The East India Company by Gurcharan Das, Tirthankar Roy
The East India Company is the third book in the series ‘The Story of Indian Business’. It takes you through the journey of probably the first organized multi national company. A company that we have been told changed the face of a nation. The company we know only from its later days when it became more of a political entity than a business organization. Come to think of it, we do not know much about the biography of The East India Company that played a significant role in Europe and Asia for almost four centuries. It gets the blame for colonizing India. For looting Indians of all their riches. And for establishing the British Raj in India. But we never get to know how it got formed? How it established itself in India. And how it dealt with kings – big and small scattered across the land mass.
The author Tirthankar Roy tries to take a stand on the fact that this was a first joint stock or a limited liability company that we know of. But to me, that is a matter of fact. That probably laid grounds for the structures of companies in the days to come. I found the story of formation and operation of the company very interesting. The fact that some wealthy traders wanted to start sea journeys to procure the exotic spice of the east, a commodity that was not really a part of their needs. But was a mark of status in the society. There were men who lived on Ships, died of Scurvy. And lived most of their youthful days in loneliness. To be able to make a killing by selling pepper to the rich and famous.
The story of their initial voyages and the learnings there of, of them finding a perfect route to navigate their ships. Stories of the pirates who looks like lived all the times on the ships. And the stories of how British eventually succeeded in overpowering the Dutch, French, and Portuguese who were already doing trade with India and had established themselves in the land.
The initial days of the company in India, their landing here, their interactions with the Mughal king Jehangir and the adapting to the existing business culture in India makes an extremely interesting reading. Coming together of two different business cultures, one that believed in a written contract and other that believed only in caste and community is a story that makes you admire the company. As most of the times, they had to make the adjustments. Though not always in a fair or ethical manner. They obviously did not come with an intention to capture India politically. They came only with an intent to do business. But their settling down in business coincided with the coming down of mighty Mughal empire that leads to many small regional kings come up.
The company obviously had a problem dealing with multiple political entities. Most of which were at loggerheads with each other. The biggest problem they faced was with enforcement of contracts. And this is probably the single biggest reason for them to get inclined on becoming a political power. On the other hand, they also had a very loose control in London. Though they operated under the name of the Crown and the Queen was a stakeholder in the company, they were more or less autonomous in India. To the extent that as company employees they were permitted to do business on the side. As long there was no direct competition with the company. But then who was to check that.
The story of setting up of cities of Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta is also interesting. I think the long solitude and the need to create their own fortified ghettos lead to the building of these three port cities. Masulipatnam, north of Madras comes up as a very important Port in the 17-18th CE. But both Masulipatnam and Pondicherry were already taken by the French and the Portuguese. So the British chose a small village between these two ports to build their fort. The Island of Bombay was taken as dowry by the British prince and later gifted to the company. With the help of Parsis of Surat, the city became a hub of textile business and a financial hub like London.
Calcutta was also chosen on the eastern bank of Hooghly to build a fort. Over a period of time as the Opium trade with China gathered momentum, Calcutta gained importance.
The fact that Indian goods were bought with the American Silver and the volumes traded gives you the extent to which the trade was global even in the era of near zero communication compared to modern times. There are stories of men who played an important role for the company. Or in the history of the company and the country. But what comes out is that no one person or event was really responsible for setting up the British Raj in India. It happened more as series of events. Not really in a planned way, at least not till 1857.
I am not too enthusiastic about the modern history. To me, ancient and medieval history always had a greater charm. But I must admit, I loved this little book The East India Company that took me to the chapters that were always left out in my history lessons.
Read The East India Company to read the long history of the best-known corporate that did many firsts in the history.