Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > British Empire > British Raj
- For other places with the same name, see Raj (disambiguation).
The British Raj was the rule of the British Crown over South Asia and some nearby areas from 1858 to 1947. This guide deals mainly with the Indian Subcontinent — the modern day countries of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan — in that period, and with aspects of the Raj left behind in those countries. However, the British presence in the region started long before the Crown took control in 1858 and their influence extended beyond the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947.
Other areas were also administered as part of the Raj at times — Ceylon, Burma (Lower Burma 1858-1937, Upper Burma 1886-1937), Aden (1858-1937), and even briefly Singapore (1858-1867) and Somalia (1884-1898). The Trucial States on the Persian Gulf were British protectorates 1820-1968 and for part of that time they were considered princely states of the Raj; after 1971 they became the United Arab Emirates. The Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman were also governed as British protectorates from their colony in India at various points in their history.
The region has a very long and complex history and we do not try to cover it all here, not even for the period of the Raj.
The subcontinent had not been completely united at any point in history prior to British arrival, although several empires came quite close. The last two of these were in conflict when the British and other Europeans arrived. The great Muslim Mughal Empire ruled a substantial territory from 1526 on, and controlled nearly all the subcontinent by around 1700. After that it was displaced in many areas by the Hindu Maratha Empire. Other areas, notably Rajasthan and various areas in the Himalayas, were a patchwork of small kingdoms independent of both empires.
European trade with India is recorded as far back as a few centuries BCE, with some branches of the Silk Road passing through India, but modern European influence and colonisation began with the Portuguese when Vasco da Gama reached India via the Cape Route in 1498. Other European powers soon followed.
By the mid-17th century, the British and French were also well-established and some of their European wars spilled over into conflicts in India. Pondicherry was held by the French and Goa by the Portuguese until after Indian independence in 1947, though both are now parts of India. The Dutch held Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) from 1640 to 1796, taking it from Portugal and eventually losing it to Britain; they also had trading posts on the Indian mainland, but never much territory. Although never officially a part of the Raj, the nearby Maldives would come under British rule in 1796 during the annexation of Ceylon. From India, the British would begin the process of colonising neighbouring Burma through the Anglo-Burmese Wars in 1824, ending with the defeat of the Burmese in 1885. Burma was initially governed as a province of India, but was later split off to form a separate colony in 1937.
In the 17th and early 18th century, the focus was on trade and the first joint stock companies were set up to organize this trade. These companies amassed immense wealth and eventually came to possess vast swaths of land. The most successful of these was the British East India Company; at one point, this one company was conducting approximately half of all the world's trade. The British East India Company would proceed to colonise other parts of Asia such as Bencoolen in 1685, Penang in 1771, Singapore in 1819, and Hong Kong in the aftermath of the Opium Wars in 1841. As part of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, Bencoolen would be ceded to the Dutch, while the British got the Dutch colony of Malacca in exchange. The colonies of Penang, Singapore and Malacca would be merged into the Straits Settlements in 1826. Initially governed from India, the Straits Settlements would eventually be ceded by the British East India Company to the British crown in 1867, thus becoming a crown colony ruled directly from London.
The switch from trading to ruling came after the Battle of Plassey in 1757; a company army defeated the French and their ally, the last Nawab of Bengal, so the company ended up in control of all the Nawab's territory: Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Over the next century they more-or-less continually expanded their territory until they directly ruled most of the subcontinent; the rest was controlled by "princely states" ruled by local Maharajahs with varying degrees of British influence.
Although the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan also came under British suzerainty, through various treaties signed with the British, they were able to remain nominally independent throughout the years of the Raj. Nevertheless, many Nepalis would serve in the British Army as part of various Gurkha regiments, and were deployed throughout many parts of the empire. To this day, Gurkhas continue to be employed by governments throughout parts of the former empire, with Gurkha units in the British, Indian and Bruneian armies, as well as in the police force of Singapore.
In 1857, there was a large mutiny among the sepoys, Indian troops who served under British officers. It began in Meerut and soon spread across most of the North Indian Plains; the exception was the Punjab where the Sikh rulers supported the British. Several other Indian rulers and parts of the populace joined the rebellion and it became a general rising.
Important battles took place at Cawnpore and Lucknow, both besieged by the rebels. The British besieged Jhansi, which was ruled by the most famous of the Indian leaders, Mahharani Lakshmibai, sometimes called "India's Joan of Arc". Delhi was taken by the rebels and later besieged by the British; its fall marked the end of the rebellion.
After the mutiny was put down, the Crown took over administration from the East India Company, beginning the period of the Raj. They also seized the lands of various rulers who had supported the mutiny, including the last Mughal Emperor, so the Crown ruled even more territory than the Company had.
Calcutta was the capital of British India throughout the period of company rule and remained so under the Raj until in 1911 the government moved to New Delhi, a new capital built next to the much older city of Delhi. Simla served as a summer capital with much of the government migrating there each year to escape the heat. All three places have many fine buildings and other sites left from those times.
Even though ultimate control of most affairs was with British authorities, their rule over India would not have been possible without the aid of native participation and often alliances with local rulers. The actual number of Brits in India doing administrative work was surprisingly small and some argue that it was exactly this hands off laissez-faire approach to governing a vast empire, as well as the little regard that the government in London had for the Indian population at large, that resulted in disasters such as the 1876-1878 "Great famine". However, the British Raj was hugely important for the formation of an Indian and to a lesser degree Pakistani national consciousness, and also led to the establishment of Indian diaspora communities throughout the former British Empire, often in unlikely places. Many Indians were shipped to far-flung parts of the empire as indentured servants as the British had a need for labour after the abolition of slavery, while others went as colonial administrators, soldiers and policemen. In Africa, dictators like Idi Amin stoked racial hatred against people of Indian descent as many of them had come to accumulate some wealth as shopkeepers and businessmen, eventually culminating in the expulsion of the ethnic Indian community from Uganda in 1972. However, progress has been made in other parts of Africa, with Kenya formally recognising its ethnic Indian community as a tribe in 2017.
During colonial rule, ethnic Chinese communities would be established in the cities of Bombay and Calcutta. They were viewed with suspicion in the wake of the Sino-Indian War in 1962, and many were rounded up, interned and eventually expelled from the country, while even those that were allowed to remain often had their property confiscated by the government. It was not until 1998 that the ethnic Chinese were allowed to apply for Indian citizenship, and many of them continue to be stateless to this day despite having families that have lived in India for several generations. That said, although their numbers have dwindled substantially, there is still a significant ethnic Chinese community in Kolkata's Chinatown, and Mumbai's former Chinatown still contains vestiges of the former community in the form of Chinese temples.
While India was often considered "the Jewel in the crown of the British Empire", there was at least tacit acknowledgement as early as the 1920s that colonial rule would inevitably come to an end, eventually. However, this process was accelerated by the Second World War in which Indians fought for both the Axis and the Allies and some Axis sympathizers even created an "Indian state" fighting against the British and for independence, the best known being the Japanese-backed Indian National Army (INA) led by Subhas Chandra Bose.
The decisive force for independence was the (mostly) nonviolent movement of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known by the honorific Mahatma Gandhi (maha, great + atman, soul) and his followers. Gandhi was a British-educated lawyer who first came to prominence while working in South Africa and resisting the restrictions on Indians there. He strongly believed in traditional Hindu principles, wanted India to return to a simpler more rural form of society, and definitely wanted the British out. His was not the only group working toward independence, but it came to be the most important one.
Partition and aftermath
There were many Muslims, spread through nearly all of the Raj but concentrated in some areas. A movement for an independent Muslim state arose in the same period as the independence movement, partly out of Muslim fears that Gandhi and others would create a state dominated by Hindus. Eventually, Gandhi and the British agreed and at independence in 1947, the main territory of the Raj was partitioned into mostly-Hindu India and mostly-Muslim Pakistan.
The partition was a major disaster. Several million people were uprooted, Muslims migrated from their homes in areas that would be part of India to live in Pakistan, with Hindus and Sikhs moving the other way. Mobs attacked migrants going both ways; most estimates of the death toll are a few hundred thousand, but some say well over a million. Gandhi was assassinated by Hindu fanatics who blamed him for the partition.
Neither the Indian nor the Pakistani government was happy with the border as the British defined it; some areas, notably Kashmir, are still disputed today and the two countries have fought several wars over these disputes, with China often also joining the mix. The first war broke out within a few months of partition.
The partition created one Muslim country, Pakistan, with two parts, East and West. East Pakistan split off to become what's now called Bangladesh in 1971; there was a war over that as well. What was formerly West Pakistan is now just called Pakistan.
In the same time period, 1947-48, two other countries in the region, Burma and Ceylon also gained independence from Britain, as shown on the map. Later their governments would rename them Myanmar and Sri Lanka respectively. The Straits Settlements were dissolved in 1946, with the colonies of Malacca and Penang merged with the Federated Malay States and Unfederated Malay States to form the Malayan Union (later the Federation of Malaya), while Singapore was split off to form a separate colony. Malaya became independent in 1957 and changed its name to Malaysia with the addition of Singapore and the northern Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak in 1963, while Brunei opted out of the federation. Singapore was expelled from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965 and became an independent city-state. The Gulf state of Kuwait was granted independence in 1961, while the Maldives, another British colony in South Asia, would be granted independence in 1965. The Trucial States federated in 1968, and became independent as the United Arab Emirates in 1971. The remaining three British protectorates in the Gulf, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, were also granted independence in 1971. Brunei became independent in 1984, while the last vestige of the British East India Company, Hong Kong, was returned to China in 1997, thus bringing the history of British colonial rule in Asia to an end.
The Sikhs, the third-largest religious group in India, did not initially demand their own state. Many of them fled from what's now Pakistan, and they now live mostly in the Indian part of Punjab, but in the 1970s and 1980s clashes between Sikhs and the government under Indira Gandhi (not related to the Mahatma) resulted in her being killed by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
The princely states were a method of "indirect rule", that granted some government to local authorities; there were over 500 such states. While at times local rulers had significant power, often princely states were created to "buy off" people that could threaten British rule and some titles were nominal at best. Still, many rulers of princely states had immense wealth and showed it by having palaces built that can still be visited or buying luxury trains that you can ride on.
The British left behind a legacy of architecture which is still evident in many parts of South Asia, as there is much European architecture across the subcontinent, including neo-Gothic and other European styles of churches, which can be seen in what is today are railway stations, cantonments, courts, colleges and schools, churches, bridges and museums. However, a new Anglo-Indian style of architecture also developed, fusing Indian and particularly Mughal elements with European ones. Often it was the mixture English elements and components of specifically Islamic or Hindu architecture. This style was used by the British not only in the Indian Subcontinent but also for buildings like the railway stations they built in Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, Malaysia. The British introduced railways to the subcontinent and built a huge network of railway stations, many of which are still very well preserved.
- In Karachi, the Mohatta Palace is a fine example of a blend of Islamic and British architecture. Frere Hall, St. Patrick Church and Empress Market all counted amongst the prominent and impressive work of Britishers.
- Lahore's Mall Road retains a variety of Gothic and Victorian style buildings built during the British Raj. Lahore Museum, Aitchison College, Government College University, Tollinton Market, are some renowned buildings built by Britishers.
- The Madras High Court building in Chennai (known as Madras under the British) is a great example of Anglo-Indian architecture.
- The Victoria Terminus in Bombay (Mumbai) is truly splendid.
- The Umed Bhawan Palace in Kota was built in Indo-Saracenic style in 1904.
- Dhaka University includes some lovely Anglo-Indian buildings, including the Old High Court Building, Curzon Hall and the Department of Chemistry Building.
- Kuala Lumpur has several prominent Anglo-Indian buildings, including the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, which used to house British colonial offices and now houses Malaysian government offices; the Railway Station and Railway Administration Building.
- Ipoh's Railway Station is probably the second most famous Anglo-Indian railway station in Malaysia after the one in Kuala Lumpur.
- See also: South Asian cuisine
An Anglo-Indian cuisine developed, largely based on dishes that Indian cooks made for their British employers during the Raj. Some of the resulting dishes became more generally popular in India and remained part of Indian cuisine after independence, and many of them are also now popular with Britons in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere around the world where there are Indian restaurants. Each country has given this cuisine a regional variation, but some things are generally similar. One feature of Anglo-Indian cuisine that is uncommon in other Indian cuisines is the use of curry powders, including the so-called "Madras curry powder", which has more hot pepper in it than others. Other Indian cuisines usually make curries by starting with individual spices and, for example, very quickly wok-frying them in ghee or oil or dry-frying them. One well-known Anglo-Indian dish is mulligatawny soup. The famous chicken tikka masala is not really Anglo-Indian, but may be of British origin, as it was allegedly created in Glasgow by a chef who originated from the Indian Subcontinent, although that story is questioned by some. What is certain, though, is that Indian cuisine has had a huge influence on the culinary culture of the United Kingdom, and London, Birmingham and other UK cities are still regarded by many as some of the best places in the world to have Indian food.
In other areas with significant Indian communities, there are often Indian dishes that have been locally adapted or invented and thus, cannot be found in India. Examples of such dishes would be roti prata / roti canai, which is unique to the Indian communities of Singapore and Malaysia, and the bunny chow, which is the signature dish of the Indian community in the South African city of Durban.
During the Raj, the British brought many indentured Indian labourers, as well as colonial administrators, soldiers and policemen, to their colonies around the world, many of whom established Indian diaspora communities. These communities maintained aspects of Indian culture to varying extents, but also integrated into the local culture, resulting in unique cultural blends that endure to this day. While in some places the Indians retain a distinct ethnic identity, in others they assimilated and intermarried to the point of being indistinguishable from their peers, though aspects of Indian cuisine and culture still survive in the local culture. As nearly every country has had some history of Indian immigration, we have limited this list to countries and territories that have a history of British rule, are home to significant and distinct ethnic Indian communities that were established as a direct result of the Raj, and which tourists can visit to experience aspects of Indian culture. Mauritius, Guyana and some Caribbean nations celebrate Indian Arrival Day, which commemorates the arrival of the first indentured Indian labourers in their respective countries and their subsequent contributions to society.
- British Empire
- Around the World in Eighty Days, a fictional voyage which passes through India
- On the trail of Kipling's Kim, our account of the route described in a novel set in the Raj in the late 19th century