British control of India began in the seventeenth century in an attempt to circumvent the Persian spice traders and the land routes to the Orient. After Vasco da Gama discovered a route around the southern tip of Africa to the Indian Ocean, the British East India Company was formed and dozens of British trading boats set sail for India. Soon, the British traders in India had gained a significant amount of influence. After the fall of the Mughal Empire in 1707, the British East India Company established themselves as the economic rulers of India. Then, in 1858, Queen Victoria officially made India a part of the British empire
Once the British gained formal control of India, its importance began to increase. India became the British center of operations in Asia, and was the staging point for military excursions into Afghanistan, Burma, and other nearby territories. More importantly, though, the British began to force the Indian economy into working for the good of Britain. They used the vast Indian population as a captive market for poor quality British goods which wouldn’t sell anywhere else, and restricted the Indians from manufacturing these goods themselves. They also were able to gain control over the minerals and spices which provided the locals with sustenance. Finally, they used millions of Indian soldiers to fight their dirty little wars across the globe.
With so much of the British Empire dependent on India, it was important to keep the sea lanes around Africa open. This hadn’t been a problem until the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. After defeating the French, the Germans tried to prevent the French from exacting revenge by suggesting that they focus their resources on colonizing Africa. This threatened the few British ports which had been established on the western coast of Africa in order to refuel ships bound for India. Naturally, the British found it necessary to step in and assert their presence.
The main route to India involved traveling completely around Africa to get to the Indian Ocean. The British had regularly spaced stations along both coasts designed to resupply ships as needed. They had also gained control of the Dutch possessions in South Africa as a result of the Congress of Vienna and had established a colony on the Cape of Good Hope. Once the scramble for Africa began, they moved in and formally established themselves in what was Gambia, Sierra Leone, Togoland, Gold Coast, Nigeria, and British Cameroon on the west coast and Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Kenya, and British Somaliland on the east coast. The British just normally expanded their established trading ports, but they did use threats of force against the locals when necessary, as in Zanzibar. To them, the importance of maintaining a sea route to India was reason enough to take any needed action.
With the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, a second sea route to India became available to the British. They secretly bought control of the canal, but along with that came control of Egypt. Control of Egypt, and implicitly the Nile, became one of the major thorns in the side of the British Empire. They were engaged in numerous unnecessary conflicts, some of which humiliated the empire and its army. Notably, the incidents in Khartoum in Sudan and the confrontation with the French at Fashoda were extremely unpopular with the British people, and caused waves of opposition to British involvement in Africa. The British hung on, however, because they needed the Suez Canal, and that required them to maintain control in Egypt and the surrounding territories.
Other than the Suez Canal, the northern sea route to India required the British to control the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and parts of the Arabian Sea. The British already had control of the Straits of Gibraltar and Malta, so their position in the Mediterranean Sea was secure. The Red Sea was a very important seaway, and British ships that passed through it would have been vulnerable to attack. To fortify their position, the British gained control of the strait where the Red Sea met the Persian Gulf, known as Bab el Maheb. This involved establishing a colony in Aden, across the strait from British Somaliland. The British also colonized the major groups in the Indian Ocean, the most important of which was the Maldives Islands. By 1890, these territories had all been colonized and the British ceased to actively expand their control on the continent.
Other British imperialistic actions were focused on limiting the increase of French power, responding to British public opinion, and maintaining the pride of the empire. The British were not motivated by a desire to better the African people, control Nigeria, stop the slave trade, or defeat the Boers because it was the right thing to do. They did such things because these actions were necessary for them to protect and fortify their coastal territories. There was no “white man’s burden” in the minds of the British policy makers, they were only concerned with ensuring Britain’s position as the richest, most powerful, and most prestigious country in the world. These qualities mainly came from money, and money came from India. That was the underlying tenet of all British imperialism.
Throughout history, the British have been a nation of sailors and businessmen. With the dawn of the imperial era, money began to equal power, and the wealth of the British elevated them to the top of the world. As Sir Walter Raleigh said,
“Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.”
India was where the riches of the world came from, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. The British needed to dispel the threat of other Europeans in Africa to maintain control of India, and they did so efficiently. They quickly gained control of both the major sea routes to India and then turned their eyes to the rest of the continent. Whether the British were trying to foster public support or prevent another nation from becoming a threat, all British actions in Africa were directly or indirectly linked to India. The British were motivated by their desire to become powerful, and they skillfully combined enterprise and conquest to create a globe spanning empire centered around the wealth of India.