Today I’d like to share the first of two entries regarding a business entity that played a significant role in Jane Austen’s life. This public company held sway over large parts of the British Empire. It held a charter from the crown, acted as an agent of the British government, and even had its own army and navy. It may even have helped finance the publication of some of Jane’s novels. Yet it is never mentioned in any of her published stories. Can you imagine what it was?
The East India Company (or EIC) was the creation of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who gave it a royal charter in the year 1600 for exclusive trade in the east. The company organizers were eager to explore lands on the other side of the world and to open routes for trading spices and tea. They promptly recruited stockholders, pooled funds, bought ships, and began sending ships to India. By the mid seventeenth century the company had established trading outposts and gained a sizable presence on the Indian sub-continent.
At the time, this region of the world was controlled by the Mughul dynasty, which ruled over a number of provinces from India all the way to modern day Afghanistan. But in the mid eighteenth century the Mughuls were facing outbreaks of rebellion against their rule. One by one the provinces began to resist their overlords. This left a wide open door for the British, who were quick to offer military and political support to the rebels in order to strengthen their own position. To protect their interests the EIC hired more and more “security officers,” both Indian and British citizens, who gradually became a military force in their own right. Before too long the EIC had effectively taken over control of large parts of India.
In 1765 the EIC deposed the Mughul dynasty itself and took complete control of the entire former empire. From that point on it behaved more like a nation-state than a trading company. England gave the company the right to collect taxes in the areas it controlled, and it negotiated with foreign governments and signed treaties. Nominally, it was still a stockholder corporation operating under a charter, but in practice it ruled India and other territories on behalf of the British government. In fact, by 1805 its “security force” had grown to include 260,000 men, twice the size of the entire British army! It was truly a force to be reckoned with.
Sadly, there was little accountability to go along with all that power. The company imposed crippling land taxes as well as trade tariffs in the areas it controlled, and almost all of the money collected went straight to England. Little of it was used for the benefit of the native people. Trade agreements were always designed for the benefit of the British at the expense of the native population, and England forced India to import only from England. When Indians objected, torture and other atrocities became common. Mismanagement of the land along with natural disasters eventually caused one of the worst famines in modern times.
To be sure, the East India Company did do some good things in the areas it controlled. New methods of transportation and communication were introduced, and legal and administrative systems came into being. The levels of sanitation and medical care went up in some areas, and for awhile the population grew at a healthy rate. Taken as a whole, however, most historians agree that the East India Company did more harm than good.
How did all of this affect Jane Austen and her writing? What did she think of the practices of the EIC? And how did the EIC’s reign finally come to an end? I’ll talk about that in next month’s post, but for now I thought you might be interested in the following facts about the EIC:
- The EIC leadership was incredibly compact and efficient. The entire operation was managed from a relatively small office in London that never had more than 300 permanent employees.
- Remember the Boston Tea Party, one of the events that set off the American Revolution? The tea thrown overboard into the Boston Harbor came from the EIC.
- Slavery was a thing. The EIC imported slaves from Africa to work in India, a practice that continued until 1847.
- The EIC illegally smuggled opium out of India and sold it in China, which eventually caused war between the British and the Chinese. The outcome of these wars led to the founding of Hong Kong as a British territory.
- General Charles Cornwallis, the British general who surrendered to George Washington, was appointed Governor General of India in 1786. He used his position to make significant reforms to the East India Company. He died in India in 1805.