The jewel in the Crown

India became the most important possession in the crown of the British throne

September 25, 2022


ow vital was colonial India to the projection of British power around the globe during the 1800s and the first half of 1900s is an important question – given the ongoing debate on print and social media since the sad demise of Queen Elizabeth II – about the empire benefiting at the cost of its colonies.

The British East India Company started as a trading institution along with the French Compagnie des Indes and the Dutch East India Company in the subcontinent. The latter two, however, were outdone by the British East India Company, which quickly transformed itself into an empire building machine. It annexed province after province and state after state until the entire India was either being directly governed by the Company or was patronised by its Resident Agents in the states. The British Parliament took over the control of India in 1858, soon after the Mutiny of 1857; although the Parliament had already started exercising its influence through the appointment of its governors general.

The British Queen became the Empress of India and India became the most important possession, a jewel in the crown, for the British monarch. The Koh-i-Noor, once considered a source of power and victory in subcontinent, too became one of the British possessions. India was a means of projection of British colonial power in Asia throughout the Nineteenth and the first half of Twentieth Century. This projection of British power and glory was instrumental in achieving economic dividends as well as the victory in two world wars. The British could control and maintain hegemony over China, South East Asia and Middle East through India. Moreover, the necessity of controlling safe passage through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal was also directed towards having unhampered connection with India. It was due to the possession of India that Britain became the supreme colonial power of the Nineteenth and the Twentieth Century.

Unlike North America and the West Indies, India was not converted into a dominion of settlements. France and Britain traded with privileges in Indian subcontinent through chartered companies that enjoyed legal and trading monopolies. The trade of India and Asia, at least initially, figured marginally in the economics of the empire. The business cycle of the British East India Company ran in a manner that some bullion gained by trade or piracy in the West Indies was shipped to India, where it was used to purchase cotton cloth that was shipped to England and then used to purchase slaves in Africa for West Indies. The commercial problem with the Indian states, in the beginning at least, was that the European countries produced nothing or very little in demand in the region.

However, European involvement in the subcontinent continued incessantly. Some enterprising Europeans hoped that in some fashion and, in some time, profitable commerce with India might develop while others regarded India as a springboard to be used for a larger market in China. The original footholds of trade activity were called factories. Various Indian governments had granted trading rights and privileges to them. In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, two developments changed the situation favourably for the Europeans. First, in several Indian states, decay occurred in internal administration and government. Second, Joseph Dupleix for the French and Robert Clive for the British saw these developments as an opportunity to expand the control of their respective companies. Thus, to maintain their own security and to expand their privileges, the companies began filling the political, economic and administrative vacuum. They virtually took over the government in some regions. Each company was trying to outdo the other. The British succeeded, eventually.

The early British Empire was composed of self-governed colonies and the nature of relationship of Britain with them was one of salutary neglect. This changed with the acquisition of India. Here began the experiment of governing a people unprepared for self-rule while keeping them in line with British political principles. The huge population with vast territorial size of India and its control by London made this colony a showcase for the whole world and a moral defence for British imperialism. Rudyard Kipling called it the White Man’s Burden.

The self-critique of the members of the British Parliament reveals their intentions to preside over a just rule in India. Throughout the British rule in India, the English Parliament was busy seeking best ways and enacting best laws to govern India. They believed in the supremacy of their laws and their capacity to deliver justice to the people. They were driven by the conviction of advancing civilisation. In other words, this duty involved expanding the civilisation led by Britain by fulfilling its imperial responsibilities and using the profits from Indian trade to advance its material progress. Having this purpose in mind, the British initiated ambitious economic improvement projects and invested heavily in the improvement of infrastructure.

India, commensurate with the increasing British strategic and commercial interests, developed into a vital possession for the British projection of power in Asia in the 1800s and 1900s. Industrialisation, started in the mid-Eighteenth Century, advanced during the Nineteenth Century, entrenched British commercial interests in this region using it as hinterland to feed raw materials to industries in Great Britain. They used to purchase cotton, for example, process it in Lancashire and Manchester and send the finished and value-added goods to colonies, including India. These areas were, with huge population, not only markets for them but also a spring board for the expansion of the empire in China and the far East. Thus, commercially and geographically, India had a special place in the British commercial and strategic interests.

The opening of Suez Canal opened up new horizons as far as the British imperial interests in India were concerned. It cut short a long distance and made the territories around the Mediterranean and Red Sea more important for the British to secure the flow of its fleets through this new route. As result of this development, the Middle East and Mediterranean region grew in importance for the Britain to secure safe passage to India and to monitor any Russian advancement that might militate against British imperial interests in India. The British political maneuverings in the Nineteenth and half of Twentieth Century were concentrated and focused upon saving their interests related to India.

The British Indian Army had a high-sounding projection of the British Empire. This Indian army was commanded by British officers. Their leadership skills marked it out as far as its efficiency and loyalty were concerned. Regular and handsome pay, the decline in the prospects of employment in other armies as the Indian states fast drifted into the sphere of influence of the Company were the factors that explain Indians’ rapid recruitment in the British Indian Army.

Thanks to the success of its recruitment campaigns in North India, the Company possessed one of the largest European style armies in the world. During the two World Wars, the Indian soldiers fought at various fronts for the empire. Many lost their lives. India contributed heavily during the course of wars with men, money and materials. Since the British were not strong in land forces, although they had a strong navy, they had to rely time and again on the Indian forces in this regard. Militarily, India was an important asset for the British projection of the empire.

India became a successful and effective bulwark against Russian advancement towards South Asia. The British were very watchful of Russian designs and advancement. In the backdrop of British-Russian imperial rivalry in the European context, the British had concentrated a sizable portion of its army in North Western India. Thus, in the context of the global European presence, the British presence was not only the most pervasive but also the most outstanding. Russians could have advanced southwards had the British not encircled them. The British were maintaining a variety of subjugations including dominions of settlement, dominions of conquest, protectorates and buffer states. India helped them maintain effective control over the Indian Ocean, the Pacific and Far East. It can conversely be argued that it was the British requirement to control and maintain safe passage to India that necessitated surveillance and control of the areas around the Mediterranean Sea.

The writer has a PhD in history from the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is the head of the History Department at the University of Sargodha. He has worked as research fellow at the Royal Holloway College University of London. He can be reached at and tweets AbrarZahoor1