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Monsoon Traders

By Juliet Highet

The East India Company was one of the most powerful commercial endeavours the world has ever seen, developing into a huge global corporation

A gallery at London’s Maritime Museum and accompanying book tell the story of how the Company, in pursuit of profit, had significant and long-lasting effects on the lives of millions of people in Asia. As far as Britain was concerned, it fundamentally altered ideas of taste and fashion, introducing pepper, for example, which helped act as a food preservative, and the exciting flavours of spices as well as tea, which proved its greatest success. Luxury goods such as Chinese porcelain became treasured over centuries. Fashionistas were entranced by new fabrics like muslin, calico and of course silk. The Oriental design form of the Arabesque, favoured by the Mughals in India, inspired the still influential Paisley pattern.

In a sense, the Company can be seen as a forerunner of the modern multinational. But for just one company, its global reach was unique, as was its role as a catalyst for the rule of the British Empire in South Asia. At its height, it minted its own currency and ruled over a fifth of humanity. It had its own navy, the Bombay Marine, and a private army of 250,000 soldiers at its command. Despite constant questioning by the British establishment about the propriety of a private commercial company ruling huge swathes of territory and vast numbers of people, rather like the banking scenario today, the Company was regarded as too big to fail. It was repeatedly bailed out, ending its days in controversy and ignominy.

The Portuguese and Dutch led the way eastwards, Vasco da Gama reaching the spice port of Calicut on the Malabar Coast of southwest India in 1498. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the ancient pattern of long-distance overland trade between Asia and Europe, typified by the Silk Route, was completely altered by maritime traffic, expanding dramatically in scale. European demand for high-value Asian goods made fortunes for those who financed the voyages; the captains and even the sailors who returned from these incredibly lengthy and dangerous voyages also expecting to make money.

Since Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India, the Portuguese had successfully captured and controlled a network of ports centred on Goa, monopolising Indian Ocean trade. The English wanted a piece of the action. Harbouring dreams of unlimited riches, a group of traders from the City of London approached Elizabeth I, who in 1600, granted a royal charter to 219 adventurers incorporated as ‘The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies’, later known as ‘The East India Company’, giving it a monopoly of all English trade east of the Cape of Good Hope. The first voyage left London in 1601 with a ship armed with over 100 cannon to protect it from pirates, the traditional European foes, and potentially hostile local Asians. After 16 months at sea and the loss of 105 men from scurvy, it eventually reached Sumatra. Here the Sultan permitted the men to trade, but unsurprisingly had no use for the woollen clothes they offered as barter, insisting on silver to pay for their spices. Captains of early voyages quickly realised that cotton bought in India was far more favourably received than wool. Then calling on Java for pepper, the first ship returned with a present for Queen Elizabeth, the sort of diplomatic exchange that was to characterise Asian trade for centuries – until colonisation. On the Company’s sixth voyage, which was to Surat, on the northwest coast of India, the realisation clearly dawned that it was essential to get on with local rulers. Its captain was tasked with establishing trade concessions with the “Great Moghul”, who was presented with English royal letters and “two gold rings set with emeralds”. In the early 17th century, Sir Thomas Roe was appointed as the first ambassador to Mughal India, spending three years at the court of the emperor Jahangir. The English victory over the Portuguese at Surat persuaded Jahangir to grant the East India Company rights to establish trade in India; and in 1613 a permanent English ambassador was established at the court.

From 1606 onwards and as the centuries progressed, the Company’s trade with India became ever more extensive, and as it insisted on maintaining its monopolies, it managed to keep tight control over business. Initially Surat was the hub, and then in 1611 another port system was developed on the eastern Coromandel Coast at Masulipatam in the Kingdom of Golconda, famous for its diamonds. Several other key settlements began to serve as administrative centres, eventually maturing into the ‘presidencies’ of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. At this time Indian goods became much more prominent in the cargoes sent to London, as opposed to those from further east, especially when pepper began to be obtained from the Malabar coast. The Company first imported cotton fabrics into London in 1613, and by the 1620s, four generic types of fabric arrived on a regular basis: plain white calicoes, single coloured cotton, striped chintzes and the painted cloths known as pintadoes, many from the textile-rich region of Bengal, where another permanent ‘factory’ had been established. Indian silk became the rage among the rich merchants and upper class of England. The Company became acutely responsive to fashion demand – the ‘calico craze’ following hot on the heels of the popularity of muslin. But the most significant development was the trade in tea, at first obtainable via Madras from China, and later, of course, from India itself.

Company voyages to India remained long, arduous and hazardous. In the Company’s early days, some of its ships were very large indeed, but over time, with experience of monsoon conditions and the lack of necessity to carry canons against pirates, ships became smaller. These 500 to 800-ton vessels became known as ‘East Indiamen’. After 1780, when a rapid expansion of the tea trade took place, the Company again began to use larger ships of 1,200 – 1,400 tons.

Ever keen to increase trade and maximise profit, the Company realised that expansion of knowledge about India would be a significant benefit. Some Europeans studied ‘Hindustani’, Persian and Arabic, and in 1734 an English version of the Qur’an was published. Just as East Indiamen brought more English to Asian shores, so Asians began to travel to Europe in increasing numbers, and were generally received with interest and civility. But radical change in Asian-British relationships was on the way. The transition during the 18th century was at first gradual and almost imperceptible. But then, in a sudden, dramatic move, Lord Robert Clive seized power in Bengal in 1757. The Mughal Empire was already in decline, and for whatever reason, its emperor, Shah Alam II, acknowledged Clive’s coup, and even granted him the states of Orissa and Bihar in 1765. The whole Company raison d’être had been fundamentally altered by the acquisition of territory in India. Bringing over a large army, it now not only administered justice, but also governed millions of people. In essence, after 1750 the East India Company became preoccupied with empire, as its military and political influence was extended far across the Indian subcontinent. It took on the trappings of imperial power, building forts, garrisons, courts, administrative buildings and ‘white towns’ in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. During the late 18th century, one of the most successful challenges to Company power was posed by the sultans of Mysore, fighting four wars over successive generations for control of southern India. In 1780 Tipu Sultan defeated the British at the Battle of Pollilur, killing 3,000 English troops, described at the time as “the severest blow that the English ever sustained in India”. It took a combination of Company and Crown forces to defeat Tipu in 1799.

By 1830 the East India Company was in control of vast swathes of India. But by 833, the Company had lost the last of its trading monopolies to China, ceasing to be a major commercial enterprise. Shorn of its trading function, it now found itself principally responsible for the government of a huge and growing Indian Empire, with no business backup. With hostility to it mounting at home, the great Imperial


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