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The East India Company-A 16th Century Corporation.

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The English East India Company (EIC) was founded in 1600, and it came to control both trade and territories in India, as well as a trade monopoly with China. Goods the EIC traded included spices, cotton cloth, tea, and opium, all in such massive quantities it made its investors enormously rich, caused wars with competitors, and changed cultural practices worldwide.

The English East India Trading Company was established by British explorers who discovered the exotic riches of the East Indies, particularly India, during their initial voyages to the region. With trading voyages sponsored by English merchants hoping to profit from gold, silver, ivory, silk and spices, the company grew in size and power. It began to expand into the Caribbean when the attention of the company’s leaders turned to the area’s rich plantations. This expansion was led by it’s Governor/Chairman Lord Cutler Beckett. The company ultimately expanded so much that any threat posed to it was a threat to Great Britain itself.[1]

The Triangular Trade

The East India Company was founded to become the trade representative of the British Crown everywhere east of the Cape of Good Hope. With the Dutch East India Company (VOC) monopolising the spice trade in Indonesia, the EIC focussed instead on India and then China. The early 17th century saw the company set up a trading centre or ‘factory’ at Surat in agreement with the Mughal emperor. More centres followed as the century progressed: Masulipatam (Machilipatnam) and Madras (1640), Hughli (1658), Calcutta (Kolkata, 1690), and Bombay (Mumbai, 1668).

The network of centres allowed the EIC to become involved in what became known as the ‘triangular trade’. This was the exchanging of precious metals (gold or silver) for products made in India (notably textiles) and then selling these on in the East Indies in exchange for spices. The spices (especially pepper since this was grown in both Indonesia and India) were then shipped to London where they commanded prices high enough to make a profit on the original metals investment. The EIC then expanded its interests to China where the export of Indian opium was in great demand (although prohibited by the Chinese authorities). Opium was exchanged for tea, which was sent to Britain and its colonies in North America, but many other goods besides these were transported around the world in the EIC’s ships, known as East Indiamen.

The EIC enjoyed a trade monopoly with India until 1813 and with China until 1833. The good times for the EIC lasted until 1858 when the British Crown took full possession of its territories in India and so began what is popularly termed the British Raj (rule).

The company traded in spices when it could get them but the Dutch monopoly of that trade and the source of the spices in Indonesia meant opportunities were limited until plantations spread to the Indian subcontinent. Pepper grown in India was the EIC’s first big money-earner. Around 90,000 pounds (40,000 kg) of pepper were exported each year by the end of the 17th century.

Britannia Receiving the Riches of the East

Indigo was another lucrative trade item. Acquired from long-standing plantations and dyers in places like Sarkhej and Bayana in northern India, the dye required lengthy and labour-intensive processing. The finished dye was shipped to England in the form of dried cakes pressed into barrels where it was used to colour textile. By the 1830’s , the EIC was importing 30 million pounds of tea each year

In the 18th century, the company shifted to finished textiles, again using established manufacturing centres and taking over and expanding their production. Sometimes artisans were brought from England to modernise production. Textiles made up around 70% of the EIC’s total exports by 1850. Most textiles were calico, a type of cheap cotton cloth which came in many different varieties. At first, lower classes wore calico, especially chintzes (printed cotton cloth), but the light and easily washed clothing soon caught on with everyone. Another type of cotton cloth, muslin from Bengal, was especially popular. Over the 17th century, the number of cotton pieces the EIC traded rocketed from around 5,000 in 1613 to 1.4 million in 1694. By the 18th century, cotton cloth was being used not just for clothing but for sheets, curtains, and bed covers. Another major market for Indian textiles was West Africa where it was traded for slaves, who were shipped to Britain’s plantations in the West Indies. Another route of human traffic was indentured labourers and convicts from India, who were shipped to the EIC’s possessions in Malaysia, particularly Singapore.

Tea

Company tea exports grew steadily from just 0.03% of total goods traded in 1670 to 1.13% in 1700 to 10.22% in 1740. Goods from India dominated in the 18th century, but Chinese goods began to grow and reached over 12% of total company trade by the mid-18th century. By the 1830s, the EIC was importing to Britain 30 million pounds (13.6 million kilos) of tea each year. The EIC’s great problem, as with any runaway popular commodity, was how to buy more of the stuff. Tea was only available from China (the first Indian tea plantations were only established in Assam in 1840). The Chinese were not interested in European goods (except for minor quantities of coral, ivory, and mercury, or complex manufactured goods like clocks) and would only accept silver bullion for bulk purchases. The answer was to match two huge demand markets and pay for Chinese tea with Indian opium.

Opium

Unfortunately for the EIC, the Chinese authorities at Canton (Guangzhou), the company’s main presence in China, prohibited the import of opium in December 1799. The reason was the terrible physical effects on users of opium, who quickly became addicts and then thieves to fund their cravings. The EIC did not much care for the victims or the authorities and so smuggled into China vast quantities of premium opium from Patna and Benares in northern India (and later also from Malwa in western India). The numbers rose impressively from 4,000 smuggled chests of opium in 1800 to over 40,000 per year by 1839. Opium was big business and the export figures kept climbing. The EIC did not directly smuggle the opium into China but gave out licenses for merchants to ship it to Canton where they would be paid for their illicit cargo with silver. The quantities of silver required for these transactions were a great source of concern in Britain. Many thought the EIC was bleeding the nation dry of silver only to then fill its veins with tea, an exchange that, in economic terms, did nobody any good except the monopolising shareholders of the EIC. The continuance of this dark trade by the EIC eventually led to a war between Britain and China, The First Opium War of 1839.

Consequences: Wars, Mills, & Teacups

The immediate consequence of all this trade was enormous profits for the shareholders of the East India Company. Big and small-time investors, British and foreign, came to see the EIC as a safe place to put one’s money, a fact supported by the high number of widows who put their savings into the company in order to receive a regular income from their stock. The trade conducted by the EIC, particularly the silver it shifted from Europe to Asia, helped the rulers of the Mughal Empire and Indian princely states maintain their dominance. The EIC was also responsible for the flourishing of trade ports like Mumbai, Singapore, and Canton, which are still today key centres of world trade. The opportunities for artisans and workers the EIC trade provided resulted in a massive migration of peoples to the coast from interior areas which remained little affected by the trade whizzing across the world’s oceans.

A second consequence of the trade was that the EIC became rich enough to pay its own armies. The armies of the East India Company came to employ well over 200,000 fighting men, easily the largest army in South and Southeast Asia. These forces allowed the company to expand not only its trade network but also the territories it controlled from the mid-18th century. Through military conquest, treaties, and subterfuge, the EIC soon became a state all by itself. The company’s coffers were filled by carefully controlling trade through its monopolies but were further enriched by the extraction of land rents, which permitted the cycle of expansion .

In Conclusion

First off, can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that a company basically ruled an entire subcontinent? That’s right, The East India Company was not just your run-of-the-mill business. It had its own army, navy, and even the authority to govern lands. Talk about corporate power, right?

So, how did this all come about? Well, in the late 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted a group of traders a royal charter to establish trade routes in the East Indies. This laid the foundation for what eventually became The East India Company. And let me tell you, this company meant business – quite literally. They monopolized trade in spices, textiles, and other goods, making themselves very, very rich in the process.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for The East India Company. Their expansion and control over territories led to conflicts with local rulers and other European powers vying for influence in the region. This ultimately led to the company’s involvement in several wars and skirmishes, not to mention the infamous Opium Wars with China.

And let’s not forget the issues at home. The company’s dominance in the trade industry led to accusations of abuse, corruption, and exploitation. There were even calls for its dissolution, which eventually came to fruition in 1874.

Despite its controversial history, The East India Company left an undeniable mark on the world. It shaped global trade, established British dominance in India, and set the stage for imperialism in the region.

So, the next time you’re sipping on a cup of tea or enjoying a spicy curry, take a moment to think about the complex and far-reaching impact of The East India Company. It may have been a 16th-century corporation, but its legacy continues to be felt to this day.  The history of the East India Company reveals a complex and often controversial legacy. While it played a significant role in shaping global trade and establishing British dominance in India, it cannot be ignored that the company’s practices were often exploitative and contributed to the suffering of many. As outdoor enthusiasts, it is important for us to recognize the impact of such robber barons in history, and strive for a more equitable and sustainable future. Let us learn from the past and work towards preserving the natural beauty and cultural diversity of the lands we explore, while respecting the rights and well-being of all people. , the history of the East India Company reveals a complex narrative of power, exploitation, and wealth accumulation. From its humble beginnings as a trading company, it quickly transformed into a force that shaped the destiny of nations. However, behind its successes, the East India Company also harbored a dark side, often being labeled as robber barons due to their ruthless pursuit of profits at the expense of local populations.

 

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