British Colonialism in America and India

In 1497, King Henry VII of  England sent an expedition to the North American coast. However, because there were few precious metals available, both the Spanish and English initially refused to permanently settle there.

Henry VII

The first permanent English colonization of the Americas was the colony of Jamestown, in 1607. Prior to Cristopher Columbus’ arrival in America in 1492, there lived many indigenous people in all parts of the continent. Much of English colonization took place in the 16th century, including Roanoke Colony in 1585, which did not ultimately last. 

The Jamestown settlers suffered many afflictions. After only ten years, almost 1400 of the 1700 original settlers had survived. However, when they began growing tobacco, the colony’s size nearly tripled in five years, from 1617 to 1622. 

Between the early 17th century and the American Revolution, the British shipped anywhere between 50,000 and 120,000 convicts to the American colonies.

The second permanent American colony, Plymouth, was established in 1620 by a boat full of Pilgrims called the Mayflower, followed shortly after by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.

The Revolutionary War (or American Revolution) came about from growing tensions between Great Britain and the original 13 colonies of early North America. Constant fights between British and Colonial troops Lexington and Concord in 1775 started off the armed fighting, and by 1776 a full fledged war had been initiated. France joined the American cause in 1778, effectively turning it into an international fight, and with France’s assistance, the Colonists were able to force Britain’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781. This turning point was an essential guarantee to America’s independence, though fighting continued for 2 more years.

In discussion with France, the United States (post-revolution) offered 15 million dollars (about 309 million in today’s value) for the purchase of over 2 million square kilometers of the Western North American territory, which equates to a mere $18 per square mile (2.59 square kilometers). This land purchase was cheap because of Napoleon Bonaparte’s great need for money during the Great French War. This purchase effectively doubled the amount of territory controlled by the U.S at the time. Ironically, France controlled only a portion of this unused area, and it was inhabited densely by Native Americans. What America truly bought in this exchange was the right to essentially conquer or con the Native Americans out of their land, without the interference of other countries. 

The British East India company was set up by the London traders through the orders of Queen Elizabeth I to extend their hold over the trade of the eastern region. They started trade with the Mughal Empire who ruled vast portions of the Indian subcontinent. Like the British , French, Danish and Portuguese traders also set up their own companies in order to trade with the Mughals,  and these companies had frequent conflicts between them which sometimes resulted in war.

Battle of Plassey in 1757

The first significant war was the Battle of Plassey in 1757 which changed the course of Indian subcontinent’s history. The then ‘Nawab’ (ruler) of Bengal, Siraj ud daulah, had a ferocious temper and limited understanding. The ongoing trade war going on between the European nations made him suspicious of the possibility of a dangerous war in the near future. When the British and French started improving fortifications in the anticipation of another war between them, Nawab Siraj ud daulah immediately asked them to stop. However, the East India Company didn’t listen to it. So the Nawab sent 3000 men to capture the British officials in Cossimbazar and took them as prisoners. This was the incident which put him in direct confrontation with the company in India which resulted in the Battle of Plassey between Robert Clive and Nawab Siraj ud daulah, and ultimately the victory of the British. Siraj ud daulah was betrayed by his own maternal uncle Mir Jafar who was crowned as a ‘puppet regent’ by the British after overthrowing Siraj ud daulah. This victory made the British a stronger force in the whole Indian subcontinent and the company which came to do business ultimately fulfilled their real plan to conquer India.

Nawab Siraj ud daulah

India has witnessed various forms of resistance against invaders. The natives of the subcontinent were generally peaceful and patient but if they thought their beliefs and tradition were being attacked they were never ones to shy away from lifting swords, especially within the Hindu and Sikh populations. This had been evident from the time that they were attacked by the aggressive Muslim rulers previously. This time the British made the same mistake – they used the fat of pigs (forbidden to Muslims) and cows (considered a symbol of holiness by some Hindus) to make cartridges. There were also a lot of Indian soldiers working in the company and Mangal Pandey was one brave soldier who was loyal to the company. However,  once he got to know about this secret it made him so angry that he planned to revolt. This resulted in the Sepoy mutiny. Despite the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims, both groups united for this joint cause since it was an attack on their beliefs and practices.

Mangal Pandey is today seen as the first person to stand against the imperial, colonialist British Raj in the subcontinent. However, for that, he had to pay a high price as he was publicly hanged by the British so that nobody dared further to oppose the Raj.  Nevertheless, this was just the start of a long struggle. Colonialism had many ill effects in India, including the Jaliawala Bagh massacre of 1919, the Bengal famine in 1942, and the Calcutta killings of 1946. They did lay the foundation of railways in India. The country’s first train, the Red Hill Railway, was built in 1837 by Arthur Cotton in order to transport granite for road-building and ran from the Red Hills to the Chintadripet bridge in Madras. Another wise decision taken by the British Raj was to set up tea plantations across the country in order to lessen the dependency on chinese tea. However, that was also done mainly in an effort to keep the whole subcontinent business in their fist.

Arthur Cotton

Colonialism was opposed by revolutionaries because of the frequent atrocities against Indians. Ultimately with the cooperation of all the revolutionaries and freedom fighters, India was freed from the chains from colonialism on 15th August 1947. This came at the cost of the division into two nations, one Secular India and the other the Islamic state of Pakistan.


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