Incorporated by royal charter on Dec. 31, 1600 and known alternately as the Governor And Company Of Merchants Of London Trading Into The East Indies(1600-1708), or United Company Of Merchants Of England Trading To The East Indies (1708-1873), the company was formed to ensure British commerce with China, Southeast Asia and India, first and foremost to share in the East Indian spice trade. Spain and Portugal had dominated the fabulously profitable spice market until the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588). This massive overthrow finally enabled the English to escape their little island and break into markets and exploration which had long been denied them. The first Company ships, modest clippers and frigates which hugged the coast for want of proper maps, first arrived at Surat in 1608. Sir Thomas Roe reached the court of the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, as the emissary of King James I in 1615, and gained for the British the right to establish a factories on the Indian coastline and within her port cities. Quickly established, the prime centers of Company trade became the complexes of offices, warehouses and armories established in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras.

      Trade on the high seas in the 17th century was ruthlessly savage, and the distinction between piracy, warfare and mercantilism was frequently blurred. Britain’s main threat came from the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the Portuguese. Particularly brutal was the Dutch Amboina Massacre in 1623 (dozens of English, Japanese, and Portuguese traders were arrested, tortured and executed by Dutch West India Company agents for trying to traffic goods through their waters).1 One Company captain, Gerald Aungier, wrote "the general character of the times Require you to Manage your General Commerce with your Sword in hand]." However, the British outfit recovered from these dramatic setbacks, and eventually pushed the Portuguese out of India in 16122, at the same time negotiating merchant rights with the still powerful Mughal Empire. Cotton and silk, indigo, and saltpeter, along with pepper, salt, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices from South India soon formed the backbone of the Company’s trade. By 1717, the Company power in the region grew exponentially when its officials received a firman or royal dictat from the Mughal Emperor exempting the Company from the payment of customs duties, effectively creating a vastly profitable free trade zone for the British Empire.3 By 1720, 15% of Britain's imports came from India. The international headquarters for the company was established at East India House in Leadenhall Street, London, and it was here company officials met with shareholders and government ministers. In 1657, the Company had officially become joint stock venture, and very soon the financial primacy of the outfit’s fortune were central to the fortunes of most English merchant families.

      Spices and cotton were soon not enough for British markets, and by the mid-18th century, tea had become the vital import for the English traders4, mainly black tea harvested exclusively from China and within fifty years the company was backing the tea trade with illegal (but highly sought after) opium exports to China. Troop build ups of Company soldiers began to creep out of control and by 1805 there were 64, 000 soldiers employed in Bengal, as many again in Madras and 27, 000 in Bombay. China and all the English trade nations became increasingly apprehensive and hostile. In 1820, there were 300, 000 infantry and 40,000 British officers in the region. Negotiations with the Chinese over an agreeable price for tea were bogged down in logistical tangles, miscommunication and suspicion. The Chinese deeply resented the foreign opium flooding into their nation, and this led invariably to British bombardment of Peking and the first Opium War (1839-42), as the British Empire effectively shelled their way into the Chinese marketplace. However, by this time, the Company’s power over the Indian sub-continent had already begun to wane and the English gradually lost commercial and political control as they became evermore entwined in regional political negotiations, religious sectarianism, wanton corruption, reformist social policy and creeping military expeditions. Horace Walpole wrote during the period that the Company officials in London were trying to govern ‘nations to which it takes a year to send orders? The official monopoly was broken by an Act of Parliament in 1813, and from 1834 the company became nothing more than a managing agency for the British government of India. Finally, the Indian Mutiny of 1857 effectively deprived the local officials of their policing powers, and in 1873 the Company was dissolved.
Notes:
1 At the same time as the Dutch were pummeling just about every other nation of the world on the high seas, and were plying a cut-throat strategy to protecting their dominance of global commerce, they were also doing those nice still life Dutch Master renderings everyone was so fond of ?essentially overturning centuries of aesthetic romanticism in painting. The 16th-17th c. Dutchman, be he painter or trader, just seemed to interpret the world with a reasoned clarity and precision which would not set into the minds of Europe’s other cultures for decades, if not centuries.
2 The Portuguese, on the other hand, were pretty much wasted as an imperial power by 1600, after nearly a century of fierce competition with the Dutch, during which time Portugal often had the upper hand. However, the amalgamation of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in 1580, dwindling population growth, lack of local capital (largely due to brutal treatment of Jews and Moslems) and resources spread far too thin meant Portugal’s sun as a military power was seriously on the decline.
3 The Moghuls (originally known as the Mongols), had invaded the region after sweeping though China in the 16th century and by 1600 they had placed 75% of India, the Sind and Punjab regions and parts of Central Asia directly under their control, dominated from the capital of the Empire at Agra. However, in the two centuries which followed, the Mughals fared poorly with the British Company, and their power steadily declined in the face of the powerful ethnic groups exerting their power in Peshawar, Lahore and Kabul.
4 In the early 18th c., it was not unknown for a London lady to take up to 50 cups of tea in the course of a day, and doctors were prescribing its consumption as a treatment for just about every ailment imaginable. From 1711-17, 200, 000 lbs. of black tea was imported per annum into England by the Company, and by 1757, the figure reached 3 million lbs. annually. Wherever the British and their people went in fact, tea would follow, and interestingly enough, only the American colonists managed to consume more tea than the English in the 18th century ?which goes a long way to explaining the roots of the Boston Tea Party.

Suggested Reading: Philip Lawson, The East India Company (NY: Longman, 1993)