The Honourable East India Company (EIC) was more than the first and greatest multi-national corporation. At the height of its power, it controlled the lives of one fifth of the world’s population, from St Helena in the South Atlantic, to Singapore, in the Far East.
It was the first unacceptable face of capitalism. Monopolies, greed, corruption and ruthless authority were part and parcel of the company’s creed. And because of its limitless powers, it became a nation in its own right.
Corporately, it could wage war and annexe foreign countries. Its monopolies included opium – leading to wars with China – and tea, which sparked the American War of Independence. The fledging United States of America based its new flag, the Stars and Stripes, on the design on ‘John Company’s’ flag.
It had its own army and navy – the Bombay Marine, which was active against pirates and employed the corsair, Captain Kidd against them in the Indian Ocean. Its last war, in 1856, was against Iran - an attempt to fulfil its grand plan to build its own railway between England and India.
It administered vast areas of the planet – not always successfully, as in 1770-73, its tax demands in Bengal contributed to the famine that killed millions – one third of the region’s population.
It had its own military training college and its own gentleman’s club in St James’. Its medical services began the science of tropical medicine.
Great names in history are part of the Company’s turbulent and dramatic story – Robert Clive and Wellington were among its commanders.
The lure of India was powerful: adventure, military glory and the prospect of fabulous wealth.
The voyage out was fraught with dangers – from storm, piracy, mutinies, or enemy attack. All had to be confronted by the traders, administrators, soldiers, wives or the hopeful young ladies of the ‘fishing fleet’ who sought advantageous marriages with the eligible bachelors of the EIC’s four presidencies.
Everyone was on the make. Samuel Chaplin, butler to the governor of Madras in the 1780s, had so “much leisure time during his lordship’s residence, he was so good as to permit me to exercise my trade as a barber with the addition of keeping a shop in the Fort to sell European goods.”
But thousands died from disease. Middle-aged arrivals were almost certain to die within a year and even the young fell victim to the climate. Francis Jourdan wrote to a bereaved father in 1767: “After having being unfortunate in the loss of two most amiable youths, I scarcely know in what terms to recommend another to try his fortune with us.”
In the tropical heat of India, company officials and military carefully recreated the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ society they left behind in Britain. There was one big difference: rampant promiscuity – with each other’s wives.
Others took concubines from the local population. General John Pater’s mistress was the natural daughter of a brother officer and when she died in 1809, the Company chaplain refused to bury her in consecrated ground. Her lover buried her in a field at Machilipatnam and built a church over her grave which he presented to the EIC. It accepted the gift and ordered the building to be consecrated.
Greed and poor management was the Company’s undoing. Inflated dividends and the collapse of 30 banks in three weeks combined to create a financial crisis for the EIC, faced with loan repayments and a hefty bill for overdue taxes. Its share price nose-dived in London.
To stay solvent, on 15 July 1772, its directors sought a £400,000 loan from the Bank of England - and another £300,000 two weeks later. That August, the British government was informed that at least £1 million was needed to bail the Company out.
Official assistance came at a heavy price. Shareholders’ rights were curbed; the election of directors reformed and dividends reduced sharply, despite the EIC’s protests that all this would “destroy the independence of the City of London.”
Eleven years later, the Company was again financially and institutionally bankrupt and petitioned Parliament for “relief and effectual aid.” Once more, the British Government rescued it by reducing the tax on tea and extending its powers to raise debt. But its activities were now controlled by a five-man board of government appointees, reducing its directors to “mere clerks”.
Far worse was to follow. The EIC’s final downfall came amid the terror, bloodshed and atrocities of the Indian Mutiny, seven decades later.
British retribution was ruthless.
Vishnu Godse, a Hindu priest witnessed the punitive destruction of Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh. “Fires were blazing everywhere…in the lanes, people were crying pitifully, hugging the corpses of their dear ones. These English soldiers were killing people for crimes they had not committed. They broke into houses and hunted out people hidden in barns…they explored the innermost recesses of temples and filled them with the dead bodies of priests and worshippers.”
In London, Queen Victoria was horrified by the British atrocities, and wrote to the EIC Governor General expressing “sorrow and indignation at the unchristian spirit shown by the public towards Indians in general and sepoys with discrimination.”
It was the end of the Company’s rule in India. Teeming millions would no longer be ruled by distant capitalists seeking merely profit.
It was finally dissolved on 1 January 1874. The next day, The Times commented: “It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other company ever attempted and as such, is ever likely to attempt in the years to come.”
* There has been no history of the East India Company since John Keay’s best-selling account which ran into two editions in 1991 and 1993.
This title will concentrate on colourful lives of the people involved: their adventures, crimes, loves, and lifestyles, and the terrors of the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1756.
It will explore the clash of civilisations between the company and the millions who lived under its flag.
The book will be based on the thousands of unpublished papers, diaries and letters held in the British Library, the National Archives and other repositories in the UK and India.
Robert Hutchinson, author and broadcaster started his working life as a reporter on regional newspapers before joining The Press Association, (the news agency for UK and Irish media) as a night sub-editor. He returned to reporting, later becoming Defence Correspondent. In late 1983 he joined Jane’s Publishing Company as one of the team that successfully launched Jane’s Defence Weekly and became Publishing Director of Jane’s Information Group in 1987, responsible for its magazines, newsletters, books and digital products.Leaving a decade later, he compiled and edited two ed...
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