From its origin as a small London enterprise, the East India Company emerged in 1600 as a powerful commercial and political organization established by the English businessmen. Its early presence in India shaped the Gulf region and officially brought western people into Asia’s early modern landscape. During the period of 1700 to 1900, the world was expanding rapidly, and many western countries took on their journey of imperialism to obtain more control over world trade and expand their territories.
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Certain factors such as strong western military power and Asian migration force largely contributed to the expansion of European imperialism over early modern Asian empires. Throughout, the power of imperialism and profits of commerce have been woven together.
This was the period when the most western and eastern interactions started to take place, and it was called the age of imperialism as western force had taken control over Asia, especially India and China, by the end of 19th century. The British entered the Indian market in the 18th century with the East India Company to seek larger financial and mercantile benefits. Economic changes brought by the Industrial Revolution let the European capitalists came to realize the huge profits that could be made by overseas trade.
By then, the dominant power in India was the Mughal Empire, and it was required for the Englishmen to clarify their purpose for trading when they first arrived. The British trading company focused most of its attention on exchanging spices, cotton and many other commodities. Its competitors were the Portuguese, who secured the Indian west coast, and the French, who controlled the southeast area (Blackwell 34). However, the East Indian Company started to develop beyond a purely commercial enterprise.
With the decline of the Mughal Empire and the concurrent rise of regional powers, the British and East India Company took advantage of the political instability and established military supremacy over rival European trading companies and local rulers. In 1757, the seizure over control of the province of Bengal marked the start of imperialism. After that, the British and the Company had acquired considerable political power, developed a bureaucratic infrastructure, and passed a series of legal acts. Their aim was to officially and legally regulate taxation, new rules and bribery (Blackwell 35).
A foreign entity’s ability to take direct control over taxation of local Indian citizens indicated a shift of relationship roles. Previously, the interactions between the British and Indians were balanced off with no sense of superiority or inferiority. However, with the absolute transition to the Company’s new role as the ruler, the British attitude toward Indians degenerated. British businessmen used to ask for permissions to enter the Indian market, but because they wanted more”more commodities, more trading and political power”to keep more lands under British control. The goal was achieved mostly because of Britain’s utter military advantage, and that decisive factor is proven to still work in current times.
A country’s respect and reputation are built upon its military power and technology advancement. People from smaller or more under-developed countries have to listen to the words from the dominant country because the dominant one has the absolute power to overturn a rule, a treaty, or even in the East Indian Company’s case, India’s established political and social system. British continued its imperialistic achievement in the rest of Asia, and the Opium War is also an example of how British people broke into and took control over the trade in China. The Opium War was a national wound to China: the start of a western conspiracy to destroy China with drugs and gunboats (Lovell). The First Opium War indicated the start of unequal treaties for China and further toppled the power of Qing dynasty. The primary motive of British imperialism in China was economic because China was the largest economy in the world for many centuries.
In the 18th century, there was a need for tea among British people, so the demand for Chinese tea rose astronomically. In order to prevent a trade imbalance and obtain more profits through overseas trade, Britain tried to sell more products to China, one of which was opium. Actively trading on the wealthier coastal region of China, which was far away from the capital of the empire in the mainland, the British bribed officials and even distributed free samples of the drug to citizens. In spite of the Chinese government’s prohibitions, greater opium supplies to the east coast area had naturally incurred a huge increase in demand for opium. The empire was insecure about the frequent foreign trade and wanted to suppress the development.
Eventually, violent conflicts arose in between the Qing and Britain’s military forces. However, the western military weapons, including heavy artillery and gunboats, were far superior to China’s (Gronewold). It was impossible for the declining Qing Dynasty to stop the invasive progress of western imperialism, and the result was a disaster for the Chinese. By the middle of 1842, China was forced to accept the British demands and sign the Nanking Treaty, or the unequal treaties (Gronewold). This first agreement marked the beginning for the British officially started their exploitation of this oriental nation. More ports were involuntarily opened to foreign residence and trade, and foreigners and missionaries were allowed to freely conduct business anywhere within the country.
For the westerners, the desire to expand their trading territories and seek out overseas economic opportunities was very commonly used as an excuse to enter a foreign land. The British did not start with an ambitious plan, but as soon as the conflicts arose and jeopardized their trading benefits, they chose to take on a very aggressive move. Similar to the situation in India, Britain also fueled the breakdown of the Qing dynasty regime with their military power. The desire for the endless trading profits intermingled with the imperialistic mindset to take control in more territories, which ended up leading to centuries of western imperialism and colonialization.
Under the period of western imperialism dominating Asia, many groups of Asian people were involved and influenced in a larger social context. There was a wave of global labor migration during the period of the mid-1830s through the early 1920s which played an important role in the colonial world. Working as laborers under informal contracts, millions of Africans, Chinese, Indians, Japanese and other migrants labored on sugar plantations in British, Dutch, French, and Spanish colonies (Allen). For instance, about 1.5 million Indians migrated to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) and Malaya to work as coffee and rubber plantation laborers under the so-called kangani or maistry system (Allen).
Migrated laborers made a great contribution to meet the demand for expanding trade needs around Asia under imperialism. However, those migrating indentured laborers did not receive respectful treatment; they were subjected to abuse and exploitation, and the colonial policies were strictly established to exploit their labor with low pay and restrict their movements. This global labor migration and indentured labor system was essentially a new system of slavery, said by Hugh Tinker (Allen). Developed under the period of imperialism and colonization, the indentured system was similar to slavery because of the unequal treatment laborers received. Unlike the British businessmen, Indian governors, or the Qing Dynasty empire who decided and acted, those migrated laborers were normal and innocent Asian people who were influenced by and lived under the imperialism transition period.
The respect Europeans used to hold for Asian people turned into arrogance and arbitrary. The standing positions in this eastern-western relationship were switched, and the western forces controlled the territories and trade in Asia. Indentured Asian laborers were part of the groups who directly faced cultural racism that shaped colonial attitudes and policies about labor relations. The migration of labor and indentured experience reflect the boom of plantation and trade commerce and furthermore demonstrate the changes in racial attitude of westerners under the imperialism transition. Imperialism is the process whereby one nation extends political, economic, and social control over another.
The European imperialism during the period of 1700-1900 had grown complex, varied, and multifaceted because the process had great impacts on many aspects of Asian countries. Indeed, British businessmen’s arrival bridged the trade connection between the eastern and western worlds, which benefited both regions’ economies in the beginning. However, as the trade conflicts happened between Britain and India, or between Britain and the Qing Dynasty, the British started to use their enormous military force to put pressure on the eastern political side. The trade policies were changed to open up for the foreigners and facilitated for them to benefit easily through overseas trade.
Most importantly, western people shifted their attitude towards Asian people since they were aware of the fact that the imperialism allowed them to hold the absolute power over the eastern countries. The example of racism from the migrated laborers’ experience illustrates a serious social and cultural issue happened under the western imperialism process. During the colonial period of 1700-1900, western imperialism intruded an Asian world of trade and commerce with their military supremacy and largely affected on its economic, political, and social aspects.
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