Empire, British, in Asia and Pacific

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Empire, British, in Asia and Pacific

The British Empire in Asia and the Pacific begins with the charter awarded to the East India Company on December 31, 1600 giving the Company a monopoly of trade from the Cape of Good Hope to Magellan. The Company began trading in India in 1608. An English ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe (1581–1644), arrived in 1616 and he negotiated the establishment of a factory (trading post) at Surat. In 1639 the Company opened a factory at Madras; in 1658 it opened another on the River Hughly in Bengal; in 1668 it received the island of Bombay from the Portuguese; and in 1690 it traded from Fort William in Calcutta. It was from Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay that the East India Company began to interfere in the internal affairs of Indian rulers and to acquire territory. This process has been called the imperialism of free trade. The need to maintain highly favorable conditions for trade led to military and political control of territory.

This expansion was accomplished by taking advantage of India's political instability as the authority of the Mughal rulers was collapsing and by siding with one claimant to the throne at the time of the death of a regional ruler. The War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) and the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) led to English victories over the French in India, further expanding their influence. In 1748 and 1749 the rulers of Hyderabad and the Carnatic died and the English became a factor in Indian politics as local leaders sought the help of the Europeans in their struggle for power. Robert Clive (1725–1774) demonstrated how English armies with superior European weapons, training, and tactics could defeat larger Indian armies. In 1758, the English captured the Northern Sarkars. The Company was not just a trading entity, but it was becoming an increasingly powerful part of the political structure of India. Through wars, diplomacy, and indigenous collaborators, British control of territory expanded. This was a pattern that would be followed in other parts of Asia and the Pacific.

In Bengal, Clive was sent north to avenge an attack on the British at Fort William by the governor of Bengal, which had led to the deaths of 123 British in the Black Hole of Calcutta in June 1756. The Battle of Plassey followed in 1757 and is considered to be the starting date of the British Empire in India. The massive wealth aquired in Bengal led to the desire for further expansion. The Rohilla War, 1774, the wars against Mysore, ending in 1799, the war against the Pindaris (1817–1819), the three wars against the Marathas ending in 1818, the Anglo-Nepal wars (1814–1816), the invasion of Sindh (1843), the Sikh Wars (1845–1846 and 1848–1849), and the three wars against Burma (1826–1886) all expanded British authority throughout the whole of South Asia. The Company continued to administer these territories until the Mutiny of 1857 caused the British government to rule India after 1858 through a viceroy. Until independence in 1947 India was the centerpiece of Britain's empire in Asia and it was enormously profitable to businessmen, traders, soldiers, and civil servants. Its army played an important role in wars in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and China, most notably in World Wars I (1914–1918) and II (1939–1945).

The defense of India became a paramount concern of the British. It caused them in the Great Game—a term used to describe the rivalry and strategic conflict between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia during the nineteenth century—to fight wars in Afghanistan (during 1838–1842 and 1878–1880) and to secure its northwestern frontier against Russian incursions. It incorporated Ceylon in 1815 to secure it from the French. It was in 1819 that Sir Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) established the important free port of Singapore. Singapore prospered and became the commercial and financial center of the region, even after Hong Kong became its chief rival in 1842. Half the world's tin was smelted in Singapore and rubber was also processed there. In 1826 the Straits Settlements was created to administer a number of territories in Malaya, and Singapore became the administrative capital of the Settlements, Malaya, and North Borneo. After the rise of Japan it became a fortified city, the locus of Britain's military defense strategy in the region.

There was no master plan to govern the colonies. There is some truth to the claim that the British Empire was created in a fit of absence of mind. Some colonies became directly ruled, while others were protectorates with British military and diplomatic protection but governed by chartered companies. Often, a man on the spot ruled as a potentate and acted on his own initiative. London did not interfere unless it involved the nation in costly wars or insurrections as in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Three words have been used to describe the motives of expansion: gold, God, and glory. Gold, as in capitalism, was the driving force of colonial expansion. Trade also was important but so, too, was the gentlemanly capitalism of shipping, insurance, investment, and banking. Glory added even more incentive, especially for the colonial administrators and soldiers eager for fame and promotion by extending British authority. Missionary societies also pressured the British government to take over territory. Newly conquered lands would become part of the imperial sphere of influence, possibly colonies, if it was not too costly. Territories were also taken over to prevent other powers from doing so. The growing world of commerce required port and coaling stations for ships and secure territories for cable stations and lighthouses. The British navy was the instrument of a great deal of expansion. The colonies would be ruled as dominions, territories, federated or divided states, and other devices as well. They would be governed by a governor-general, or even a navy captain as in the Pacific. There was no uniform pattern to British rule of colonial territories.

Like Raffles, James Brooke (1803–1868) was a man on the spot who expanded British territory when he arrived in Sarawak in 1839. He helped the Sultan of Brunei suppress piracy and was rewarded by becoming a white raja, and his family ruled the state until 1946. In 1881 the British North Borneo Company received a charter from the British government and ran North Borneo for sixty years. The British government was not interested in ruling the colony but in 1888 it became a protectorate.

In the nineteenth century China became the target of the Europeans for expansion, especially the British and the French. The British hoped to reach the Chinese market from Burma, the French from Vietnam and Laos. After 1760, when Canton became an open port, the British, above all, purchased tea and silk. In exchange they illegally sold opium from India. In 1839 the Chinese destroyed 20,000 opium chests. The British retaliated and the first Opium War (1839–1842) led to the harsh Treaty of Nanking of 1842. Four more ports were opened to foreign trade. Hong Kong was ceded to the British. The Taiping Rebellion led to the second Opium War (1856–1860). French and British troops ransacked Peking and eleven more ports were opened up to the Europeans. Kowloon was given to the British. Until 1937 and the Japanese invasion, China was enormously profitable. Between 1941 and 1945 the Japanese controlled Hong Kong. In 1997 it was returned to China.

British colonization in Australia began in January 1788 with the arrival in Sydney of 1,500 people, almost half of them convicts. Captain James Cook (1728–1779) had paved the way with his three trips to the South Seas between 1768 and 1779. He mapped parts of Australia and New Zealand, and claimed the east coast for Britain. Convicts and free immigration led to the creation of the colonies of Tasmania (1825), Western Australia (1829), South Australia (1836), Victoria (1851), and Queensland (1859). On January 1, 1901, the colonies confederated and became the Commonwealth of Australia under a governor-general. Cook claimed New Zealand for Britain, but European settlement began when whaling ships arrived in the 1790s. The missionary Samuel Marsden arrived in 1814 and the systematic colonization of Edward Gibbon Wakefield's (1796–1862) New Zealand Company brought settlers to Wellington in 1840, the same year the Maoris signed away a great deal of territory, and the British established the islands as a Crown Colony. In 1907 New Zealand became a dominion, achieving full autonomy in 1947.

In the rest of the Pacific the eighteenth century saw the coming of missionaries and the nineteenth witnessed a competition for colonies and protectorates between France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. Few of the islands were economically viable although some had natural resources such as Nauru (phosphate) and Fiji (sandalwood) and some, such as Fiji, served as whaling stations. The navy played a role in administering the islands and so, too, did Australia and New Zealand. New Hebrides was administered by both Britain and France. British territories included Nauru, New Hebrides, Tonga, Fiji, Gilbert, and Ellice Islands, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. After 1960 they all became independent.

see also British Colonialism, Middle East; English East India Company, in China; Crown Colony; East Asia, European Presence in; Empire in the Americas, British; Hong Kong, from World War II; Hong Kong, to World War II; Open Door Policy; Opium; Opium Wars; Pacific, European Presence in; Shandong Province.


Cain, Peter and Tony Hopkins. British Imperialism, 1688–2000, 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 2001.

Louis, William Roger, editor in chief. The Oxford History of the British Empire, 5 vols. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1998–1999.

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