Why Is China Expansionist And India Pacifist? Colonial History, Part-I 
The 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot. At the Storming of Amoy, in the Firrst Opium War, 1841. (Image: British National Army Museum)

Why Is China Expansionist And India Pacifist? Colonial History, Part-I 

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Why is China expansionist? And India a relative pacifist? A part of the answer lies in the strikingly different colonial infarctions suffered by each country. In Part 1 of this essay, we shall cover the history from Day Zero to the mid-19th century. In Part II, we traverse the last 100 years of colonial rule until independence for India and China.

Day Zero Of Colonial Subjugation: Dec. 31, 1600

On Dec. 31, 1600, a group of London businessmen banded together to create a quaintly named company, Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies. A royal charter gave it all privileges of trading in that part of Asia. Little did these gentlemen realise that their British East India Company (known better under this popular shorthand) would unleash a dynamic whose reverberations would ripple across the world 300 years later. The Company was the common womb from which two stepchildren, British India and colonial China, sprang to become divergent Asian giants.

A ‘letter patent’ by William III and Mary II, prescribing regulations for the conduct of business of the East India Company, in 1693. (Image: The British Library)
A ‘letter patent’ by William III and Mary II, prescribing regulations for the conduct of business of the East India Company, in 1693. (Image: The British Library)

The Company encountered a dilemma as soon as it began trading with China and India. There were few buyers for British broadcloth and other European goods in Asia, but large buyers in Europe for tea, silk, and porcelain from the East. The Company soon realised that it needed political power to oust Portuguese competitors and control the terms of trade with native Indians. In China, it ran into another problem; Chinese traders were unwilling to sell unless they were paid in silver. British merchants had to move with devil’s speed to plug this one-sided drain of gold and silver. They devised an elaborately devious plot to trade opium at auction in Calcutta, mix it with tobacco, smuggle it across the seas into China, and finally use these illicit earnings to pay for Chinese exotica.

The Beginning Of China’s ‘National Humiliations’

Since opium imports were banned in China, Emperor Daoguang sent a polite but firm protest to Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, the letter was whisked midway and it never reached the queen; history may have been different if an informed queen had clamped down on the British East India Company’s illegal intentions. In 1839, after a decade of aborted anti-opium campaigns, the Chinese monarch ran out of patience. He confiscated and destroyed 20,000 chests of ill-gotten opium and detained an entire foreign community. The events escalated into the world’s first drug war, known as the First Opium War (1839–42), between the Qing dynasty and the British East India Company. The Chinese were vanquished into submission and forced to sign the first of many unequal treaties that rankle ordinary citizens to this day. The 1842 Treaty of Nanjing granted an indemnity of $21 million to the Company and opened the ports of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai to opium imports. The tariff was brought down to 5% and British nationals were granted ‘extraterritoriality’; earlier, the ‘brutal violence and beastly intemperance’ of British sailors would attract stiff Chinese penalties, but now Chinese laws were not applicable on foreign nationals who could not be taxed, nor arrested, nor tried by Chinese authorities.

France, Russia, and the United States jumped in to rain more blows on a down and out country. All of them forced China to sign similarly unequal treaties at Tianjin in 1858, giving rights to new ‘treaty ports’, access to the hinterland, and lower tariffs.

Even today, China calls the ensuing century full of ‘national humiliations’.
An engagement in the First Opium War, showing the ‘Nemesis’ attacking a fleet of Chinese war junks in the middle ground, on Jan 17, 1841. (Image: British National Army Museum/MIT)
An engagement in the First Opium War, showing the ‘Nemesis’ attacking a fleet of Chinese war junks in the middle ground, on Jan 17, 1841. (Image: British National Army Museum/MIT)

Across The Himalayas, A Violent Harvest Of ‘Cherries’ In India

Surprisingly, the British East India Company authored an utterly different edition of colonial rule in India. Perhaps the two situations were not comparable, to begin with. In China, one dynasty was ruling over the entire country, and several colonial powers vied to carve the ‘single’ melon on offer. India’s situation was a mirror image of this: Great Britain was the single colonial power, but India was carved up into hundreds of intrigue-ridden, weak ‘kingdoms’.

It was a lush but unguarded orchard of ripe ‘cherries’, easy to pluck and chuck into a domineering political basket.

The British East India Company set up its first trading post at Surat on India’s west coast in the early seventeenth century. While its primary export of British broadcloth did not find eager buyers in India, the reverse trade—of Indian goods being sold in Great Britain—was extremely lucrative. Fortuitously for the British, India’s mighty Mughals began declining after Emperor Aurangzeb’s death in 1707. Over the next century, the loose federation of tiny monarchies built by the Mughals crumbled into a fractious bunch of local ‘kingdoms’. The Company seized this opportunity to wield political power and control the terms of trade with ‘native’ Indians. Its first conquest was in Bengal, on India’s east coast. Egged on by French colonialists, Siraj-ud-Daula, the nawab of Bengal, foolishly attacked Fort William, the British settlement in Calcutta. His misadventure collided against Robert Clive’s cunning political management. Clive, a most mercurial Company official, lured Mir Jafar to defect from Siraj’s camp at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 (incidentally, ‘Mir Jafar’ has become a byword for ‘back-stabber’ in several Indian languages). Robert Clive defeated Siraj and planted Mir Jafar as the puppet ruler of Bengal.

Robert Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, in 1757. (Image: National Portrait Gallery, London)
Robert Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, in 1757. (Image: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Clive had plucked the first ‘cherry’, installing himself as the Governor of Bengal. Ironically, more than two-thirds of Clive’s 2,900-strong troops at Plassey were native Indians, known as ‘sepoys’ of the British East India Company. He wrote to his directors in London: ‘I can assert with some degree of confidence that this rich and flourishing kingdom may be totally subdued by so small a force as two thousand Europeans . . . (The Indians are) indolent, luxurious, ignorant . . . (They) attempt everything by treachery rather than force.’

A triumphant Company extracted the Treaty of Allahabad from the weak Mughal Emperor, gaining administrative control over Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. It won the right to earn over 2 million sterling every year by taxing over 20 million people. The Company had tasted blood; it realised that the ‘business of government’ was far more lucrative than trading in exotic goods. Robert Clive went on an ‘unrepentant plunder of Bengal’, leading to miserable casualties (10 million people) in the 1770 famine.

Capturing India’s Elite With Soft Power

Robert Clive was replaced by the far more moderate Warren Hastings, who admired Indian culture and was fluent in Persian and Hindi. He set up the institution of ‘District Collector’, an official who exercised a mixture of judicial and executive powers (this job survives even today, and is among the most coveted by young, educated Indians). This was a benign period during which a hybrid society emerged, especially in Bengal. For instance, James Skinner was the offspring of an inter-marriage between a Scotsman and a Rajput princess. He had at least seven wives and almost eighty children, and raised two cavalry regiments, 1st Skinner’s Horse and 3rd Skinner’s Horse, and founded St James’ Church. A thousand miles across in South India, Colonel Kirkpatrick married Khair-un-Nissa, the daughter of a court noble—he dyed his beard and behaved like a Muslim nobleman.

As the British East India Company plucked more ‘cherries’, annexing territories and small princely states, English became the language of power. In 1774, English replaced Persian as the official language of the Supreme Court. Yet it was confined to the occupying British elite and a few English schools in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. A separate legal system was created, confirmed by the case of the Indian Chief (1800): wherever Europeans settled or created factories, those settlements became an ‘imaginative geography’ governed by laws made by the British Crown and the East India Company.

…To be continued in Part II

(Source: Superpower? The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise, Penguin Allen Lane, 2010, by Raghav Bahl.)

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.

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