This edited article about British India originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 308 published on 9 December 1967.
The urge to explore is often motivated by the desire to trade. When Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and landed at Calicut on the west coast of India, he was welcomed by the local rajah, who earnestly desired to trade spices and precious stones with Portugal.
For a century the Portuguese monopolised the trade with India. Their place was taken in the 17th century by the Dutch who carried on extensive commerce with the east, evicting the Portuguese from most of their trading posts.
The first British expedition followed shortly upon the formation of the British East India Trading Company, in 1600. During the first half of the century, the Company acquired a number of coastal trading centres. These included ones at Surat, on the west coast; Madras; and Bombay, which the Company obtained through King Charles II from the Portuguese. At the end of the century, they founded Calcutta.
During this time, the French were building trading stations at Pondicherry and Chandernagore.
The situation in India was very tempting to those whose eyes turned from trade to the prospects of territorial acquisition. In the years that followed the death of Aurangzeb, the last great Mogul Emperor of India, in 1707, the viceroys who ruled great areas of India in the name of the Emperor began to extend their personal power and pay little more than lip-service to the imperial court at Delhi.
The most important of these viceroys were the nawab of the Deccan, the nawab of Bengal and the nawab of Oudh.
There was great scope in this situation for any foreign nation which chose to interfere. It was a question of who would do so first.
While the war of Austrian Succession was under way in Europe, the French governor of Pondicherry, Joseph Dupleix, used it as an excuse to attack and take the British Company’s trading post at Madras. The British only regained Madras in the settlement made in Europe by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle (1748).
The French, attracted by the ease of their previous success, were eager to extend their activities and build an empire for themselves in India. The opportunity arose when the choice of a nawab in the Carnatic (a region of the Deccan) was disputed. The French succeeded in establishing their candidate there – for which he paid them a huge sum of money.
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