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Our Indian Empire

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In the year 1593 an adventurous Englishman named Stevens landed on the western shore of the great Indian peninsula. He found a country richer than he had ever dreamed of, inhabited largely by a simple and submissive people. The field for commercial adventure seemed tempting in an eminent degree. Stevens came home, and described in a book the splendours which he had witnessed. He spoke of ivory, of perfumes, of silk, of pearls, of gold. Some merchants of London hastened, as men do still, to found a company, and thus turn to account the dazzling possibilities which Stevens had revealed. But the confidence of the city was less easily gained then than it has been of recent years, and in 1599 only one hundred and one shares, representing a capital of thirty thousand pounds, had been subscribed for. Even that moderate sum was not fully paid. Many subscribers, repenting their untimely boldness, withdrew from the enterprise, leaving the more daring partners to assume the entire responsibility.

In 1600 the company obtained a charter from Queen Elizabeth and began its modest trading. It earned large profits, but these were frequently neutralized by losses of similar magnitude; and thus it came to pass that the dividends enjoyed by the shareholders were not always of a very satisfying character. But the prospects of the company were full of promise. Its capital was largely increased. Its transactions became year by year more considerable. In a few years the company was permitted to set up four establishments of a permanent description for the more convenient conduct of its business. Thus was gained its earliest foothold on the peninsula.

Other European traders had perceived the rich commercial promise of India, and the English were soon involved in irritating competition, with Dutch, Portuguese, and French rivals. Unlicensed Englishmen, too, vexed their souls, by a course of trading which was visibly more profitable than their own. Such irregular persons were seized and ruthlessly shipped home to England. On every side there were springing up questions which it was obvious could be solved more conveniently by force than by reason. In 1640 the company set up a fort at Madras, and garrisoned it with a few native warriors, whose arms were bow and arrow, spear and shield.

England and France did not find, during the eighteenth century, that the battle-fields of Europe sufficed for the expression of their mutual hatred. They must needs carry the noise of their contention also into Asia and America. In the valley of the Ohio, on the Heights of Abraham, as well as on the eastern coasts of the Indian peninsula, the deadly rivalries of these great European powers strove for supremacy. In India it seemed that France was to find compensation for her reverses on other fields. Dupleix, a capable Frenchman, drove the English out of Madras, and so guided affairs that common expectation pointed to the final expulsion of the English and the triumph of the French.

But all this was quickly changed. A young man named Olive was then serving as a clerk in the employment of the company. "When the need arose, it was found that, although wholly without military training, he possessed military genius of the highest order. He organized a little force of English and native troops, led mainly by civilians and soldiers who had never seen war. He attacked Arcot, the capital of the Carnatic, and took it. He was in turn besieged by an overwhelming force of French and natives, but he held Arcot against them all. In numerous other engagements he vanquished his enemies. The influence of France was destroyed, her discomfited general went home in disgrace, and England was supreme in southern India.

The company had established itself in India for purely commercial purposes, and had no higher ambition than profitable trading and liberal dividends. A career of military conquest was of all things the most repugnant to its peaceful and prosaic instincts. But now such a career was thrust upon it. The factory at Calcutta was attacked by Surajah Dowlah, the wicked sovereign of Bengal. The English governor fled from his post. One hundred and forty-six Englishmen were made captive and mercilessly thrust into a dungeon. Next morning all but twenty-three had perished. In December, Olive was before Calcutta with a force adequate to avenge his murdered countrymen. He repossessed the English settlement. The native forces and the handful of audacious strangers met at Plassey. Of the former there were sixty thousand; of the latter, three thousand two hundred. Even Clive hesitated in presence of a disparity so excessive, and his officers counselled immediate retreat. But his heroic spirit could not brook to turn away from the presence of an enemy. He fought, and obtained an easy victory. With no greater loss than that of seventy men, he gained for England unquestioned dominion over Bengal, with a population of thirty million. He laid the foundation of our Indian Empire.

The cares of extended sovereignty had now devolved upon an association which sought nothing more than a profitable sale of broadcloths and cutlery - a favourable purchase of silks, muslins, and pearls. Nor was it found possible to prevent the growth of these unwelcome responsibilities. Orissa and Bahar were added to Bengal. The territory of Benares followed, and certain large tracts lying along the Bay of Bengal. The still more formidable addition of the Carnatic could not be resisted, although for a time the company upheld there a native prince, whose rule was, however, merely nominal. When the century closed, the company was one of the governing powers of the world, keeping great armies on foot, fighting great battles, controlling vast revenues, holding in its hands the destinies of many races and nations.

As a trading association, the company had not achieved remarkable success. Its dividends, beginning with six per cent., had crept up to ten, and for a brief space even to twelve and a half per cent., but quickly sunk once more to six. As a sovereign, it was a manifest failure ("Different plans," says Adam Smith, writing in 1784, "have been proposed for the better management of [the company's] affairs. All those plans seem to agree in supposing, what was indeed always abundantly evident, that it is altogether unfit to govern its territorial possessions."). The anomaly of permitting a company of merchants to exercise despotic rule over a population many times larger than that of Great Britain was now to be corrected. A bill was introduced by Mr. Pitt, and passed into law, leaving to the company wide powers of management, but giving to the crown the appointment of a board by which control should be exercised over every detail of the civil and military government of India.

In 1798 the Marquis of Wellesley was sent out as governor-general. It seemed to the new governor that some decay of ascendency had been incurred by the timid policy of his predecessor. He wished to make Britain, feared for her strength as well as trusted for her integrity and wisdom, and his earliest care was to augment his army. He found ample employment for the military resources which he provided. During the seven years of his administration, he subdued four powerful states, whose chiefs had opposed themselves to British supremacy. He subjected to our rule provinces larger than Franca He established a predominating influence over many princes, whose thrones, as yet, he spared. He increased the revenue from seven to fifteen million sterling. At the close, he bore rule over a population of seventy-five million. All this had been accomplished by forces which never exceeded twenty thousand British troops, supplemented by three or four times that number of Indian auxiliaries.

The British had gained a position which made their presence indispensable to the welfare of India. Incessant strifes had from time immemorial devastated the country, and were only now restrained by British power. The aggressive Mohammedans waited to overrun the gentler followers of the Hindu faith. The fiercer races were ever ready to spring upon the less fierce. The native governments were little better than organizations for the plunder of their unhappy subjects, save where they were laid under beneficent restraint by the strangers. All around us were bandit princes, whose barbaric splendours had been maintained till now by the hereditary policy of rapine. The nabob of the Carnatic lived magnificently on that portion of his revenues which was allowed to him, and left his wasted lands to be governed as the English deemed best. To the west was Mysore, which had been delivered from Tippoo and restored to its ancient sovereigns, now submissive to the will of their deliverers. Still farther west lay Malabar, whose prince was now swayed by hatred of the British, and now by fear of his robber neighbours, from whom the British protected him. To the north was Hyderabad, a huge territory, where a British resident guided the sovereign, and watched the miserable intrigues of a court which was justly described as an experiment to prove with how little morality it was possible for human beings to associate. All these and many others depended on the British to avert anarchy. For the first time in its history, the peninsula had rest from war, and men were suffered to enjoy in quietness the fruits of their industry.

The directors, with pathetic earnestness, bewailed the conquests which were forced upon them. The company hung on the perilous verge of bankruptcy, and could not regain its position otherwise than by a course of peaceful trading. Each new governor-general was commanded to abstain from war, to avoid with his utmost diligence the acquisition of new territory. But no effort of the directors sufficed to stay the career of conquest. With distressing frequency came reports of great battles, of brilliant victories, of new empires cast upon the burdened authorities. Ever it seemed that on our borders there lay some treacherous ally who plotted mischief against us, or some neighbour whose flagrant misrule disturbed our tranquillity. When forbearance had reached its limit, we were constrained to reduce to subjection those disorderly powers, in the hope that beyond the territory which we now absorbed we might gain the blessing of a settled frontier. Thus, about the time of Waterloo, we subdued the Goorkhas, a fierce people who had been deemed almost unconquerable, and whose conquest now gave us a resting-place on the Himalayas. The Pindarees came next - a banditti rather than a nation - who swept over the land, plundering, slaying, torturing. These savages were now effectively quelled, to their own advantage and that of all who were near them. Across the Bay of Bengal, a long series of differences with the Burmese government seemed at length to leave no alternative but war. We conquered the Burmese, and annexed part of their territory in that still unsuccessful search after a quiet frontier. Influenced by a prevailing jealousy of Russia, it seemed to us needful to depose the ruler of Afghanistan, and set up in his room a claimant better affected to ourselves. We reached Cabul; we established the prince whom we favoured; we placed beside him a political resident to direct his policy. But we did not provide a force adequate to hold the position we had taken, and the ill-judged expedition was closed by a catastrophe unparalleled in British history. A retreat was ordered, and four thousand soldiers, ill-supplied with food and ammunition, and burdened with the presence of a multitude of camp-followers, sought to regain friendly territory. Only one man accomplished the terrible march. The rest perished of cold and hunger, or by the sword, excepting a few who fell into the hands of the enemy. A new expedition retrieved in some measure this disaster, and retook Cabul - only, however, to evacuate it and leave Afghanistan to its habitual anarchy.

As one of the results of our reverse in the north-west, it was found that the princes of Scinde proposed, by murder or otherwise, to remove all Englishmen from that province. Sir Charles Napier was sent with a small army to reduce those reprobate potentates to a wholesome subjection. At Meeanee he encountered, with two thousand four hundred men, an enemy of thirty-five thousand, and defeated them with heavy slaughter. A few months later another victory at Hyderabad completed the conquest, and Scinde was formally absorbed into British territory. The government of the native princes had been exceptionally wicked. Villages by the score were burned down to leave room for hunting-grounds. Every form of property which could be tracked out was wrested from its unhappy owner. Men rendered desperate by wrong wandered in robber bands over the land, perfecting the ruin which the government had begun. The province was constantly scourged by famine. After a few years of Napier's rule, Scinde had a surplus of grain over the supply of its own wants, and actually became an exporter. The robbers returned to honest pursuits, population increased, and the rescued people entered gladly upon a career of secure and prosperous industry. Yet further: disturbances arose among the Sikhs of the Punjab, and an array was sent to the frontier to restore order. The Sikhs, nothing daunted, advanced to meet us on our own territory. "We had never met before, on Indian soil, foemen so worthy. The battle of Moodkee closed indecisively. That of Ferozeshah lasted for two days. When evening fell of the first day, the British scarcely held their ground, and the victory of the second did not prevent the Sikhs from making an orderly retreat. At Aliwal and Sobraon "we were decisively victorious, and the enemy submitted. It had been hoped that the annexation of the Punjab might be unnecessary, and the experiment of a protectorate had been tried. This experiment was now held to have failed, and the Punjab was added to the British possessions.

Last of all came the absorption of the kingdom of Oude. For fifty years we had upheld the throne of Oude. But the government became so intolerably vicious that the population ned from the extortion, which made their lives bitter, and this rich province was lapsing into wilderness. The revenue was habitually collected by armed men, infantry and artillery. In two years eleven thousand persons had been murdered. By proclamation of the governor-general, the pernicious rule of the native princes was terminated, and the government of the province assumed by the British.

Our Indian Empire was now completed. We had reached the great natural boundary of the Himalayan mountains. Britain ruled a territory equal in area to that of all Europe, excepting Prussia, and yielding a revenue of thirty-one million sterling. Her own subjects numbered one hundred and ninety million, and there were besides these four hundred and fifty tributary states, containing a population of fifty million, under her guidance. The prosaic enterprise of a few London merchants was now a great empire - magnificent beyond the wildest dream of romance. Upon no people before had there devolved a heritage so glorious, responsibilities so vast. But we were to pass out of the era of conquest into that of peaceful progress by the gateway of a sharp and lamentable trial.

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