Europeans Settle in India

Spurred by the lucrative spice trade and the success of Portuguese traders in Asia, merchants from the Netherlands, Britain, France, and Denmark established trading footholds on the subcontinent of India.

Summary of Event

Lured by the prospect of easier access to spices, whose cost had risen when the Ottoman Empire had assumed control of overland trade routes, Portuguese explorers reached India by sea in the late fifteenth century. Sailing around the southern tip of Africa, Vasco da Gama arrived at the port of Calicut on the southwest or Malabar Coast of India in 1498. In the decades that followed, the Portuguese seized the port of Goa and set up trading stations, or “factories,” at several other ports. [kw]Europeans Settle in India (1606-1674)
[kw]India, Europeans Settle in (1606-1674)
Trade and commerce;1606-1674: Europeans Settle in India[0410]
Economics;1606-1674: Europeans Settle in India[0410]
Expansion and land acquisition;1606-1674: Europeans Settle in India[0410]
Exploration and discovery;1606-1674: Europeans Settle in India[0410]
Government and politics;1606-1674: Europeans Settle in India[0410]
India;1606-1674: Europeans Settle in India[0410]
India;European colonization of
Colonization;Europe of India

Anxious to reap the rewards of the lucrative Asian trade, four other European nations—the Netherlands, Britain, France, and Denmark—moved to establish their own factories in southern Asia. They did so through the formation of joint stock companies in which wealthy merchants bought shares and distributed proportionate profits. The companies were in competition (and sometimes at war) with each other, and they brought an end to more than one century of Portuguese dominance in the region. Not only did they assume control of trade between Asia and Europe but also took over much of the Indian Ocean trade market. Despite the companies’ initial interest in spices, they had discovered that the many textiles and other manufactures of India offered significant commercial opportunities as well.

The Dutch East India Company Dutch East India Company;India (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) was formed in 1602 from remnants of previous Dutch trading companies. One of the VOC’s ships reached India three years later, and its agents established factories at the southeast or Coromandel Coast ports of Petapuli and Masulipatnam in 1606, Tirupapaliyur in 1608, and Pulicat in 1610. The Dutch also established a factory at Surat, the major port of the Gujarat region in northwest India, in 1617, and at Calcutta in northeast India. Like the Portuguese before them, the Dutch concentrated their efforts on trade in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and the islands of the Malay Archipelago (now Indonesia and Malaysia). Yet, the Dutch eventually supplanted their Portuguese competitors on both the islands and the mainland, driving the Portuguese out of Ceylon by 1658 and out of most of their settlements on the Malabar Coast by 1663. Trade;Dutch in Asia

Queen Elizabeth I Elizabeth I (queen of England) chartered the British East India Company British East India Company on the final day of 1600, granting it exclusive trading rights between Britain and southern Asia. Captain William Hawkins Hawkins, William reached Surat in 1608, but it was not until 1612 that another agent, Thomas Best, Best, Thomas obtained formal trading rights. The company went on to set up a factory in Surat in 1613. Two years later, Sir Thomas Roe Roe, Sir Thomas negotiated a far-reaching treaty with Mughal emperor Jahāngīr Jahāngīr , who ruled nearly three-fourths of India. Under the treaty’s assurance of commercial rights and legal protection, the company established several other factories

One of the most important bases of the British East India Company turned out to be the former Portuguese stronghold of Bombay Bombay . Situated farther down the west coast of India, Bombay passed into the hands of English king Charles II in 1661 as part of the dowry of Princess Catharine of Braganza of Portugal. In turn, Charles leased it to the company in 1668 for a nominal fee. Blessed with a fine natural harbor, Bombay supplanted Surat as the company’s headquarters in 1687.

The English were active on the Coromandel Coast as well. They established a base in 1611 at Masulipatnam, where the Dutch had been active for five years, and built Fort Saint George. Fort Saint George would become the city of Madras Madras on a site ceded by the raja (prince) of Chandragiri, Damarla Venkatadri Damarla Venkatadri , to company agent Francis Day in 1639. The first piece of Indian territory actually owned by the English, Madras soon surpassed Masulipatnam as the major English factory in Coromandel and along with Bombay became one of the most important English bases in India.

Danish merchants organized their own trading company, the Danish East India Company Danish East India Company , in 1616, modeling it closely on the Dutch company. After a failed attempt to set up a post in Ceylon, the Danes built a fort at Tranquebar on the Coromandel Coast in 1620, and in 1625, as did so many other European traders, established a factory at Masulipatnam. After a brief period of prosperity, however, the company went into decline and was dissolved by Danish king Frederick III Frederick III (king of Denmark and Norway) in 1650. A second Danish trading company was established in 1670, but it proved equally unsuccessful.

Spurred on by their Dutch and English competitors, French merchants had attempted several largely unsuccessful trading voyages to India by the time the French East India Company was established in 1642 under the sponsorship of controller general Jean-Baptiste Colbert Colbert, Jean-Baptiste . The company’s first expedition sailed to the island of Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa, but in 1668, its director François Martin Martin, François established a factory at Surat, where representatives of the British East India Company had been active for years. The French also set up a trading post at Masulipatnam in 1669, but their most important settlement would prove to be south of Madras at Pondicherry Pondicherry , where Martin established a base in 1674 and went on to become its first governor.


By the end of the seventeenth century, European trading companies had ringed the Indian subcontinent with factories. Although the Europeans who reached India were initially interested in trade, their ambitions slowly turned to the acquisition of land. The Mughal Dynasty Mughal Empire , which had ruled India since 1526, slid into a slow decline in the last decade of the seventeenth century, and as a result, its constituent states, which were spread across the great subcontinent of India, became virtually independent.

Although the Dutch East India Company eventually drove the Portuguese and the English from the Malay Archipelago, the Dutch lost Ceylon and India to the English and French. The Danish East India Company was eventually dissolved in 1729, with Denmark taking over direct control of Tranquebar, but the country lacked the resources to maintain its factory effectively. These developments meant that the French and English companies (and their parent states) were poised to expand throughout the subcontinent. Although the French East India Company increased its holdings in southern India in the early years of the eighteenth century, England asserted its supremacy in the three Carnatic Wars (1746-1783), and so it went on to assume control of virtually the entire country.

Further Reading

  • Bowen, H. V., Margarette Lincoln, and Nigel Rigby, eds. The Worlds of the East India Company. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2002. A multidisciplinary collection of essays concentrating on the British East India Company but touching on its Dutch counterpart as well. Includes black-and-white and color illustrations.
  • Chaudhury, Sushil, and Michel Morineau, eds. Merchants, Companies and Trade: Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Era. NewYork: Cambridge University Press, 1999. This collection includes several essays assessing the European impact on trade in the Indian Ocean during the seventeenth century, supplemented with bibliographies and tables.
  • Judd, Denis. The Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj, 1600-1947. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. An illustrated history of the British East India Company from its earliest days, incorporating many extracts from contemporary accounts.
  • Keay, John. India: A History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000. Keay places the period of European intrusion in the broader context of Indian history. Includes black-and-white and color illustrations, maps, tables, and a bibliography.
  • Prakash, Om. European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. The most authoritative modern work on the subject, which surveys the operations of European traders from the late fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Supplemented with maps, tables, and a bibliographic essay.

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