The End of the East India Company in India

The Indian ‘Mutiny’, or Rebellion, started on 10 May 1857 and lasted until about mid-June 1858. By then, the mutineers were a spent force. For the British, having brought in reinforcements from overseas, it remained only to launch a series of mop-up operations to quash every last pocket of resistance. Revenge was very much the motivating force. The Times demanded that, ‘every tree and gable end in the place should have its burden in the shape of a mutineer’s carcass’. The avengers needed no encouragement – thousands of Indians were killed indiscriminately, whether they had been involved in the rebellion or not; and whole villages set ablaze.

Two years and two months on from the initial outbreak in Meerut, Lord Canning, the first viceroy of India, who served from 1858 to 1862, was able to issue on 8 July 1859 a proclamation declaring: ‘War is at an end; [the] rebellion is put down.’ 11,000 Britons had died, 75 per cent from disease, while the number of Indian casualties, be it sepoy or civilian, remains unknown but numbered many thousands more.

Post-mutiny: the British Raj

East India Company coat of armsLord Canning then managed to quell the bloodthirsty British, earning the contemptuous name ‘Clemency Canning’ from his revenge-driven soldiers. The rebellion may have been dealt with but now the questions were asked – namely, how did it happen and how to ensure that such a catastrophe should never again occur. The East India Company, the de-facto rulers of India, blamed the British Christian evangelicals for having upset local religious sensibilities; while the evangelicals blamed the Company for hampering its efforts.

(Pictured: Coat of Arms of the East India Company).

The uprising may have been far-reaching across northern and central India but Britain’s success was ultimately down to the vast majority of Indian sepoys that had remained loyal to the British. Without their support, the conflict would have had an entirely different ending. Nevertheless, the British Army in India was reorganised so that the proportion of sepoy to British soldiers never exceeded two to one, and the handling of artillery was to be the exclusive responsibility of British-born soldiers. Local religious and linguistic groups were mixed up within regiments to avoid any one group dominating.

The British Crown takes over

India, it was decided with hindsight, was too big, too important and too much of a responsibility for a commercial company, even one so mighty as the East India Company. Thus, on 2 August 1858, over a year before Canning’s declaration that hostilities had ended, the Government of India Act stripped the Company of its burden; the responsibility for governing India passed to parliament and the British crown. In future the post ‘Governor General’ would be replaced by a Viceroy – new title, much the same job, answerable to a Secretary of State for India.

The administration of India would fall on the Indian Civil Service (from 1886 Imperial Civil Service). Appointments to the ICS, thus far awarded on favour and recommendation, would from henceforth be conferred equally between British and Indian, based entirely on merit through competitive examinations. That, at least, was the principle but because of the practicalities of taking the exams, by 1869 only one Indian had made the grade. The ICS employed only about 1,000 staff which, at first, was entirely British, despite the claims of equality. Eventually, by World War Two, there was parity between the races.

That just 1,000 foreigners should rule over a country with a population in 1858 of some 250,000,000, was astonishing. Numerically, at least, each member of the ICS staff was responsible for the welfare of some quarter of a million lives.

The Indians, the British government decided, needed to feel secure in their relations with their rulers. The Indian princes that had remained loyal during the mutiny were to be freed from the fear that the British might annex their provinces, and all Indians should be free to practice their religions without fear of evangelical interference. Queen Victoria herself proclaimed that, ‘We disclaim alike the right and the desire to impose our convictions on any other subjects’.

Rupert Colley.

See also The Indian Mutiny, Mangal Pandey, the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ and the Siege of Cawnpore.

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