The British East India Company served as one of the key players in the formation of the British Empire. From its origins as a trading company struggling to keep up with its superior Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish competitors to its tenure as the ruling authority of the Indian subcontinent to its eventual hubristic downfall, the East India Company serves as a lens through which to explore the much larger economic and social forces that shaped the formation of a global British Empire. As a private company that became a non-state global power in its own right, the East India Company also serves as a cautionary tale all too relevant to the modern world's current political and economic situation.
In Bengal, the region where the rebellion that would change British-Indian relations permanently took place, the Company shared power with a local nawab. The Company was given increasing responsibility, including the power to collect taxes, or Diwani, in 1773. Many have criticized this "dual authority" of both local Indian rulers and the rule of Company officials as allowing for greater corruption and creating anger and resentment throughout Bengal. Though a defender of Britain's contributions to India's history and economy, Kartar Lalvani calls the Company's collection of the Diwani "short-sighted greed" and charges the Company with a "horrendous blunder concerning the role of revenue collection." To the Indian people, the events of 1857 are known as the first War for Independence. For the British, the time is referred to as a mutiny, an uprising, or a rebellion. It is ironic that a similar story played out just under 100 years earlier, during the American Revolution, or as the Americans called it, the War for Independence.
Whatever the moniker, in 1857, one of the Indian armies, the Bengal, mutinied. In the most cursory histories of the period, the cause of the rebellion is simply cited as an oversight, a change in the type of grease used in powder cartridges rumored to contain animal fat. This revelation horrified both Hindus and Muslims. The British response, which either failed to recognize the need to address the growing rumors or attempted to force Muslim and Hindu soldiers to use the ammunition despite their objections, made things worse. Author John McLeod explains that though the controversy over animal-greased rifle cartridges was the immediate cause of the conflict, economic, religious, and political resentment existed and had been worsening throughout 1856. He also argues that rather than the uprising being attributable to either one incident or one cause - such as concerns over attempts at religious conversion by Christian officers, anger at the British in general, or frustration over specific tax policies - the rebellion was fueled not only by those with specific complaints against the British, but by those who sought to end up on the right sight of history. McLeod argues that many Indians joined the rebellion only after the tide seemed to be turning in favor of Indian rebels: "In general, the deciding factor was whether or not such leaders felt that their interests and those of the people under their command would be best served by ending British rule." McLeod concludes that the basis of the mutiny was ultimately economic, observing that "the commercial and educated classes of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras had prospered under Company dominance, and held back."
An estimated 80,000 Indians and over 5,000 British were killed during the rebellion, often horrifically, and as British historian Percival Griffiths said of the rebellion in retrospect, "It is useless to pass judgment on these excesses on both sides. Cruelty begets cruelty, and after a certain stage of suffering and horror justice and judgment give way to the demand for vengeance."
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