘Raj’ meaning rule came to prominence. The East India Company was finally dissolved in 1873.

The Indian Mutiny started at Meerut in May 1857 when Sepoys in the army of the East India Company, refused to handle new cartridges apparently greased with pig and cow fat, insulting to Muslims and Hindus respectively. It spread rapidly to Delhi and soon included most regiments of the Bengal army and a large section of the civilian population. The mutiny spread to Lucknow, which was besieged, and to Cawnpore, where the massacre of the British garrison, including the wives and children, took place. The recapture of Delhi in September 1857 by the loyalist Sikhs and British reinforcements broke the back of the mutiny, and the rebels were beaten in 1858. Following the restoration of British control, the East India Company's rule was replaced by that of the British Government.

On 1st January 1877  Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India at a Durbar, or assembly of notables and princes, in Delhi. The Sovereign, who incidentally never visited her Indian Empire, was represented by the Viceroy Lord Lytton. The Queen sent a telegram, which read;

' We, Victoria, by the grace of God, Empress of India, and through our Viceroy, to all our officers, civil and military, and to all princes, chiefs, and peoples now at Delhi assembled, send our Royal and Imperial greeting, and assure them of the deep interest and earnest affection with which we regard the people of our Indian Empire. We have witnessed with heartfelt satisfaction the reception they have accorded to our beloved son, and have been touched by their loyalty and attachment to our House and Throne.
We trust the present occasion may tend to unite in bonds of yet closer affection ourselves and our subjects, that from the highest to the humblest all may feel that under our rule the great principles of liberty, equity and justice are secured to them, and that to promote their happiness, to add to their prosperity, and advance their welfare, are the ever-present aims and objects of our Empire'.

The Princely States, bound by treaty to the crown, preserved control over their domestic affairs. Control over the directly ruled territories (about three fifths of the total area) was exercised by the Secretary of State for India. The Sovereign being represented by a Governor General or Viceroy, who being assisted by a council ruled India. The administration was staffed by the Indian Civil Service. The Indian Army, with British officers in charge ensured the Raj's security in conjunction with a British Army garrison. The Raj ended in 1947 with the partitioning and subsequent granting of independence to India and Pakistan on 15th August 1947.

The Princely States numbered more than 500 during the British Raj and although their rulers preserved some autonomy they were bound by treaty to the British. The states, although scattered, made up two fifths of India's territory. Their princes were of many faiths, mainly Hindu and Muslim. Many ruled dictatorially, but a few were more democratic. Many states had been forced to accept indirect British rule during the expansion and eventual control of The East India Company during 1757 to 1857. Mutual rivalries prevented much resistance to British overall control. After 1857, when control of India passed to the British Government, their autonomy was confirmed under British auspices. On Independence in 1947, they came under pressure to join either India or Pakistan. Most acceded peacefully, hoping some of their privileges, would be upheld. Many of the smaller states were grouped together into unions, an example being Rajasthan. Their privileged status was abolished in 1970.

'Mahatma' Gandhi
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was educated in India and Britain, qualifying as a barrister in London. He practised law briefly in India, but moved to South Africa in 1893 until 1914, where he became a successful lawyer. There he developed his technique of satyagraha meaning 'truth-force' or non-violent resistance to obtain equal rights for Indians in South Africa which met with some success. Returning to India, he formed political connections and led Indian nationalists in a series of confrontations with the British Raj. From 1920 he dominated the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885 as an annual meeting of educated Indians who desired a greater share in the government of the Raj. Gandhi initiated the decision by Congress to promote a policy of non-co-operation with the Raj, causing himself frequent prison terms. He led various other campaigns of civil disobedience during the 1930’s and 40’s including the ‘Quit India’ campaign of 1942. With independence for India imminent, he co-operated with the British despite his opposition to partition of India. Gandhi turned the small, upper-middle-class Indian National Congress into a mass movement by adopting a style that would appeal to ordinary Hindus and by creating networks of alliances with other political movements. His acceptance of partition and concern over the treatment of Muslims in India made him enemies among extremist Hindus. He was assassinated in Delhi in 1948. Widely revered before and after his death, he was known as the ‘Mahatma’ meaning 'Great Soul' in Sanskrit.

Before independence it was agreed to partition the 'Raj' because of disagreeing political and religious factions. Fear of persecution after independence caused mass movements of people with Moslems in India heading to Pakistan, and Hindus from Pakistan to India. The areas which form present day Pakistan and Bangladesh were predominately Moslem. Border disputes and wars have hampered the area since. The relations between Pakistan and India remain strained.

India after Partition

India opted to remain within the Commonwealth.
East Pakistan seceded from the West in 1971 to become BangladeshBangladesh and remained in the Commonwealth.
West Pakistan or Pakistan Pakistan left the Commonwealth in 1972 but rejoined in 1989.

1939 Burma 48-74 1948 Burma 74 on 1974 on

1824 saw a threatened invasion of Bengal from the Burmese. Britain responded forcing the provinces of Arakan and Tenasserim to be ceded to Britain. Hostile treatment of British traders caused another attack in 1852 and lower Burma was brought under British rule. Collaboration with the French provoked a further invasion of upper Burma in 1885. Burma was incorporated into the Raj and was also known as India beyond the Ganges. In 1937 Burma became a Crown Colony with a certain degree of autonomy. The Japanese invaded in 1942, welcomed at first by the nationalist movements, who then shifted their allegiance to the British to oust the Japanese. Independence was granted on 4th January 1948. Burma did not join the Commonwealth.

Britain  Sri LankaSri Lanka

The Portuguese were the first to set up trading posts, being ousted by the Dutch, superseded by the English East India Company in 1795 and becoming a colony in 1802. The interior Kingdom of Kandy was left until 1815. An autonomous constitution was put in place in 1931 but Ceylon remained a Crown Colony until 4th February 1948 when it was granted independence as a dominion within the Commonwealth.
Constitutional changes in 1972 renamed Ceylon and created the Republic of Sri Lanka, which remains in the Commonwealth.


In 1769 an invasion by the Ghurkas brought the present ruling dynasty to power. They ruled with absolute power from Katmandu over the indigenous Nepalese peoples. Incursion into north-west India led to a border war from 1814 until 1816 that resulted in the Treaty of Katmandu which gave the British territorial concessions. Effective rule then passed to a family of hereditary prime ministers, the Ranas, who co-operated closely with the British. Ghurkas were recruited into the British and Indian armies. There is still the Ghurka Regiment in the present British Army.


In 1774 Bhutan and the East India Company signed a treaty of co-operation. This, however, did not stop the Bhutanese from cross border raids into India, and in 1864 Ashley Eden went on an abortive attempt to secure a treaty, but his visit resulted in war. Eventually a treaty was signed in 1865, which allowed Britain to supervise Bhutan's external affairs. This role was transferred to British India in 1910, and to the newly independent Indian government in 1947. Bhutan became independent  from India on 8th August 1949.