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After the North American colonies won their independence in 1783, India became a focus of British overseas expansion. The Honourable East India Company (henceforth the EIC) had a royal charter granting a monopoly over the importation to Britain of goods from the East such as spices, tea and silk. The charter also entitled it to act virtually as a sovereign power, able to make treaties and wage war in the furtherance of its commercial activities. From coastal trading posts, it gradually extended its influence throughout the Indian sub-continent. During the eighteenth century, the EIC faced rivalry from French commercial interests, and it became a matter of strategic importance to the British government that India should not fall under French control. During the long series of wars between Britain and France, there was open conflict between the private armies of their Indian trading companies, supported by regular troops and naval units and by the Indian rulers with whom they were allied. By the end of the century, the French had been largely driven out and the British government was increasingly bringing the EIC's activities under its control, while leaving administrative matters in its hands. Indian rulers unwilling to submit to EIC domination were bribed, intimidated or overthrown. The general population suffered through heavy taxation to finance the EIC's military and administrative operations, and to enrich its officials.

The EIC was controlled by an exclusive partnership of London merchants, but while it jealously guarded its monopoly of shipping Eastern commodities back to Britain, it was happy for other British merchants to act as middlemen trading within Asia on their own behalf - they bought EIC goods, traded them throughout the region for local produce, and then sold it to the EIC to make up its return cargoes. In this way, merchants from Ayrshire were able to establish themselves in the towns which had grown up around the EIC's trading posts - Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras (now Chennai) - and engage in local trade. (By 1833 the EIC's monopoly had ended and trade between Britain and the East was thrown open.) Scots made up a large proportion of the EIC's administrators, the captains of its ships and the officers who commanded the Indian soldiers of its armies. There were many Ayrshire men among them.  

(The EIC used slave labour in its territories, although not in large numbers and usually only when there was difficulty in obtaining sufficient local waged labour. This continued until 1843 - the company's territories were excluded from the 1833 act abolishing slavery in other British possessions. The EIC also played an important part in precipitating the First Opium War of 1839-1842 between Britain and China. It was fought to force Chinese trade concessions, and in particular to force the Chinese to accept the importation of opium grown in India by the EIC.)

In 1857 a major uprising against British rule broke out in India, sparked off by the mutiny of the EIC's Indian soldiers against their officers. Because of this it became known in Britain as the Indian Mutiny. After the rebellion had been defeated, the British government took over direct rule from the EIC, and Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India. Many Scots continued to find employment in the new Imperial administration.