The British in India

Stretching back nearly 5,000 years, India’s history is a vast amalgamation of cultures, religions, languages, and experiences. Surely, it would require a few dozen journal entries for me to share all I have learned — and will learn! — about this intriguing country, but instead, I shall focus on a smaller snapshot of India’s recent past: British India.

Now, how (and why) did the British come to control this land? To understand that, we must first go back to the Age of Exploration, during which many of Europe’s royal powers sent expeditions around the world in search of lucrative trade routes and territories rich in natural resources. In 1600, reigning British monarch Queen Elizabeth I granted a Royal Charter to the British East India Company to establish trade relations in India.

The British East India Company soon became the prominent power in India, ousting Portuguese, Dutch, and French trade interests in the region. By the 1800s, the Company had gained a monopoly over commodities such as tea, spices, silk, and cotton. The British East India Company built its own private military, using local Indians as “sepoys,” or paid militiamen, to help establish order and control across India.

By 1857, rising frustration with the ruling the British East India Company led many of these sepoys to revolt against the British, in what became known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Fearing for its interests in India, the British government revoked the British East India Company’s charter, and established its own rule over the Indian subcontinent. This era, from 1858-1947, became known as the British Raj, and it is during this time Great Britain implemented its greatest influence over India, much of which is still evident today. Here in Mumbai, I see the British influence in the architecture, food, and printed on signs around the city, just to name a few examples.

After India gained its independence on August 15, 1947, a common sentiment grew to replace the British names of cities and landmarks, particularly as the Indian people carved out a new national identity. For example, Victoria Terminus, the major railway station in Mumbai which was named after Britain’s Queen Victoria, was renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in 1996.

Mumbai is a colorful mix of old and new, East and West, British past and Indian present. I’m eager to learn more.

Zoe