The East India Company

The chest from c.1600, with a domed lid covered in shagreen (shark-skin) with panels of lacquer and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, has panels showing scenes of animals, fruit, birds, trees, flowers and houses

The destruction of the Spanish Armada not only saved England from foreign invasion, but cleared the way for Elizabeth I to give her merchant adventurers a stronger position in the world of international maritime trade – one that would ultimately lead to the development of the British Empire.

In 1591, English trade was galvanised by the capture of the ‘Madre de Dios’ – when brought into London she was the biggest ship ever seen in British waters, carrying jewels, pearls, gold, silver coins, ambergris, cloth, tapestries, pepper, cinnamon and many other luxuries.

Increased knowledge of distant lands fired the imagination of the English merchants, and in September 1599, a group of merchants (including Sir Thomas Myddelton) calling themselves ‘the Adventurers’ resolved to apply to the Queen for support ‘to venture into the East indies’.

The English were rather late to trade with the Indies, being preceded by the Dutch, Portugese and the Spanish, but on 31st December 1599, having been frequently petitioned, Queen Elizabeth granted the ‘East India Company’ a Royal Charter to trade in ‘cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, spices, saltpetre, tea and opium’. The aim was clearly to deliver a decisive blow to the Spanish and Portugese monopoly of Far Eastern trade, now England was confident enough.

Their confidence was not misplaced – over the following centuries, the East India Company became an international force, ultimately exercising political and military force in British territories overseas.

In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, the British East India Company, operating almost independently, was fiercely competitive with the Dutch and French over spices, which could bring profits of over 400% from one voyage!

By 1763, The East India Company had its own army – comprising some 26,000 men – and it was effective use of this army which led to the domination of the most lucrative nation of all – India. Between the Battle of Plassey in 1757, and the Indian Mutiny in 1857, the East India Company seized control of the entire Indian subcontinent, and acted as administrators rather than traders.

The Indian Mutiny ( or the Indian Rebellion) resulted in widespread devastation in India, and may blamed the east India Company for allowing  the conditions which led to this national disaffection with their rule ,

The Company’s troops were also used to supplement British troops in wars against the French and their allies in the Napoleonic Wars – seizing the colonial possessions of other European nations!

The huge prosperity of the East India Company allowed their officers to enjoy a luxurious return to England, where they established sprawling estates and businesses, often leading to political power at home.

However, the effects of the Indian Rebellion were long-reaching, and in 1858, the British Government nationalised the East India Company – the Crown took over its Indian possessions, its administrative powers and machinery . . . and its armed forces.

An article in The Times, in April 1873, commented,

‘It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other trading Company ever attempted, and such as none, surely, is likely to attempt in the years to come’

The formal dissolution of the company took place on 1st June 1874.