In the past, India was a rich and prosperous country. Our contact with the outside world dates back to many centuries before Christ. The Romans, Greeks and Arabs had been coming to buy our goods. Cotton and silk textiles, handicrafts and spices like pepper and cardamom were in great demand, With the rapid growth of civilization, demand for these goods increased greatly in the West.
The Portuguese and Spanish sailors started a series of geographical discoveries. Columbus discovered America in A.D. 1494. The Portuguese sailor, Vasco da Gama, discovered the new sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. He landed in India at Calicut, Kerala, a state well known for its spices. It is said that Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal with a cargo of spices that fetched him 50 times the cost of his voyage to India.
The Portuguese fought with the Arab traders and defeated them, They established trading centres at Calicut, Cochin and Cannanore, They controlled the entire foreign trade of India in the sixteenth century. The empire they built could not last long. The traders were cruel and unfair towards the Indians. The Portuguese became very rich. Other European countries like Holland, France and Britain, also developed interest in trade of Indian goods. They came to India and fought among themselves, The British defeated other European countries and became the sole traders.
Some rich British traders formed a company to trade with India. It was named The East India Company. The company was given the exclusive right to trade in the East by Queen Elizabeth. Though the company was interested in earning profit through trade, it found it necessary to establish permanent centres with big godowns to store the goods. The godown was called factory in those days.
The Company established its first factory at Surat on the west coast of India in A.D. 1608. The Mughal Emperor Jehangir permitted the Company to establish factories in the whole of the Mughal Empire. The company added Chennai, Kolk mpany to establish factories in the whole of the Mughal Empire. The company added Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai as important trading centres.
To protect their factories, the British built forts and maintained armies, The offices and residences of the employees were situated in this area. The British came to India for trade, but became conquerors, Siraj-ud-Daulah became the Nawab of Bengal in A.D. 1756, He did not like the British traders building forts and – maintaining their armies. He ordered the British to remove their guns from their fort at Kolkata. The Company refused to follow the orders of the Nawab, This led to the Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which Siraj-ud-Daulah was defeated. This victory paved the way for British mastery of Bengal and ultimately helped them in controlling the entire country. The Company now became a military power.
The British did not conquer the whole of India at once. The kings and nawabs of small kingdoms in India were fighting among themselves. The British freely used divide and rule policy to capture their kingdoms, With the help of a better trained and disciplined army; they captured a large part of India.
The Indian peasants were timid by nature, They were under the influence of priests, mullahs, landlords and moneylenders. They were the worst affected. In the late 18th century, the British merchants introduced cultivation of indigo (a blue powder used in England for dyeing mill cloth) in Bengal. It gradually spread all over Bihar. The farmers had no use for this crop. They were forced to sell it at a very low price. This led the helpless cultivators to begging or starvation, while the Company earned huge profits.
Similarly, the weavers of cotton and silk cloths were also forced to sell their products only to the British at a very low price, The Indian farmers and traders were unhappy with the British. Slowly the Indian industries and crafts were forced to close down. India was converted into the richest source of raw material for the industries in Britain. The Indians were made to buy British cloth at a high price. The British made India a consumer of British goods and a rich supplier of raw materials.
The Company officials started sending immense wealth home, They extracted money from the Indian rulers, merchants, landlords and even the common people. Added to this were the huge profits made from trade.
All this made the Indian kings, nawabs, farmers, weavers, traders and others unhappy with the British and their Raj. People from all walks of life started planning to oust the British from the country. But these people were not united enough to challenge the British rule.
The year 1857 is an important year in the history of our country. It was the time when an attempt was made by the Indians to liberate themselves from the British rule, Some scholars call it the Sepoy mutiny, while others describe it as the first war of independence.
Mangal Pandey, a young sepoy, fired the first shot of this revolt, The bullet he fired on March 29, 1857, sparked the army rebellion against the 100-year-old British rule. The first spark of revolt started at Meerut, near Delhi. The revolt spread over large parts of northern and central India.
The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar was made the leader, Other sections of Indian society also joined in the struggle. Nona Sahib Peshwa, Tantia Tope, Kanwar Singh, Liaqat Ali, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi and Begum Hazrat Mahal of Avadh were prominent among them. The sacrifice of Rant of Jhansi is well known.
The revolt shook the foundation of the Company’s rule in India. The Indians, who had many leaders, were not well organised. The British, with a well-organised army, suppressed the revolt with a heavy hand. Thousands of people were taken into custody and killed. Bahadur Shah Zafar was sent to Rangoon in Burma (now Myanmar). Hundreds of people were tied to the mouths of cannons and blown up. Many villages were burnt down. The people of India had to suffer great cruelties of the British.
The revolt of 1857 brought an end to the rule of the East India Company. It was taken over by the British Government. It appointed a Governor-General (also called Viceroy) to rule over India. Now India came more firmly under the British but still the conditions of the people did not improve. The new rulers also harassed and suppressed the Indians. However, the revolt of 1857 created an urge in the minds of the Indian people to unite and fight for their freedom. They prepared for a new struggle against the British rulers.