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India by sea or by land?

Castlereagh vs Napoleon

Frederick Lauritzen

29th September 2023


Berenike Buddha,

2nd century statue found in Egypt

India has two main routes of trade with Europe: by sea or by land.

The Europeans fought amongst each other to have access to one of these routes. The fight continues today.


Napoleon signed a peace treaty with Tzar Alexander I in Tilsit in 1807 to establish a land route from France to India, via the Ottoman Empire and Persia.


This was a French answer to the British policy forged and lead by Castlereagh, foreign minister of the United Kingdom. While he was minister for war, the UK defeated Holland. The British, as victors, could decide what to do with the Dutch colonies. Castlereagh thought most of them irrelevant to British interests, except for Cape Colony (Cape Town South Africa). In 1806 he sent his friend and fellow Ulsterman to be first British governor of the newly acquired Cape Colony. The French and Russians understood that the UK had gained an important port on the UK – India trade route.


Castlereagh had been president of the board of control of the East India Company from 1802 to 1806 (when Delhi came under British control).


Navigating from India directly to South Africa is rather complex, and for this reason Castlereagh signed the agreement in 1820 by which the United Arab Emirates were recognised as a sovereign state by the UK which offered them protection.


When Europeans look at the Napoleonic battles, the superficial interests appear to be on continental Europe, while the important political and commercial aim was favourable conditions for exchanges with India.


The same occurred in World War one, when the Germans, allied with Ottoman Turks sought to develop the so-called Istanbul – Mecca railway. The service was part of the more important Berlin to Baghdad line. Once more the aim was a land route from India to Europe. This was the railway line which Lawerence of Arabia famously blew up during his participation in the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans.


Today India wants a sea route. It is called the India-Middle East-Europe corridor. It was announced by prime minister Modi on 24th September 2023.

The land route is difficult mainly because the north is locked by the highest mountains in the world (called in Sanskrit हिमालय Himalaya, the land of snow). The northwest is, from an Indian point of view, riddled with diplomatic and military difficulties (as well as religious).


President Erdogan of Turkey has reacted by consolidating his position in the Caucasus (Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh, being an example) and with Iraq, and proposed a land route very reminiscent of the Berlin to Baghdad route. However, the sea route could  cut off Iraq and Turkey from European and Indian trade.


What Modi and Castlereagh have in common is a capacity to look at a map without prejudice.


The novelty is Greece. While trade between Greek speakers and India is at least 2500 years old, contemporary Greece appears to have what India needs to access the sea efficiently: one of the largest commercial fleets in the world.


India has chosen the sea.

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