Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, was the first European to set foot on Indian soil in 1498 when he landed at Calicut, which is now known as Kozhikode in the state of Kerala. Da Gama was on a mission to find a route to riches and power in India. In their quest for spices and converts to Christianity, the Portuguese challenged Arab supremacy in the Indian Ocean. They also established a network of strategic trading posts along the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf using galleons equipped with powerful cannons. These posts were strategically located between the two bodies of water. In the year 1510, the Portuguese conquered the little enclave of Goa, which later evolved into the economic and political epicentre of their empire in India and which they managed to maintain control over for about 450 years.
Economic competition among the European nations led to the establishment of commercial companies in England (the East India Company, which was established in the year 1600) and in the Netherlands (the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, which was established in the year 1602) The primary objective of these companies was to seize control of the spice trade by dismantling the Portuguese monopoly in Asia. Despite the fact that the Dutch were able to preempt and ultimately exclude the British from the heartland of spice production in the East Indies (what is now known as Indonesia), both companies were successful in establishing trading “factories” (which were actually warehouses) along the Indian coast. The Dutch had access to a large supply of capital and received support from their government. As early as 1609, the Dutch began importing cotton textiles and slaves to their plantations in the East Indies from several ports along the Coromandel Coast in South India. One of the most important of these was Pulicat, which is located around twenty kilometres north of Madras. (It wasn’t until 1639 that the English set up their first factory in the region that is now known as Madras.) Indian kings welcomed the immigrants with open arms in the expectation of using them as a strategic weapon against the Portuguese. In the year 1619, Jahangir gave them permission to do business in his territories at Surat (which is located in Gujarat) on the west coast and Hughli (which is located in West Bengal) on the east coast. These and other areas on the peninsula were important hubs for the international commerce of spices, raw silk, cotton, sugar, calico, and indigo, among other commodities.
Agents working for English companies were accustomed to Indian culture and languages, notably Persian, which was the official language spoken throughout the Mughal Empire. In many respects, the English agents who worked in North America during that time period had lives not dissimilar to those of the indigenous peoples they were tasked with protecting. They freely intermarried with locals and a significant number of them never went back to England. The English were able to gain a competitive advantage over other Europeans as a result of their increased understanding of India and their strong relationships with various Indian commercial groups. The French commercial interest, which was represented by the Compagnie des Indes Orientales (East India Company, which was established in 1664) arrived late, but the French also established themselves in India. The French imitated the precedents set by their competitors when they established their enclave at Pondicherry (Puduchcheri), which is located on the Coramandel Coast.
Farrukh-siyar, the Mughal emperor who ruled from 1713 until 1719, presented the British, who by that time had already established themselves in the south and the west, with a grant of thirty-eight villages located close to Calcutta in the year 1717. He did so to acknowledge the significance of these villages to the continuation of international trade in the Bengal economy. In the same way as the Dutch and the French did, the British introduced silver bullion and copper as a means of payment for commerce. This aided in the efficient operation of the Mughal tax system and increased the advantages for the local craftsmen and merchants. The British were granted extraterritorial status as a result of their fortified warehouses, which allowed them to enforce their own civil and criminal laws, provided a large number of work possibilities, and allowed Europeans and Indians to seek sanctuary in their territory. As Britain’s population and size increased, the country’s manufacturers proved to be formidable competitors. Madras and Calcutta, which were originally collections of fishing villages, were the capitals of British administrative zones, which came to be known in ordinary parlance as presidencies. Bombay was comprised of a number of islands. The factories and the areas immediately surrounding them were referred to as the White-town, and they represented both the actual and symbolic preeminence of the British in terms of their political power, as well as their cultural values and social practises. On the other hand, the Indian workers who collaborated with the British lived in the Black-town, which was located several kilometres away from the factories.
Sepoys were European-trained and European-led Indian warriors, and the British firm recruited them to safeguard its commerce. However, local rulers requested their assistance to settle scores in regional power battles. The first open conflict between British and French soldiers took place in South India. Robert Clive and Francois Dupleix were in command of their respective armies throughout this conflict. Both businesses had the objective of installing their own preferred candidate in the position of nawab, or ruler, of the region known as Arcot, which included Madras. After a drawn-out conflict that lasted from 1744 to 1763, when the Peace of Paris was finally signed, the British had gotten the upper hand over the French and had established their man in power. They supported him even further with guns and vast quantities of money in addition to this. Clive successfully intervened in the succession struggle for the Mughal viceroyalty in Bengal in 1757, and he defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-daula in the Battle of Plassey (Palashi), which took place approximately 150 kilometres north of Calcutta. The French and the British also supported different factions in the conflict. Clive was successful in enlisting the support of a number of factions who were hostile to the reigning nawab. These factions included dissatisfied troops, landholders, and important merchants whose economic successes were directly related to British fortunes.
Later, Clive defeated the Mughal forces at Buxar (Baksar, west of Patna in Bihar) in 1765, and the Mughal emperor (Shah Alam, r. 1759-1806) conferred on the company administrative rights over Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, a region that contained approximately 25 million people and had an annual revenue of 40 million rupees (for current value of the rupee—see Glossary). The imperial gift essentially constituted the company as a sovereign entity, and it made Clive the first British governor of Bengal. Clive was also the first governor of Bengal.
In addition to the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French, there were also two more colonial groups that had a significant role in the region’s history. Between the years 1695 and 1740, Danish businesspeople established themselves at a number of ports along the Malabar and Coromandel coastlines, in the area around Calcutta, and in the interior of the country at Patna. In the 1720s, Austrian businesses were established in the region around Surat, which is located in what is now the southeastern region of the Indian state of Gujarat. The British seized control of the Danish and Austrian enclaves between the years 1765 and 1815, just as they did with the other non-British businesses.