Blog Archives

The Honourable East India Company

Post Citizens-United many worry about the undue influence of corporations on the democratic process. It has happen before, in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. The shareholders of a joint stock company once decided the fate of millions and had many lawmakers in their back pocket.

Before  British Raj* there was Company Raj. The East India Company made its first territorial gains in India in 1757.  Its territorial conquest of most of India was complete by the 1820s. It passed on the torch to the British Crown in 1858, after the bruising First of battle of Independence or the Indian Mutiny (depending on whom you ask) of 1857.

East India Company was a joint-stock company  granted a charter for monopoly trade rights by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600. It made its first Indian foray in 1610. So for almost 150 years the Company was content to operate  various factories  dotting the long Indian coast line. Three of these factory towns grew to become the cities of Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras(now Chennai). These factories were   fortified garrisons where factors or merchants met and carried out their business.

Neither were the British the only ones who had established these factories in India, they had competition from the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and even the Danes. So eat your heart out Tom Friedman, the world was flat and globalized not only before you were born but long before Britain’s thirteen former colonies declared independence from their original motherland.

The first age of globalization turned exploitative and ugly real fast, especially so after the advent of the  industrial revolution. The East India Company was the prime example of these excesses and egregious practices. Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Edmund Burke,  were all prominent critics of the East India Company.

So just how did a joint stock company come to rule all of  India? Its something I want to figure out as a part of my exploration of British rule in India. My initial interest in this topic was sparked by Shashi Tharoor’s impassioned and witty performance at the Oxford Union debate.

*Raj is the Anglicized version of the Sanskrit Rajya, which means rule.