Chapter 21   The Imperial World Order, 1757-1914

Section 3 Imperialism in India and Southeast Asia

European imperialism in Asia followed a different pattern than that in Africa. Throughout Asia, Europeans found highly organized states, formidable armies, and major cities that surpassed many European cities in size and splendor. In Asia Europeans were also surrounded by evidence of sophisticated civilizations much older than their own. In Asia, Europeans had to work harder to maintain their sense of cultural superiority.

British India

As in Africa and southwest Asia, Britain set the pace of the new imperialism in Asia. The most important of the European overseas empires was  British India. Like other European powers, the British had first entered India as traders in the early 1600s. By the mid-1700s the British, like the French, had established fortified bases along the coasts and become involved in the internal politics of the declining Mughal Empire.

            By the time the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763, British victories had brought much of India under the control of the British East India Company. Although nominally the Company still operated under the authority of the Mughal emperor, by making alliances with local Indian rulers and by creating its own army of Indian troops (known as sepoys),[96] in effect the British East India Company quickly became the single greatest power in India. 

Company rule. As the British East India Company extended its power, or raj (rahzh), as Indians called it, over India, it also became responsible for government and the maintenance of law and order. Such stability and order was essential for the conduct of trade—which remained the Company’s primary objective.

            Initially, the Company simply maintained the administrative structure of the Mughals—including the use of Persian as the language of government. Such broad responsibilities, however, soon became a drain on the Company’s resources. Over time, the British government began to regulate the Company’s rule. By the late 1700s a governor-general approved by the British cabinet carried out the administration in India.

            In search of security, the early governors-general gradually extended the Company’s power over Indian states that remained beyond their formal jurisdiction. Using the full force of modern military technology, they conquered the Marathas and brought the powerful southern Indian state of Mysore under Company rule. Other times merely the threat of war was enough to cause local Indian rulers to acknowledge the authority of the Company. In exchange the governors-general usually left local Indian princes in charge of their own territories subject to “advice” from an English “resident.” The Company also took over full control of the princes’ foreign relations. 

The nature of British rule. These early governors-general also put in place the administrative system under which about 1,000 British civilians ruled as the Indian Civil Service, or ICS. The tremendous size of the subcontinent, however, required far more civil servants, and by the early 1800s, colonial administrators had begun to train Indians to fill the lower ranks of government.

            Training for Indians raised a major controversy among British colonial administrators. Some, known as Orientalists, argued that Indians should receive an essentially Indian education, using Indian texts and languages. Others, called Anglicists, advocated a western education along British lines. Thomas Babington Macaulay, a famous historian and a colonial administrator in India, championed the cause of the Anglicists in his famous Minute on Indian Education: 

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”[97] 

Eventually, the Anglicists won the debate, and their policy prevailed until the 1850s. In the process, they created a western-educated, English-speaking Indian elite through whom they governed India.

Women in the empire. As British further extended their rule over India, people began to move to the new empire from Britain. In the early Company days, British men had moved to India without families. Many married Indian women, or took them as concubines.[98] By the early 1800s, however, many British women and children were joining their husbands and fathers in India. The presence of European women, known as memsahibs (mehm-sah-heebz),[99] seems to have changed the relationships between the British rulers and their Indian subjects.[100]

            Some scholars have argued that the memsahibs, jealous of relationships between British men and Indian women, introduced a new racism into Anglo-Indian relations. Others have suggested that British men were equally concerned that their women should not become the object of attention by Indian men. There is probably truth in both arguments. At any rate, the British rulers began to put a new distance between themselves and their Indian subjects.[101]

Cultural and social reforms. The early Company rulers had been anxious not to interfere with local customs. Their primary goal was social stability within which they could carry on trade. As British control increased, however, many in Britain began to call for major social and cultural reforms in order to bring India the “benefits” of western civilization. In the early 1800s these reformers began to suppress certain Indian practices they considered immoral or degenerative.

            For example, in 1829[102] the British outlawed sati[103] (suh-tee),[104] the ritual burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres. In 1856, they made the remarriage of Hindu widows legal throughout India.[105] They also preached against child marriages and the common practice of killing unwanted children, especially girls. 

Indian reformers. British reforms, as well as the presence of Christian missionaries, contributed to a growing cultural reform movement among Indians themselves. Some Indians approved of the British reforms, believing they would revitalize Hindu culture. One of the most important of these leaders was the Bengali reformer Ram Mohun Roy.[106]

            In an effort to refute the missionaries’ denunciation of Hinduism, Roy studied the Vedas and particularly the Upanishads.[107] He also read the Christian scriptures. Eventually, he became convinced that all great religions conveyed the same message. In 1828 Roy founded a society known as the Brahmo Samaj (“Society of Brahma”)[108] that advocated the blending of aspects of British and Indian cultures.[109] Such an effort to reconcile the two cultures appealed especially to the newly emerging western-educated Indian elites.[110]

            As the British moved into the Punjab, other reformers also emerged to confront the challenge of Christianity and western culture in general. Where Roy advocated a synthesis of western and Indian ideas, however, other Hindu reformers wanted to strengthen traditional Hindu society in order to resist subjugation by Europeans.

            The most important of these traditionalist reformers was Dayananda Saraswati, who founded the Arya Samaj reformist society in Bombay in 1875.[111] Saraswati called upon Hindus to reject many of the outgrowths of their religion, including the jati system and child marriage, and to return to the purity of Vedic beliefs.[112] The Arya Samaj became strongest not in Bombay, but in the northern province of Punjab, where it was one of the Punjab’s greatest nationalist organizations in the early 1900s.[113]

The Indian Mutiny. While exposure to British culture and the challenge of Christianity stimulated such reform movements among some Indians, however, among others the cultural confrontation simply caused anger, fear and reaction. Though many Indians accepted British rule, those who had been displaced from power, particularly the Indian princes and Mughal officials, did not. Playing on popular fears that the British wanted to break the traditional Hindu and Muslim social systems and convert all India to Christianity,[114] these Indian leaders incited a rebellion in the Indian Army in 1857. Although the rebellion was confined to the Ganges plain, the revolt proved to be the bloodiest war ever fought in India.[115]

            While it was the sharp discontent with westernization that fueled the rebellion, the immediate cause of the rebellion was the introduction of new cartridges for the Indian soldiers’ rifles.[116] The caps of the new cartridges had to be bitten off before loading. Soon, a false rumour began to spread among the troops that the cartridges were greased with beef and pork fat.[117] This alarmed both Hindus and Muslims, since Hindus considered the cow to be sacred, while Muslims believed the pig to be unclean.[118] Indian soldiers first rose in revolt at Meerut, and as news spread of their actions, other sepoys took similar action.[119]

            After an 18-day siege of the British garrison at Cawnpore, an Indian leader named Nana Sahib promised to release all those who surrendered.[120] After they surrendered, however, Nana Sahib had them all—men, women, and children—butchered in the central marketplace.[121] Their bodies were thrown into a nearby well.[122]

            Several days later a British relief column, led by Sir Henry Havelock,[123] recaptured the city and discovered the massacre. As news of the “wells of Cawnpore” spread, the British throughout India virtually went mad with grief and anger. All the fears they had lived with as a tiny minority trying to dominate an alien majority came to the surface, exploding in a sometimes indiscriminate lust for revenge against the rebels and anyone associated with them. Sir Henry Havelock described the terrible British retribution: 

“Whenever a rebel is caught he is immediately tried, and unless he can prove a defence he is sentenced to be hanged at once. . . .My object is to inflict a fearful punishment for a revolting, cowardly, barbarous deed, and to strike terror into these rebels. . . .”[124] 

The British began executing anyone even suspected of being a mutineer. In addition to summary hangings, some British units tied rebels to the ends of their cannons and literally blew them to pieces. Such brutality left much bitterness on both sides.

            For all its viciousness, however, the Indian Mutiny, as the British called the uprising, in fact did not affect most of India.[125] Most of the Indian Army and western-educated Indians remained loyal to the British.[126] Widespread opposition to British rule did not develop until the 1900s, and while some historians would argue that the Indian Mutiny was the first battle of the Indian war of independence, it is perhaps better viewed as the last uprising of a conservative India that wanted to reject western influence and revive its ancient traditions.[127] 

The British Raj. The rebellion finally convinced the British government that Company rule should be abolished once and for all.[128] Thereafter, the governor-general, who became known as the viceroy, was appointed directly by the British government and supervised by a secretary of state for India.[129] Administration continued to be carried out by the ICS,[130] whose members were chosen by competitive examination in England.[131]

            The vast majority of lower-level government employees remained Indian. Meanwhile, generations of young British officials in their twenties and thirties found themselves as district commissioners ruling as many as a million Indians—collecting taxes, overseeing development projects such as irrigation works and bridge-building, and dispensing justice. 

Expansion of the Raj. As the British solidified their rule, they grew more concerned with defending India against invasion. In the northwest—the traditional route for invaders of India—they tried to establish Afghanistan as a buffer state against Russian invaders.[132] As early as the 1830s, Lord Auckland, the governor-general of India, defended Britain’s expansion into Central Asia: 

“Russia can have no legitimate ground for extending her political connections to Afghanistan, while we are necessarily interested in the peace and independence of that country by proximity and position.”[133] 

When Persian imperialism began to revive once more under the new Qajar dynasty, the British also went to war to protect a buffer zone in Baluchistan.[134]

            To the east, the British also worried about imperial expansion from China, where even in its decline the Qing dynasty threatened India’s borders. To stop invasions from the east, the British annexed Burma in 1886.[135] Meanwhile, the British also spread up the Malay Peninsula from Singapore, where the British merchant Stamford Raffles had established a British trading colony in 1819. In addition to fears of the Chinese, many of these annexations also reflected concerns about the French, who were rapidly taking territory for themselves in Southeast Asia.

French Indochina

As the British were establishing themselves in India in the late 1700s, French merchants were trading in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. After a new emperor, Gia-long, established the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam with his capital at Hue (hway)[136] in 1802, a large number of French soldiers joined his army, while French Catholic missionaries tried to spread Christianity in Vietnam.

            The new Vietnamese dynasty did its best to maintain its independence from both China and France. However, in 1859 France seized the city of Saigon, and by 1867 the French were demanding control of Vietnam’s southern provinces. Phan Thanh Gian, the governor of three provinces near Saigon, had no choice but to turn them over:[137] 

“I have said: “It would be as senseless for you to wish to defeat your enemies by force of arms as for a young fawn to attack a tiger. You attract uselessly great misfortunes upon the people whom Heaven has confided to you. . . .[I]f I have followed the Will of Heaven by averting great evils from the head of the people, I am a traitor to our king in delivering without resistance the provinces which belong to him. . . .’”[138] 

From this new colony of Cochin China, the French tried to extend their influence further north.

            Eventually France’s expansion into Vietnam alarmed the Chinese, who considered both Vietnam and Cambodia as their own tributary states. A brief war in the 1880s resulted in a quick French victory and Chinese recognition of a French protectorate over the rest of Vietnam outside of Cochin China.

            Meanwhile during the 1860s France had also declared a protectorate over Cambodia. In the 1890s the French created a new country, Laos, out of small principalities between Vietnam and Cambodia. France’s three protectorates of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos became known as French Indochina.


The only major country remaining independent of the European imperial powers in the region was Siam (now called Thailand).[139] In 1851, the remarkably foresighted King Mongkut ascended the throne of Siam.[140] He was fully aware of the precarious position Siam occupied between the European imperial powers.

            In addition to being a devout and scholarly Buddhist, Mongkut also studied western subjects such as English, mathematics, and Latin. Not only did this well-educated monarch play the British and French against each other in order to maintain Siam’s independence, he also promoted certain western innovations, such as printing, vaccinations, and western-style education.[141]

            Later Siamese rulers reorganized the government along western lines. By selectively accepting western innovations, Siam achieved the internal strength needed to maintain its freedom.[142] Although Siam eventually had to give up some territory to both the British and the French,[143] the ruling family managed to maintain Siam’s independence as a buffer state between the two imperial rivals.[144] 

Dutch Expansion in Indonesia

While the British and French were occupied with the Asian mainland, the Dutch were beginning to expand their 200-year-old holdings in Indonesia.[145] Bitter resistance from the local aristocracy, however, led by the Javanese prince Pengerab Dipanagara,[146] led to war between 1825 and 1830.[147] Eventually victorious, the Dutch then brought the Javanese aristocracy into their own system of colonial rule.

            About the same time, the Dutch were drawn into a war with the Muslim population of western Sumatra.[148] The Padri War, named after the town of Pedir through which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca traveled, took place from the early 1820s until 1837.[149] Eventually the Dutch subdued the Sumatrans, and this struggle only strengthened Dutch resolve to control the islands.[150]


IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:






Indian Mutiny


LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:




French Indochina



1.      Main Idea  Why did the British encourage a western-style education for Indians?

2.      Main Idea   What effect did interaction with the British have on Indian society?

3.      Cross-Cultural Interaction  How did contact with western imperialists affect Siam differently than the rest of Southeast Asia?

4.      Writing to Explain  In a short essay, explain why the Indian Mutiny occurred and how it affected both the Indian and British people living in India.

5.      Synthesizing  How did British imperialism differ from French and Dutch imperialism in Asia?