Presidencies and Provinces

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The political divisions in India in 1857 can leave one reeling on the point of bewilderment. I have found in many of my writings I often have to refer to maps to try and understand which presidency, province, division and district I find myself in. I cannot imagine what it must be like for my readers, to be shunted from pillar to post in a country as vast as India. So I will try to demystify this conundrum.

the presidencies, madras, bombay and bengal

Madras and the Coast

The Madras Presidency was established in 1640 with its winter capital at Madras and summer capital at Ootacamund.

Edgar Thurston – (1913) The Madras Presidency with Mysore, Coorg and Associated States, Cambridge University

At its height, the Presidency engulfed most of southern India, included today’s states of Tamil Nadu, and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, Odisha and the union territory of Lakshadweep. The costal regions and northern parts of Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) also belonged to the Madras Presidency from 1793 to 1798, after which it was created a Crown Colony. The Madras Presidency was neighboured on the northwest by the Kingdom of Mysore, to the southwest by the Kingdom of Cochin, and to the north by the Kingdom of Hyderabad. Some parts were also bordered by the Bombay Presidency and the Central Provinces and Berar (today called Madhya Pradesh).
Although the British held most of the territory in this area of India, the Portugese and the French still had some say.

Portuguese India

The Portuguese had been among the first traders in India, having established their territories six years after the discovery of a sea route to the Indian subcontinent. What had once been a vast Portuguese Indian dominion would dwindle through the years until it only consisted of several isolated areas with the territory of Goa housing the capital – a fairly large tract of land in the middle of the west coast. The island of Daman, the separated territories of Dadra and Nagar Haveli – north of Bombay, and the island of Diu off the southern coast of Gujarat completed their dominion. The total area of Portuguese India amounted to 4,193 sq km, with the majority of it consisting of Goa. It is interesting to note, that for judicial purposes, the Portuguese province of Goa included Macau in China and Timor in the Malay Archipelago.

Rise and Fall of the Portuguese in India

After Indian Independence from Britain in 1947, things looked a little different. In 1954 an organisation called “The United Front of Goans took control of the enclave of Darda and Nagar Haveli followed. Peaceful protests against Portuguese rule were violently supressed and India broke off diplomatic ties with Portugal, and then proceeded to impose an economic embargo agains the territories of Portuguese Goa. Between 1955 and 1961 the subject of decolonisation remained in a stalemate with neither side ceding to the demands of the other. The Portuguese in the meantime had established an airline Transportes Aéreos da Índia Portuguesa, and airports at Goa, Daman and Diu to faciliate the transport of goods and people between the enclaves.
In 1961, India invaded Goa and Daman – and were met with a stiff fight from the Portuguese who had been ordered to defeat the Indians or die trying. It was suicidal at best – the Portuguese were poorly equipped and only had a force of 3300 fighting men against the combined naval, air and land forces of the Indian army, consisting of 30’000.
On the 19th of December, 1961, the Governor of Portuguese India signed the Instrument of Surrender and at the stroke of midnight, 450 years of Portuguese rule in India came to an end.

French India

Similar to the Portuguese, the French would witness a rise and fall in their dominons of India. Known as  Établissements français dans l’Inde, the total area by 1950 would measure 510 square kilometers the majority of which, some 293 sq km belonged to Pondichery alone. The colony comprised of 5 seperate enclaves which had started out as factories of the French East India Company – Pondichery, Karikal, Yanaon on the Coromandel Coast, Mahe on the Malabar Coast and Chandenagor in Bengal. Until 1816 the French had also possessed several small trading stations within other towns, but as the British refused to acknowledge any French claims to these, they were never reoccupied.

Like the Portuguese, the French would continue to possess their territories in India well into the 20th century. The towns of Machilipatnam, Kozhikode and  Surat were ceded to India in October 1947 while the remaining areas were allowed by election in 1948 to choose their own future. Governance of Chandernagore was ceded to India in 1950, and merged into the State of West Bengal in 1954. By November 1954, the four enclaves of Pondichéry, Yanam, Mahe, and Karikal were de facto transferred to the Indian Union and became known as the Union Territory of Puduchery. However the union of French India with the rest of the subcontinent did not take place until 1962 when the French parliament, following a treaty with India, handed them over.

Others Colonisers

It must be remembered that although the French and Portuguese were the largest rivals at one point to the British, India was no means spared by the traders from other nations. The largest of these were the Danes while the Dutch made a brief appearance from 1605 to 1825.

The Nicobar Islands would also be briefly colonised by the Austrians.

The varied colonisers of India

A presidency as a dowry- bombay

 Hunter, William Wilson, Sir, (1840-1900), Cotton, James Sutherland, (1847-1918) ed. Burn, Richard, Sir, (1871-1947) joint ed. Meyer, William Stevenson, Sir, (1860-1922). joint ed. New edition, published under the authority of His Majesty’s secretary of state for India in council. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1908-1931 [v. 1, 1909] – From the Imperial Gazetteer of India

It was not uncommon for the rich and grand to gift each other land, even when it really isn’t theirs to give. So it happened with Bombay.
Both the Dutch and the English had been eyeing the island for some time -as far back as 1626, they both made attempts to gain possession of it and had even attempted to buy it from the Portuguese. However, the English would come out on top, so to speak –
the Bombay Province was leased to the EIC via the Royal Charter of 1668 by King Charles II for which the EIC paid an annual sum of £10. The king himself had acquired the area through the dowry of Catherine Braganza as part of their marriage treaty in 1661.
The EIC did not take it as lightly as the King and wasted no time in setting up a factory. As the powers of the island’s defences and general administration had also been conferred upon the EIC they quickly enrolled a European regiment and erected fortifications which would prove invaluable when the Dutch came knocking in 1673.
In 1687 Bombay was made the headquarters of all EIC possessions in India, but in 1753, the erstwhile governor of Bombay would be placed subordinate to that of Calcutta.

The Bombay Presidency, at its greatest extent, covered not only the present day state of Gujarat, but the western two thirds of Maharashtra, the northwestern state of Karnataka, the Sindh Province in today’s Pakistan and oddly enough, Aden in Yemen.   Although the districts and provinces were directly under British rule, the internal administration of the princely states was left with the local rulers. The presidency however took complete control of the defence of those princely states and managed relations with them through political agents.

Bounded on the north by Baluchistan, the Punjab and Rajputana, to the east by Indore, the Central Provinces and Hyderabad, to the south by the Madras Presidency and the Kingdom of Mysore and to the west by the Arabian Sea, it included within its limits the Portuguese settlements of Goa, Daman and Diu. The Princely State of Baroda also maintained relations with the British. Politically Bombay included Aden and had an area 488,850 km2. 318,530km2 were under British rule while 65,761km2 remained with the Princely States. The total population in 1901 was estimated at 25,468,209, of which only 6,908,648 resided in a princely state.

The pier of Apollo Bunder, before the erection of the Gateway of India
Colaba Sea Face, Bombay
Bombay from Malabar Hill
Port of Bombay, 1890s.

the diversity of bengal

Map of the Bengal Presidency in 1858. Administrative map of British India’s Bengal Province in 1931. Source data: Survey of India 1:253k (Perry-Castenada Map Library, Univ of Texas), India 1:1M, Imperial Gazetteer of India 1:4M (Digital South Asia Library, Univ of Chicago).
Map of Lower Bengal in 1870. Source data: Survey of India 1:253k (Perry-Castenada Map Library, Univ of Texas), India 1:1M, Imperial Gazetteer of India 1:4M (Digital South Asia Library, Univ of Chicago).

By far the most diverse area of British India was the Bengal Presidency. At the very pinnacle of its territorial jurisdiction, it covered large swathes of land of what would now be considered South and Southeast Asia. It extended from the North West Frontier Province to Burma, Singapore and Penang, covering in 1882 501’372 km2 with a population of 60,357, 141. Bengal itself was divided into West Bengal, Eastern Bengal and Assam in 1905. In 1912, it would reorganised again to include not just Bengal but Bihar and Orissa and Assam. The Bengal Presidency would then be declared a province in 1935.
From 1864, Bengal would have both an official summer and winter capital – for part of the year, the government would hold state in Calcutta, but as soon as the hot season started, around April, the government would pack its bags and proceed to the hills – to Simla. Although it had been considered a refuge from the heat of the Plains as early as 1819, it was John Lawrence who finally declared Simla the official summer capital of India.
From the georgraphical standpoint, this was not really the wisest choice. Simla is 1610 kms distant from Calcutta and it can only be imagined the logistical nightmare such a move must have entailed. Darjeeling was certainly closer at 650 km, but only the lofty peaks of Simla would do.
This yearly exodus was not only undertaken by the Viceroy and his council but by the entire bureaucracy and the armed forces. Some deparments, like the Sanitary Commissioner, the Examiner of Accounts and the Military Works Department eventually established permanent offices in Simla, but the Accountant General and the Press Commissioner amongst others, would pack up their officers, clerks, documents and baggage and shift the whole operation to the hills.
It is of little surprise, taking just the vastness of Bengal into consideration, why in 1857 Lord Canning and his advisors had difficulty in understanding the magnitude of the problem they were facing. Calcutta, afterall, was safely tucked away in a far distant corner and appeared impervious to the influences of some disgruntled sepoys. This attitude would almost prove their undoing. In the course of these writings we will take a closer look at Calcutta itself and the machinations of the government in 1857. I will also take on the provinces, divisions and districts of Bengal in the next post.

The Hoogley – from the Course – Calcutta [1857-1858] / Dominick Sarsfield Greene, c.1857

The Provinces

Of course it would be impossible to govern areas the size of Bengal, Bombay and Madras from any single place. As our main focus is Bengal, I will only briefly outline Bombay and Madras and will go into more detail in the next post, regarding Bengal.
The Bombay Presidency was divided into four Commissariates (or divisions) and 24 districts, with Bombay as the capital. The divisions were as follows:

DivisionDivisional HeadquartersDistrictsPrincely States
SindKarachiHyderabad, Karachi,Larkana, Sukkur, Thar&Parkar, Upper Sind FrontKhairpur
Northern DivisionAhmedabadAhmedabad, Bharuch, The Dangs, Kaira, Panch Mahals, SuratPrincely States of Baroda and Gujarat States Agency and the Western India States Agency
Central DivisionPoonaAhmednagar, Bombay City, Khandesh, Nasik, Poona, Satara, Sholapur, ThanaDeccan States Agency
Southern DivisionDharwadBelgaum, Bijapur, Dharwand, North Kanara

Bombay and Madras were governed by a Governor-in-Council, which consisted of a Governor at the head and 2 regular members. The Governor was appointed by the Crown and the council were recruited from the Indian Civil Service. Laws were made by the legislative council. The members of this council consisted of the Governor and his executive council of which half were non-officials. For each member of council there were usually one or two departments which fell directly under him and each department had its own secretary, under-secretary and assistant secretary and any number of clerks. The High Court at the erstwhile presidency capital oversaw the administration of justice throughout the Presidency which in its turn consisted of a chief justice and seven puisne judges, along with district and assistant judges who were scattered throughout the districts of the Presidency.
“The Executive Government of each of the several Presidencies of Fort William in Bengal, Fort St. George, Bombay, and Agra shall be administered by a Governor and three Councilors, to be styled the Governor-in-Council of the said Presidencies of Fort William in Bengal , Fort St. George, Bombay, and Agra respectively, and that the Governor General of India for the time being shall be Governor of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal. From this time the Governors General of India held also the separate office of Governor of Bengal, until the year 1854. Under the Charter Act 1853 the Governor General of India was relieved of his concurrent duties as Governor of Bengal and empowered to appoint a lieutenant-governor from 1854.”
In 1853 Queen Victoria empowered the Court of Directors of EIC to declare that the Governor-General of India shall not be Governor of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal, but that a separate Governor shall be appointed for the Presidency. Until then, the Governor-General of India in Council was directed to appoint a Lieutenant Governor of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal. In 1854, F. J. Halliday was appointed as the first Lieutenant Governor of the Bengal Presidency.
Except for the title, the rest however, concurred with Bombay and Madras – a heierarchy of officials, comissioners and the deputies.

Districts of Madras

District NameDistrict Headquarters
Nilgiri HillsOotacamund
North ArcotChittoor
South ArcotCuddalore
South KanaraMangalore
From FIBIS, Madras Districts

the princely states

As we shall come across the doings of the various princely states in the Bengal Presidency, it is important to understand what the term means.

At Indian Independence in 1947 there were over 500 Princely States (also called Native States) which consisted of 40% of the area and 23% of the population of the whole of British India. They were not a part of British India but were under the protection of the British, either as a subsidary alliance or indirect rule. They were the parts of British India that were neither conquered or annexed and many had been vassals of the Mughal Emperor. In principle, these states had internal autonomy though by treaty it was the British who had suzerainity and was thus responsible for the states’ external affairs. They were ruled by potentates but the influence of the British was not trivial.

In accordance with the Indian Independence Act of 1947, the British gave up their suzerainty of the Princely States and they were left to choose whether to remain with India or join the new country of Pakistan or even remain independent of either. Although some did attempt to form a federation of states that belonged neither to India or Pakistan, this ultimately came to nothing. By the end of 1949, all of the states had either chosen to accede to either India or Pakistan, or had been conquered and annexed. The Doctorine of Lapse would prove useful after all as a means to an end.

When the British left in 1947, only 4 of the largest of these states still had a British Resident, a title held by the diplomatic advisor who resided in the states’ capital. The rest were under the control of Agencies.


Political agencies were by no means permanent. These were created, merged, and abolished at different periods throughout British rule.

  • Aden Agency (1839 – 1859)
  • Alwar Agency (belonging to Rajputana Agency)
  • Bagelkhand Agency March 1871 / 1933
  • Baluchistan Agency
  • Banas Kantha Agency
  • Baroda Agency
  • Baroda and Gujarat Agency
  • Baroda, Western States, and Gujarat Agency
  • Bengal States Agency
  • Bhopal Agency 1818 / 1947-08-15
  • Bhopawar Agency 1882 / 1925 (merged with Malwa to form Malwa and Bhopawar Agency)
  • Bikaner Agency (belonging to Rajputana Agency)
  • Bundelkhand Agency 1811
  • Central India Agency 1854
  • Chhattisgarh Agency
  • Cutch Agency
  • Deccan States Agency 1930s
  • Delhi Agency
  • Eastern Rajputana States Agency (belonging to Rajputana Agency)
  • Eastern States Agency 1930s
  • Ganjam Hill Tracts Agency (Madras Presidency)
  • Gilgit Agency 1889
  • Kotah-Jhalawar Agency (belonging to Rajputana Agency)
  • Haraoti Agency
  • Haraoti-Tonk Agency (belonging to Rajputana Agency)
  • Kaira Agency
  • Kathiawar Agency (Bombay Presidency)
  • Kolaba Agency
  • Kolhapur Agency
  • Madras States Agency 1930s
  • Mahi Kantha Agency (Bombay Presidency)
  • Malwa Agency – 1895 / 1925 (merged with Bhopawar Agency to form Malwa and Bhopawar Agency – 1934 / 1947)
  • Malwa and Bhopawar Agency 1925 / 1927 rename to Malwa and Southern States Agency
  • Malwa and Southern States Agency 1927 renamed from Malwa and Bhopawar Agency / 1934 renamed to Malwa
  • Nasik Agency
  • North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA)
  • North-West Frontier States Agency
  • Orissa Agency 1905
  • Palanpur Agency 1819 (belong to Bombay Presidency, merged 10 October 1924 in WISA)
  • Deccan States Agency
  • Punjab States Agency 1930s
  • Rajputana Agency (consisting of three residencies and six agencies)
  • Rewa Kantha Agency (Bombay Presidency)
  • Sabar Kantha Agency
  • Surat Agency
  • Thana Agency
  • Vizagapatam Hill Tracts Agency (Madras Presidency)
  • Western India States Agency (WISA)
  • Western Rajputana States Agency (belonging to Rajputana Agency, part of Mewar Residency until 1906, when it was separated)
Princely States annexed during the British Raj
  • Ballabhgarh (1858)
  • Banpur, seized in 1857
  • Bhaddaiyan Raj (1858)
  • Bijeraghogarh
  • Chirgaon 
  • Khaddi
  • Kulpahar (1858)
  • Makrai (1890 – 1893)
  • Purwa 
  • Satara state (1849)
  • Shahgarh, seized in 1857
  • Tiroha
  • Tulsipur (1859)
  • Udaipur, Chhattisgarh (1854 – 1860)
  • Vallbhpur (1860)
  • Manipur (1891) – the last princely state to be annexed.

former kingdoms annexed by the east india company

  •  Carnatic (1801)
  • Sivagangai (1803)
  • Guler (1813)
  • Jaitpur (1849)
  •  Jalaun (1840)
  • Jaswan (1849)
  •  Jhansi (1854)
  •  Kangra (1846)
  •  Kumaon (1816)
  •  Lakhahi 
  •  Kutlehar (1825)
  •  Punjab, Multan (1849)
  •  Nagpur (1854)
  • Nurpur (1849)
  •  Oudh (1856)
  •  Ramgarh(1858)
  • Sambalpur (1849)
  • Siba (1849)
  • Tanjore (1855)

Now that my poor readers are sufficiently confused, I can take you back to Bengal.

FI, Catagories: Locations, Districts
Madras District Gazeteers

Imperial Gazeteer of India, online Digital South Asia Library, various volumes
Imperial Gazeteer of India Provincial Series,
Gazeteer of the Territories Under the Government of the East-India Company and of the Native States on the Continent of India – Edward Thornton Esq., 1857

Provincial Geographies of India – Thomas H. Holland 1913-1923
Bengal: Its Chiefs, Agents and Governors – F.C. Danvers