The British East India Company the beginning

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Anupama Nair

I had written about the advent of the Europeans in India and how they lost their prominence after time. It was the only the British who could establish their supremacy and became the “empire where the sun never sets”. Most of the world was in their grasp. The East India Company was founded during the rule of Queen Elizabeth I and grew into a dominating global player with its own army, with huge influence and power. In 1600, a group of London merchants whose leader was Sir Thomas Smythe made an appeal to Queen Elizabeth I to grant them a Royal Charter to trade with the countries of the eastern hemisphere. The ‘Honorable Company of Merchants of London called East India Company started their colonial journey with America. Nobody could have predicted the seismic shifts in the dynamics of global trade that would follow, nor that 258 years later, the company would hand over the control of the  Subcontinent to the British crown. The question is how did this company gain and consolidate its power and profit?

At the same time as Elizabeth, I was signing the East India Company (EIC) into existence in 1600, her counterpart in India was  the Mughal  Akbar and ruling over an empire of 750,000 square miles, stretching from northern Afghanistan in the northwest, to central India’s Deccan plateau in in the south and the Assamese highlands in the northeast. By 1600, the Mughal empire was ruled by Akbar the Cruel, and the empire was formed by his grandfather Babar the Tyrant in 1526. and was embarking on a century of strong centralized power, military dominance and cultural productiveness that would mark the tyrannical  rule of the Mughals. India from ancient times had wealth and magnificence to overshadow anything that Europe could produce at the time, while India’s natural produce like Dacca Muslin and that of its artisans was coveted all over the world. It was no wonder the British wanted to covet the “sone ki chidiya”

When the East India Company first visited the Mughal court in the early 17th Century, they pretended to be supplicants attempting to negotiate favorable trading relations with Akbar’s successor, Jehangir. The company had initially planned to try and force their way into the lucrative spice markets of south-east Asia, but found this trade was already dominated by the Dutch. After EIC merchants were massacred at Amboyna (in present day Indonesia) in 1623, the company increasingly turned their attention to India.

With Jehangir’s permission, they began to build small bases, or factories, on India's eastern and western coasts. From these coastal toeholds, they orchestrated the profitable trade in spices, textiles and luxury goods on which their commercial success was predicated, dealing with Indian artisans and producers primarily through Indian middlemen. Meanwhile, the ‘joint stock’ organization of the company in which ownership was shared between shareholders spread the cost and risk of individual voyages between investors. The company grew in both size and influence across the 17th and 18th Centuries.

They were initially a junior partner in the Mughal empire’s sophisticated commercial networks, however in the 18th Century, the EIC became increasingly involved in politics of the Indian Subcontinent. They maintained their trading privileges in the face of declining Mughal authority after Aurangzeb and became successful.

European competitors also began to have an increased presence on the Subcontinent, with France emerging as a major national and imperial rival during the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War. This particularly increased the strategic importance of the EIC's Indian footholds, and the country’s coastline became crucial to further imperial expansion in Asia and Africa, as  well as maintaining a large standing army consisting primarily of sepoys who were Indian mercenary soldiers trained in European Military techniques and EIC garrisoned Crown’s troops in India.

Such military advantages made the EIC a powerful player in local conflicts and disputes, as did the financial support offered by some local Indian merchants and bankers, who saw in the EIC's increasing influence an unmissable commercial opportunity.

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