Trading Up - The Rise Of East India Company

It’s not often you hear of a business with a prosperous history in the order of 250 years.

Rarer still is it to find one that has ruled a subcontinent!

The East India Company is one such beast. It grew from a being small group of intrepid investors and traders to become the guiding hand behind the polished jewel of the crown.

The Company was formed, fittingly, on New Year’s Day of 1601 (although it had officially received its royal warrant the previous day/year) and was given the English monopoly on all trade with the East Indies. The Company's stated intention, in the sonorous terms of the charter, was that:

“...they, of their own Adventures, costs and charges as well as for the honour of this our realm of England as for the increase of our navigation and advancement of trade of merchandise...might adventure and set forth one or more voyage, with convenient number of Ships and Pinnaces, by way of traffic and merchandise to the East Indies...”


At this point in history, traders dealing with the East were caught between a rock and a hard place. The safest and most direct route was, of course, overland. But Venetians, among others, were monopolising the Oriental caravan trade routes.

Maritime access was freely available but far more treacherous, requiring the navigation of the perilous waters of the African horn, known for centuries by fearful sailors as the Cape of Storms.


The first of the Company’s vessels landed on the west coast of India at Surat in 1608. Later, Sir Thomas Roe, as the accredited representative of King James I to the Moghul empire, established a ‘factory’ in 1615.

The term “factory” is something a misnomer; it did not, then, signify a manufacturing base as it doestoday but more of a warehouse, built primarily to store goods for ships to pick up.

The English were not alone in India. Those indefatigable explorers, the Portuguese, were already well established and not only in India in general (they had a major centre on the island of Goa) but also in the court of the emperor (at this time, Jahangir Khan).

The result was, perhaps predictably, a great deal of conflict - particulary given the recently-rancorous relations between England and Spain (of which Portugal became a part in 1580 and remained so until 1640).

This included at least one major sea battle off the east coast, in which the Portuguese were soundly trounced – showing Moghuls and Indians, for the first time, that the English could fight.

From these humble and somewhat-inauspicious beginnings, then, the Company – and the English in India – burgeoned explosively. By the turn of the century, three sizeable ‘presidencies’ had been established - at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras (now re-named Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai respectively). Around these nuclei, the English clustered in a number of thriving communities.

In 1717, the Company achieved a notable coup, securing an exemption from the emperor from paying custom duties in the eastern state of Bengal.


Then came the titanic shift from a trading hegemony to a ruling empire. One the Company, Robert Clive, proved, in a series of moves and engagements, to be their most militarily-gifted servant.

In the Battle of Plassey of 1757, he resoundingly defeated the numerically-superior force of the Anglophobic Nawab of Bengal becoming, in effect, the Nawab himself.

This success was followed by the imperial grant of revenue-collection rights in the state. The grant eventually turned out to be something of a mixed blessing. Initially, Bengal was pillaged to the point of destitution and famine by the rapacious greed of many Company employees.

As a result of the famine - for which the English were largely and perhaps not unfairly held responsible - as many as a third of the population lost their lives through starvation. This, quite naturally, not only lessened trade but also increased hostility, requiring a state of constant military alertness.

Faced with ruinous expenses, the Company required a parliamentary injection of cash to keep it afloat and, as with all such aid, there were sticky strings attached. The Regulating Act of 1773 gave Parliament increased control over Company affairs and instituted the office of Governor-General.


From here, things proceeded apace. Begiining with the investiture of Warren Hastings as the first Governor-General in 1784 through to the ruthless territorial aggrandisement of Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) and culminating in the Mutiny of 1858, the English wiped out any opposition and annexed territories until they were masters of all India.

The Mutiny, caused primarily by exactly the acts mentioned, resulted in the dissolution of the company; its massive holdings becoming a Crown responsibility. The Governor-General became the Viceroy, second in power and stature only to the Secretary of State for India and, in 1877, Queen Victoria became Empress of India.