The Company

The Company The East India Company is a modern, dynamic commercial enterprise with a wealth of experience and contacts, and associates throughout the world. Founded by the Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth the First in 1600, The East India Company was once the single most powerful economic force that the world has ever seen. Based in London, its influence reached out to all continents, and the consequences of its actions, both great and small, are the very fabric of history itself — the Company, for example, created British India, caused the Boston Tea Party, founded Hong Kong and Singapore, employed Captain Kidd to combat piracy, established tea in India, held Napoleon captive, and made the fortune of Elihu Yale. Its flag inspired the Stars and Stripes, its shipyards provided the model for St. Petersburg, its administration still forms the basis of Indian bureaucracy, and its corporate structure was the earliest example of a joint stock company. It introduced tea to the British, woollens to Japan, chinzes to America, spices to the West Indies, opium to China, porcelain to Russia, and polo to India.

It had its own armies, navies, currencies, and territories as diverse as the tiny Spice Island, Pulo Run — later exchanged for Manhattan — to the Jewel in the Crown, India itself. Foundation of the Empire The intentions of the 218 Knights and merchants of the City of London who formed the East India Company, and those of Queen Elizabeth I who granted its Royal Charter on December 31st 1600, were rarely matched by the outcome. The venture failed to achieve its stated objectives — it made little impression on the Dutch control of the spice trade and could not establish a lasting outpost in the East Indies in the early years — and yet succeeded beyond measure in establishing military dominance and a political empire for Britain in the East. Company or Colonial Government? The tension between the straightforward commercial aims of the Court of Directors in London, who simply desired that the Company should be able to trade profitably and peacefully, and the opportunist vision of the officers sent to implement its policies, continued through until well into the nineteenth century, and even Clive’s astonishing military achievements met with a chorus of disapproval from his superiors at home. But time and geographical distance made the attempts of the Directors to direct in reality well-nigh impossible, and ultimately it lay in the hands of its officers to make what they could of the prevailing situation in the field.

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That they did with a vengeance, so successfully that by 1834, whilst nominally still a company with shareholders and directors in the ordinary way, in fact the East India Company had ceased to be trading company at all, and was instead authorised ruler of the vast Indian subcontinent and numerous other possessions. A Barbarian Nation To understand how this transformation had taken place is to look into the changing role on the international stage of Britain itself. The history of the East India Company and that of its native country are in this respect inseparable. Up until the late Elizabethan age the English were regarded by the then-dominant European powers of Spain and France as an uncultured, barbarian nation snapping at the heels of its more civilised neighbours. The activities of Drake, for all the vaunted status of his defeat of the Spanish Armada, were in reality those of a licensed pirate, and unlike the Dutch, Britain lacked a coordinated maritime trading strategy.

It was to fill this gap that the East India Company was formed, but it was too late to make any serious impression on the Dutch stranglehold on the lucrative spice trade from the East Indies, and the Company was reduced to picking up scraps of trade, either by piracy or dealing with intermediaries. The one tiny nutmeg-producing island held by the Company in the King’s name in the Spice Islands became a source of such pride to James I that he styled himself King of England, Scotland, Ireland, France .. and Puloroon. The massacre of Company factors by the Dutch at Amboyna in 1623 put paid to such vain territorial ambitions, and the Company was forced to live at the devotion of wind and seas. Encroaching on Trade Links Perhaps this semi-piratical role appealed to some wild, improvisational streak deep in the national psyche, for more success attended the Company’s attempts to encroach upon existing trade links between India, Java, Sumatra and the Middle East.

The successive embassies to the Moghul Court of Captain William Hawkins, whose hard-drinking appealed so much to the alcoholic Emperor Jehangir that he made him commander of his cavalry, and that of Sir Thomas Roe, whose pride and courtly demeanour made him a worthy rival to the polished Portugese then influential at court, won trading concessions at the port of Surat. Within two hundred years the Moghul Empire itself would be in the hands of the Company. The Empire Expands By the middle of the seventeenth century the East India Company could be found trading alongside Arab and Indian merchants in the East, and the Company shipped goods as diverse as cloth from southern India to Sumatra, and coffee from Arabia to India. Profits thus generated were ploughed back into buying the spices required back home, and so they found a means of circumventing the Dutch stranglehold on that trade. Gradually they built up their power base in India, opening up trading posts in Madras and Calcutta, and thwarted French attempts to emulate them there. From these secure foundations the Company was able to seek out new markets and sources for trading products. Although the Company had failed to set up a lasting trading post in Japan, they were amongst the first to penetrate that most closed of nations, China, and the burgeoning demand for tea back home provided a steady revenue stream, supplemented by the trade in cottons, silks and porcelain.

As European interest in the East Indies increased, so the Company modified native designs and products to suit Western tastes — the growth of the Kashmir shawl industry, and the development of the design that has become known as Paisley being one such example. Tonic Water and Tiffin The process of territorial expansion that started with …