The English East India Company operated for 274 years, starting from 1600 when a Charter was granted by Queen Elizabeth I, giving The Company the monopoly to undertake trading expeditions to the East Indies. The Company’s life ended in 1874, sixteen years after the end of the Indian Mutiny in 1858.
(Image in the right, DUN-SHAW, ‘One Foot in Leadenhall Street and the other in the Province of Bengal’. Published in 1788. © The British Library Board (P3315)
The story of the East India Company is about trade, spices, silk, tea, conquest, profit and exploitation. It is a story about how a group of people in London organised, financed and carried out sea voyages, long distance trade, military conquest and governance of large parts of the world, the biggest of which was India. This all started with the Chartergranted by the Queen.
Before that time very few people from England had visited the East Indies and no direct trading took place between Britain and Asia. Many people in England were however familiar with stories of Asia and enjoyed using Asian goods. Spices, silks and textiles from the East Indies were available in many parts of Europe, which came through overland routes from Iran and Iraq via Turkey and other Mediterranean ports.
In the latter part of the 16th Century, England was sending out voyages to the west, looking for new territories and carrying out piracies against the Portuguese and Spanish who were well established in their trading voyages and conquests in Asia and the Americas. By the time the first voyage of the East India Company was undertaken, England had quite a considerable experience and skills in ship building, navigation and warfare. The Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588 which gave the English anew sense of confidence.
While the East India Company was organising its expeditions to the East Indies, a range of other chartered companies were undertaking expeditions to the Americas and Africa. In the City of London, where the financing of these chartered companies was organised, there was an intermingling of people involved with different companies and expeditions. Many individuals owned shares in different companies and did not see their interest just in the East Indies or the West Indies.
As English activities increased in the Americas, Caribbean, and the East Indies, lessons learnt from one part of the world were quickly transferred to another. British imperial and overseas settlement history is about how empire builders were able to utilise knowledge and experience gained from one part of the world to make their efforts in another part more effective and efficient.
Scientific progress, technological innovation, financial development, and sheer disregard for others helped the British to overrun empires and places everywhere on the globe. By the end of the 18th Century, England established its superiority over all other nations as the preeminent economic, sea and military power. As a result of the settlement polices of the British, tragically and without any historical precedent, the
natives of USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand experienced a near total wipe out. Millions of slaves from Africa were taken by force to the West Indies and Americas, experiencing terrible conditions while en route and when in the new land, and many died as a result.
By the early 20th Century, it was said that the British Empire was so big that the sun never sets on it. However, after the Second World War, the largest Empire the world ever experienced began to break up and one after another new independent countries emerged. Today, they are together known as the Commonwealth, comprising of Britain and most of the territories that were once under British rule but are now independent.
The Dutch managed to monopolise the spice trade for many years and in 1599, after returning from a successful trading voyage to the East Indies they brought a large quantity of spice back to Europe. They increased the price of pepper from 3 shillings to 8 shillings pound. This triggered the English into action fearing the negative consequences for Britain of a Dutch domination of the spice trade.
Charter of 1600
A group of London merchants got together and set up a trading company to bring their own supplies of spice to the UK. On 31 December 1600, Queen Elizabeth I signed the Charter creating ‘The Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies’. Over 200 subscribers raised almost £70,000 – a massive amount at that time – for a voyage to the east. The Company was granted a monopoly on all English trade east of the Cape of Good Hope.
The First Mission to the East
In 1601, a mission was organised to send ships to the Spice Islands, situated in modern day Indonesia. The expedition was lead by Sir James Lancaster who sailed from Woolwich for the East Indies with 500 men and a fleet of five ships, led by the flagship Red Dragon. The other four ships were: Hector, Ascension, Susan and Gift. They returned with a huge supply of pepper and the Company made a good profit. Further trading expeditions continued, increasing the number of locations and constantly looking for new business opportunities. Lancaster and others found it difficult to exchange woollen clothes that they took from England for spices. They had to bring in silver or goods such as cotton to exchange for spice.
Trading Mission to India
In 1607, the East India Company established a trading post in Surat on the west coast of India. In 1614, an English ambassador called Sir Thomas Rowe led a successful mission to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir to obtain trade concessions for the Company’s factory in Surat. Rowe sailed from London with four ships, and returned completely successful four years afterwards. Jahangir gave Rowe a ‘Farman’ (a royal charter), whichpromised protection to resident English merchants.
English / Dutch Rivalry
English and Dutch competitions continued in the Spice Islands. The Dutch had an advantage over the English as they were well established. The competition and confrontation led to an incident in 1623 when the Dutch executed many English prisoners, after which the English decided to scale down their operation in the Indonesian archipelago and focus their attention on India instead for textile trade rather than spice.
Trading Centres in India
In 1640, the East India Company built a trading centre in Madras called Fort St George. By 1668, it had established factories in Goa, Chittagong, Bombay, Madras and three small villages in the east of India called Sutanati, Gobindapore and Kalikata which was renamed Calcutta in 1690. The major factories became the walled forts of Fort William in Calcutta, Fort St George in Madras and Bombay castle.
Chinese Trade (1664)
In 1684, the East India Company received Chinese permission to trade from Guangzhou (Canton) importing silk, tea and porcelain. Trade was made with the Chinese Hongs (trading companies) who controlled trade within China. In England, the demand for tea boomed. In 1664, the Company placed an order for tea for 100 lbs. By 1750, annual imports had reached 4,727,992 lbs. Having initially traded tea for silver, the English were concerned that too much silver was leaving their shores. They begin to trade the highly addictive drug opium for tea, this led directly to the opium wars between Britain and China, as the Chinese government tried to stop this trade.
London Weavers Attack the East India House (1667)
As a result of an increase in the importation of Indian textile and the growing popularity of chintz, muslin and calico, London weavers in 1667 attacked East India House, the London Headquarters of the East India Company. Weavers, dyers and linen drapers in England protested that imports of Indian cloth were threatening their own industries. They rioted and attacked the East. As a result the East India Company responded by re-exporting Asian textiles to other countries in Europe, but market forces soon reversed this policy due to ever increasing popularity of Asian textiles.
The New East India House
The East India Company’s first premises were in the City at Leadenhall Street. This was the ‘great mansion house’ of Sir William Craven, who had been Lord Mayor of London in 1610. This structure was rebuilt in 1726 and then replaced in 1799-1800 by a much larger building designed by the architect Richard Jupp. The ‘New East India House’, was described in the following way by C. Northcote Parkinson: ‘[The] King is holding
the shield of protection over the head of Britannia and of Liberty, who is embraced by her – By the side of His Majesty sits Order, attended by Religion and Justice. In the background is the City Barge etc. near to which stand Industry and Integrity – The Thames fills the angle to the right-hand, and the Ganges the angle towards the East.’ The building was pulled down in 1862 to make way for the offices of Lloyd’s. Its
furniture had already disappeared several years before into the India Office in Whitehall. Today, no trace of the Company’s splendid headquarters remains. The new Lloyd’s building stands in its place.
Battle of Plassey (23 June 1757)
The Battle of Plassey took place on 23 June 1757 when the East India Company under the leadership of Robert Clive defeated Sirajuddaula, the newly established Nawab of Bengal. Mir Jaffar, one of the three generals in the Siraj’s force who betrayed the Bengal ruler was installed as the new Nawab.
(Clive)… was led into the large chamber, where fabulous wealth glittered all around him: King Solomon’s mines could not have been more resplendent. In addition to his two lakhs under the treaty, Clive was given a personal gift by the new Nawab of 16 lakhs: altogether he took some £230,000 (at today’s value, a colossal fortune worthy of an English duke)…
Within a couple of days, the first half-payment to the British was loaded on to 75 boats, each carrying a lack (around £15,000). This procession, bearing around £1 million altogether, perhaps the largest shipment of booty in history, set off in a large and colourful regatta of music, drums and flags, and was joined at Hugli by an impressive British Naval escort. To those who watched, it must have seemed that the very wealth of Bengal was being taken down river.
… Altogether, by the end his rule, Mir Jafar was to pay the British some £3 million or so, of which five-sixths went directly back to England.
(Clive: the life and death of a British Emporer, by Robert Harvey)
The Company as the Revenue Collector of Bengal
At first the East India Company operated through installing puppet rulers and then later in 1765 obtained permission from the Moghul Emperor to be responsible for revenue collection in Bengal. The great Bengal Famine of 1769/70 followed when nearly a third of the population starved to death. In 1773, Warren Hastings became the first British governor-general in India but was later charged with mismanagement in
Ending of trading monopoly (1813)
In 1813, the monopoly that the East India Company had of all trade with India ended. In 1833, its trading role mostly ended and mainly performed administrative roles in governing India. During the East India Company’s lifetime about 4,600 ships voyages were made from London.
Tea Plantation in India
Robert Fortune, a botanist, was hired in 1848, by The Company to obtain the finest tea plants from China to establish plantations in India. He disguised himself as Chinese ‘from a distant province’, hired an interpreter, a precaution as the Chinese were extremely protective of their virtual monopoly on tea production. His efforts resulted in the shipment of 20,000 plants to the Himalayas, establishing Darjeeling as one of the finest tea producing regions in the world, and India as the dominant world tea producer it is today.
The Abolition of the Company
The Company was abolished in 1858 after the great Indian Mutiny and closed in 1874. The 1873 East India Company Stock Redemption Act enabled the Crown to assume all governmental responsibilities held by The Company. The Company’s 24,000-man military force was incorporated into the British Army, leaving it with only a shadow of the power it had wielded years earlier. Queen Victoria was the ruling monarch at the
time, and thanks to her new authority over India, became the first monarch to use the title Empress of India.