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British Rule in India

For better or worse, the British Empire played an important role in shaping modern India. It was considered as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ for the British Empire due to its resources and location. In 1858, British Raj was established in India, ending a century of control by the East India Company.

Britain kept India under its rule for almost a century, denying independence to a country with a population more than 10 times larger than its own. This period of turmoil marked the nature of political, social and economic rule that the British established in its wake.

India gained its independence from Britian in 1947, after decades of clashes and protesting, mostly thanks to the fundamental contribution of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.

Here we want to take a brief look at the history of the British Empire in India and how it has transformed India today:

Highlights

  • The British rule in India started with the East India Company, a private company owned by stakeholders
  • The British Crown established the Raj in 1858 to control the Indian subcontinent, a political role that existed for almost a century
  • The anti-colonialism movement emerged in response to the “divide and rule” approach used by the British
  • Gandhi, and his revolutionary methods of protest, played a pivotal role in Indian independence
  • India became independent from British rule on 15 August 1947.
  • The most tangible legacy of the British are of course the railway, the colonial architecture, and the Anglo-Indian cuisine

The history of the British rule in India

The history of the British rule in the Indian subcontinent is long, complicated, and covering it all would be impossible. Here we have gathered some basic information to help you understand how it started, what was characterized by, and how it finally came to an end.

The Rise of the British

To set up factories in areas where European traders had settled in India the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English acquired land, established companies, and fought numerous wars both against Indian rulers and one another.

Ultimately, the English became the victors in the race to colonize India by gaining large territories from the Dutch by the end of the 17th century. They were also able to gain territory from the French through three wars fought between 1740 and 1763.

The beginning of the English stronghold in India was in the early 17th century when the English East India Company was acquiring territory in North India from the Mughal emperors through trade concessions.

From 1773, the English Parliament started to exercise some control over the East India Company. The company was under the supervision of Governor Warren Hastings and his successors. Through them, English expansion in India continued quickly with major wars fought against the Marathas, the Punjabis, and the Tipu Sultan in Mysore.

British control of India was reinforced by conquering or buying other Indian states. They also installed a series of policies to exert control such as the Subsidiary Alliance (states were main to maintain British troops and allow a British advisor) and the Doctrine of Lapse (states were given to the Company if a ruler died without a direct male heir).

Through these methods, the East India Company’s control extended over much of India and became very profitable.

Pax Britannica & the British East India Company

The Pax Britannica was established during a long period of peace between the Great Powers, with the British Empire becoming a global hegemonic power. The British Royal Navy was an unchallenged sea power, and it held a dominant position in world trade.

The East India Company was a private company owned by stakeholders, and it managed to rule until 1857, when Indians rebelled against it. After the rebellion, the Company was dismantled, and the British government began to directly administer the Indian subcontinent.

The main purpose of the British Raj was of course to gain economic profit and political control, but it also managed to unify the subcontinent, introduce western education, a centralized administrative system, a network of railways, etc. Under the Raj, economy grew 1% every year for 40 years, and the same is true for the population.

However, it is important to not forget that during the rule of the British Raj, India suffered some of the worst famines of its long history: during the Great Famine of 1876-78, about 8 million people died; and more about 10 million people died during the famine of 1899-1900. According to historians, these famines were made even more sever by British policies.

Towards self-government

The rise of the Indian nationalism is one of the most important events of the 19th century, caused by a clash of interests with the British, racial discriminations or the revelation of India’s past (historians disagree on the matter).

The anti-colonial movement started when the British split Bengal in two – one half Muslim, one half Hindu. The people of Bengal were obviously outraged, and the province was finally reunited in 1911.

Even though there were not a lot of British in India, they ruled over 52% of the country, and had a considerable leverage on princely states who governed on the remaining portion of the subcontinent. Indian people started gaining recognition when the Crown appointed some Indian Counsellors to advise the British viceroy, and when provincial councils with Indian members were established.

However, despite these concessions, the British kept ruling the country sometimes with an iron fist: a sad reminder of this attitude is the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, when British troops opened fire on peaceful protestors. The massacre led to the Non-cooperation Movement of 1920-22 and, after that, leaders like Gandhi began to popularize peaceful methods to contrast the British.

World War I

The relationship between Britain and India was never been the same after World War I. When the war broke out, Britain declared war on Germany on India’s behalf without consulting Indian leaders. About 1.4 million Indians joined the British army (43,000 of which died) and their participation had a huge cultural impact.

A major turning point came in 1919 when an unarmed crowd protesting against the suppression of civil liberties was fired upon by British troops. More than 300 people died in this incident sparking outrage and uniting Indians of all different castes and religions.

During the period after WWI, there were many Indians who were eager for independence. Gandhi became an extremely important political figure and gained the leadership of the National Movement by 1920. Gandhi’s charismatic appeal to the poor of India pushed the struggle for freedom into a massive movement.

Gandhi’s independence strategy was to launch a resistance (satyagraha) that advocated using peaceful tactics over violence. At first, the movement for freedom was ruthlessly suppressed by the British.

India gained independence in 1947 after the weakening of Britain in another World War and the non-stop efforts by Gandhi and other freedom fighters.

Today, visitors can learn about Indian independence at the Rajghat in New Delhi which the site of Gandhi’s cremation. All foreign heads of state that visit India are taken to this memorial to lay garlands of orange marigolds in memory of the “Father of the Nation”. Travelers can also visit the National Gandhi Museum in Mumbai.

World War II

Once again, India hugely contributed to the British war effort. The princely states donated troops and an important amount of cash. During WWII, India had an astonishing 2.5 million volunteer army, and more than 87.000 Indian soldiers died in action.

During this time, the independence movement was at its peak, and the vast majority of the population resented the British. About 30,000 Indians were recruited by Germany and Japan to fight against the Allies in exchange for their freedoms – however, most Indians remained loyal.

Gandhi kept demonstrating against the British Rule and, in 1935, the Government of India Act established provincial legislatures across the colony. A federal government was created and the right to vote was granted to about 10% of the male population.

Partition and independence

In 1942, Britain sent an envoy to India. Sir Stafford Cripps, offering future dominion statues and asking for more soldiers. However, Gandhi didn’t trust the envoy and demanded immediate independence. The movement “Quit India” was launched, with many people asking for the immediate withdrawal of Britain from the subcontinent.

The British responded by arresting Gandhi and his wife. Protesters arose all across the country, but the British army crushed them. By this time, the British Raj was about to came to an end.

In 1946, Hindus and Muslims started a violent fight; and in 1947, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs agreed to divide India along sectarian lines, with the Muslim area becoming Pakistan. Millions of refugees crossed the border in both directions, and about 500,000 people were killed in sectarian violence. Pakistan finally became independent on August 14, 1947, India, the day after.

Learn more about the History of India and religion in India.

English bequest in India

Besides the main historical events, it is important to also look at what was the effect of the British rule on the country. Every history of colonialism has a complex legacy: in this case, for some historians the British rule greatly improved the country and helped it to come out of poverty; for others, the British left India poorer than before. The controversy is endless.

Our purpose here is to state some undisputable facts about the British legacy, some of which can be still witnessed today.

Railways

The railways built by the British are an infinite paradox: they are the biggest gift left by the colonialists, but they were not meant to serve the locals. The vast rail network greatly facilitated commerce and travel, creating an infrastructure that India had never seen. They greatly contributed to shape of India we know today – but they were also seen as the principal instrument of colonialization.

railway The railways built by the British are an infinite paradox

The construction of railways in India began in 1853 as a blatant instrument of military control. Together the Great Indian Peninsular Railway which included the East India Company’s two lines in eastern and South India along with the Calcutta-Delhi line and Allahabad-Jabalpur line created a 4,000-mile rail network spanning the width of the country.

By 1880, the length of the railways reached 9,000 miles and new passenger amenities such as toilets and gas lamps were introduced to the trains. Later, the first-class compartment in the trains was decorated with washbasins, polished wood, linen curtains, and carpets to provide the English with the comforts that they had back in the Kingdom.

The English rulers traveled in style with several servants in attendance. The third-class passengers, who were virtually all Indians, were treated very differently and didn’t receive such comforts. This unfair treatment greatly contributed to the birth of nationalistic sentiment.

train Today, getting on an Indian train is a unique experience for travelers

Today, getting on an Indian train is a unique experience for travelers. The trains carry 18 million passengers daily on 17,000 trains over around 64,000 kilometers of track. If you want to travel around the country while taking in views of the countryside, then traveling on a train is the way to go.

A range of luxury trains are available for travelers. The Maharajas’ Express offers cabins ranging from deluxe to suites that are decorated with brass trim and Indian prints. They offer routes across the state of Rajasthan.

The Palace on Wheels is one of the first luxury trains that was dedicated to leisure and previously catered to royalty and dignitaries. The route is a seven-night journey across North India and provides one of the most comprehensive insights into the country.

Palace on Wheels The Palace on Wheels is one of the first luxury trains that was dedicated to leisure

To encourage travelers to explore alternative and less-visited parts of India, the Deccan Odyssey train provides routes in Maharashtra and the Deccan regions in central India. The train is well equipped with wooden furniture, local materials, dining cars, a lounge, a spa, and even includes a butler for each car.

Colonial architecture

The British began to build several architectural masterpieces in the late 19th century as can be seen in New Delhi and Kolkata.

New Delhi's colonial architecture

Buildings like the Viceroy’s residence and Parliament House are excellent examples of this style that mixes the English school of architecture with traditional Indian additions.

The architect responsible for the overall plan of Delhi was Sir Edwin Lutyen, who did most of his architectural design and building during the period of the British Raj. He also designed the Viceroy House (Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the Classical Secretariat buildings, which house several ministries including the prime minister’s office.

Rashtrapati Bhavan Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Viceroy House, was during the period of the British Raj
 

If you visit New Delhi, be sure not to miss visiting the House of Parliament, Rashtrapati Bhawan, the Central Secretariat, the Supreme Court of India, India Gate, the Statue Canopy and the National Stadium. Know more about Top 10 Places to Visit in Delhi.

When staying in New Delhi, booking an elegant Colonial-era heritage hotel will surely add to your travel experience, especially for travelers who are interested in culture. These establishments have modern amenities with an old-style class that will take you back to colonial times.

The Imperial Hotel, which is designed as part of Lutyens’ grand vision of New Delhi, is one of the best spots to experience both Colonial and modern Delhi. The Claridges and the Maidens hotels both offer classic style and great views of the Delhi Ridge.

Besides New Delhi, the evidence of India’s colonial past can also be seen in Kolkata which was the original capital of the British Empire.

Kolkata's colonial architecture

Kolkata, or Calcutta, is a city with imposing Victorian gothic buildings, churches, and boulevards. The grandeur of the city lies in its mixture of distinct colonial design and the Indian culture and style that has recently broken in.

Examples of colonial buildings in the city include St John’s Church, whose design was based on London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields; the Writer’s Building, which was is the hub of colonial India from 1777; and the General Post Office, which was served as the post office for the East India Company.

The Victoria Memorial, Kolkata’s most celebrated landmark, is a spectacular symbol of the zenith of the British Empire in India. This domed Neo-Classical structure was built with marble from Makrana and was financed by donations from princes and ordinary citizens. The memorial was completed in 1921, along with the marble statue of Queen Victoria that sits outside the entrance.

Victoria Memorial The Victoria Memorial, is a spectacular symbol of the zenith of the British Empire in India
 

The Memorial is now a museum, with 25 galleries filling up the first floors. The galleries have an excellent collection of Raj memorabilia, oil paintings, and watercolor paintings of the city’s history and landscapes.

Cemeteries of the Raj Era

There are several cemeteries built by the British all over India. One of the most important ones is the British Cemetery at Lovedale, Ootacamund, which opened in 1832. There are 124 tombs, of which 110 are of British Christians.

The Garrison Cemetery, in Srirangapatna, has 307 tombs of the British Army. The tombs are ornate with Neoclassical and Egyptian motifs (like obelisks, urns, and columns).

These are just two of the thousands European cemeteries present in India today. Many of them today are in a serious state of decay. Some are currently being restored, as more people are enquiring of their heritage. They see this as a lasting sign of the English hegemony or if now they are part of the Indian culture.

Raj cuisine

Raj cuisine – better known as Anglo-Indian cuisine – is the cuisine that sparkled from the interaction between the British wives and their Indian cooks.

The British developed a taste for Indian cuisine – especially for curries, made less spicy – and introduced some dishes like chutneys, salted beef tongue, ball curry, and mulligatawny soup.

Some famous Raj dishes

Maybe the most famous of these dishes is chicken tikka masala, apparently invented in Glasgow in the 70’s. Chutneys are another staple food of the Anglo-Indian cuisine: they are made with cooked and sweetened fruit, nuts or vegetables, giving it a sweet and tangy flavor. Pish pash, a rice soup with small pieces of meat, is another popular dish.

Anglo-Indian stew is made with any kind of meat spiced with a combination of Western and Indian flavors, which is true also for the mulligatawny soup (a chicken soup flavored with Indian spices).

Some famous Raj drinks

The British soldiers living in India were always longing for the tastes of their home country, especially beer. Beer will often spoil during the long trips, therefore the British brewers resolved this by adding more hops (a flower plant or also called seed cones) – the India Pale Ales descends from this practice.

Beside beer, also gin and tonics owe their existence to British colonialism. The quinine was used to fight malarial (a property already known to the Romans), and the British tried to made a cocktail out of it, combining the medicinal quinine syrup and the gin to create a uniquely pleasant beverage. Lime and sugar where used to cover the bitter taste of the quinine.

English influence on the languages of India

The Indian subcontinent is extremely diversified, and it is home to a wide array of different languages. In India, there are 22 official languages, 150 major languages and 1,652 languages and dialects.

When the Indian and the British culture collided together over a long period of time, their two languages began to influence each other, with words from one language being assimilated into the other.

Status of the English language in India

Nowadays, alongside Hindi, the Constitution of India indicates English as the second official language of the country. Approximately 86 million Indians stated that English is their second language, while 39 million reported it as their third language. Less than the 0.1% of the Indian population uses English as their first language.

English, despite the constant pressure from nationalist, remains embedded in Indian society. It is used in the media and higher education. It is normally used among the ruling class and speakers that don’t have the same first language.

South Asian English (or “Hinglish”)

In term of pronunciation, many Indian speakers – as well as in many other South Asian countries – do not differentiate the “v” and the “w” sound. Sometimes, they replace the “th” sound with a “t” or a “d”.

Another common phenomenon is code-switching: mixing words, phrases and sometimes even whole sentences from one language to another within the same conversation. Sometimes, the use of Hindi words can communicate a sense of shared identity with other speakers.

…and the influence of Hindi on English

There are tons of words that are used today in modern English that derived from Hindi. Some of the most famous ones are:

  • Avatar – in Sanskrit, it means “incarnation”
  • Guru – Sanskrit for “teacher”subcontinent, a political role that existed for almost a century
  • Zen – The English word actually comes from the Chinese “Chan”, which is a derivation of the Sanskrit “Dhyana”
  • Mandra – Sanskrit for “incantation” or “chant”
  • Jaggernaut – it derives from “Jagannath”, the name of Vishnu
  • Shampoo – From “champo” that means “massage into hair”
  • Bungalow – “Bangla”, a kind of house
  • Pajamas – from “Paijama”, a “leg garment”
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