What was the East India Company?
The East India Company was probably the most powerful corporation in history. At its height, it dominated global trade between Europe, South Asia and the Far East, fought numerous wars using its own army and navy, and conquered and colonised modern day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma.
From its foundation in 1600 the Company was granted a monopoly on British trade with the East, and the products it brought back soon began appearing in British homes. During the eighteenth century, cottons, indigo, porcelain, tea, and silks imported by the Company became incredibly popular. On the back of such lucrative trade, many Britons became wealthy, while even those of modest middle-class means benefited from share ownership.
By the late eighteenth century, however, customers and rivals increasingly complained of unfair pricing and practices. Eventually, in 1813, the government acted to strip the Company of its privileges and open its markets to free trade.
As a result, it was left with a monopoly on only a few key products, principally tea, which it purchased from China. As the Chinese authorities would only accept silver in exchange, the Company looked to more profitable methods of exchange and increasingly relied on smuggling opium. This resulted in a terrible human cost and two ‘Opium Wars’ between Britain and China.
From its earliest days the Company had sought to protect its presence in India through the building of fortified outposts and field armies. Pushed on by threats from other European powers and local rulers, plus the individual ambition of several key figures, the Company’s military machine expanded to fight numerous wars.
With the victories at Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764) the Company forced the defeated Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, to surrender the territories of Bengal, Bihar and Orrisa. From this point onwards the East India Company became rulers, able to create the laws and levy taxes. For almost a century after this the Company waged war until it had conquered the entirety of the Sub-continent and ruled over a population exceeding 200 million.
As both merchant and ruler, the Company maintained high prices and charged its tax collectors with extracting as much revenue from the Indian population as possible, which opponents argued reduced many to subsistence poverty. The Company’s policies and inaction also directly contributed to the ill effects of crop failures, such as in Bengal during 1769-70, where the resulting famine killed somewhere between 1-4 million people.
As foreign conquerors, the Company felt itself in perpetual danger of rebellion and overthrow, and was particularly wary of interfering in Indian religions. That said, the Company could be highly interventionist, particularly in terms of law and order, where it sought to maintain an image of unassailable power, and was not beyond brutal retribution.
From the early nineteenth century, tensions grew with the introduction of Christian missionaries and the Company’s move to mould Indian society more in the image of Britain. Combined with continued misrule and unrest in the army, this exploded into violence in 1857. The rebellion which broke out that year spelt the end of the East India Company, and after a bloody campaign of suppression, the British government transferred India to its direct control.