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The Mughal Empire, The Europeans in India

Battle of Buxar, Carnatic Wars, Black Hole of Calcutta, Battle of Plassey, Robert Clive

As early as the 15th century, Europeans were interested in developing trade opportunities with India and a new trade route to East Asia. The Portuguese were devoted to this task, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese royal navigator and explorer, led an expedition around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. In May 1498 he sailed into the harbor of Calicut (now Kozhikode) on the Malabar Coast, opening a new era of Indian history. Establishing friendly relations with the dominant kingdom of the Deccan, the Portuguese secured lucrative trade routes on the coast of India in the early 16th century.

For about the first two centuries after Europeans arrived in India, their activities were restricted to trade and evangelism, their presence protected by naval forces. For the entire period of the Mughal Empire, European traders were confined to trading posts along the coast. In the 16th century the Portuguese navy controlled the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, protecting the traders settled in Goa, Daman, and Diu on the western coast. Christianity swiftly followed trade. Saint Francis Xavier, a Spanish Jesuit missionary, came to Goa in 1542, converting tens of thousands of Indians along the peninsular coast and in southern India and Ceylon before leaving for Southeast Asia in 1545. In fact, the area of India he and other missionaries traversed was already home to communities of Christians, some converted by Saint Thomas in the 1st century ad and some who fled to India many centuries later to escape persecution for their Nestorian beliefs.

The Dutch displaced the Portuguese as masters of the seas around India in the 17th century. The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602, two years after its main rival, the English East India Company. Both companies began by trading in spices, gradually shifting to textiles, particularly India’s characteristic light, patterned cottons. Their activities in India were centered primarily on the southern and eastern coasts and in the Bengal region. The economic effect of purchases made at the coastal depots were felt far inland in the cotton-growing areas, but the Europeans did not at that time attempt to extend their political sway.

By the 18th century British sea power matched that of the Dutch, and the European rivalry in India began to take on a military dimension. During the first half of the 18th century the French, who had begun to operate in India in about 1675, emerged as a serious threat to the growing power and prosperity of the English East India Company. By the mid-18th century the British and French were at war with each other throughout the world. This rivalry manifested itself in India in a series of conflicts, called the Carnatic Wars, which stretched over 20 years and established the British as the primary European power in India.

As the French and British skirmished over control of India’s foreign trade, the Mughal Empire was experiencing its rapid decline and regional kingdoms were emerging. The continuously warring rulers of these kingdoms used well-trained and disciplined French and British forces to support their military activities. The foreigners, however, had their own agenda, frequently expanding their own political or territorial power under the guise of championing a local ruler. Led by innovative and effective Joseph Francois Dupleix, the French managed by 1750 to place themselves in a powerful position in southern India, especially in Hyderabad. In 1751, however, British troops under Robert Clive captured the French southeastern stronghold of Arcot in a pivotal battle. With this encounter the balance of power in the south swung to favor the British, although the struggle for control of India’s trade continued.

In Bengal, the English East India Company had begun fortifying Fort William in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to defend against possible attacks by the French. Nominally a part of the Mughal Empire, Bengal was at this time virtually independent under the emperor’s nawab (governor). In response to reports of unauthorized activities of the British, the nawab Siraj-ud-Dawhah attacked Calcutta in 1756. Some British survivors of the attack were imprisoned in a small dungeon known as the Black Hole of Calcutta where a number of them died. After the incident, Robert Clive, then the British governor of Fort Saint David, moved north from Madras and, conniving with the commander of his enemy’s army, defeated the nawab in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The battle marked the first stage in the British conquest of India. The French attempted to regain their position in India but were beaten back by the British in 1761. In 1764 the British again defeated local rulers at the Battle of Buxar. This victory firmly established British control over the Bengal region.

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