The origins of British India

The British involvement in India began with the Honourable East India Company, formed on the 22nd September 1599 and granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth I on the 31st December 1600 that gave the company a monopoly of trade between the "Cape of Bona Esparanza and the straits of Magellan" for an initial period of fifteen years.

The Company established a profitable trade with India but gradually found itself drawn into Indian politics and with the victory of Robert Clive at the battle of Plassey in 1757 it acquired control over much of Bengal. The Mughal Emperor formally ceded control of Bengal to the Company in 1764 which turned out to be a mixed blessing as this involved the Company in much expenditure without necessarily providing it with the sources of income to fund these new commitments. Thus the Company found itself sliding into bankruptcy at a time when the British government began to feel that it should have some say in how these territorial acquisitions were being administered.

Therefore Lord North's administration passed the Regulating Act 1773 which stated that;

... for the better management of the said United Company's affairs in India, be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that, for the government of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal, there shall be appointed a Governor-General, and four counsellors; and that the whole civil and military government of the said Presidency. .. are hereby vested in the said Governor-General and Council of the said Presidency of Fort William in Bengal.

(The original British East India Company was known as the Honourable East India Company or HEIC. In 1698 another group of English merchants who had been cutting in on the HEIC's trade formed the English East India Company, but this company was merged with the HEIC to form the United East India Company in 1708. Hence the reference to the 'United Company' in the above act.)

The first appointment to this office was Warren Hastings, who had been the Governor of Bengal and was now technically speaking the 'Governor-General of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal' with supervisory powers over Bombay and Madras, but was generally known as the 'Governor-General of India'. Although the Governor-General was formally an official of the Company and appointed by its board of directors, in practice the British government had a signifcant degree of influence over the appointment.

(It is worth noting that Hastings only had authority over those specific territories of Bengal, Bombay and Madras; most of India remained under the control over its native rulers. It was not until the time of Richard Wellesley, Marquess Wellesley that Britain acquired its dominant position in India and did not establish control over the whole of India until the mid nineteenth century.)

William Pitt later tightened the government's control through the India Act 1784 by which means the British Government virtually took over the direction of Indian policy through the Board of Control, which functioned as a department of the government, exercising overall political, military and financial superintendence over the British possessions in India. Of course, in practice the geographical separation meant that the Governor-General had considerable freedom of action (The Marquess Wellesley notoriously took little notice of instructions from London and pursued his own policy.)

The defacto independence of the Governor General was recognised by the Charter Act 1833, which not only formally created the office of 'Governor-General of India' but invested in that office the responsibility for the "superintendence, direction and control of the whole civil and military Government" and invested in the Governor-General and his council the power to issue legislation regarding British India.

From Governor-General to Viceroy

Although these arrangements made the East India Company accountable to parliament for the administration of its Indian territories, parliament hid behind the legal fiction that the East India Company had no possessions and was merely acting as an agent of the Mughal Emperor. It was not until the Indian Mutiny and the removal of the last such emperor in 1857 the British government was forced to accept the underlying political reality and assume direct control of India.

The result was the Government of India Act 1858 which stated that;

The Government of the territories now in the possession or under the Government of the East India Company, and all powers in relation to Government vested in or exercised by the said Company ... shall become vested in Her Majesty, and be exercised in her name

Thus India became part of the empire, Queen Victoria, Empress of Indiaand Charles John Canning the first Viceroy of India. This position was amended by the Government of India Act 1935 (which was implemented in 1937) which introduced a limited form of self-government in India and the Viceroy became the Crown Representative, but notwithstanding any change in official nomenclature the holders of this office continued to be known as Viceroys. (Which amounts to much the same thing as Crown Representative in any case.)

From Viceroy to Governor-General

This remained the position until 1947 when under the India Independence Act 1947 India became a dominion and the office of Viceroy/Crown Representative of Indian disappeared. But as part of the transitional arrangements, the office of Governor-General of India remained and continued to be held by Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten. (It should also be noted in this context that British India was partitioned in 1947 into the separate nations of India and Pakistan; Mountbatten was the Governor General of the former, Pakistan had its own Governor-General in the form of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Mountbatten relinquished the office in 1948 and was replaced by Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari otherwise known as 'Rajaji' who held the office for a further two years until India formally became a republic. Thus becoming both the last Governor-General and the only native Indian to ever hold the office.


THE GOVERNOR-GENERALS OF INDIA

I. Governors-General of Fort William in Bengal
(Under the Regulating Act 1773)

II. Governors-General of India
Under the Charter Act 1833

III. Governors-General and Viceroys
Under the Government of India Act 1858

IV. Governors-General and Crown Representatives
Under the Government of India Act 1935 (implemented in 1937)

V. Governor-General of the Indian Dominion
Under the India Independence Act 1947

India formally became a republic in 1950.


SOURCES

  • Compiled from various lists of the Governor-Generals at
    http://www.indialife.com/History/governer_list.htm
    http://www.britishempire.co.uk/maproom/india/indiagovernors.htm
    http://www.worldstatesmen.org/India.htm
    http://www.kessler-web.co.uk/History/KingListsFarEast/IndiaStates.htm
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for INDIA
    See http://1911encyclopedia.org/index.htm
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
  • The archive of source documents entitled 'Political History: Speeches, Letters, and Documents' at
    http://projectsouthasia.sdstate.edu/Docs/history/primarydocs/Political_History/

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