“Do you understand muslins, sir?”
“Particularly well; I always buy my own cravats, and am allowed to be an excellent judge; and my sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown. I bought one for her the other day, and it was pronounced to be a prodigious bargain by every lady who saw it. I gave but five shillings a yard for it, and a true Indian muslin.”
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Chapter 3
I have been reading a great deal about the East India Company (EIC) of late because one of the characters in Miss Price’s Decision works for it. Four centuries before Walmart, Volkswagen or Amazon, the EIC was the original multinational corporation, employing thousands, yielding more power than many countries and enjoying unimaginable freedom to operate.
A Profitable Multinational Operation
The EIC, famously known as The Company, was founded in 1600 to foster trade with the so-called East Indies. By the Regency, the products in its portfolio included cotton muslins like the one bought by Tilney, as well as silk, spices, tea, salt, porcelain, opium and many more.
At the same time, The Company did much more than overseeing commercial transactions between England and Asia. The EIC was involved in politics as much as in trade, and it effectively controlled a large territory and a population of millions, setting the foundation of what would become the British Empire.
The EIC even had its own army, with 260,000 soldiers by 1803 (that’s twice the size of the British Army at the time). They enforced the execution of trade and taxation agreements and ensured that Indian labourers did as they were told. They were also known for ruthless looting of local riches.
(The EIC may have been Honourable on paper, but on the ground, it was anything but!)
The Professionalisation of The Company
The men who worked as administrators for the EIC traditionally achieved their roles by patronage. By the Regency, patronage was still key in the recruitment process, but the EIC controlled such a vast territory that there was a pressing need for competently trained administrators, known as ‘writers’.
EIC writers were clerical workers in charge of recording all the transactions overseen by the organisation, from minutes of meetings to accounting books to stock logs. Their importance to keep the EIC machinery running smoothly was such that the EIC (you guessed it!) founded its own college to train them up.
The East India College, known as Haileybury, was established in 1806 in Hailey, Hertfordshire. The College, which was a short distance north of London, had the specific purpose of educating the young men destined to serve as EIC administrators in the colonies.
A Very Peculiar College
Haileybury was a private institution quite unlike anything else. The curriculum was very ambitious. As well as political economy, philosophy, history, mathematics, law, and the classics, students were taught languages they would need once in their positions abroad, such as Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, Sanskrit or Persian.
Admission to the programme was complex and required candidates to be backed by rich and powerful patrons. The College was not a cheap operation. The tutors were paid handsomely, some as much as 500 pounds a year, and with a reason, because they were amongst the most brilliant scholars of their time, many having previously taught at Oxford and Cambridge.
By the mid-nineteenth century, many viewed the East India Company with suspicion, and in 1855, a Parliament act was passed “to relieve the East India Company from the obligation to maintain the College at Haileybury.” The Indian Civil Service would take its place, but the halo of Haileybury would remain for decades afterwards.
Haileybury College in Miss Price’s Decision
I found the story of Haileybury too fascinating to ignore, so I weaved it into Miss Price’s Decision, which tells the story of Fanny Price’s sister Susan. Here is an excerpt discussing it:
“Miss Price! Another pleasant coincidence!”
Holding the dirty cloth in my hand, I looked up. Jamie Gartner was standing in front of me, beaming. His smile turned into a frown when he saw my tea-stained dress.
“Can I be of any assistance?”
I blushed, shook my head and mumbled something. His gaze was burning my skin. To hide my embarrassment, I introduced Jamie to my companions, and to my relief, Mr Allen began to ask him a great many questions. Their conversation immediately touched upon Jamie’s occupation. Jamie, it turned out, had studied at the prestigious Haileybury College and had subsequently acquired a clerking post at the East India Company.
“Do you happen to know a Mr Payne? He has a post in the main registry.”
“It is my pleasure to work alongside him, sir.”
“Do you really? It is a small world, indeed. And do you plan to remain in the London office or are you destined to go abroad?”
“I have applied for a post in Calcutta. It is an important port and offers great opportunities for a writer like me as the company grows.”
Mr Allen appeared impressed, and invited Jamie, who confessed he was on his own, to join our little party. He readily accepted, to the delight of Mrs Allen and Miss Morland, who had been clinging to his every word. (…)
Mrs Allen’s fan tapped my arm.
“Have you known Mr Gartner long, then?”
“We grew up together,” I replied, trying to sound more animated than I felt. (…)
“He appears to have done very well for himself. A son of my cousin’s attended the East India College in Hertfordshire a few years ago, and his mother likes to go on about how only the most talented manage to secure a place, and how well he speaks all manners of strange languages, and how good he is with numbers.”
“He was always a very bright boy,” I replied with a smile.
“He must have very good patrons, too. My cousin tells me that, in order to be accepted into that fancy college, students need to be recommended by people in high places. They are also expected to pay hefty fees, although to be fair, their studies set them up for life. Do they not, Mr Allen?”
“My understanding is that posts abroad offer excellent prospects,” replied Mr Allen, stroking his chin. “Mr Gartner is not married, is he?”
“No, I do not think so,” I replied.
“Well, if he is to travel to the East Indies, he will be in a hurry to find himself a wife,” said he. “There are very few Englishwomen in those lands.”
Mrs Allen let out a cry of delight.
Eliza Shearer’s Miss Price’s Decision, Chapter 9
How familiar are you with the East India Company and what do you think of the curriculum at Haileybury College?