Starting from the first invasion of the Indian subcontinent in 1510, a variety of different European powers fought for control over the massive landmass, which provided an overseas route to the spice trade taking place in East Asia. The successive waves of European colonization of South Asia had profound impacts on the ways in which the balance of power would change there, and on the development of the Indian economy and society. The Portuguese invaded Goa early in the sixteenth century and were largely responsible (though some scholars doubt the veracity of this claim) for the spread of gunpowder technology there. This would have important ramifications for India during the period of British colonization, as it would ultimately be a dispute over the use of firearms that would lead to the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
India was the jewel of the British crown in the early modern period, and the British empire conquered most of the subcontinent in the 1750s. Control over trade in India initially resided with the British East India Company, which enjoyed a monopoly over the sale of all goods, including indigo, textiles, salt, minerals, and opium. However, representatives of the company often treated the locals with great disdain, stealing their property, commandeering their oxen and carts, undercutting local businesses, and even beating them. The final straw was when the company changed the kind of ammunition that they required the sepoys (traditional Indian soldiers employed by the British) to use. British cartridges were often greased with pig fat, and often times in order to activate it, a soldier had to bite into it. This was unacceptable for a vast majority of sepoy soldiers, who were mostly Muslim and Hindu, and in 1857 they revolted against the British power. The result of this rebellion was that the British government displaced the British East India Company as the primary contract holder over the Indian colony.
India was also the center of international imperial rivalries between Western Europe and Russia, a phenomenon that historians usually refer to as the “Great Game.” Both Russia and Britain wanted access to South Asia, and both had the military resources to do so. As we’ve seen, Britain held India proper, with major control over important places like Calcutta, Sri Lanka, and Bombay. Russia had gradually been exerting more and more influence over the declining Ottoman Empire, gaining vital territories along the north shores of the Black Sea, into Moldova and Wallachia. It had also begun the conquest of Turkmenistan, and by the 1880s it would have nominal control over territories as far as modern-day Afghanistan (which at the time bordered India). Among other things, Great Game politics erupted in the Crimean War of 1853-56, in which the Russians suffered a humiliating defeat and were forced to cede claims to India for good. However, the Crimean War demonstrated to all major European powers the importance of India in global trade and diplomacy.