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The Xenophile Historian

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A Concise History of India


1500 to 1906

This chapter covers the following topics:
Sufis and Sikhs
The Moguls Ascendant
The Mogul Zenith
Sri Lanka: The Kandyan Kingdom and European Intervention
The Moguls Besieged
The West Moves In
From Competitors to Conquerors
The British Impact and the Sepoy Mutiny
High Noon of the Raj
The Growth of Indian Nationalism
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Sufis and Sikhs

The coming of Islam mainly affected those Indians living in the cities; in the countryside everyday life for the Hindus continued with few changes. The changes that did occur were largely economic. Moslem merchants introduced paper from China, the water wheel from Persia, and Persian styles in metalworking and cuisine (e.g., kebabs and yogurt-based dishes). Indian converts to Islam often came from trades like elephant handlers, weavers, and butchers, whose customers were now mostly Moslem. Candy makers, on the other hand, stayed Hindu, because for them that was where the money was.(1) Hindu and Jain bankers also saw good days for their business, because the Koran prohibited Moslems from lending money with interest.

Despite the fundamental differences between Hinduism and Islam, some attempts were made to find a common ground between the faiths. One got started before Islam came to India. This was a form of mysticism called Sufism. Islam, as practiced in the Middle East, follows a rigid code of laws that many consider restrictive and unsatisfactory. Some individuals noted that Mohammed got his revelations by meditating in caves, and they tried similar practices, seeking a personal relationship with God. They were called Sufis, because of the suf (wool) robes they wore in imitation of Christian monks. There are hundreds of Sufi orders in Islam today, the most famous being the "Whirling Dervishes" of Turkey; all look to find God through emotional experiences, even if the laws of the Koran have to be thrown away in the process.

Outside of Turkey, Sufism has been limited to a few very spiritual people in the Middle East, because orthodox Moslems regard it as almost a heresy. However, it got a different reception in India. Often Sufis would form bands of fakirs, preaching the message of the Prophet and going into trances to achieve spiritual union with God. This looked a lot like what the gurus had been practicing for the previous two thousand years, so Hindus readily accepted it. The Hindus came to respect all kinds of Sufis, even (or should I say especially) the fearsome warriors who slaughtered Hindus in battle. When Sufis died and were buried, Hindus and Moslems came to pay their respects, though for different reasons; Moslems regarded the departed Sufis as saints, while Hindus venerated them as gods. Women especially worshiped them because they believed Sufis had the power to cure barrenness. Since most Sufi holy men were buried at religious schools, where Hindus were not allowed to come in, it became a common practice for Hindus to leave flowers and other offerings to the dead hero outside the walls of the schools.

The religious traffic was not all one-way. Around the year 1500 the ideas of two Hindus produced Sikhism. The first was a low-caste weaver from Benares named Kabir (1440-1518), who wrote popular religious poetry. Influenced by Sufism, Kabir stated that there was no need for temples, idols or prophets. God, he taught, was everywhere, and those who know how to look will recognize Him.

Many of Kabir's verses went into the Sikh "Bible," but the real founder was a Punjabi named Nanak (1469-1538). Never satisfied with the Hinduism his family practiced, he became a Sufi. His wanderings in search of the truth took him all over India, to Sri Lanka, and even to Mecca. Finally in 1523 he returned to the Punjab, and there he spent the rest of his life teaching his beliefs.

Nanak subscribed to the Islamic view that there is only one god, but like Kabir he rejected formal modes of worship and denied that any religion had the "one true way" to find God. Virtuous conduct, humility, love, sincerity, justice, modesty, truth and charity are the only things that matter and are more important than any form of worship.

On that foundation Sikhism developed its own unique practices that distinguish it from both Hinduism and Islam. Sikhism evolved its own system of writing, and the city of Amritsar became a holy city after the Sikhs built their main shrine, the Golden Temple, in it. All Sikhs have the surname Singh, meaning "Lion," and the men make themselves conspicuous by wearing beards, turbans, and a dagger (or a dagger-shaped piece of jewelry in places where weapons are prohibited). Most of the order's new members were converts from Hinduism, resulting in the gradual adoption of Hindu customs and an alienation from Islam. The fourth guru after Nanak was executed in 1607 for taking part in an unsuccessful rebellion against the Mogul emperor Jahangir and thus became Sikhism's first martyr. The next gurus transformed Sikhism into a military order, teaching both tactics and theology. In 1699 they founded a sworn brotherhood of fighting Sikhs and launched another rebellion against the Moguls, this time proclaiming to their followers that the surest way to get to Heaven is by dying in battle or killing a Moslem officer.

The Sikhs were the last and toughest opponents of British dominion, but once conquered they became loyal subjects and valued recruits for the Anglo-Indian army. Today the Sikhs number twenty million strong, and in the 1980s made an unsuccessful bid to create a state of their own that would have been independent from both India and Pakistan. It is ironic that Sikhism was founded to unite Hinduism and Islam, but instead created a third religion to further divide Indian society.

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The Moguls Ascendant

The name Mogul is a corruption of the word Mongol because the Mogul Empire's founder, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, was descended from the Mongol leaders; his father was a great-great-grandson of Timur, and his mother was a 12th-generation descendant of Genghis Khan. Babur became the last Timurid monarch of the Central Asian city-state of Ferghana in 1494, at the age of eleven, when his father fell off the balcony of his cliffside palace. He inherited his father's enemies along with his throne. At home he had to deal with plots and intrigues; his relatives tried to steal Ferghana from him. In 1500 he tried to take Samarkand, the original Timurid capital, but was beaten to it by the Uzbeks, a Turkic tribe that was moving from Kazakhstan to its present-day home between the Amu Dar'ya and Syr Dar'ya Rivers. Meanwhile Babur's younger brother usurped his throne in his absence, turning him into a fugitive.

Babur wandered in search of a home, accompanied by his followers and refugees from the Uzbeks. He found one when he captured the city of Kabul in 1505, but attempts to recover his Central Asian emirate got him nowhere. Nor was there much point in invading Persia. Persia had just come under the rule of a vigorous Shiite group, the Safavids, and the first Safavid ruler, Shah Ismail I, was his friend. In 1510 Ismail invaded Central Asia, killed the Uzbek chief, Muhammad Khan Shaibani, made a gilded cup out of Shaibani's skull, and sent it to Babur as a gift. Despite that victory, Babur still could not make a comeback in the land of his ancestors. Finally in 1525, "Tired of wandering about like a king on a chessboard," Babur turned east and started a new empire for himself in India.


When Babur crossed the Indus, he found out that Lahore, the main city of the Punjab, was in revolt against Ibrahim Lodi, the last sultan of Delhi. Babur took Lahore first, then went to meet Ibrahim's army on the plain of Panipat, ten miles north of Delhi, in April 1526. His chances should have been hopeless; Babur had 12,000 men, while Ibrahim had 100,000 men and 1,000 war elephants. However, Ibrahim did not have any guns, and even worse, did not know what he was doing.(2)

Babur put the tactics learned during his years of wandering to the test: he dug ditches, made barricades out of branches, lashed together carts to form another defensive position, and picked locations to hide his cavalry, musketeers, and artillery. By contrast, Ibrahim made a simple frontal charge; he must have figured that with 8:1 odds in his favor, tactics did not matter. Babur encouraged Ibrahim to attack his stockades along a narrow front, which kept most of Ibrahim's army confined to a narrow space and canceled their numerical advantage. From Babur's defenses the gunfire of cannon and matchlock muskets mowed down Ibrahim's troops; meanwhile Babur's mounted archers charged at the unwieldy Indian army on both flanks, turning it into a panicked mob. Ibrahim was killed, along with 15,000 of his troops; his head was brought to Babur, and Babur was declared "Emperor of Hindustan."

Babur had to fight two more battles after this one. The first to dispute his authority was Rana Sana Singh, the leader of the Rajputs; in 1527 he marched to the village of Khandwa, about 40 miles from Agra, with an army many times larger than Babur's. That, coupled with tales of Rajput invincibility, demoralized the Moguls. Babur saved the day by reminding his troops that they were fighting a holy war against infidels; then he proved he was a good Moslem by renouncing wine, a vice he was greatly fond of. Three hundred nobles and troops followed their leader in taking that pledge. The same defensive strategy that had worked at Panipat was used here, and the soldiers fought the Rajputs with desperate courage, knowing that a defeat would be the end of everything for them. They prevailed, and though Rana Sana Singh escaped, he died of his wounds before the year was over. One month later Babur defeated Ibrahim's brother Mahmud, on the banks of the Ganges, and his domain rested easy at last.

Because of his mountaineer background, Babur detested the climate and customs of India and only accepted his new role because it was Allah's will. He wrote that the people were unattractive, dull-witted, and without any skill in mechanics or architecture. Moreover, India lacked all the good things he missed from his Central Asian home: good horses, good meat, good bread, good fruits, ice water, colleges, baths, and even candles. During the monsoon season the rains ruined bows, armor, books, clothes and furniture; during the dry season the air was full of choking dust. He missed his favorite food, Central Asian cantaloupes, most of all. India's only good qualities were its vast manpower and wealth.

His troops felt the same way and they pleaded to plunder the land and return to Kabul, but Babur was more successful than Alexander had been when it came to changing their minds. Now that they had won an empire through great hardship and battle, he argued, going back to Kabul would be shameful. He offered anyone who wished the opportunity to go, but the person who did would never again be his friend. The troops reluctantly chose to stay with him.

Besides being a soldier, Babur was a man of culture, a remarkable trait when one considers his ancestry. His memoirs are still considered one of the best works of Indian literature ever produced. He wrote poetry in Persian and laid out gardens in the cities he conquered. In 1530 Babur's son and heir, Humayun, became critically ill and was not expected to live. Babur prayed that Allah would transfer the illness to him, and the prayer was granted; Humayun recovered while Babur got sick and died. He was first buried in Agra, but later, according to his wishes, his body was taken to Kabul and reburied in a roofless garden tomb that was open to the snow, wind and rain.

Babur left Humayun with an empire that was insecure, poorly organized and broke. Babur had followed the Timurid laws of inheritance, meaning that the empire could be passed down to any son, not necessarily the eldest, and it could be divided between family members. Thus, in order to get the whole pie, or at least a piece of it, Humayun's three brothers and an uncle constantly plotted. Two enemies also threatened him: Bahadur Shah of Gujarat and an Afghan chief named Sher Khan on the Ganges. He attacked and defeated both of them, but then celebrated his victory with weeks of feasting, wine, opium, and all the luxuries of his harem. One of Humayun's disloyal brothers allowed Bahadur to return (he had been hiding in the Portuguese port of Diu), and another proclaimed himself emperor at Agra. Returning to deal with this rebellion, Humayun was cut off by Sher Khan. The Mogul army was driven into the Ganges River, and Humayun himself escaped only because a water carrier lent him an inflated animal skin to cross the river with. Humayun and Sher Khan, who now called himself Sher Shah, had a rematch in the following year (1540); again Sher Shah was victorious. Humayun fled to Lahore, with Sher Shah in pursuit. At Lahore he sent a letter saying, "What justice is there in this? I have left you the whole of Hindustan. Leave Lahore alone and let Sirhind, where you are, be a boundary between you and me." Sher Shah replied, "I have left you Kabul. You should go there."

The emperor, however, did not even have this, because his third brother in Kabul refused to offer him asylum. When Sher Shah closed in, he abandoned Lahore and fled to the deserts of Sind. Not feeling safe even there, he went to Persia in 1543. It looked like the Mogul Empire had been lost forever.

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Once the Moguls were gone, Sher Shah became an excellent administrator and a tolerant ruler. However, upon his death in 1545, his descendants tore the realm apart in a civil war. Meanwhile, at the court of Persia's Shah Tahmasp, Humayun asked for military aid. The Shah agreed to give him 12,000 men, if Humayun would hand over the border town of Kandahar and become a Shiite Moslem. With those men Humayun marched into his lost domain, retaking first Kandahar, then Kabul, in 1545. Ten years later he invaded India, defeated the Afghans and regained his throne in Delhi. Six months later he died from falling down a staircase, and his son Akbar (1556-1605), the greatest of the Moguls, inherited the restored empire.

Humayun's tomb.

The tomb of Humayun was built by his first wife, Bega Begum. A combination of red sandstone and white marble, it was the first garden tomb in India and in terms of size, it was a big step upward from the simple tomb of Babur. It is also an obvious forerunner of the more famous Taj Mahal (see below). Located in Delhi, it has since become the final resting place for several members of the Mogul family, not just the second emperor. The latest restoration project on the structure was just completed in 2013.

Akbar was a multi-talented, headstrong and precocious child, who was only thirteen years old when the throne passed to him. He was already a fearless warrior, who had seen action under Humayun and his wise general, Bayram Khan. In peacetime he kept in shape by hunting. He also had an excellent memory, and was quite a thinker, but remarkably, he never learned to read or write.

The empire's future did not look good at the beginning of Akbar's reign. He was fighting the Afghans in the Punjab when he learned of his father's death, so that in effect he controlled almost nothing beyond the battlefield. A Hindu rebel named Himu captured Delhi and raised an army of 100,000 men and 1,500 elephants to oppose Akbar, who only had 20,000 men. Going against the advice of all the councillors, Bayram Khan proposed gambling everything on a confrontation with Himu, and Akbar enthusiastically went along with the idea. The two forces met at Panipat, the site of Babur's big battle thirty years earlier. The Moguls were all but swamped by the vast Hindu army, but during the final charge, Himu was killed by an arrow that struck him in the eye and went all the way through his head. His army broke up in panic, Delhi was recovered and Mogul authority was restored.

Bayram Khan ran the realm for the next five years, while Akbar was growing up. When Akbar's foster mother, Maham Anga, and the other women of the harem accused him of wanting the throne for himself, the statesman removed himself from the scene by making a pilgrimage to Mecca. En route, a gang of Afghans assassinated him in Gujarat. Now the harem became the power behind the throne. They went too far, though, when Maham Anga's son, Adham Khan, killed the new prime minister just a year later (1562), presumably to take over his job. Akbar was so enraged that he punched Adham Khan in the face, knocking him unconscious; then he ordered the troublemaker thrown off the top of the palace. When he was found still breathing, Akbar had him brought up and thrown down again. Akbar himself broke the news to Maham Anga, who said, "You did well," but she died of grief forty days later. After that, Akbar made sure that family and friends never compromised his rule again.

The next seventeen years were ones of constant military activity. Before the first year was over, Akbar visited a Rajput chief, married his daughter, and recruited the rest of the Rajputs into the Mogul hierarchy. This was something no other Moslem leader had done, and by making the Rajputs his friends, he made the empire more stable than any other Moslem state in Indian history. Together the Moguls and Rajputs conquered Gujarat, the Vindhya mts., the entire Ganges valley, and Bengal, unifying the whole northern half of the subcontinent. While he was winning one battle in 1569, his future heir, Jahangir, was born in a village about 25 miles west of Agra. Akbar celebrated both the birth and the victory by turning the village into a beautiful new city, built completely out of red sandstone. Akbar called his creation Fatehpur Sikri, the "City of Victory," and it became his new capital, but only for a decade; in the 1580s the water supply failed and the whole complex was abandoned.

As Akbar grew older, religion became his favorite intellectual pursuit. His toleration of non-Moslems increased, until he had completely thrown out the idea that India should be a Moslem state. He abolished, at a great cost to the treasury, the discriminatory taxes placed upon non-Moslems, which the Koran had sanctioned. In his personal habits, he came to look more like a Hindu than a Moslem; he sometimes wore Hindu dress with a Rajput-style turban and put a caste mark on his forehead. He even began avoiding meat, remarking that he disliked making his body "a tomb for beasts."

At Fatehpur Sikri, he constructed a building that he called the House of Worship, but it was really a debating hall. Moslem, Hindu, Jain and Parsee theologians were invited to come and discuss what they believed. He even invited Jesuit missionaries from Goa, but to their dismay, he refused to become a Christian because that would have meant putting away all but one of his wives.(3) In 1582 he announced that he had created a new religion. Dubbed the Divine Faith, it combined Hindu, Christian and Moslem doctrines. Akbar never converted more than a handful of people at his court, and after his death, the Divine Faith was quietly forgotten.

During the last two decades, a new series of campaigns made the empire even larger. The final subjugation of Sind, Baluchistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir took place, and an agreement with the Uzbeks made the Hindu Kush mts. the frontier between India and Central Asia. In the east, he conquered Orissa. Finally Akbar entered the Deccan, but a fearless warrior queen, Chand Bibi, defeated his two attempts to take the nearest state, Ahmadnagar; because of her Ahmadnagar did not fall into Mogul hands until both Akbar and Chand Bibi were dead and gone.

Mogul Empire.
The Mogul Empire, showing its extent under Akbar and Aurangzeb.

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The Mogul Zenith

Jahangir (1605-27) was not a very good emperor; he was addicted to opium and alcohol and an ambitious wife, Nur Jahan, dominated him. Nevertheless, he shared to a degree his father's tolerance and had capable administrators and generals under him, so the empire continued to prosper. The Deccan states were reduced to tributary status, but an alliance between the Uzbeks and Shah Abbas, the greatest Persian monarch in modern history, threatened the Mogul Empire from the north and west.(4) Under Jahangir Mogul painting reached new heights, combining Persian, Indian and European elements to produce a beautiful synthesis.

Jahangir's son Shah Jehan (1627-58) did not allow the construction of new Hindu temples, but otherwise he continued the tolerant policies of his predecessors. He began his reign by defeating the Uzbeks, who had besieged Kabul. Then in 1632 he destroyed the Portuguese outpost of Hooghly, in the Ganges delta, because the Portuguese indulged in piracy and stole two slave girls belonging to the Moguls. They were forced to return the slaves and pay a fine, but 400 of them were taken to Agra, imprisoned, and later executed when they refused to embrace Islam. In 1645 he took advantage of a civil war in the Uzbek realm to invade Central Asia. Here the immediate objective was to occupy Badakhshan (northeast Afghanistan and southeast Tajikistan); the ultimate goal was to retake Samarkand, the ancestral city of the Moguls. The Moguls were better organized--Shah Jehan's son Aurangzeb personally led the army--and better equipped (they had muskets, elephants and cannon, while the only Uzbek advantage was more horses). Despite all this, logistics defeated the Mogul army; food shortages were a constant problem, and the troops and animals suffered badly when exposed to a Central Asian winter. After two years of chasing the Uzbeks through the mountains, the army decided it didn't want any more of this, and returned to Kabul. The Moguls had won every minor battle, when Mogul and Uzbek forces came together, but they never achieved a decisive victory to destroy the enemy, and had gained no territory permanently. This goes a long way towards explaining why almost all invasions across the Hindu Kush went from Central Asia to India, rather than the opposite direction; the only other empire builders I know of that tried going the other way were the British, two hundred years after Shah Jehan.

Today Shah Jehan is not remembered for his wars, but for the Taj Mahal, the world's most beautiful tomb. He built it in Agra for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. Sparing no expense on the project, using white marble and semi-precious stones, instead of the red sandstone that his predecessors favored for their buildings, Shah Jehan worked on the mausoleum for twenty-one years (1632-53). He also had a plan to build a matching tomb for himself on the opposite bank of the Jumna River, made of black marble instead of white marble, with a silver bridge crossing the river between them. But he was overthrown before he could accomplish any of this, and ended up being buried alongside Mumtaz Mahal in the first structure. Visitors to the Taj Mahal will tell you that's good enough, especially for one of the greatest love stories in history.

Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal.

Shah Jehan fell ill in 1657, and rumors spread that he was dead. He executed a will leaving the empire to his eldest son, Dara. The other sons, Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad, were grown men, the governors of provinces, and they decided to fight for the throne. The first battle, between Dara and Shuja, forced Shuja to retreat to his base province, Bengal. In response to this Murad and Aurangzeb joined their forces, and together they inflicted two defeats on Dara. The humiliated Dara fled to Agra, then to Delhi, Lahore, Gujarat and Rajastan; after a third battle he was captured on the northwest frontier and executed on a trumped-up charge of heresy. By this time Aurangzeb had also disposed of Murad and sent Shuja fleeing to the Southeast Asian state of Arakan, where he was killed in a native riot. With no other contenders left, Aurangzeb crowned himself emperor and imprisoned Shah Jehan, keeping his father confined until his death in 1666.

Now Aurangzeb deliberately reversed the policy of tolerance practiced by his predecessors. In his personal life he strictly followed the Koran and expected all others to do the same. Drinking, gambling, and even music were outlawed. He imposed new taxes on non-Moslems and saddled them with various other disabilities. In 1669 he decreed the demolition of all Hindu schools and temples, frequently replacing them with mosques. Moslem apostates, including Shiites and Sufis, were arrested, tried, and executed. The Ulema (judges) now tolerated no deviations from the commands of the Prophet, for at last they had a ruler who would back them to the hilt.

These persecutions violated not only the principle of coexistence, but also common sense. Revolts broke out wherever Mogul troops were not present. In the Punjab the Sikhs now rebelled constantly. A few miles from Bombay a prince named Shivaji Bhonsle declared independence from Mogul tyranny in 1647, calling his mini-state Maharashtra; he also built a navy to check the growing European influence along the coast. Aurangzeb's ablest general, Jai Singh, forced Shivaji to surrender in 1665, and sent his son as a "representative" (hostage) to the Mogul court. Later Shivaji also went, but his discovery that the Moguls considered him an inferior, rather than an equal, caused him to make such a scene that he was placed under house arrest. He escaped from that by hiding in a fruit basket, and in 1670 he began a guerrilla was that continued beyond his death in 1680.

Aurangzeb's greatest folly was to alienate the Rajputs, who had supplied the empire with valued civil servants and soldiers since the time of Akbar. When they revolted in 1679, the emperor's own son, also named Akbar, commanded the army sent to put them down. Akbar protested strongly against making enemies of such a race of heroes and finally switched sides in an attempt to stop the campaign by overthrowing his father. Yet even the desertion of a favorite son could not stop a fanatic like Aurangzeb.

Despite all these problems, Aurangzeb went ahead and finished the conquest of the peninsula that Akbar had started. In 1661 he conquered Assam, but only temporarily. Then he spent four years assembling a vast host and supplies for an invasion of the Deccan, which began in 1681. Aurangzeb spent the next 24 years as that army's commander-in-chief, and wherever they camped they formed a vast tent city 30 miles in circumference. Aurangzeb was successful, but not against Shivaji's successors, who were now called the Marathas. What Aurangzeb used was overwhelming force to grind down the dying sultanates of south India, who had recently been crippled by raids from the Maratha forts scattered all over the countryside. With the last conquest complete in 1688, Aurangzeb could claim he was master of the entire subcontinent from Afghanistan to the southern tip. Nevertheless, it was a hollow boast.

By bringing the Mogul empire to its peak, Aurangzeb had also exhausted it. The accumulated wealth of his predecessors had been spent on fighting wars, while the rebels were disrupting the economy and sharply reducing the revenues of the government. The costs of the Deccan campaign, Aurangzeb's persecutions and the rebellions were combining with disastrous effects. In response, the now elderly Aurangzeb tried to put down the most dangerous rebels, the Marathas, by capturing their forts one by one, only to have the abandoned forts retaken by the enemy when the Moguls moved on. Nowadays we estimate that the Deccan campaign killed 4.6 million, from famine as well as from warfare. In 1705, too old and ill to continue and perhaps aware that the Deccan was to become the grave of both his reputation and his body, Aurangzeb went north to Ahmadnagar. He died there in 1707, at the age of 89.

Young Aurangzeb.   Old Aurangzeb.
Aurangzeb, before (left) and after (right) the Deccan conquest.

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Sri Lanka: The Kandyan Kingdom and European Intervention

In 1505 a Portuguese fleet headed for India was blown off course and it landed at Columbo instead. The Portuguese got a friendly reception from the Sinhalese king of Kotte, and they made notes on the island's commercial and strategic value. In 1518 they were permitted to build a fort at Columbo and given trading concessions.

In 1521 the three sons of Vijayabahu VI, the king of Kotte, killed their father and partitioned the kingdom between themselves to form three smaller states: Kotte, Sitawake, and Rayigama. Mayadunne, the king of Sitawake, soon decided that one third was not enough and tried to expand his portion at the expense of his eldest brother, Bhuvanaika Bahu of Kotte. Bhuvanaika Bahu responded by calling in the Portuguese, and Mayadunne in turn allied himself with the Zamorin of Calicut, a proven enemy of the Europeans.

Bhuvanaika Bahu was succeeded by his grandson Dharmapala, who was even more dependent on Portuguese support. Franciscans had educated him; in 1557 he announced his conversion to Christianity. That act made him a puppet in Sinhalese eyes and turned Mayadunne into a nationalist; the shift in public opinion allowed Mayadunne to annex a large part of the Kotte kingdom. After his death, his son Rajasinha continued the war successfully on land, though like his father he had no way to combat Portuguese sea power.

On the northern end of the island, a Portuguese raid on Jaffna in 1560 captured a king's ransom in treasure (including possibly the Tooth of the Buddha), but otherwise had no long-term effects. A second invasion in 1591 put a pro-Portuguese ruler on the Tamil throne. Disputes over his legitimacy, however, would continue.

Rajasinha invaded the central highlands in 1580, occupying the previously insignificant city-state of Kandy. Kandy's ruler took refuge with the Portuguese, and in 1591 they took his heir, Dom Philip, with them on an expedition to recover his kingdom. Dom Philip was installed as king but died under mysterious circumstances. His second-in-command, an ambitious and distinguished military noble named Konnappu Bandara, enthroned himself immediately, declaring independence from the Portuguese and changing his name to Vimala Dharma Surya. Not long after that Rajasinha also died (1593), and Sitawake disintegrated because it had no strong successor. That left Kandy as the only remaining independent Sinhalese kingdom. The Portuguese wanted a Kandyan ruler who was on their side, so in 1594 they launched another expedition, this time to enthrone Dona Catherina, a baptized Sinhalese noblewoman. Popular hostility soon built up against the Portuguese soldiers, and Vimala Dharma Surya used guerrilla tactics to rout them. He captured Dona Catherina, made her his queen, and forced the Portuguese to admit that he was a legitimate monarch.

In 1580 Dharmapala was persuaded to deed Kotte to the Portuguese; with his death in 1597 they took formal possession of the western kingdom. Meanwhile on the Tamil front, continued unrest and succession disputes made the Portuguese undertake a third expedition against Jaffna, and they annexed that kingdom in 1619.

The Portuguese were now in possession of the whole island except Kandy and the southeast coast. Vimala Dharma Surya realized that he needed a navy to stop the Portuguese offensive. He got it when the Dutch started sending ships into the Indian Ocean. The first Dutch envoy, Joris van Spilbergen, met the king in 1602 and made lavish promises of military assistance. When the next Dutch fleet arrived a few months later, its commander, Sebald de Weert, decided to attack the Portuguese. However, a misunderstanding caused a fight between the Kandyans and the Dutch instead; de Weert and his men were killed.

The next king of Kandy, Senarat (1604-35), also tried to gain Dutch support. He gave them many commercial concessions and a harbor on the east coast in return for a promise of aid if the Portuguese attacked. When he called on them for help, though, the Dutch were busy fighting both Portugal and Spain elsewhere, so Senarat turned to the Danes. A Danish expedition arrived in May 1620, but it was too late to be useful; Senarat had already made peace with the Portuguese. The truce lasted for ten years. In 1630 the Kandyans attacked the Portuguese again, putting Columbo and the southern town of Galle under siege. Again the absence of sea power hindered Kandy, and they had to conclude another peace agreement in 1634.

When Rajasinha II became king in 1635, the Dutch were firmly established on Java and now had ships and men to spare for Sri Lanka. The king sent emissaries to the nearest Dutch admiral, Adam Westerwolt, who was then blockading Goa. In 1638 the fleet came to Sri Lanka and captured Batticaloa on the east coast from the Portuguese. Then Westerwolt and Rajasinha signed a treaty, which made Kandy pay the cost of fighting the Portuguese and gave the Dutch a near-monopoly on Sri Lankan cinnamon. Working their way in both directions along the coast, the Dutch and Kandyans evicted the Portuguese from the east and south, taking their forts one by one. Differences arose, though, when the Dutch refused to hand over the forts they had captured until their expenses were paid in full. Another problem was a truce declared in Europe in 1640, ending the war between the Netherlands and the two Iberian powers. The peace and occupation strained relations between Kandy and the Dutch, resulting in a fruitless war between them (1645-9). After this the Dutch agreed to hand over some land but continued to delay because the king owed them too much.

The truce with Portugal expired in 1652, and the combatants resumed the war where they had left off. Again the Portuguese lost ground steadily. Rajasinha wanted to attack Columbo, but the Dutch refused to let him do it until he allowed a Dutch fleet to participate. The siege of the Portuguese capital began in August 1655 and lasted for nine months; when the Portuguese surrendered they did so to the Dutch only, and the Kandyans were shut out of the city. Requests to hand over Columbo got evasive replies. Furious, Rajasinha destroyed the lands around Columbo, removed the inhabitants, and returned to his mountain kingdom in the interior.

The Dutch finished the war without Kandy's involvement in 1658, by conquering the strongholds in the north. They now replaced the Portuguese as masters of coastal Sri Lanka.(5)

The Dutch ran Sri Lanka in much the same way that they ran Indonesia--like a business--not surprising since the Dutch governing authority was itself a business (the Dutch East India Company). Sri Lanka provided the Company with cinnamon, elephants, pearls and rice, and the Dutch did whatever they could to make these exports as profitable as possible.

The French revolution brought the Netherlands under French rule, and ended Dutch rule on Sri Lanka. From their bases in India, France's archenemy, Great Britain, invaded Sri Lanka; after halfhearted resistance, the Dutch surrendered the island in 1796. At first the British expected to give back their conquest upon the war's end, but they soon changed their minds. In 1802 the island they called Ceylon was declared a Crown Colony of Great Britain.

Before long, the British also decided that Kandy's independence was going to cause problems: the frontier with Kandy was long and expensive to guard; trade between the coastal cities and the interior was hampered by customs posts and local politics; communications between different parts of the island would be easier if they could build roads through the middle. The advantages of a unified Sri Lanka were obvious, but unification could not take place while Kandy distrusted all foreigners. Between 1803 and 1815 struggles for the Kandyan throne caused that kingdom to break up, and the British intervened to put friendly Kandyan chiefs in charge of what was left. Kandy was administered separately, but the unmistakable decline in influence of both the local chiefs and Buddhism led to an anti-British rebellion in 1818. After it was suppressed, Britain integrated the Kandyan kingdom with their colony, bring the whole island under direct rule.

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The Moguls Besieged

Aurangzeb did not make it easy for anyone to succeed him. Besides killing his brothers and imprisoning his father, he locked up all of his children at one time or another; in fact his son Akbar and his daughter Zib-un-Nisa' ended their lives in prison. And because Aurangzeb enjoyed a long reign of forty-nine years, he guaranteed that whichever son got the throne would inherit it when the best years of his life were already behind him. The son who became his heir, Bahadur Shah I (also called Shah Alam I) was already more than 63 years old, and he only lasted as emperor for five years (1707-12). Still, his short reign was moderately successful.

The next Moguls were utterly incapable of managing the empire's affairs. Eight inept descendants of Aurangzeb rose and fell from the throne between 1712 and 1760. Civil wars among the heirs hastened the empire's disintegration. From 1720 onward the governor of the Deccan was effectively an independent ruler, since the Moguls were no longer able to send him aid or even communicate with the south effectively. Oudh (modern Uttar Pradesh) came under the rule of a Shiite dynasty in 1722. The Marathas occupied the land between their forts, and expanded in all directions. In 1728 they moved into Gujarat; three years later they overran Malwa. After they routed the Moguls at Bhopal in 1737, the Moguls could never again raise an army.

Now the Marathas replaced the Moguls as the most powerful government in India. They were not a true nation, though, but a union of five clans, with their capital at Poona, near Bombay. The Peshwa or prime minister of Poona was, in theory, the leader of the confederacy; in practice, the clans never gave him much power. The confederacy's borders changed constantly, but most of the time the Marathas ruled most of central and the western half of south India.

The Mogul defeat left a power vaccuum in north India, inviting the Persians to raid the neighborhood in 1738-9. The new Persian leader, Nadir Shah, conquered Afghanistan, overran Lahore, and finally took Delhi. He went home with a fabulous treasure: 700 million rupees and all kinds of valuable articles, including the famous Peacock Throne of Shah Jehan. Not long after this (1742) a Mogul-Maratha fight over Bengal and Orissa left those provinces independent of outside rule. The Mogul empire never recovered from these blows, and it became a puppet state defended by the Marathas after this.

In 1747 Nadir Shah died, and one of his lieutenants, Ahmad Shah Durrani (1747-73), proclaimed Afghanistan an independent state with himself in charge of it. During the next twelve years he made four raids into north India. The Marathas ignored him at first, but on the fourth raid (1757), he sacked Delhi. As he returned home they stepped in and occupied all of the Punjab. The Marathas were now at their zenith, and they claimed that the whole subcontinent was under their control, without realizing how uncertain their control was in many areas.

Shocked by the Maratha aggressiveness, Ahmad Shah Durrani returned in 1759. He recovered Lahore easily, but the Mogul emperor was assassinated before Ahmad reached Delhi. The Mogul crown was offered to him, but he refused, instead giving it to the Mogul prince of his choice, Shah Alam II. The Marathas protested this act of kingmaking without their permission, causing a war between the Afghans and Marathas for control of Delhi. After several inconclusive skirmishes, the two antagonists met for a decisive battle at Panipat in January 1761. The Maratha army, which had suffered for two months from lack of food and equipment, was completely routed.

Despite his victory, Ahmad Shah Durrani did not to want to rule India, and he immediately returned to Kabul with his troops, leaving behind a loyal minister to administer Delhi. With the Marathas shattered, there was now a power vacuum in the north. The long-term result of the third battle of Panipat was that it cleared the way for the British to get involved in Indian affairs. Already they were making and unmaking nawabs (rulers) in the east; before long Oudh and the Moguls would also fall under British domination.

Meanwhile, the Moguls got their act together. Fighting among family members ceased, and for the last ninety-eight years of the dynasty there were only three emperors: Shah Alam II (1759-1806), Akbar Shah II (1806-37), and Bahadur Shah II (1837-57). But it was too late to restore the empire; all they had left was the city of Delhi, so they were emperors in name only.

India in 1795.

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The West Moves In

While the Mogul Empire was at its height, Europeans, almost unnoticed by the natives, were gaining a foothold in the subcontinent. Vasco da Gama, who led the first European expedition there, said up front he was there for "Christians and gold," but this alarmed no one; after all, how much trouble could a few bold men in a few tiny ships cause? India had never been invaded by sea; the very idea was preposterous. They would humor these strange men and get whatever they could from trading with them. They did not realize that Europe was gaining an edge in technology and political development that would soon put the Europeans ahead of everyone else on earth. India would feel the full force of this; not only was it totally conquered by the West, but the British conquest would be more thorough than any before it. Modern India is still living with the legacy of British rule today.

The first missionaries to work in India were the Jesuits, who started arriving in large numbers in the 1540s. These clergymen, who were as well-educated as they were zealous, tried to advance Christianity by studying local religious practices and using them to spread the gospel. They did this in China and Japan, but in India this adaptation went further than elsewhere. Jesuits dressed as Brahmans and used Hindu terminology. They gained many nominal Christians this way, but missionaries from other orders rightly complained that this form of Christianity, which accepted many pagan practices, was little more than another Hindu sect. Ultimately the Jesuits were suppressed, but they and their successors created a significant Christian community that still exists in south India today.

Over time greed turned out to be a more powerful motive for bringing Westerners to that hot climate. At first Portugal had a monopoly on the African and Asian trade, but after 1550 the Portuguese Empire went into a definite decline. The main reason for the tailspin was the mother country's size: Portugal had about one and a half million people, not enough to support commitments in Brazil, Africa and Asia all at once. The lack of workers was made up by filling Portuguese ships with sailors from other countries. These sailors went home with stories of Portuguese weakness and valuable navigational information. Nobody even gave the Portuguese much attention after other European powers arrived in India, though their outpost at Goa managed to hold out until 1961.

The competitors who replaced the Portuguese after 1600 were the Dutch and English East India Companies, businesses that enjoyed monopoly rights on the trade between Asia and their respective homelands. They established fortified trading posts as the Portuguese had done, and trained Indian soldiers, called sepoys, to supplement the small military garrisons at each fort. In 1664 the French founded their own corporation, the Compagnie des Indes Orientales, which made France a third contender in India.

Unlike the Portuguese, these traders had no burning desire to spread Christianity; in fact, they thought too much missionary activity would be bad for business. The English, for example, were not motivated to send missionaries until the time of John Wesley's evangelical revival (late 18th century). Only in 1813 was the British East India Company compelled to admit missionaries as a condition for the renewal of its charter. Always aware of its precarious position on the coast, the Company moved cautiously, carefully building up a network of peaceful trading posts. Sir Thomas Roe negotiated with the Mogul emperor Jahangir to build the first one (Surat) in 1612. The future city of Madras, one of British India's three great ports, was founded in 1640. Bombay came to the Company in 1668, as part of the dowry King Charles II got from his Portuguese bride. In 1681 the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb granted permission to build an outpost in one of Bengal's malarial swamps; that became Calcutta, "the many-sided, the smoky, the magnificent City of Dreadful Night," as Rudyard Kipling would one day call it.

As the Mogul Empire withered away, Western ambitions grew. By this time the Dutch had been persuaded to look for their profits elsewhere. The British and the French, however, were determined to stay. Those two powers were bitter rivals in those days, and it was inevitable that their quarrels in other places would spread to India. This first happened during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-8), when Britain and France supported opposing sides in that central European conflict, and as a result, fought some inconclusive battles between their Indian outposts. Following that, an enterprising agent of the French East India Company, Francois Dupleix, started getting involved in Indian politics to further the cause of France.

Dupleix proved that a small, well-trained, well-equipped and ably led European force could defeat the hordes of any Indian ruler. He placed his puppets on the thrones of Indian states and added their resources to his own. Soon he was the most powerful man in all of southeastern India, and the British East India Company was forced to enter Indian politics just to survive.

Neither the French company nor the French government supported Dupleix, and in 1754 they recalled him in disgrace. Two years later the Seven Years War (1756-63) broke out. The French encouraged the nawab of Bengal to attack the British port of Calcutta(6), but the British had a more than capable leader in Robert Clive. At the battle of Plassey in 1757, Clive, commanding a total force of 3,000 men (950 Englishmen plus sepoys), won an astonishing victory against Bengal's army of 50,000 infantry and 18,000 cavalry. Clive's casualties were 22 killed and 49 wounded! Clive replaced the nawab with a governor of his own choice; a few years later he dispensed with the puppet show and became governor himself. After that the British captured the French ports one by one. With the taking of Pondicherry in 1761, France's Indian ambitions ended. The Afghans defeated the Marathas at the third battle of Panipat in the same year, so now the British were the strongest military force in India. Following the battle of Buxar (1764), the upper Ganges state of Oudh also came under British protection.

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From Competitors to Conquerors

People have said that "the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness," and India is a fine example of that behavior. Overnight and without planning the British East India Company found itself in control of Bengal, a region with 35 million people and an annual revenue of 2 million (about $800 million in 2012 dollars). Acres of farmland were set aside for the production of crops that brought the most profit: tea & cotton for the mother country, and opium for the growing drug traffic with China. The acquisition of income and workers on this scale put the British power in India in a different class from all competitors. Now Britain had the resources to do what no other European power could accomplish, namely the conquest of the whole subcontinent. They would do it one step at a time, usually in response to threats against what they already had. Later, in the nineteenth century, Britain would take the Suez Canal, Australia, Burma, Malaya, and a third of Africa, all in the name of defending their Indian interests, and they would meddle in the Balkans, the Middle East and Tibet for the same reason. By the time they were done, the Indian Ocean was effectively a British lake. In short, "The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets" was created just to secure its most valued colony.

Indian Ocean in 1914.
A British lake; the Indian Ocean in 1914.

The Company could have conquered all of India before 1800, but it avoided territorial acquisitions much of the time. The reason for this was that the British government was becoming more interested in ruling India directly, especially after the loss of the American colonies. However, neither the Company nor the government wanted the responsibility of maintaining a large standing army. The Company's first concern was always profit for its shareholders at home, and expensive military operations were bad for business; the government found that military action was politically unpopular unless done in reaction to threats from rivals like France or Russia. Communication was also a limiting factor; in the days before steamships and the Suez Canal, it took six months to sail between England and India, and often the Company would make some move to increase British power in India, only to have it undone when London found out.

Despite all these restrictions British control of India continued to gradually increase. In 1773 all of the Company's Indian territories were brought under the control of one man, a governor general appointed by London. The first to hold the job was Clive's successor in Bengal, Warren Hastings. His first challenge came when the Marathas and two south Indian leaders (the Nizam of Hyderabad and Hyder Ali of Mysore) formed an anti-British alliance. The result was the First Maratha War (1775-82), which was largely a stalemate; almost no territory changed hands, but the British broke up the coalition against them by persuading the Nizam to stay out of the fighting and by bribing the nearest Maratha chief to do the same. Hastings spent the rest of his term in office cleaning out the corruption that Company agents had practiced previously.

Naturally Hastings made enemies with his housecleaning, and in 1784 they persuaded London to recall him. He was replaced by Lord Cornwallis of Yorktown fame. Cornwallis completed what Hastings had started with many reforms. He separated the Company into commercial and political branches, and raised the salaries of his administrators, so they could make ends meet and be honest at the same time. To finance these changes he overhauled the revenue system and imposed a Company monopoly on salt.

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte took an army to Egypt with plans to conquer India and everything on the way. He never got too far beyond Egypt,(7) but London was concerned enough to send a new governor general, Lord Wellesley, with orders to stop French agents on the subcontinent. He did it in a series of brilliant campaigns during his seven-year term in office, with the help of his younger brother, the future Duke of Wellington. He disarmed the Nizam, ousted Tipu Sultan (the openly pro-French ruler of Mysore), and seized the entire southeastern coast. In 1803 he annexed Delhi and half of Oudh; the Mogul emperor became a Company pensioner. A second war with the Marathas (1803-5) ended with a friendly peshwa in charge of the confederacy. Still, his aggressive policy, denounced by Company directors, led to his recall in 1805 and a new declaration of the policy of non-intervention.

During the next eight years Maratha soldiers became mercenaries and looters, and political anarchy and banditry spread all over India until it spilled over into Company territory. When that happened the futile policy of isolationism was reversed, and Lord Hastings (no relation to Warren Hastings) was sent to restore law and order. He recruited sepoys until the Company's army numbered 200,000 men, making it the largest modern army in Asia. A war in 1814-6 with a mountain tribe, the Gurkhas, stopped Gurkha expansion out of the Himalayas and created the nation of Nepal. The terms of the treaty that ended the Gurkha War kept Nepal independent on condition that Britain be allowed to hire Gurkha warriors; the Gurkhas are still in the British army today, with a reputation for being the bravest infantrymen anywhere.(8) The Third Maratha War (1817-8) finished off the Marathas and the Rajputs, and a war with Burma (1824-6) gained Assam.

In the northwest, the greatest of the Sikh rulers, Ranjit Singh (1799-1839), ruled both the Punjab and Kashmir. He was friendly, but the British perceived a threat beyond him in Russia, which was moving into Central Asia. To keep the Russians at arms' length, the British mounted an expedition in 1842 to occupy Afghanistan. It was a disaster; 16,000 men marched north through the Khyber Pass, but only one survivor came back. As compensation for this blow to their prestige, the British annexed Sind in 1843 and the Punjab in 1849.(9)

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The British Impact and the Sepoy Mutiny

1813 was a turning point in many ways. British India got a new governor general, Lord Hastings, in that year; the East India Company's monopoly on trade was abolished; and the renewal of the Company's charter opened the gates to a zealous missionary movement. Also significant, a new breed of Company employee came over from England who was very different from his predecessors. The East India Company employees of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had treated the Indians as equals. Instead of imposing Western culture, they often acquired Indian tastes and habits; they had Indian friends, wore native outfits, smoked hookahs, and enjoyed themselves with local sports such as polo, cockfighting, or elephant-fighting. Scholars discussed literature, philosophy, or religion with their native counterparts. Some took Indian mistresses, or even Indian wives. Now many recruits brought wives from England, which the Indians soon called memsahibs (a combination of the English ma'am and the Indian term of respect, sahib). In 1840 Company servants were officially prohibited from attending Indian religious festivals, and as the British and Indian communities separated, prejudice, ignorance, and suspicion increased.

The British felt it was their responsibility to introduce the benefits of Western civilization to the rest of the world (Kipling called this duty "the white man's burden"), and they did that in the parts of India they ruled directly. Lord William Bentinck, the idealist governor general from 1828 to 1835, abolished the customs the British found most objectionable, namely suttee, infanticide, and thuggee (the strangling of wayfarers as a sacrifice to Kali, Hindu goddess of death). Roads and irrigation works were built. More Christian missionaries arrived every year. Lord Bentinck also built lots of schools to teach the English language and Western culture (for women as well as men), because the British believed that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India & Arabia." Unknowingly, the British Raj was paving the way for its own downfall, as a generation of English-educated Indians grew up aware that the words and actions of British politicians were not always the same.

Lord Dalhousie (1848-56), a particularly aggressive governor general, nearly completed the task of bringing the subcontinent under British rule, either directly or through satellite monarchs. To tidy up the map and secure more revenue, he annexed still more territory, leaving only Baluchistan on the western frontier free from British influence (the Union Jack was finally raised there in 1877). By introducing the doctrine of "lapse," a local ruler or maharajah could lose his land if he had no legitimate son or if the British judged him to be depraved or otherwise unfit to rule. Most of the reforms violated traditional Indian beliefs in one way or another, but Dalhousie bulldozed ahead and carried them out without regard for what his advisors or what the Indians said. His successor, Lord Canning, made matters worse by passing a law that required any future recruit in the Bengal army to serve overseas if so commanded; in those days Hindus were forbidden to travel abroad for religious reasons. On top of all that, he passed another law allowing Hindu widows to remarry. Taken with the other reforms and the missionary work, it looked like Britain was trying to Christianize India.

Now it seemed like the British were asking for trouble; they started withdrawing British troops to use elsewhere (like in the Crimean War), until the ratio of British to sepoy troops was less than one in six. All kinds of wild rumors spread, and native holy men predicted that the British Raj would end in 1857, on the centennial of the battle of Plassey. The actual uprising broke out that year when new rifles were issued and an Indian worker allegedly told a sepoy that the rifles used cartridges greased with pork and beef fat. The ends of the cartridges had to be bitten off before they could be loaded, an act guaranteed to defile Hindu and Moslem alike. The abominable ammunition was recalled, but it was too late to prevent a mutiny. When landlords, peasants, and the last Mogul emperor rose up with the sepoys, it looked like the worst fears of the British were realized. Fortunately the Sikhs and the Gurkhas remained loyal; the mutiny was confined to the upper Ganges valley, and suppressed five months later. The feeble Mogul, eighty-two-year-old Bahadur Shah II, was exiled to Burma, where he died in 1862. Despite the British success, the shock of the mutiny had a permanent effect in that the British were now afraid of their subjects. Like the Moslem sultans, Hindus now regarded the British as a ruling caste which they could tolerate for the time being, but it was only a matter of time before that authority would cease.

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High Noon of the Raj

The initial British reaction to the Sepoy Mutiny was a major proclamation made by Queen Victoria in 1858. Called the Government of India Act, it took away the East India Company's army and authority, and placed British-ruled India directly under the authority of the crown.(10) The governor general, now called a viceroy, became the monarch's personal representative. Caution was now the keynote. The ratio of British to Sepoy troops was raised to 1:1 in the north and 1:2 in the south. And now a special effort was made to recruit Sepoys from ethnic groups with a tradition for both military service and staying out of politics: Gurkhas from Nepal, Sikhs from the Punjab, and Pathans from the northwest frontier.

Most of all, London threw out the idea of turning India into a Western nation, for now anyway. The maharajahs, who had largely remained loyal during the mutiny, now became partners in maintaining stability. The doctrine of lapse was also abolished, leaving a fourth of the Indian people under the rule of nearly 600 princes. Full toleration of India's customs and religions replaced the high-handed actions of officials like Lord Dalhousie. The missionaries were instructed to cut back on their proselytizing and put their efforts into education. Attempts to improve the economic livelihood of the people continued, but gradually, and they realized that a period of unknown duration would follow before they could lay down "the white man's burden."

Battle scene in Gunga Din.

How Great Britain saw its mission. This scene is from the 1939 movie "Gunga Din."

Of all the public works undertaken, the biggest success was the railway system. Before 1860 only 435 miles of track had been laid; by 1900 about 25,000 miles covered the subcontinent. Alongside the railways telegraph lines went up, and millions of acres of farmland were gained from irrigation projects. Yet while the Indians benefitted from these works, the British benefitted even more. For example, the industrial revolution ruined India's handicraft industries when Indian cotton was shipped out, woven into cloth in England, sent back and sold for a lower price than the natives could afford to charge for their own work. The improved medicine of the West increased the life expectancy, resulting in a massive population boom, from 150 million in 1850 to 283 million in 1901. In the end, the long-term result of Britain's reforms was that it created an India that was impoverished and twice as crowded.

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The Growth of Indian Nationalism

In 1780 an English jurist, Sir William Jones, studied Sanskrit so he could read Indian law codes in their original language. He was amazed to find how similar Sanskrit grammar and vocabulary were to ancient Greek and Latin, and by 1786 he was proclaiming that the languages of Europe and India both derive from a common language that no longer exists. This discovery of the Indo-European language family prompted several scholars to take a closer look at classical Hindu literature (especially the Rig Veda, which is the oldest) to see what they could learn about the West's Oriental heritage. Meanwhile, western-educated Hindus rediscovered their own heritage, and this synthesis of eastern & western thought produced several Indian philosophers in the nineteenth century.

The first of these thinkers was a former East India Company employee and Hindu apologist, Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1835). Roy founded secondary schools and the first Indian-run newspapers, which would become forums for himself and later nationalists. Roy argued that while New Testament Christianity may be Hinduism's equal, it was not the same Christianity that the missionaries taught. He also claimed that Western science & thought originated in Asia, and that the only way the West could be called superior was in "the introduction of useful mechanical arts." Finally, Ram Roy stated that when the West criticizes Eastern cultures, it is criticizing itself as well, since Jesus and most of the other Biblical characters were Asians.

A series of religious reformers succeeded Ram Mohun Roy: Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), Dayananda Saraswati (1822-83), Shri Ramakrishna (1836-86), and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). Although they disagreed on the details, these thinkers believed that original Vedic Hinduism, unburdened by all the corrupt practices added since 1000 B.C., such as untouchability, idol-worship, and suttee, was the true way to find God. They campaigned for a return to fundamental spiritual values.

After the Sepoy Mutiny, the next generation of Indian philosophers was more concerned with political reforms than with religious ones. Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917, a Parsee), Surendrenath Bannerjee (1848-1925), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915), and Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901) were moderates who acknowledged the benefits the British Empire had given them, but argued that the Indians would much prefer a democracy like the British had at home over the enlightened despotism they were being ruled with now. These leaders formed political parties to express their views. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, (1856-1920), however, expressed a different opinion, advocating a violent expulsion of Moslems and British, no matter what the cost. Tilak's views were too radical to be accepted at this time, but they were important in giving India a sense of nationalism that transcended ethnic and cultural barriers.

The British themselves removed a major difficulty that had prevented Indian unity before; by teaching English extensively, they helped to break down native language barriers. The new railroads also helped the nationalists, by making communication easier. Soon the British gave the Indians a demonstration of what united action could do.

In 1883 the viceroy, Lord Ripon, tried to introduce legislation allowing Indians to try criminal cases against Europeans. The reaction was violent and blatantly racist. "Would you like to live in a country," demanded the editor of one English paper, "where at any moment would be liable to be sentenced on a false charge of slapping an ayah (Indian nurse or maidservant) to three days imprisonment, the magistrate being a copper-colored pagan who probably worships the linga, and certainly exults in every opportunity of showing he can insult white persons with impunity?" The answer was a hysterical "No!" The opposition was so strong that Ripon caved in, producing a compromise that kept Indians from playing any part in future trials with British defendants.

This gave the nationalists all sorts of ideas. If 100,000 Europeans could defeat the government with public protest, what could hundreds of millions of Indians achieve? They decided to find out. In 1885 73 delegates from all over India met in Bombay to form the Indian National Congress. Most of them were Hindu or Parsee lawyers, teachers, and journalists, and one British sympathizer, a former East India Company employee named Allan Octavian Hume. Only two Moslems were present, and no nobles came at all. This was important because it meant that there would be no room for both maharajahs and Moslems in India when independence finally came.

Islam stagnated under British rule at first, but eventually the Moslems developed their own sense of nationalism. Most Moslems had nothing to do with the British administration until Sir Seyed Ahmed Khan (1817-98) founded an "Anglo-Oriental college" at Aligarh that taught both Western subjects and traditional Moslem theology. Ahmed Khan believed that Islam was compatible with modern science, and that just as Moslems had learned useful ideas from non-Moslems in the past, so they should do so now. He also felt, however, that because democracy was based on majority rule, an independent and democratic India would oppress its Moslem minority. This was the beginning of Islamic nationalism as a separate political movement from Hindu nationalism.

As with Hindu nationalism, the first product of Islamic nationalism was religious reform, to defend the faith against Christian missionaries. In the Punjab, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1839-1908) used some of Sir Seyed Ahmed Khan's teachings: that Jesus died a natural death and did not undergo crucifixion or resurrection, and that the jihad "of the sword" was obsolete and had been replaced by the jihad "of the pen." Later he tried to unite Islam with Christianity and Hinduism, by declaring himself to be the Prophet Mohammed, the Second Coming of Jesus, and the Hindu god Krishna, among other claims. He did not announce, however, any new law or revelation.

Six years after Ghulam Ahmad's death, his followers, now known as the Ahmadiyah, split into two subsects over the issue of whether his prophetic claims were true. Both groups are now based in Pakistan and have done missionary work in the West and Africa. In Moslem countries, however, there is fierce opposition because most Moslems do not believe there can be a prophet after Mohammed.

In 1906 the Moslem League was founded, as a separate political party from the Indian National Congress. Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists conveniently forgot the problems of their Moslem countrymen, so the political gap between Hindus and Moslems widened, while both called for an end to British rule. That would lead to the birth of Pakistan and Bangladesh as separate states from India in the twentieth century.

Discontent boiled over while Lord Curzon was the viceroy (1898-1905). An intense worker who personally oversaw every department under his command, Curzon added more than 6,000 miles of railroad tracks and 10 million irrigated acres to the subcontinent; he also launched a program to preserve the crumbling monuments of ancient India. Nevertheless, he was also a dedicated imperialist, who believed that Britain came to India by "the decree of Providence, for the lasting benefit of millions of the human race." In 1904 he sent an army to Tibet and forced the Tibetans to accept a British advisor on their soil. In other places--Malaya, for instance--this had been the first step toward eventual British domination. This time nothing came of it, but to the Indians it looked like Great Britain was using their taxes and labor to conquer all of Asia.

The trouble started in Bengal. With 80 million people and an area of 190,000 square miles, much of it swampland, effective government had always been hard. Curzon divided Bengal in two and linked the eastern half of it to Assam. He claimed he did this to make management easier, but it also had political advantages. The British knew from their own experience that whoever controlled Bengal could control all of India.

Divide and rule is just how the Bengal policy looked to the nationalists as well. The new province of East Bengal & Assam would have an uneducated Moslem majority, and West Bengal would have more non-Bengalis than Bengalis in its population. Gopal Gokhale, now president of the Indian National Congress, attacked the scheme, and Surendrenath Bannerjee (now nicknamed "Surrender Not") staged protest rallies and launched a highly effective boycott of British-made goods. From 1906 onward, the followers of Tilak staged occasional terrorist attacks against the British. The British Raj survived this crisis and lived for another four decades, but it was the beginning of the end for British rule in India.

British India, thumbnail
British India in 1909. The red areas were under direct British rule, while the yellow areas are states ruled by friendly maharajahs. Click on the above thumbnail to see the map full size (956 KB, opens in a separate tab).

This is the End of Chapter 3.


1. Hindus buy sweets to offer to the gods, in addition to what they consume.

2. Babur's cannon came from the Ottoman Turks; this was the first time firearms were used in India.

3. He had married dozens of princesses to cement alliances with their fathers/brothers, and since those alliances held the state together, it would have been political suicide to divorce the harem.

4. After this the city of Kandahar became a source of contention between the Moguls and the Persians, with the Persians winning more often than not.

5. Meanwhile in the Maldives, the Portuguese established a trading post and garrison in 1558, which were run from their colony in Goa. While there, they also tried to convert the natives to Christianity, and this prompted a local leader, Muhammad Thakurufaanu Al Auzam, and his two brothers to launch an uprising, throwing the Portuguese out (1573). Today the Maldives still celebrates the anniversary of that revolt, calling it National Day. Then while the Dutch ruled Sri Lanka, they claimed a protectorate over the Maldives, but they did not try to abolish the sultanate or install a puppet ruler, so Dutch interference in local affairs was minimal. Great Britain came next, and the British signed a protection agreement with the sultan in 1887; like the Dutch, they left the local government alone. Complete independence returned to the islands when the British protectorate was terminated in 1965.

6. This led to the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta incident, where the British prisoners were stuffed into a small dungeon cell and left to suffocate overnight.

7. Apparently he didn't understand non-European geography very well; Egypt and India are three thousand miles apart!

8. The Gurkhas recently had a special assignment--protect a British prince on his tour of duty. Quote:

"When Prince Harry went off to serve in Afghanistan he was stationed with the Gurkhas for a very good reason--the Taliban are terrified of them. Some Afghan fighters believe that these Nepalese warriors are living demons who slaughter men and eat captured soldiers alive, so they generally just refuse to fight against them. The Gurkhas, for their part, do nothing to dissuade these notions."

Unquote: from Ben Thompson, Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live, New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009, pg. 289.

Two Gurkhas

9. The British kidded themselves that they were the true heirs of the ancient Roman civilization, because they considered the Roman Republic's virtues (pietas, simplicitas, gravitas and all that) to be their virtues as well. Consequently Latin was still commonly taught in nineteenth-century British schools, and some educated Englishmen made a game of their classical knowledge by inventing Latin puns. When Sir Charles Napier conquered the Sind province of India in 1843, the humor magazine Punch claimed in one of its satires that he sent a note to his superiors which contained a single Latin word: peccavi ("I have sinned"). Then in 1857, during the Sepoy Mutiny (see the next section), an aide to Sir Colin Campbell announced a British victory at the battle of Lucknow with "Nunc fortunatus sum," which means "I am in luck now."

10. Queen Victoria took on the title "Empress of India" in 1876.
If you think Wal-Mart behaves heavy-handedly when it builds a new store somewhere and undercuts local retailers, remember that the big box store isn't as powerful--or as evil--as the East India Company was at its height. The Wal-Mart corporation never helped start a war, the way the Company did when it delivered tea to Boston; nor did it turn millions of people into drug addicts, as the Company did by growing opium in India and selling it to the Chinese.
Although we won't be mentioning the East India Company again in this narrative, this wasn't the end of the Company. Since 1857, it has kept a low profile. Ironically, in 2005 an Indian bought the Company from its previous owners, and revived the practice of shipping Indian-made goods to London. The main difference is that now, most of the profits go to executives on the Indian end of the trade route!

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