The British East India Company and the spread of English in Asia

nave, compagnia inglese delle indie orientali

Strongly encouraged by the expertise reached after the circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope performed by Bartolomeu Dias in 14871 and increasingly eager to discover new alternative commercial routes to the traditional ones such as the famous Silk Road2, the first Europian navigators who entered into direct contact with Asian populations were Portuguese. In fact, just these latter one decade after, under the leadership of Vasco da Gama reached the west coast of  Southern India, by Landing near a city called Calicut, whose current name is kozhicode3.

The British East India Company and its birth

British East India Company, flag

For attending to the early British colonial expeditions toward the Indian subcontinent we need to wait until the early years of Seventeenth Century when, through the constitution of the renowned British East India Company, on December the 31st, 1600, Queen Elizabeth I  entrusted the whole monopoly of trade in the unexplored territories of East India to a particular group of distinguished impavid merchants coming from London.

The first trading outpost of the British East India Company in East Indies was born in the city of Surat in 1612 and, by the end of the century, further settlements gradually sprang up in the cities of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta.

During this period the different varieties of English existing in all colonies of the British Empire, which extented from the East coast of North America to the Antipodes, began to acquire individual characteristics, especially for what concerned the lexical context. Looking at the specific case of English spoken within the British Indian colonies, we can not help to notice the arrival of a considerable number of new terms from the local linguistic reality: curry, bungalow, chintz, dungare, punch, mongoose, cash, pajamas, cot, pagoda, tattoo, polo, loot, juggernaut, sahib, rupee e coolie4.

The British East India Company and its power

Among the most significant historical events concerning the expansion of British domination on Indian subcontinent, we should recognize a role of primary importance to the magnificent success obtained, on June the 23rd,1757, by general Robert Clive in the famous battle of Plassey against the nabob Suraj-ud-Daula‘s army, who was and avid supporter of French rulers. It was just this unexpected victory that allowed the British East India Company, on one hand, to impose its control over the whole Bengal’s territory and, on the other hand, to almost totally exclude, the presence of the eternal French rivals from Indian subcontinent. During the following days Suraj-ud-Daula, the last indipendent nabob of India, was murdered and at his place, on Murshidabad’s throne, the British East India Company leaders placed his uncle Mir Jafar, significant event that marked the beginning of British domination in India5.

Mir Jafar settled in Murshidabad on June the 25th, 1757 when general Robert Clive proclaimed him subahdar6 of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

The new nabob in return garanteed the British East India Company, in addition to the free trade in all areas under his influence and the monopoly on the trade of salpetre in Bihar, also his complete military support.

The British East India Company and its battles

The critical financial situation occurring after the last pusched Mir Jafar to squeeze more and more spremere Indian officers’ coffers. The protection of general Clive towards them, in addition to mark the beginning of the embitterment of all relations between the nabob Mir Jafar and the British East Indian Company, pushed the latter to fing new alliances with the Duch, among whom there was a great dissatisfaction feeling deriving from the loss of the monopoly on salpietre in Bihar. The Dutch attempt aimed to the replacement of British settlers proved to be a real failure, because it ended with their defeat in Bedara at the end of November, 1759.

In February, 1760 general Clive left lindia and went back to England. He was replaced by Holwell (since February to June, 1760) and Vansittard (since July 1760 to 1764). Meanwhile Mir Jafar was becoming less and less popular among British rulers and so, after following Holwell‘s suggestion, Vansittard decided to depose and  replace him with his son-in-law Mir Quasim, who became the new nabob of Bengal. The exemption of import duties, of which benefited the private trades of the British East India Company, granted by Mir Jafar under the treaty of 1757 did nothing but increase the wealth of corruppted merchants and officers to the detriment of many Indian merchants. This injustice was not tollerated for a long period by Mir Quasim, who, with the purpose to protect Indian merchants’ business, abolished any kind of duty, leveling the competition between them and the British. This decision sparked the beginning of a further embitterment af all relations with the British East India Company and pushed Mir Quasim to establish a new alliance with Shuia-ud-Daula (nabob of Awadh) and Shah Alam II (emperor of Mughal). This alliance, however, proved to be anything but functional in fact, on October the 22nd, 1764, during the famous battle of Buxar the numerous but disorganized troops of the three allies were heavily defeated by the most efficient and better organized British contingent, which responded to the orders of senior commander Hector Munro.

If the unespected victory in the battle of Plassey allowed the British East India Company to estend its control in the Whole Bengal region by installing a new nabob appointed by the leaders of the British East Indian Company, the victory in the battle of Buxar proclaimed the total collapse of Awadh’s powerel as well as that of the weakned Mughal Empire7.

The British East India Company and its decline

Since 1773 the British East India Company faced a difficult period of financial crisis, caused both by the unespected decrease concerning the sales of tea in North America, which was due in turn to the smuggling put into effect by the Dutch, and the galloping corruption among the Company’s officer, who got richer and richer while neglecting the interests of their shareholders at home. The concatenation of this series of events deeply shook the Central Government and pushed it to make some order in the lucrative business in which the British East India Company was involved.

Since the British East India Company was heavily indebted both with the Central Government, because it annually paid around 400.000 £ for the maintenance of its monopoly, burden which was no longer tenable, and with the Bank of England, The only alternative left was the obtainment of a govenmental loan at a reasonable interest rate. Since the request was accepted the Government took the opportunity to directly regulate the exercise of all political power in the Whole colonial territory of India. In this regard, in 1783, Prime Minister Lord North enacted the Regulating Act. As a consequence the Presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras were placed under the supervision of the central governor. He, in turn, chaired a board composed by four members appointed by the Act, who, in turn, could be dismissed only by the Sovreign’s will. The Regulating Act is till regarded by historians as the first written constitution of India under the British domination8.

The British East India Company and its end

The definitive capitulation of the political power held by the British East India Company in all Indian colonies arrived the following year, because of the enactment of the so called Indian Act by Prime Minister Pitt. He placed under the supervision of the Board of Control, composed by two cabinet ministers, of whom one was the Chancellor of the Excheque (better known as Treasure Minister), and four members belonging to the Privy Coucil (directly appointed by the Queen), both the civili and military affairsof the British East India Company. The Presidencies of Madras and Bombay remained definitively subordinated to that of Bengal9.

Since that moment onward the political administration of the territories of Eastern Indial formally passed into the hands of the Crown and the management of all commercial activities continued to be a pertinence of the British East India Company.

In 1858, after the violent Indian Mutiny (Indian rebellion) occurred in 1857, the British East India Company  was definitely abolished and the totalc ontrol of the Indian subcontinent was handed to the Crown.

The British East India Company as a key factor for the spread of English Language in Asia

Since this period of direct rule of India by the Crown until the indipendence of India obtained in 1947 English became the Language of the public education and administration. The official announcement occurred after the acceptance by Lord William Bentinck (General Governor of India since 1833 to 1835)10 of the proposal made by the historian, poet and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay in his essay Minute on Indian Education, written in February 1835 during his stay in India as a member of the British East India Company’s Governing Board. With the publication of his Minute on Indian Education Macaulay, even though he never directly expressed his approval on the abolition of Sanscrit at the highest levels of Indian public education, he strongly recommended the British East India Company‘s members not to subsidize and support in any way whatever form of education in Sanskrit and Persian, but on the contrary to subsidize and support the introduction of an English Educational System11.

After the foundation of the universities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, at the beginning of 1857, English Language became the main instrument of access to the public education, condition that remained unchanged until the early years of the next century.

With reference to the provisions expressed in Article 343, paragraph (2), of the Constitution of India, in today’s Federal Republic of India English languages is considered an official Language together with Hindi12.

Robert Clive e Mir Jafar a Plassey

The picture above shows the encounter between general Robert Clive belonging to the British East Indian Company and the nabob Mir Jafar at the end of the famous battle of Plassey, key event that marked the beginning of British domination in India13.

Further readings and most recommended books

1Ricklefs Merle Calvin, A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200, third edition, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1981, 1993, 2001, United States of America.

2Wood Frances, The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 2002, 2004, United States of America.


4Harley Heidi, English words: a linguistic introduction, The Language Library, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Malden, 2006, United States of America.

5Mark Bence-Jones, Clive of India, 1974, cit. in Weaver Michael, Historical Dictionary of the British Empire vol. 2, James S. Olson and Robert Shadle editors, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1996, United States of America.

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

6Term of Persian origin commonly used during the Mughal domination of India, which indicates the governor of a province or a district. Its etymology comes from the Persian word subah (province).

7Sen Sailendra Nath, History Modern India, revised third edition, New Age International Publishers Ltd., 2006, New Delhi, India.

8Lal Gupta Manik, Constitutional Development of India, Atlantic Publisher & Distributors, New Delhi, 1989, India.

9Chopra P. N., Puri N. B., Das M. N., Pradhan A. C., A Comprehensive History of Modern India, Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2003, reprint 2005, India.


11Chandran K. Narayana, Texts and their Words II, Foundation Books Pvt. Ltd., Cambridge House, New Delhi, India.

12THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA, (26th November 1949), Government of India, Ministry of Law and Justice, (as modified up to the 1st December, 2007).

13, painting in oil on canvas, whose original title is Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, painted in 1757 by the British artist Francis Hayman (1707 or 1708-1776) and currently hosted by the National Protrait Gallery of London.

Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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