Book Review: The East India Company

The East India Company: Trade And Conquest From 1600, by Antony Wild

The history of the East India Company is one that has been cloaked in a great deal of corruption as well as controversy from its time and to the present day. It was, on the one hand, a private company that was supposed to earn profits for its directors back home, but it was also an (unofficial) agent of English and then British imperialism around the world. It had a corporate structure and company directives but also had to answer to Parliamentary oversight even as it received benefits from crony capitalist deals made with Parliament to increase its profits, on occasion, although this too did not come without problems. Frequently the company demonstrated the agency problem in that its directors had one set of priorities and the company’s employees on the ground frequently acted in their own corrupt interests and according to their own plans and designs that did not always end up serving the interests of the company well. And then there are the bungles that the company engaged in that led to foreign problems with the Dutch East India company, imperial problems in North America and India, and eventually the end of the company itself.

This book is a relatively large one at 200 full-sized pages, thankfully with a fair amount of visuals. After a chronology (very important in a book like this) and an introduction, the book is divided into seventeen chapters. The author begins with a look at the origins of the East India Company (1), as well as their first steps in India (2), the Spice Islands and Japan (3), as well as China (4). After this broad overview of the company’s activities, the author turns his attention to the Indian presidencies (5) as well as how the East India behaved at home (6). This is followed by a look at the company’s behavior overland and at sea (7) as well as in the East (8), before the author looks at its fortunes (9) and the meeting of east and west (10). After that the author turns his attention to things like life under the rule of the company (11), and the company at war (12), and the company going West (13), as well as the company at work, rest, and play (14). The book then completes with chapters that discuss the company’s consolidation (15), the trouble they faced in the Indian Mutiny (16), and the end of the company (17), after which there are appendices, picture credits, and an index.

Yet even if the East India Company clearly had a checkered and complicated past, there are at least a few people who might be said to have a nostalgic perspective of the company. For example, through the alliances created between English and British company employees and local figures, an Anglo-Irish elite was created that still manages to serve India well even after independence through business skills and the establishment of an excellent civil service. Also, the importance of the East India Company in creating and cultivating ports as different as Singapore and St. Helena, to say nothing of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, can hardly be overestimated, and the company’s willingness to pay for workers and residents was often far greater than the empire. The people of St. Helena have never reached the economic level under the British Empire that they had under the East India Company, and it seems unlikely that they ever will be given the scarcity of connections with the outside world that they have. Other areas, like Bengal, may find the East India company less nostalgic given the famines that periodically killed many of the people there, for which the English are still being blamed. This is a book that, to its credit, certainly brings up plenty of material that could be pinned or blamed on the British or the East India Company, as this is by no means a whitewash, and as someone who is a mild imperialist, that is something that can be appreciated.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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