British residencies in the subcontinent

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


November 5, 2022

Zoya Ansari describes a novel British governance practice

East India Company, a commercial enterprise controlled British governance affairs in India for just over 250 years and then was superseded by the British Crown in 1857. It controlled the affairs of the subcontinent according to a charter given to it by the British government that allowed it to make peace or war with any Prince not Christian and from this charter.

The practice grew of making treaties of peace and defensive alliances, the first being anti-piracy treaties with the western Indian maritime states of Savantwadi (1730) and Janjira (1733). This practice continued till 1773 when the British parliament decreed that, unless an emergency existed, approval had to be obtained from London. It was a curious arrangement but somehow it worked and that too brilliantly for the company.

From the outset, the British governance maintained that it was impossible to achieve a precise definition of the paramountcy they exercised over the Indian states. The treaties which had been concluded could never be regarded as definitive simply because no such agreement could survive indefinitely in its original form. In order to deal with changing needs and circumstances a body of political practice or usage was gradually built up.

Such usage was employed primarily to promote imperial interests and to supply imperial needs, as in the case of laws relating to the construction of roads and railways and the development of commercial policy, and frequently new principles established in relations with one state were subsequently taken to apply to all states.

To ensure their control, the British adopted and perfected the mechanism of the subsidiary alliance implying that in return for a tribute or subsidy or the lease of productive territories, they engaged to support a ruler against his enemies and to maintain their own troops in his lands as garrisons.

British Governance Commercial Interests

The first major Indian princely state tied to this system was Awadh whose Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula, agreed to a subsidiary treaty in 1765. These types of schemes were to be adopted many times over the whole subcontinent in the next half century as a mode of securing a stable frontier for British commercial interests and payment for British troops.

It was not given any credence that in practice alliances put intolerable strains on fragile Indian states whose rulers were never certain of their revenue. Shortfalls in subsidiary payments faced the British with mutinies among their own unpaid troops and led to annexation in order to stabilize the financial situation.

The British gave the title of the resident to their representative in a state denoting their peculiar role as the ultimate paramount power simply because as a commercial company it could not appoint full ambassadors or deal with sovereigns on the basis of de jure equality.

Appointing a resident had advantages to the Company not only of lower cost but also of raising fewer questions of ceremony and precedence. Although official policy called for intervention in external, not internal, affairs of states, in fact, residents followed Company interests above all others.

And on occasion engaged in deep intervention in domestic matters and the resident played a major role in the state administration. There emerged a situation whereby under a dominant resident the relationship between resident and ruler was reversed though whenever suited internal intervention was minimal.

Rulers however quickly recognized the danger to their authority that the establishment of a residency tended to entail and in the early nineteenth century more powerful rulers retained the capacity to block or terminate a residency when it suited their policies with few rulers entirely refusing the residency system.

Political Role Of  Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan In British Governance

Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan were particularly anxious to avoid having a resident at their court and, after conflicts over the role of the British in their particular states, the Nawab of Awadh and the Raja of Travancore succeeded in obtaining the temporary abolition of their residencies.

In some cases rulers or supporters resorted to extreme tactics to remove the resident, attacking the residency with the force of arms with killings occurring in Banaras, Travancore, Nagpur, Poona, Jaipur, and Sind, and several residencies, most prominently Delhi and Lucknow were destroyed or besieged in 1857.

The success of the residency system however was based upon the fact that throughout the process, there remained the underlying assumption that there was a legitimacy attached to the princes as a whole, even if such legitimacy was overridden by the circumstances of the day resultantly in most occasions the British attempted to preserve a local ruler under indirect rule.

Where they deposed an incumbent they continued to accord him titles, dignity, and an appropriate pension even in exile. The Company restored most of the defeated rulers to their thrones and where it deposed a particular ruler, he was usually replaced with a relative.

On the one hand, the British governance tended towards indirect rule with a respect for India’s hereditary rulers, which required a relatively low investment of manpower and money, and on the other, the British felt an obligation to provide moral and efficient administration for the people.

The Company attempted to isolate states from each other by inserting residents as an exclusive medium for political communication. Residents negotiated treaties binding most rulers to communicate officially with each other only through residencies and British governance surveillance over rulers and courts established an enforced monopoly on interstate political communication.

British Rule Constituency

Beginning in 1792 the Company induced some 55 states individually to agree by treaty to channel all foreign policy contacts through their residents. A typical treaty stipulated that the ruler in question abjured any negotiation or political correspondence with any European or native power without the consent of the said Company.

By 1840 some 31 rulers had handed over their official political interaction to their residents. Inevitably, behind a resident’s advice to a ruler lay the practically invincible military power of the British. In a crucial move to shift the financial burden of this power onto the princes.

The British established subsidiary forces in several states placing disciplined troops under the immediate control of the resident and, since the troops largely replaced the ruler’s own armies, the resident thus commanded the most potent military force in the state.

In exchange for organizing and disbursing funds for subsidiary forces the British acquired substantial resources from states obtaining subsidies in cash as a tribute and, in most cases, land revenue from the territory would be assigned in order to pay the subsidy.

Many of the choicest territories were taken over by the British through his method. By controlling the military forces within a state and building constituency of administrators, landholders, and members of the general populace, residents were able to accomplish many of the purposes of British rule.

Some Individual Relationship

The success of the residency system was largely due to strategies and tactics employed by various rulers and officials that did much to shape indirect rule. The variety among treaties suggests the manner in which each state was able to affect its individual relationship with the British.

While many of the same phrases occur in a number of treaties concluded before the Mutiny, there are striking differences as well, as one or another ruler objected to or insisted upon a certain provision. Local practices varied also, reflecting the peculiar relationship between ruler and resident.

The strategy of a ruler or official would be matched by British strategy and different tactics resulted in a range of outcomes, leading to the acquisition of new powers or lands at the hand of Britain or to loss of territory, rights, or even the throne. The Weekender


The writ of international law
The writ of international law
M Ali Siddiqi looks at a crucial...
Resurgence of fascism
Resurgence of fascism
M Ali Siddiqi describes a dangerous...
President Xi Jinping
XI on his way to ruling China for life
M Ali Siddiqi talks about apparent...
Governance and equitable distribution of resources
Governance and equitable distribution of resources
M Ali Siddiqi talks about Governance...
The Need For Pakistan
The Need For Pakistan
M A Siddiqi expresses surprise...
The Presence And Essence Of Pakistaniat
The Presence And Essence Of Pakistaniat
M Ali Siddiqi describes a strong...

Get Newsletters


Subscribe Us