History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 1997: Q.1 (a)

Q.1 (a) The British conquered India “in a fit of absent mind ness”. Comment.


British historian Lord Seely had coined the famous phrase that India was conquered “in a fit of absent-mindedness” in his book. ‘The Expansion of Britain‘ in 1883. This can be justified by the following facts:

(1) British conquest of India was unique as British never intended to rule over India. British conquests arose mostly due to the circumstances rather than any planning.

(2) The conquest began when British and French both tried to get hold of lucrative Trade from Indian Sub-continent. This competition led to Anglo-French Rivalry and thus British got more involved in the politics of Indian Kingdoms. The taste of success in Carnatic Wars have made them bold and in 1757 challenged Nawab of Bengal. With the help of greedy members of Nawab’s court, overnight Company found itself in indirect control of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

(2) Overnight and without planning the British East India Company found itself in control of Bengal, a region with large population, fertile land and an annual revenue of £2 million. Large farmland was used for the production of crops that brought the most profit: tea & cotton for England, and opium for the growing drug traffic with China. The acquisition of income and workers on this scale put the British power in India in a different class from all competitors. Now Britain had the resources to do what no other European power could accomplish, namely the conquest of the whole subcontinent. They would do it one step at a time, usually in response to threats against what they already had.

(3) Later, Britain would take the Suez Canal, Australia, Burma, Malaya, and a third of Africa, all in the name of defending their Indian interests, and they would meddle in the Balkans, the Middle East and Tibet for the same reason. In short, “The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets” was created just to secure its most valued colony: India.

(4) The Company could have conquered all of India before 1800, but it avoided territorial acquisitions much of the time. The Company’s first concern was always profit for its shareholders at home, and expensive military operations were bad for business; the government found that military action was politically unpopular unless done in reaction to threats from rivals like France or Russia.

Later the British government was becoming more interested in ruling India directly, especially after the loss of the American colonies.

Porter’s Arguements

In the book, The Absent Minded Imperialists: What the British Really Thought About Empire, Bernard Porter gave following arguements in the favour of absent mindness of British Empire:

(1) Britain was a complex and divided society, with cleavages along class, religious, and political lines. The empire was so vast, varied, and distant that there was no single, unitary “imperial culture” that shaped British society and thought.

(2) Before the 1880s, only a very small proportion of the population had any direct experience with the empire overseas. References to Britain’s overseas empire rarely appeared in the newspapers, art, literature.

(3) Most history textbooks ignored the empire completely and did not even mention India. At least one of those that did was scathing about the East India Company, describing it as “a band of robbers”.

Contrary to the claim that an “imperial culture” in Britain impelled its overseas expansion, Porter concludes that “empires arise for mainly material reasons.”

Porter persuasively shows that the British Empire was truly acquired in “a fit of absence of mind,” as Sir John Seeley had said.

P.J. Marshal’s view

P.J. Marshall (1968) has argued that until 1784 (i.e., the passage of Pitt’s India Act), there was no conscious or consistent British policy for political conquest in India. Authority at home remained divided between the Court of Directors of the East India Company and the tenuous regulatory power of the government, with no one seemingly interested in acquiring territories in India until 1784, although by then a large empire had already been acquired. “Thus the growth of territorial empire in India”, argues Marshall, “was neither planned nor directed from Britain”;” it was the initiative of the Company officials operating in India which decided the course of action, despite the absence of any policy directives from London in favour of conquest and colonisation.

Marshall acknowledged in an earlier essay that there was considerable commercial expansion during the early eighteenth century and the obvious connection between trade and empire was also hard to ignore. But then, it was the political fragmentation and instability following the decline of the Mughal power that actually facilitated the territorial expansion of the Company. Its history, therefore, needs to be traced in the developments of eighteenth-century Indian politics, where the English were only “responding to these developments and exploiting the opportunities that came their way”. In other words, it was developments in the periphery, rather than impetus from the metropole, which thrust upon the Company a career of territorial expansion in India.

Counter Views

While it is difficult to deny the importance of “sub-imperialism” of the men on the spot or pressures generated at the periphery as driving forces behind territorial conquests, we may also posit here some telling evidence of engagement of the metropole in the project of empire building in India. There is, first of all, considerable evidence to suggest that from the very beginning use of force to promote trade was an axiom in the practices of the East India Company; its trade was always armed trade.” And despite the apparent separation between the Company and the state, the two were intimately interlinked in promoting England’s diplomatic goals, as the Company itself owed its privileges, and indeed very existence, to royal prerogative.

The relationship between the Crown and the Company was mutually beneficial. In 1660 the Company celebrated the restoration of the Stuart monarchy by offering £3,000 worth of silver plates to His Majesty. In 1661 Cromwell’s charter was replaced by one signed by the king and in gratitude the Company directors voted in 1662 a loan of £10,000 for the King. In the subsequent years more loans totaling £150,000 were offered and more charters with additional privileges followed. “King and Company understood one another well.”

The initial history of the Presidency system in India is also indicative of Crown’s involvement in the colonisation of the country. The island settlement of Bombay, which Charles II received from the Portuguese crown in 1661 as dowry for his bride, was handed over to the East India Company in 1668 for a token annual rental of £10 and it was here that in 1687 the Presidency headquarters of the west coast was shifted from Surat.

The Company had to depend on the successive governments in London for various matters, and the latter was ever ready to provide it in exchange for hefty subscriptions to the state exchequer. There were always a few MPs with East Indian interests and the ministers used the Company’s resources for expanding the scope of their patronage. The Company was also an important element in the city politics of London, about which the government was always keenly concerned. There had been government interventions in the Company’s affairs in 1763 and 1764, paving the way for a parliamentary intervention in 1766, over the rights of the state to the revenues of the territories conquered with the help of the royal army. The result was the Company agreeing to pay£ 400,000 to the government annually.” Thus, right from the beginning, the British state participated in and profited from the empire; it is difficult to argue that it was acquired “in a fit of absence of mind”. One could, however, say that the empire was acquired “without the national cognizance”, by a “small number of Englishmen who had not the least illusion about what they were doing”.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. rajeev says:

    but you have presented only the views of Imperialist historiography but there are also counter arguments by the India historians who refute this statement so we should not fully support this statement at least for the upsc exam


      1. rajeev says:

        thanx for quick response


  2. Pankaj Nimbolkar says:

    Very nice answer.
    Can u make compilation of all questions.


    1. Yes, thats what i am doing.


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