Sunday, June 26, 2022

How did a trading company come to rule India?


Spencer went on to suggest that trade would have been more successful in the absence of the privileges that the British government had conferred on the East India Company (EIC):

“Insane longing for empire would never have burdened the Company with the enormous debt which at present paralyzes it. The energy that has been expended in aggressive wars would have been employed in developing the resources of the country. Unenervated by monopolies, trade would have been much more successful.”  

Prior to my recent visit to India I was aware that classical liberals like Herbert Spencer were critical of the East India Company. Since my visit I have become an expert on all matters pertaining to Indian history. Just joking!

I can only claim to be able to sketch the outlines of the story of how the EIC ended up ruling India. I think the story is worth telling as a case study of the unintended consequences of government intervention in international trade.

Spencer was correct in identifying the importance of the EIC’s links to the British government as an important determinant of its behavior, but the context in which it operated also needs to be taken into account.  The most important element of context seems to me to the rivalry between European powers to obtain advantage in trade with India.

Portugal came first.

Perhaps you can recall from school history lessons that Vasco da Gama sailed to India around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. This was the culmination of voyages of discovery by Portuguese sailors, including the important contribution of Bartolomeu Diaz, who had rounded the Cape some years earlier.

The Portuguese government was heavily involved in this exploration, and in what followed. In his book, The Portuguese in India, M.N. Pearson relates how the king, D. Manuel, invited da Gama to command the expedition when the latter happened to wander through the council chamber where the king was reading documents.

After da Gama’s voyage, the Portuguese court debated whether they should use force to seek a monopoly in the Indian Ocean or be peaceful traders. They chose force. Their aim was to try to monopolize the supply of spices to Europe and to control and tax other Asian trade. There was, of course, a great deal of trade in the Indian Ocean prior to Portuguese intervention, much of it controlled by Muslims (from India as well as the Middle East).

The Portuguese built forts in India to protect their trading activities. Some local rulers saw advantage in giving the Portuguese permission to establish forts, but they often used force. Goa was conquered in 1510. The Portuguese obtained permission to build a fort at Diu in 1535 (and had ceded to them the islands that today form Mumbai) because the sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shar, wanted Portuguese help after being defeated by the Mughal emperor, Humayon. The Portuguese obtained Daman from the sultan in 1559 and immediately began construction of the fort at Moti Daman. Building of St Jerome fort (my photo below) commenced in 1614, but was not completed until 1672.

The Dutch eclipsed the Portuguese early in the 17th century.

The Portuguese were unable to prevent competition from the Dutch because the latter were “better financed, better armed, and more numerous”. The Dutch blockaded Goa from 1638 to 1644 and again from 1656 to 1663.

The Dutch East India Company was founded by the Dutch government in 1602, not long after the English formed the EIC. Both organisations were granted trade monopolies, and combined private investment and the powers of the state in a similar manner.

In the early 18th century there was fierce rivalry between the Dutch and English over the spice trade in Indonesia. That ended with the English quietly withdrawing from most of their interests in Indonesia to focus elsewhere, including India.

The transformation of British activities in India

In the 17th century, the EIC established trading posts in Surat, Madras, Bombay and Calcutta with permission from local authorities. The French India Company offered increasing competition during the latter half of the 17th century and into the 18th century.

The initial objectives of both the EIC and the French were commercial, but their conflicts in Europe spilled over into India. The British sought to fortify Fort William in Calcutta against potential attack from the French. In 1756, the French encouraged the nawab of Bengal to attack Fort William. After the fall of Fort William, the surviving British soldiers and Indian sepoys were imprisoned overnight in a dungeon where many died from suffocation and heat exhaustion. The prison became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. The number of fatalities is disputed, but the incident seems to have provided impetus for the EIC to seek to wield greater political power in India to protect its commercial interests.

My photo of the Black Hole monument in the grounds of St John’s church in Kolkata.


EIC forces led by Robert Clive (Clive of India) retook Calcutta in 1757 and went on to defeat the nawab and his French supporters at Plassey. Clive’s victory was aided by a secret agreement with Bengal aristocrats which resulted in a large portion of the nawab's army being led away from the battlefield. The person responsible for this treachery, Mir Jafar, was rewarded by being installed as nawab. Clive rewarded himself and EIC forces from the Bengal Treasury.

A few years later, as governor of Bengal, Clive arranged for the EIC to collect land tax revenues in Bengal by appointing a deputy nawab for this purpose. The conquest of other parts of India was planned and directed from Calcutta. Amartya Sen has noted:

“The profits made by the East India Company from its economic operations in Bengal financed, to a great extent, the wars that the British waged across India in the period of their colonial expansion.”

Consequences and responses

The worst consequences of EIC rule became evident during the Bengal famine of 1770. The company was apparently more concerned to maintain land tax revenue than to relieve to the suffering of peasants.  Its policies contributed to the massive loss of life during the famine. Adam Smith presumably had that in mind when he suggested in Wealth of Nations:

“No other sovereigns ever were, or, from the nature of things, ever could be so perfectly indifferent about the happiness or misery of their subjects, the improvement or waste of their dominions, the glory or disgrace of their administration; as, from irresistible moral causes, the greater part of the proprietors of such a mercantile company are, and necessarily must be.” (V.i.e 26)

By reducing the agricultural labor available to generate taxable income, the famine caused the EIC to experience a subsequent loss of revenue. The British government provided financial relief to the company but arranged to supervise it. Regulation of the EIC was further increased in 1784, when British prime minister William Pitt the Younger, legislated for joint government of British India by the EIC and the government, with the government holding the ultimate authority.

The British government seems to have been engaged in an ongoing balancing act to placate both supporters of the EIC, including investors and former employees, and its critics, including prominent individuals like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.  

Pitt’s India Act stated that to pursue schemes of conquest and extension of dominion in India are “measures repugnant to the wish, the honour and the policy of this nation”. Perhaps that was an honest statement of the British government’s policy objective, but it is doubtful that it had any impact on the extension of British dominion in India.

Fortune seekers

During the 18th century, India was seen as offering opportunities for young British men to obtain a fortune, become well-connected, and to marry well.

Lachlan Macquarie, who (in my opinion) ultimately become one of the best of Australia’s colonial governors, expressed views, while a young army officer serving in India, that may have been fairly typical.

In his biography of Macquarie, M. H. Ellis notes that in 1788 Pitt and his followers had cramped the style of young army officers in India by reducing their allowances. Macquarie recorded in his diary: “ … our golden dreams, and the flattering prospects we had formed to ourselves in Britain, of soon making our fortunes in the East, must now all vanish into smoke; and we must content ourselves, with merely being able to exist without running into debt” (p 18).

Macquarie’s hopes for a change in fortune rested on being called to active service. He had his wish during the third Anglo-Mysore war. The war ended after the 1792 Siege of Seringapatam led to the signing of a Treaty in which Tipu Sultan surrendered half of his kingdom to the EIC and its allies. Macquarie noted that news of the cessation of hostilities “damped the spirits of every one who wished the downfall of the Tyrant and hoped to have the satisfaction in a few days more, of storming his capital”. The storming of Tipu’s capital would presumably have offered the prospect of looting, but Governor-General Cornwallis managed to maintain the morale of his troops by announcing payment of a “handsome gratuity in lieu of prize money”.   (Ellis, p 39)

India’s civil wars

Disunity within India was another important element of the context in which the EIC ended up ruling India. British colonial expansion occurred at a time when the power of the Mughal empire was declining, with much of its territory falling under the control of the Marathas. In the south of India, the rulers of Mysore and Travancore were also powerful. The EIC sided with different rulers in different locations at different times. For example, at the time of the Third Anglo-Mysore War, referred to above, the Marathas were allies of the EIC. That war occurred because Tipu, an ally of France, had invaded the nearby state of Travancore, which was a British ally.

Why did EIC rule end?

In 1813 the EIC lost its monopoly over British trade with India. The opening of access to competing traders seems to have been partly attributable to growth of the free trade lobby in Britain.  

In 1833, the EIC was reduced to the status of a managing agency for the British government of India. The government took over the company’s debts and obligations, which were to be serviced and paid from tax revenue raised in India.

EIC rule of India finally ended following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which is now also referred to as the First War of Independence. I took this photo at an Indian airport.


Colonial rule was formally transferred to the Crown in the person of Queen Victoria in 1858. The British government took over the Indian possessions, administrative powers and machinery, and the armed forces of the EIC.

In my view, EIC rule ended because the company had a hopeless business model. The company was obviously successful in conducting wars in India, and some employees of the company made fortunes as a consequence. But the company’s attempts to service debts incurred by imposing taxes on the people of India were inherently problematic. Such taxes made it inevitable that the company would incur high ongoing costs to put down rebellions. The EIC’s conquest of Bengal raised expectations that colonial rule might be a profitable activity for the company, but it became incapable of surviving without government financial backing only a few years later.

Was a better option possible?

 John Stuart Mill - in his role as a spin doctor employed by the EIC rather than an eminent philosopher - opened his last ditch defence of the EIC by pointing out that at the same time as the company acquired a “magnificent empire in the East” for Britain “a succession of administrations under the control of Parliament were losing to the Crown of Great Britain another great empire on the opposite side of the Atlantic”. (Mill is quoted more fully by Richard Reeves in John Stuart Mill, Victorian Firebrand, p 258.)

Mill was obviously attempting to present a persuasive case to British politicians at a time when most of them perceived “empire” to be a desirable objective.

These days, people who want to defend the empire-building activities of the EIC in India are more likely to suggest that the institutional legacy of British rule, including a united India (if you overlook the tragedy of partition) would otherwise not have been possible. Amartya Sen has pointed out the weakness of that argument:

“Certainly, when Clive’s East India Company defeated the nawab of Bengal in 1757, there was no single power ruling over all of India. Yet it is a great leap from the proximate story of Britain imposing a single united regime on India (as did actually occur) to the huge claim that only the British could have created a united India out of a set of disparate states.

That way of looking at Indian history would go firmly against the reality of the large domestic empires that had characterised India throughout the millennia. …”

Summing up

The East India Company came to rule India as an unintended consequence of British government intervention seeking trading advantages over other European powers. This intervention occurred against the background of previous involvement in Indian trade by Portuguese and Dutch governments, and in the context of intense rivalry with the French government’s trading company.

The East India Company’s schemes of conquest and dominion were made possible by disunity within India, which provided it with opportunistic allies. However, the company’s business model of taxing subjugated Indians was not capable of generating sufficient revenue to service debts incurred in subjugating them and maintaining order. Rather than let the company fail, the British government became increasingly involved in directing its activities, and ultimately displaced it.  

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