How British Colonialism Destroyed India

British India 1858 to 1901

In British India, the “white man's burden” was at times a light burden: those belonging to the political or military elite lived a glamorous life at the expense of the Indians.

British India defends itself against the rule of the East India Company: The Indian prince Nana Sahib takes part in the so-called sepoy uprising of 1857. | ©

Blood stained the floor of the house in British India red. Since his troops had refused to shoot the defenseless women, Nana Sahib had summoned the butchers from the meat bazaar without further ado. They killed 200 English women and children with axes, sabers and knives. Their corpses were thrown into a well until it was completely blocked. The Kanpur (Cawnpore) massacre of July 16, 1857 was one of the worst atrocities of the so-called Sepoy Uprising. It began when so-called Sepoy, Bengali mercenaries of the East India Company, mutinied in Merath on May 7, 1857. The spark started a wildfire. More and more regiments mutinied and several Indian princes - including Nana Sahib of Kanpur - joined the rebellion against the British. The days of British rule over India seemed numbered. But the rebel actions were poorly coordinated. In addition, some powerful maharajas continued to support the British. With fresh troops from Great Britain and loyal sepoy regiments from South India came the merciless counter-attack.

Those of the rebels who survived the fighting and were captured could expect death. They were hanged and tied in front of cannons, which were then fired. A year after the Merath incident, India was "pacified" again. The uprising put an end to the 350-year history of the East India Company. With the Government of India Act of 1858, the trading company, which until then had ruled large parts of the subcontinent and sent its own armies into the field, lost all privileges. India became a crown colony, the company's regiments became the Indian Army and, in the name of Queen Victoria, a viceroy ruled the country instead of a governor-general. The days of the Raj (rule) of British colonial rule had dawned.

British India offered career opportunities for the English middle class

The kingdom of the Raj was divided into two parts. Provinces like Bengal, Bombay or Madras were under the direct British administration of a governor. There were also 21 semi-sovereign principalities ruled by a maharajah or a nizam. The rulers of these vassal states could comfortably settle in the idea of ​​still being masters in their own house. They often had enormous financial resources, commanded their own small armies, and had jurisdiction in their hands. But they always ruled "on probation". An Empire political agent controlled their actions, ensuring that they remained loyal subjects of the Queen and did not exaggerate their excesses. While in the kingdom the corridors of power were largely populated by graduates from the elite universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) offered the sons of the English middle class a career opportunity. Young men under 30 ran districts of 5,000 square kilometers and several million people in India. It wasn't until 1870 that the first Indian made it into the exclusive ICS - an intellectual from Bengal, a relative of the future Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore.

The most important instrument for controlling India, however, remained the army. As a result of the Sepoy uprising, the defense of India now rested on two pillars. On the one hand purely British units, which were stationed in India in a rotating system for a few years, on the other hand the armed forces of the Indian Army, whose teams were provided by so-called "Martial Races" (warrior peoples). This division of the peoples of India was a further reaction to the events of 1857. Those who, like the Sikhs, Rajputs or Gurkhas, had loyally fought on the side of the British were still considered material for the army. The officer corps of the Indian Army was originally only made up of the British. It was only after the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878 - 1880) that positions were created for local officers.

The Victorians exported their strict customs to India

Much of the armed forces were stationed in the northwest of the subcontinent to control the Afghan tribes and prevent a Russian invasion. Due to the grueling climate, regular service began long before sunrise and ended in the early afternoon. This was followed by a sumptuous meal between breakfast and lunch, the brunch. In addition to hunting, polo, gambling and gin and tonic, snooker was one of the officers' favorite pastimes: a variant of the game of billiards, the rules of which are still shaped today by the code of honor of the Indian military casinos. In the sexually liberal days of the 18th century, many officers and officials of the East India Company lived with Indian women. Those who could afford it even kept a harem in the oriental tradition. The strict Victorian morality and the notion of the inferiority of the "dark races" put a line under it: The result was an acute shortage of women. That is why the “Fishing Fleet” entered the Indian ports as regularly as the monsoons came when the cold season began: Passenger ships loaded with women from England on the hunt for a good match.

Women who made their “catch” rose to the memsahib and were given command of a whole brigade of servants: cook, nanny, housekeeping, gatekeeper, gardener, groom and, at the bottom of the hierarchy, the servants for cleaning the house and the laundry - mostly members of the Untouchables caste. Most English women were locked in a corset of prejudice. For them, Indians were servants who had to be controlled suspiciously or traders who wanted to take advantage of you. The Maharajas were considered to be of equal value to the British - but who had social contacts with princes? So you stayed to yourself. An invisible border ran through almost all cities of Anglo-India, separating the area of ​​the Europeans from the Indians. Excursions into this strange, fascinating world of the Orient were considered improper for women.

Battered factories: The British exploit India

The club was the social hub of the British community. "If you didn't belong to the club, you were an outcast," noted a Briton around 1900. Only men had access to the bar in the club. There was a separate area for women, the “moorghi khana” - chicken house. If the club was really “pukka” - that is, first class - only the elite frequented it. There was no room here for shopkeepers, craftsmen or descendants from Anglo-Indian relations. When more and more engineers, many of them Scots, came to India with industrialization and railway construction, many clubs discussed whether these men should be accepted: They had studied, but didn't they get their hands dirty at work? Eventually the clubs opened up to these men. The industrial revolution also radically changed India. By 1900 a railway network of over 15,000 kilometers covered the country and stations such as Victoria Station in Bombay rivaled the Taj Mahal in magnificence.

To this day, India benefits from the infrastructure, but the British also destroyed structures that had grown over time. They smashed the Indian textile manufacturers that once produced a popular export hit across Europe with their printed cotton fabrics (chintz). Now the textile mills in Manchester were also producing for the Indian market. Instead, India now supplied unprocessed cotton for the world market. In the years 1863 to 1865 - there was civil war in the USA and cotton was in short supply - such a lucrative business even for small farmers that many were able to buy themselves out of bondage for the first time. Debt bondage was one of the many problems that showed the British administration had its shortcomings. For this reason, Allan Hume, an employee of the ICS, demanded that "the real work on the future of the country" must be put back into the hands of the Indians. On Hume's initiative, the Indian Congress Party was founded in 1885, which under Gandhi would lead the country to independence.

Rudyard Kipling immortalized British India

In the founding year of the Congress Party, a young reporter for the Civil and Military Gazette toured the country - Rudyard Kipling. His tales immortalized the era of the Raj. And even if they have an imperialistic touch, they always speak of Kipling's deep love for India and its people: “Here I find heat and smells, oils and spices, the incense of the temples, sweat, darkness and dirt, lust and cruelty, but above all wonderful and fascinating impressions without number. "

Klaus Hillingmeier

The article first appeared in G / HISTORY 8/2013 "Victoria's Empire"

Last modified: May 18, 2017