Hello friends, welcome to Indian Art & Culture. Today we will be talking about History Summarized: Conical India and What is the history behind India?. So let’s start…

Now, this may come as a shock to you, but India…is Large… Truly, OSP delivers only the most insightful analysis. But really, it’s easy to forget the sheer size, density, and diversity of this subcontinent — the ancient and medieval periods have a lengthy and ever-changing cast of cool states and empires spread out across the many river valleys, mountains, and coasts. As I’ve previously lamented, this turns mapmaking into a downright perilous endeavor. But after 1500, we trade map simplicity for cast-list complexity, as India sees the arrival of Diet Mongols and a metric Europe of colonizers. So, to see how a mosaic of medieval Indian states got thrown into the blender of British Imperialism and came out as a modern nation, Let’s do some History!.

When last we left our game of “Squish a landmass the size of Europe into one cohesive story”, the Muslim Delhi Sultanate was shrinking back towards the north, and Mongol splinter-states were hanging out on the other side of the Hindu-Kush mountains. One such ruler in Central Asia, named Babur, turned into descended from both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, but you wouldn’t be able to inform that from his navy record. He got kicked out of his ancestral homeland and spent 20 years trying to set up camp in India during the early 1500s. It was attempt #5 that successfully toppled the Delhi sultanate and established his Mughal dynasty, but his troubles endured. This poor guy wrote in his journals wondering why forts and cities along the Ganges river weren’t welcoming their new ruler with open arms as if for some reason a conquering the stranger wasn’t a normal feature of the neighborhood.

Babur also complained bitterly about the Indian heat, so I’m filing him under “Guys Who Just Can’t Win.” Babur’s son wasn’t much better off, getting exiled in 1540 after a string of defeats, and only reclaiming his capital in time to die by falling down a steep flight of stairs. SO, his son Akbar took the throne in 1556and treated the Mughal empire to a king who wasn’t existentially clumsy. Akbar’s 5 decades on the throne and a series of smart reforms quickly brought the empire to its peak. He overhauled the imperial government to actually make it… work, he added native Indians and local princes into his Muslim-majority government, and he worked to blend the cultures of India and Persia. In doing so, Akbar made people and scholars of all religions feel welcome. This is probably the height of state-supported Indian diversity, and while some were rather off-put by the increasing cultishness of Akbar’s trans-theological emperor-worship, most Indians were just happy to be included. (History Summarized: Conical India and What is the history behind India?)

His reforms also made the economy go smoother on account of standardized taxes that could be paid in cash, which also let them tax merchant trade. And the Mughals didn’t leave all that cash to collect dust in an imperial treasury, they turned it into cold hard architecture. Like this, and that. Shiny! The other half of imperial expenditures went towards conquest, expanding the Mughal empire down the Indian peninsula and back out to the Mughal heartland in Central Asia. This, by contrast, went on to be ruinously expensive for almost zero actual benefits, and later Mughal emperors pursued a policy of “Why Not More Empire” without considering just how much money they were blowing to make it happen.

Akbar’s grandson Aurangzeb
Akbar’s grandson Aurangzeb

By the time of Akbar’s grandson Aurangzeb, the empire was covered in spiffy monuments and positively baller forts but it was nearly broke, the government was squabbling with itself, and the army was too bloated to do anything. After Aurangzeb died, his sons were too busy fighting a civil war to realize that their empire went poof, and within half a century the Mughal kings were made into vassals of the fast-growing Maratha Empire. What they lacked in numbers compared to the unwieldy Mughal armies they more than made up for in organization and effectiveness. So after about a century and a half of flying high, the kingdom was crumbling, Delhi got sacked by Persia, and the Mughals were confined to figurehead status from then on. Normally, this would lead to a quiet couple of centuries in Indian history, but this time there were Colonies to be made. (History Summarized: Conical India and What is the history behind India?)

So let’s wind back the clock 200 years to see what those wily Europeans had been up to in the meantime. After Vasco de Gama realized you could sail underneath Africa without no-clipping off the edge of the map, Portugal became the first European power to reach the coast of India. During the 1500s they built two-dozen coastal and island forts around the peninsula and developed a robust system of extorting innocent merchants for protection money. Their actual imports consisted of mostly Indian pepper since it was very expensive for how little cargo space it took up. But all that aside, Portugal’s presence in the Indian ocean wasn’t much more than a passive annoyance since the Mughals were able to smack ‘em around if they ever tried to muscle inland. India might not have seen much of a change, but Portugal carted back a mountain of ill-gotten treasure, and other European seafarers wanted their turn on the Carousel of Cash.

English, Dutch, and French created private com in Indiapanies

So in the early 1600s the English, Dutch, and French created private companies dedicated to exploring and extorting the East Indies. By 1700, France, Britain, and the Netherlands had their run of the Indian ocean because the Mughals didn’t have a navy to speak of even before they nose-dived into irrelevance. This power vacuum made the Europeans bolder and in a classic case of “Well if someone is going to conquer this place it might as well be me,” they started throwing hands about it. This came to a head in the 7 Years War between technically everyone but really England and France. Despite the request of the King and Parliament to not build a land empire in Asia, the British East India Company saw too much potential profit to let their power slip, so they rolled up to the French-allied state of Bengal, usurped the king, and annexed the entire state… 

In the following decade, Britain’s victory in the not-seven-years-long 7 Years War let them push France out of India, and by 1800 The East India Company was well on its way to subduing the entire subcontinent. The British Empire had politely requested that the EIC not colonize one metric Europe, but it was way too easy. The company had a private army of a quarter-million Indian soldiers on the payroll, and they had had a lot of success in playing small Indian states against each other. And sometimes they didn’t even need to fight when a well-placed bribe would get the job done. So the conquest cost a pretty penny, sure, but it was almost entirely consequence-free. Ahh, corporate Geopolitics, this is the stuff of nightmares. Now, beyond simply extracting tolls from trade and being all those good silks and spices back to Britain, the company upgraded to Tax Collecting. They also owned the land, so the EIC shifted agriculture away from dumb, low-margin stuff like food to focus on cash crops like cotton, and starting in the 1820s, TEA. (History Summarized: Conical India and What is the history behind India?)

While early company governors had ruled indirectly by way of vassal princes and at least pretended like they wanted to treat the native Indians fairly, the mid 19th century saw all of that go away. The company dismissed the native princes, forced the farmers into the tenancy, and put tradespeople out of work by shifting production to the industrial factories in Britain. But it’s all okay, the East India Company stockholders were seeing a really great return on their investment. Priorities! Now if you were, say, a native Indian steadily watching your rights erode as your absentee overlords drain your land of everything it’s worth, this was enough to ruin your mood.

Indian Sepoys fighting in the EIC army

But in the 1850s life got harder for the legions of Indian Sepoys fighting in the EIC army. They faced religious discrimination, pay cuts, no promotions ever, and the increasing sense that the white British officers were never going to take a dark-skinned person seriously. Meanwhile, local lords had their lands confiscated on ever-more-dubious grounds, and in 1857 a rebellion of one Sepoy garrison quickly set off a slew of revolts across North India in an attempt to give Britain the boot. The Company met this unrest with martial brutality and massive destruction to farmland, which combined for a body count in the hundreds of thousands. At this point, Queen Victoria and friends decided that the EIC had lost its existing privileges, so the company was dissolved, and control of India passed directly to the British Crown.

From 1858 onward, the British Raj nominally made life better for Indians with the creation of an Indian Civil Service and the partial recognition of sovereignty to a series of Princely States, but in reality, the Raj was just a more official system of wealth extraction and racial oppression that had been going on for a century. British advisors had final say over the “independent” principalities, and participation in the Indian Civil Service was limited to candidates who could take an entrance exam in London. So, tells you who they wanted running the place. And this contributed to a really telling double-standard of how Britain and India viewed the empire (or Britain and anybody else, for that matter).  In London, you’d see the fruits of humanistic multiculturalism in food, art, demographics, and mind-numbing economic power. But back in India, it just looked like some domineering colonizers came to take the shiny stuff and stomp on the rest to satisfy a racist power-trip. Naturally, this led the main Indian politicians and thinkers don’t forget the ability of joys of now not being oppressed. (History Summarized: Conical India and What is the history behind India?)

In 1885, the Indian National Congress pushed to give Indians a greater voice in their government, but Britain’s counteroffer was that they’d get nothing, and like it — A shockingly-effective negotiating tactic thus far. Now at this point, it seemed like there was no way this finely-tuned system of colonial exploitation could possibly come undone, we’ve got to remember that this whole enterprise was a cash-grab. So if, India ever stopped being profitable, why keep it? And nothing will sink a profit margin faster than a good old fashioned World War, better yet, two of them. When war struck in 1914, the Raj supported the Entente against the Central Powers with supplies and soldiers. This got a little awkward when Indians heard the British propaganda that called WWI a fight for Democracy, as they could be forgiven for not realizing Britain was into that. So it became harder to reinforce the post-war same-old-same-old after India sacrificed so much for Britain’s war.


In World War Two: Deutschland Boogaloo, India provided two and a half million soldiers, loaned some 100 million pounds sterling to The British government, and provided critical supplies at tremendous cost to India itself. Oh, and Britain went Scorched-Earth on their own province of Bengal to deter the Japanese Empire from muscling into eastern India, and3 million people died in the resulting famine. And Prime Minister Churchill remained fiercely imperialist throughout the end of the war, offering only the most flaccid concessions of greater Indian sovereignty. But by 1945 London was cleaning up a metric Blitz, the empire was bankrupt, and Indian leaders like Gandhi were intensely campaigning for Independence, so Britain cut their losses by letting India go.

Still not the least bit interested in India’s actual well-being, the British Viceroy organized a partition and complete dissolution of the Raj in just 5 months. The government had one semester of college to draw new borders and fully withdraw. The basic idea was to make a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan, but demographics don’t work like that so after partition in 1947 there were millions of people that found themselves on the wrong side of the new borders. This ensuing mass-migration quickly devolved into extreme violence and animosity between India and Pakistan that endures to this day.

So, that wraps up our history of India (and now also Pakistan and Bangladesh). For many reasons, it’s a tough history to grapple with, because there’s so much going on over such a great length of time. But as we’ve seen, this sheer diversity of people, cultures, and historical happenings make this corner of the world.




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