Colonial India refers to areas of the Indian Subcontinent under the control of European colonial powers, through trade and conquest. The first European power to arrive in India was the army of Alexander the Great in 327-326 BC. The satraps he established in the north west of the subcontinent quickly crumbled after he left. Later, trade was carried between Indian states and the Roman Empire by Graeco-Roman and Egyptian sailors who reached India by ship through the Red and Arabian Seas. The spice trade between India and Europe was one of the main drivers of the world economy[1] and was the main catalyst for the Age of Discovery.[2]

The search for the wealth and prosperity of India led to the accidental discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. However, it was also near the end of the 15th century that Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama became the first European to re-establish direct trade links with India since Roman times, by being the first to arrive by circumnavigating Africa. Having arrived in Calicut, which by then was one of the major trading ports of the eastern world,[3] he obtained permission to trade in the city from Saamoothiri Rajah.

Trading rivalries brought other European powers to India. The Dutch, English, French and Danes established trading posts in India in the early 17th century. As the Mughal Empire disintegrated in the early 18th century and then the Maratha Empire became weakened after the third battle of Panipat, the relatively weak and unstable Indian states which emerged were increasingly open to manipulation by the Europeans through dependent "friendly" Indian rulers.

In the later 18th century the British and French entered into intense struggles for dominance through proxy Indian rulers and also by direct military intervention. The defeat of the redoubtable Indian ruler Tipu Sultan in 1799 marginalized French influence. This was followed by a rapid expansion of British power through the greater part of the subcontinent in the early 19th century. By the middle of the century, the British had already gained direct or indirect control over almost all of India. British India contained the most populous and valuable provinces of the British Empire and thus became known as "the jewel in the British crown".

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