European Imperialism Up until 1858 Essay Paper

European Imperialism

Up until 1858, the British East India Company had a monopoly on trade with Asia and also governed most of the Indian subcontinent, although it was replaced by direct British rule after the Rebellion of 1757-58. Initially, the Company was not interested in ‘modernizing’ or reforming India, but only in expanding its power and profits. It would either buy off of eliminate all of its competitors and interlopers, as it did by hanging Captain Kidd in 1701 on charges of piracy. It sold opium to China to help finance its activities, and Chinese attempts in restrict this trade in the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60 resulted in the British takeover of Hong Kong. In the Boston Tea Party of 1774, the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with Asia sparked the American Revolution, led in part by merchants who preferred free trade policies along the lines of those recommended by Adam Smith and other liberal reformers. Opposition to the Company’s rule did not yet take the form of modern nationalist or radical movements, but traditional rulers and local feudal elites who resented its encroachments. Mahatma Gandhi created the mass populist movement that finally drove the British out of India, and his strategy of nonviolent resistance was essential in winning home rule in 1935 and independence in 1947.

Britain first invaded India in the 16th and 17th Centuries during its wars with Holland, Portugal and France for control over the trade of Asia. All of these nations were mercantilist powers at the time and had East India Companies that had been granted trade monopolies. At the Battle of Plassey in 1757, during the Sven Years War, the British forces under Robert Clive defeated the French and assumed control over most of the Indian subcontinent, and for the next hundred years the British East India Company governed this area. Initially, it interfered little with local customs, religions and cultures, and made strategic alliances with Indian kings and princes. Its interests were purely economic, since it was a joint-stock company controlled by its shareholders, and its leaders were basically pirates, plunderers and adventurers who were primarily interested in the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’, as Karl Marx once famously described it (Harlow and Carter, 2003, p. 2).

Eventually, the liberal-Whig reformers in Britain also gained control over the East India Company, and decided to use it as a vehicle to remodel India along ‘modern’, European lines. Moralistic missionaries, bureaucrats and administrators, supplied with the latest ethnographic and anthropological studies, replaced the gamblers, adventurers and pirates who originally controlled the Company. According to 19th Century ideas or order and progress, India was considered ‘uncivilized’, even though it was home to some of the most ancient civilizations known on earth. Some European scholars had always appreciated this, of course, by for the 19th Century reformers India was “governed by superstition, ruled by hysteria and idolatry, and wholly without functioning economies and markets” (Harlow and Carter, p. 3). Thomas Babington Macaulay thought that any attempt to accommodate or understand traditional Indian society was absurd since “only systematically introduced English values, traditions and institutions would enable successful and effective forms of colonial government” (Harlow and Carter, p. 5). Liberal-Whig directors of the Company like William Bentinck genuinely thought they were bringing order, civilization and rationality to India, such as by outlawing thuggee, the death cult associated with the goddess Kali, widow-burning (sati) and polygamy. They were genuinely astonished when the opposition to these efforts and cultural and religious reforms sparked a massive uprising among both the Hindu and Muslim populations.

By their own lights, these attempts to modernize and Europeanize India were well-intentioned, although they aroused local resentments for interference in local religious, cultural and political practices, and finally sparked the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58. This was not yet a modern nationalist or radical movement of the type that the British would face starting in the late-19th and early-20th Centuries, particularly when Mahatma Gandhi turned it into a mass populist movement against British rule. Instead, it was led by traditional rulers like the King of Delhi, the Rani of Jhansi, and Tipu Sultan, who resented attempts by the Company to displace them and reduce their own political and economic power. Although the rebellion was defeated, it also spelled the end of the East India Company, which was replaced by direct rule by the Crown with Queen Victoria given the title Empress of India — the British Raj. Gandhi’s resistance movement, then, was aimed at this type of direct British rule that was in fact a relatively recent innovation in India, and one that lasted only ninety years.

Gandhi was a great spiritual as well as political leader, but was never particularly interested in religious dogmas, doctrines and established organizations, although he valued great religious leaders like Jesus Christ and Buddha. Given that Britain always following the divide and rule policy by trying to exacerbate divisions between Hindus and Muslims, he had no choice except to make every effort possible to prevent India from dissolving into communal and sectarian violence. This is exactly what happened after independence in 1947, when British India was partitioned, and Gandhi was assassinated by a Right-wing Hindu nationalist because of his attempts to conciliate Muslims. Britain exploited the hostility between Muslims and Hindus constantly, and in fact, the Muslim League had been founded in 1906 on the suggestion of the British by the Aga Khan and other Muslim princes and feudal landlords as a counterweight to the Congress Party (Wolpert and Sasson 1988). On the other hand, the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 by urban, middle-class intellectuals and professionals, who favored home rule within the British Empire. So it remained until Gandhi turned it into a mass peasant movement that finally forced the British to grant home rule in the 1935 Government of India Act, and finally complete independence after the Second World War.

Most Indian Muslims respected Gandhi as an individual and a great spiritual leader who truly valued and honored their religion. They believed he was sincere in his professions that they would have equal citizenship in an independent India, although they were also suspicious that the Congress Party as a whole would substitute Hindu domination for British rule. That was the key difference that Muslims had with Gandhi, rather than his personal religious views, which of course had little in common with Islam. At the same time, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and other Muslim leaders were critical of his leadership style, which could be stubborn, “unilateral and utilitarian” (Miller, 2003, p. 194). Unlike Gandhi, Jinnah was not a pacifist and pledged Muslim support for the Allied war effort in 1939 in return for Britain’s agreement to the establishment of Pakistan after the war. Gandhi and Nehru denounced this as the “vivisection of India,” and they were proved literally right in 1947 when partition left at least one million people dead in communal violence (Wolpert 2009, p. 8).

When Japan attacked Britain and the U.S. In 1941 and rapidly overran Singapore, Malaya and Burma the invasion of India seemed inevitable. Indeed, the Japanese did attempt this in 1942 and again in 1944, while the Congress Party responded with its “Quit India” campaign demanding a guarantee of total independence. Britain responded by jailing all the Congress leaders for the duration of the war, including Gandhi and Nehru, although this pleased Jinnah since he had come to regard the Hindu majority as at least as dangerous a tyranny as the British Raj. Gandhi was also a victim of communal violence, when he was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu nationalist enraged over his concession to Muslims.

With few exceptions, European Christian missionaries in India were conservative and valued the order and stability provided by the British Empire. They were generally indifferent to political questions or to the nationalist and independence movements that were Gandhi’s main concern. T.S. Paul, the head of the Young Men’s Christian Association in India, was one exception and lost his position for supporting Gandhi. This also happened to S.K. George, who was fired from his teaching position in Calcutta in 1932 for publicly backing Gandhi and Indian independence, was another exception. Like Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 1960s, he thought Gandhi’s nonviolent protest movement was an example of “Christianity in action” that was opposed to oppression and injustice and dedicated to establishing the Kingdom of God on earth (Gorringe, 2003, p. 157). For progressive and leftist Christians, Gandhi’s movement was in fact an early version of liberation theology and has been widely influential throughout the world. Although in his early adult years, Gandhi had lived in the modern, Western world, he later rejected most of it in favor of agrarianism and small-scale village handicrafts. This was not simply a clever tactic to manipulate and win over the peasants but part of spiritual beliefs that urban, industrial society was sick and alienating, replacing men with machines and run along impersonal, bureaucratic lines (Green 1993).

Gandhi was largely indifferent to conventional religious dogmas, disputes and arguments, and regarded most of the distinctions between religions as artificial. He rarely became involved in discussions of theology, even among his fellow Hindus. They regarded him as another incarnation of Buddha or Jesus Christ, while Christians, Jews and Muslims were all monotheists and did not believe in reincarnation. Unlike them, Gandhi did not even regard God as a spiritual Being but more of a Principle based on Truth (Gorringe, p. 155). He had no interest in the historical Jesus, either as a Christian or a Jew, or even whether he really existed at all, but he was most interested in the ideals expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus extended his blessings to the poor, the sick, the hungry and the powerless, and for Gandhi that was the heart of any true religion. His closest Christian friend and collaborator, Charles Andrews, compared him to St. Francis of Assisi in preaching love and respect for all life, and opposition to war, empires, militarism and racism.

Indeed, Andrews was one of the very few people who actually engaged Gandhi in any type of discussions comparing religion, and argued that he had basically invented his own. He disagreed with Gandhi on his ideas about a vegan diet, reincarnation, threatening to fast to death on several occasions, since Christians, Jews and Muslims all opposed suicide (Gorringe, p. 162). Andrews also thought that Gandhi was incorrect in completely disdaining the body, since it was also created by God, along with the rest of the material universe, and disputed his idea that celibacy was the highest spiritual state since the Bible also encouraged marriage. In addition, Gandhi thought that all persons should remain in the same religions into which they were born because that was their karma, while Andrews was in favor of individuals being able to convert. On the whole, though, all such religious questions were a relatively minor matter for Gandhi and his supporters, compared to the key political issues like Indian independence and preventing the country from splitting along Muslim-Hindu lines.

Gandhi died regarding his work as a failure, given the partition of British India into Hindu and Muslim states and the fact that at least a million people died in communal violence in 1947-48 despite his best efforts to prevent it. None of this represented the type of world Gandhi had envisioned but rather was the exact opposite of his moral and spiritual principles. Even so, his nonviolent protest campaigns such as the Salt March of 1930 had been very effective in forcing Britain to grant substantial home rule to India after 1935. This did not apply to foreign affairs of course and Britain did not even consult Gandhi or Nehru when it declared that India was at war in 1939. As it turned out, Britain was so bankrupted and exhausted by the Second World War that it lacked the means to continue ruling India even if it had had the desire to do so, which the new Labour government did not. None of the Indian leaders was ever sympathetic to the Axis powers, and Jinnah openly supported Britain in return for the promise of an independent Pakistan after the war. This conflict between India and Pakistan, and between Muslims and Hindus in India, has continued to the present day, and should be considered a direct legacy of British colonialism and the nationalist movements that were created to oppose it.


Chandi Prasad, N (2008). Vocalizing Silence: Political Protests in Orissa, 1930-42. New Delhi: SAGE India.

Easwarum, E (2011). Gandhi, the Man: How One Man Changed Himself to Change the World. N/A: Nilgiri Press.

Gandhi, M (1949). Story of My Experiments with Truth. London: Phoenix Press.

Green, M (1993). Gandhi: Voice of a New Age Revolution. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company.

Paul, R & K (1950). The Economic History of India under Early British Rule. London: Taylor & Francis Group.

Mehra, P (1985). A Dictionary of Modern Indian History. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Merton, T (1964). Gandhi on Non-Violence. Canada: Penguin Books Canada Limited.

Moorhouse, G (1983). India Britannica. London: Harvill Press.

Whealer, J.T (1986). India under British Rule. Delhi: Discovery Publishing House.

Wolpert, S (2009). Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wolpert & Sisson, S & R (1988). Congress and Indian Nationalism, the Pre-Independence Phase. Los Angeles: University of California Press.


Gandhi, M (1949). Story of My Experiments with Truth. London: Phoenix Press.

Gorringe, T. (2003). “Gandhi and the Christian Community” in H.G. Coward (ed). Indian Critiques of Gandhi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 131-52.

Miller, R.E. (2003). “Indian Muslim Critiques of Gandhi” in Coward, pp. 193-216.

Wolpert, S (2009). Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wolpert & Sisson, S & R (1988). Congress and Indian Nationalism, the Pre-Independence Phase. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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