Advent of the Europeans
Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut, sailing via the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. This marked the beginning of
the European era in Indian history. The lucrative trade in spices of Malabar – in modern Kerala – had tempted
the Portuguese and inspired the search for a sea route to the Indies. The Portuguese had already established
their colony in Goa by the first decade of the 16th Century but their territorial and commercial hold in India
remained rather limited.
In the next century, India was visited by a large number of European travellers – Italians, Englishmen,
Frenchmen and Dutchmen. They were drawn to India for different reasons. Some were traders, others
adventurers, and quite a few fired by the missionary zeal to find converts to Christianity. Among them was
Francois Bernier, the French doctor who enjoyed the confidence of princes and nobles and was in a uniquely
privileged position to observe the functioning of the Mughal court. His account is a valuable source of
information for historians.
These travelogues aroused European interest in India, and prompted in course of time, the colonial
intervention. England, France, the Netherlands and Denmark, floated East India Companies. Chartered as
trading companies by their respective governments, their primary commercial interest was in Indian textiles,
both silk and cotton, indigo and at times, other sundry merchandise.
During the late 16th and the 17th Centuries, these companies competed with each other fiercely. By the last
quarter of the 18th Century the English had vanquished all others and established themselves as the
dominant power in India. The military campaigns of Robert Clive and the administrative enterprise of Warren
Hastings (1772 – 1785) contributed significantly to this achievement.
The British administered India for a period of about two centuries and brought about revolutionary changes in
the social, political and the economic life of the country. Most Indians who came in their contact could not
perceive the strategic threat posed by the East India Company. The British from the beginning followed a
policy of divide and rule. Diplomacy and deceit were used to gain control of revenue collection in the province
of Bengal. This gave the foreigners effective control of administration. The Marathas, the Sikhs and the rulers
of Mysore could never unite to confront the foreign enemy and fell one by one. By the onset of the 19th
Century there was no local power that could cope with their onslaught.
Once the British had consolidated their power, commercial exploitation of the natural resources and native
labour became ruthless. It is true that there were a few benevolent Governor Generals who initiated social
reforms and tried to render the administration more efficient and responsive, but they were exceptions. By the
middle of the 19th Century arrogant exploitation of the people had tried the patience of the Indians to the limit.
The British had, to serve their own purpose, set up educational institutions that imparted western education
and had established a vast network of rail-roads and telegraph lines. This united the country in an
unprecedented manner. The Indians, exposed to western ideas of responsible and representative government,
began to yearn for liberty and equality. There were many who looked back to the nation’s glorious past and
strove to rekindle the sentiment of patriotism. Foremost among them were Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and Ishwar
Chandra Vidyasagar. The 19th Century is often referred to as the age of national resurgence in India.
The flash point was reached in 1857 when the British introduced a new rifle and cartridge in the British Indian
Army. The bullet offended the religious sentiments of both the Hindus and the Muslims, as it allegedly
contained pork and beef tallow. Soldiers at Meerut were the first to rebel and reaching Delhi proclaimed
Bahadurshah Zafar the sovereign ruler of India. The revolt soon spread like wild fire all over north India and
could only be put down after great difficulty and bloodshed. Nationalist historians have seen in it the first
Indian war of independence.
The six decades between the end of the “mutinous” war of 1857 – 59 and the conclusion of First World War
saw both the peak of British imperial power in India and the birth of nationalist agitation against it.
The Freedom Struggle
With increasing intrusion of aliens in their lives, it was natural that nationalist feelings began to be articulated
by an increasing number of Indians.