Human Stories and the East India Company

An exciting new project – January 2015 – November 2017

The London-based East India Company had a major impact on Asian and British lives for more than two centuries and now a group of volunteer researchers from Tower Hamlets are setting out to uncover the human stories, backed by a £47,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

Brick Lane Circle will engage twelve community volunteers (heritage interpreters) to explore East India Company records and objects, discover important information about events, individuals and institutions, and write about human stories behind the Company’s operations that linked Britain with Asia from 1600 when the British first arrived until the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in the British Indian Army, also considered by many to be the first war of independence. There will be a printed book of short stories, background factual information uploaded on to a website, and an end of project celebratory heritage literature festival held at the London Metropolitan Archives.

The Indian subcontinent and Asia have more than four centuries of links with Britain. This long period of history can be broadly classified under three distinct phases. The first consists of the mutually beneficial trading connections (1600-1757), which started with the arrival of British ships into the Indian Ocean under the command of James Lancashire and ended with the Battle of Plassey and the conquest of Bengal in 1757. The second was the exploitative colonial phase that began with the British takeover as rulers of Bengal with the Plassey victory, which was subsequently extended to include the whole of the subcontinent, until the partition of India and independence in 1947. The third is the post Second World War period with large-scale immigration of people from the Indian sub-continent into the UK, including many Bengali speaking people.

The project volunteers will visit heritage institutions, receive training on archival research, get mentoring support and write short fictional stories, based on recorded facts, about people behind or impacted by the operations of the East India Company in London. Some of the records kept and objects collected by the East India Company, are now stored at British Library, National Maritime Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum and London Metropolitan Archives. In these institutions, there are records of the experiences of dock/warehouse workers; British women going to India to find company approved partners; Asian seamen jumping ships; Security issues around goods transportation through small arterial routes; boardroom dramas, etc. 

The main focus of the project will be on the life and dramas of people and objects, and events and institutions associated with the operations of the East India Company in London – situated in the East India Dock; inside the tea exchange rooms; during quarterly auctions of goods; activities on the Thames River; dealings inside the East India Company House; etc. Although the project will primarily focus on the issues concerning East India Company, and the period of its active existence, covering 1600 to 1858, there will be scope to also include human stories beyond this time period should the heritage story writers wish to do so. The possible extension could be to cover associated interactions with institutions and individuals involved with slavery, trade with the West Indies, opening up of the continent of Australia, etc.