Author of East India Company, Dr. Tirthankar Roy talks about the subject of his book:
Dr. Tirthankar Roy Interview
What do you find fascinating about the East India company? How did you get on the path to study it?
Tirthankar Roy: For the time when it was set up (1600), the idea of crossing two oceans to go to India for trade was an extraordinarily courageous one. I wanted to know who wanted to do this, why, and with what means?
What drove me to the study the Company was the fact that the Company set up an empire in India.
The aspect of the company as a business entity that over a period of time became a political entity is often skipped while teaching history. What would you say about this gap left in our minds?
That would be missing the chance to ask a great question. For the first time in the world, a group of merchants became rulers of a prosperous and powerful land. How did they do this?
What advantage do you think British had over Portuguese and Dutch that they succeeded in taking over the country while others left the place at different points in time?
The Portuguese lacked good business organization in India (they functioned within a state monopoly, not a private company). And picked up too many fights with local rulers. The English were more diplomatic. Found many Indian allies. And being a private company helped them raise more money. The Dutch had these assets too. But their attention was focused on Japan and Indonesia.
Spices were not a necessity as you mention, they were not even a part of the cuisine in Europe. But still, they were the biggest commodity traded by the company. Can you give us an insight into how the spices achieved this level of exoticness that global commerce established around spices? Do you think traders then would have done some kind of branding and built an aspirational value around spices, so that they can trade it and trade it well?
The main spice was pepper. It is a matter of some debate why pepper was so coveted in Europe – to hide the smell of stale meat or as a flavoring agent? Perhaps both reasons were at work. And made pepper such a necessity in upper-class households. What made pepper so valuable was not only the demand but also problems of supply. It was not available everywhere or could be grown everywhere. It was available on remote islands in Indonesia and in Kerala. The lack of easy access (unlike textiles) made the profit margin on any pepper huge.
You have mentioned Banias or the trading class that had always existed in India and still continues to exist. In fact even today the most steady businesses in India are in the hands of Banias or Parsis if we look behind the media glare. Do you think there could be some merit in the way they do business, though almost everyone loves to write them off?
The Indian merchants and bankers were well organized and efficient, then as well as now. They were powerful in overland trade. And the Company needed them as partners. What they lacked was a base in overseas trade. It is controversial why they did not venture much outside certain fixed sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean. Why didn’t the Indians go to Europe, before the Europeans came to India, to do business? We do not know.
You mention the challenge that traders had in dealing with political entities, in honoring contracts and dealing with the family owned businesses. Do you think those challenges continue till date for businessmen in India?
Absolutely. Many joint ventures today fail because of misunderstandings over mutual obligations. Still, in respect of a contract, the law has changed quite a lot.
In Arthshastra, the first book in the series, Chanakya recommends that overseas traders be allowed till the city gates where they must trade with local traders who in turn would retail the goods. Does it help protect the interests of local traders and maintains a clear boundary between the two entities? What are your thoughts on this Tirthankar Roy?
I am not sure of the context of these rules. My guess is that in a world where many traders needed to carry arms, the local rulers had to be slightly cautious about any foreigner.
Of all the English men who lived in India as part of the Company, you touch upon their loneliness. And the ways that they figured out to deal with it. Do you think this lead to the documentation that they finally left for us, as they wrote everything they saw in India either as letters or journals?
There are, unfortunately, not many personal testimonies that reflect the emotional lives of these people. You can read between the lines, and you can also observe the actions of the huge number of them who took Indian partners, to guess that they were desperate to make connections in Indian society, and yet afraid of doing this.
As I read the book, I got an impression that East India Company’s colonizing India was really a matter of a lot of events and circumstances. And all that happened, in the end, was not really something planned. In fact, no single man or even a group of men come across as changing the fate of the nation or the company. What are thoughts on this?
This reading would be very much in the spirit of the book.
What were your primary sources for this book? Where did you find them, Tirthankar Roy? Any books that you would recommend to readers who would want to read further on the subject?
The consultation books kept in the Indian warehouses are the primary sources of trade. Parliamentary proceedings in England are the primary sources on the relationship with the Crown, Shipping records are the primary sources on shipping, and twenty years after Plassey, Board of Revenue or Board of Trade Commercial papers are the primary sources on Company’s work in Bengal.
To write the book, I did not use any of these. For 400 years, people have been writing books about the Company, so powerful, so wealthy, and so unusual an entity it was. Some of the oldest sources I used were these books.
Are you working on any other book currently? If yes, please tell us about it.
Tirthankar Roy: I just published India in the World Economy from Antiquity to the Present from Cambridge University Press, and another book called Natural Disasters and Indian History, from OUP Delhi, will come into the market in August. India in the World Economy revisits some of the issues dealt with in the Company book, but on a much larger canvas of time and space.