Book Review: The Honourable Company

The Honourable Company: A History Of The English East India Company, by John Keay

This book is an interesting case of an author seeking to be fair and just to a company that has received a great deal of blame. If one reads anything about Indian history, especially told from the point of view of an Indian, the East India Company is viewed with undisguised horror, as a group of pushy Europeans who came from a country that was despised and looked down by the cultured Mogul elites and then ultimately made itself indispensable to them, and then usurped their authority and ended up taking over the whole joint, much to the horror of Indians then and since then. In telling that story, the author seeks to do justice to the bravery and sacrifice of the British merchants themselves who struggled to establish a foothold in India and in other places around the Indian Ocean and even as far from India as St. Helena. This story is admittedly a bit of a slow burn, in that the reader has some idea where the author is going to end up, but he does not skip over the “boring” parts or think of the East India Company’s transformation as inevitable or forget the complexity of its holdings and its behavior from the outset.

This book is about 450 pages long, and has four parts and twenty chapters. The book begins with a list of illustrations and maps, maps, acknowledgments, an author’s note, and a preface, all of which give praise to those who have studied the East India Company before. After that the first part of the book looks at the quiet beginnings of the East India Company from 1600-1640 (I), looking at the Spice Island voyages of James Lancaster (1), the Spice Race with the Netherlands (2), the battle over the Arabian Sea (3), and English efforts in the Cape, Surat, and Persia (4). After that comes a section discussing the fluctuating fortunes of the company between 1640 and 1710 (II), with a look at recession, famine, and war (5), Bombay and Surat as seats of power and trade (6), the fierce engagements in Calcutta and Bengal (8), dealing with interlopers and rivals (9), and the eastern approaches at Madras, Siam, and China (10). This is followed by a discussion of how the East India Company became a territorial power (III), gaining the farman for Bengal (11), setting up lesser outposts (12) of effrontery, dealing with competition in Bombay (13), developing armies in Madras (14), and discussing the famous 200 days in Bengal including Plessy (15). The fourth and final part discussed the parting of the ways of the East India Company between 1760 and 1820 (IV), including the look towards Southeast Asia and the China trade (16), the transfer of power with London (17), Hasting’s loyalty in India (18), the tea trade as opposed to free trade (19), and an epilogue dealing with Singapore (20), after which there is a bibliography and an index.

The English/British East India Company has a sprawling and massive history that the author admits would take life times to read, much less write about. And this book is about as thorough a one-volume history that one is likely to see. That isn’t to say that this book covers all of the aspects of the history of the company that interest me, but it does do a reasonably good job at looking at the connection between the East India Company, trade, imperialism, and competition from the beginning. The author also gives a fair look at the many failures of the company to establish various trade ports as well as the lack of success that many of the British efforts of increasing their power in India, and there is definitely some fascinating discussion here about the way that Britain increased its naval and military power in gradual ways that did not immediately bear fruit before England’s economic strength in the eighteenth century in the collapse of Mogul and Maratha authority led to the triumph of the people on the spot in India like Clive through suborning authorities, at great expense to the company and decreasing profitability. And the book even manages to end on a satisfactory note, demonstrating that the importance of trade in at least some parts carried on after the East India Company became rentiers in India.

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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