British India

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Wellesley as Governor General: 1797-1805

Lord Mornington - the Marquis of Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington's elder brother) - was Governor-General from 1797 to 1805, succeeding Cornwallis. Cornwallis had acted in the light of Pitt's India Act and was a reformer who had studied the career of Warren Hastings. Wellesley saw India as a theatre in the world war with France; he was a statesman who feared the conquests of Napoleon. The French Wars reopened trouble in India. The French expedition to Egypt in 1798 accelerated the war in India. Late in 1798, 4,000 British troops were sent to India and the Persian Gulf was policed by the Royal Navy. Wellesley planned the destruction of Mysore to prevent Tipoo from allying with the French. It appears that Wellesley's objective was to expand British rule in India and to make this extended empire pay for itself by opening up the trade to interests outside the East India Company. Consequently he extended British control in India:

Wellesley's superior attitude towards the Indians, especially Hindus, did leave much to be desired, however. Indians were not allowed in top administrative posts and could not attend social events organised by whites. His excessive vanity caused him to wear his medals and decorations even in bed - according to "reliable reports".

The three Mahratta Wars illustrate how British power led to interference with the succession of native rulers, since the continual threat of war between usurper and usurped made peaceful government and trade impossible. British ascendancy in India made the East India Company the 'policemen' for the native rulers. By a policy of supporting contender or ruler (according to how one or the other viewed the British) the Company was able to prevent the Mahrattas from extending their alliances to challenge the position of the British.

The Mahrattas did not have the financial resources to finance an extended campaign, nor a system of succession that assured united support behind one leader. Disputes between Hindu chiefs coupled with intrigues and quarrels made the Mahratta federation susceptible to the skilful British diplomacy of dividing the enemy by drawing off a section of his support. Defeat on the battlefield led to the loss of Mahrattan territory and revenue.

Similarly the Mysore Wars (1767-9; 1780-4; 1790-2) were caused by the threat of adventurous Indian rulers seeking to extend their possessions and thus endangering the supreme position of the East India Company. Hyder and his son Tipoo, the rulers of Mysore, took territory at a time when the British and the Nawab of the Carnatic were distracted by the French Wars.

At various times the British entered alliances with the Nawab of the Carnatic, the Nizam of Hyderabad and even the Mahrattas, to prevent the ruler of Mysore from winning a decisive victory. With Tipoo's defeat in 1799 the Company gained more territory, extracted from the defeated state a subsidy for the British military force and the right of the Governor-General to take over the administration of Mysore should he believe it to be necessary.

Wellesley was succeeded by Lord Minto.

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Last modified 13 February, 2019

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