“Business is by nature collusive and conspiratorial, readily congealing into monopolies and cabals and it is a good thing, a must for Britain’s prosperity. We must fix the highest gain that can be squeezed out of the natives.” – Robert Clive (1725-1774), British business executive, army Major General, opium trafficker, plunderer and mass murderer.
On a bone chilling evening in January 1601, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth signed a royal charter, granting a joint stock company that had 220 merchants working for it, a trade monopoly in all the regions of the world that lay to the east of the Cape of Good Hope. Thus, the British East India Company (EIC) was born. In the 280 years that it existed, the EIC grew to be the world’s largest and single most unscrupulous business entity that man has ever known.
The Brits had it good, didn’t they? East of the Cape. With a flick of a ink-dipped quill, an ugly overweight woman with bejeweled fingers gifts half the world to just one company to do business with. Look at them now, making feeble attempts to look independent with their Brexits, Megxits and so on and no one takes them seriously anymore. The fall took another 350 years but good riddance anyway. Now I, an Indian, can tell a Brit to go fuck himself, better still, ”fuckxit”. No one will bat an eyelid.
The East India Company began with a simple mandate – commerce. It brought in silks, textiles, spices, coffee, indigo, tea and ivory from India and carpets and nuts from Persia and the rest of the middle-east, in exchange for gold and silver. The EIC leadership was made up primarily of British military officers and therefore it backed up it’s exclusive business with a standing army of 250000 soldiers, artillery and a fleet of ships.
And opium, the EIC dealt in lots and lots of opium. The quantities it trafficked would put the Colombian cartels and the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta to shame. The EIC made opium consumption fashionable. You weren’t a member of the 18th century London haute société if you didn’t regularly peruse opium. Where do you think Sherlock Holmes got his daily fixes from?
There was competition of course, though not from other British business entities. There were other jackals at the kill – the Dutch East India Company, the French East India Company and the Portuguese East India Company. And they had been there before the EIC. India had many suitors but the Brits won out, through sheer military muscle.
To make all that trade happen smoothly and profitably, the logistics had to be worked out. The EIC first set up an office at a coastal village with a natural harbor in south India, called Machlipatnam. From there, through the 17th century, it spread and established fortified trading posts at Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.
The logistics of the day weren’t like the way they are now. A business trip to and from India by a boss from the East India Company’s HQ in London was more like how we see inter-planetary space travel today – long and hazardous. Each trip to India was a two-year expedition, with four to six fully armed ships, mounted at considerable expense and fraught with immense risk. The waters were uncharted since the maps were rudimentary, the weather patterns were unfamiliar, tempests and 50 foot waves were frequent and as if that was not enough, pirates prowled the seas for easy pickings and they took no prisoners.
Given all the hazards, the chances that you would be back, sipping sherry with your mistress in a London salon at the end of it were 20-80.
If you wrote a letter to your branch rep in Kolkata, you would be lucky if his response came within the year. Under these circumstances, the EIC branch heads or ‘Governors’ were given an enormous amount of independence in how to conduct their business. And what happens when you have an employee at the other side of the world doing business any which way he likes? He throws the rules to the winds, kicks native butt and enriches himself of course.
Take it easy, don’t begin envying the Company men. Life was hard. Enriching oneself in the face of attacks from the French or the Portuguese, who were the other hyenas at the kill, or even the armies of the native rulers, or killer diseases like typhoid, flu, TB and malaria, the life of an EIC rep was not for the faint-hearted.
The EIC’s trading post chieftains were merchants and military commanders rolled in one. They had in their payroll, large armies that protected what they saw as their turf. If a regional raja or nawab didn’t negotiate business with them reasonably, he was looking at being invaded and ousted.
The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, was one of those unfortunate nawabs who paid with his life for his obstinacy, in the Battle of Plassey (c.1757). Those days, the British were still just traders looking for a secure base from which to conduct their business with Indian merchants. When they began to look like they were digging in and building a small empire within his territory, the Nawab told them to desist and leave.
Imagine a empire-building testosterone pumped white guys being told by some two-bit brown nabob to get the fuck out. Robert Clive took it personally.
In those days if you spoke up, you had to back up your words with military force. The Nawab and his league of like-minded Bengali military commanders had on their side, 45000 infantry and 20000 cavalry. Artillery had been provided by the French who saw the British as a threat to their own French East India Company, a similar ‘carpet-bagging’ outfit under the then French King Louis XIV. The French held two bases in India, one in Chandannagar, 50kms from Kolkata and the other in Pondicherry, a coastal town south of Chennai.
The EIC’s commander, the robber-baron I mentioned earlier, Colonel Robert Clive, had just 3000 men. The Nawab’s firepower should have been sufficient to beat the crap out of the Brits. But Clive had guile and a cool head. Like any successful military man, he had human intel and he looked for the enemy’s weaknesses. He came to know through a Bengali birdie that the Nawab had a huge stockpile of gold and silver that he had grabbed from his subjects over the years as tax and had not thought to share with his equally rapacious commanders.
Clive sought out those commanders and got them to change sides, after promising them a share of the spoils (which by the way, they didn’t get when the dust settled). The Nawab ran for his life, was caught and executed. What can I say? A Nabob who didn’t share was a dead Nabob, I guess.
Siraj-ud-Daulah has been portrayed by Robert Clive’s biographer as an 18th century Cesare Borgia, a mercurial monster of vice and depravity, given to harsh cruelty toward his subjects. I read somewhere that when he sent for his senior commanders, they trembled, much like the way those New York Mafioso felt when they were summoned for a sit-down, not knowing if they would come out feet first. Even if Bobby Clive’s biographer had been biased, enough is on record to suggest that maybe the Nawab got what was coming to him.
After his victory, Clive installed Mir Jaffar, the commander who had switched sides, as the new Nawab of Bengal and did what his EIC masters in London had emphasized was his Key Perfomance Criterion – loot, a word that actually originated from the Bengali word ‘loot’, which means just that – loot. Clive’s men looted Bengal’s treasury, loaded the gold and silver worth over 5 million 1757 dollars (which is around $ 1 billion today), on to a fleet of more than a hundred barges and sent them downriver to his base at Kolkata.
Clive got to keep 10% – 500000 dollars (~ $100 million today) for himself – finder’s fees, I guess. Palashi was the first step in the creation of the British Empire in India. It is perhaps better understood as the company’s most successful business deal.
500K here, a bag of diamonds there and Robert Clive went on to become one of the world’s richest men. Unfortunately, he broke the golden rule for drug traffickers and it took his life – he got hooked on the very opium that he traded in, to dull the pain that one historian says was caused by gallstones. One night, unable to bear, the constant pain, Clive over-dosed in a drug-riddled moment of frenzy. Poetic justice, innit?
In India, right up until the 1970s, they still had roads named after those British colonials. Thyagraja Marg in the heart of the Indian capital, New Delhi, was till recently Robert Clive Road, while in England the statue that adorns the frontage of the British Foreign office is his. Clive’s partner in crime, Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India, had till the late 1970s numerous streets, buildings and parks named after him all across India. Oh yeah, we Indians have been in boot-lick mode for decades after gaining independence.
There was another act that the East India Company excelled in, just like the Exxons of today who splurge millions on ‘green’ ads. It went to great pains explaining to the public at home how it was delivering the wretched Indian natives from deeply ingrained backwardness, how it was planning to remodel education, how the ‘ignorance and superstition that was inherent in Hinduism’ was being addressed by dedicated Christian missionaries in its payroll. (The world hadn’t yet woken to pedophilic Christian priests but let’s just say that the first missionaries must have had a ball in India and leave it at that).
As the decades passed and the 19th century dawned and the Mogul Empire waned, the EIC’s mandate expanded, from just commerce to subjugation. The East India Company grabbed more and more territory as its own until all of India was theirs. The new nabobs were now the EIC chieftains like Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, wielding enormous power, not only in India, but in England as well, where they bribed, threatened and cajoled their way into both houses of Parliament.
The EIC now had, not only a trade monopoly, but also the right to tax the Indian citizens, mint its own coins with the company crest and maintain a 250000-strong army. For a while, before the bubble burst, EIC owned not only India but England as well. Profit became everything. It is universally believed that the great Bengal famine of 1770, which claimed the lives of 10 million of Bengal’s poor and the wretched, was brought on by rapacious greed and the lack of governance of the EIC.
Seeing that the harvest was doomed, EIC’s traders started buying up all the grain that they could lay their hands on, driving up the price and making it impossible for the poor Bengali commoners to feed their families. As if that was not enough, the EIC decided to raise taxes so that revenue levels would remain stable.
Those who aspire to rule have a responsibility toward their subjects. EIC was not concerned about any such responsibility toward the native Indians. But what the EIC honchos hadn’t bargain for were the men with a conscience back home (ie: if one can imagine colonizers having consciences). There was Adam Smith (1723-90), Scottish moral philosopher and economist and Edmund Burke (1729-97), an Irish author, orator, philosopher.
And a prick named Lord Thomas Macaulay (1800-59), historian and Whig politician, who loved listening to his own voice. Macaulay had gained infamy for attempting to wipe out the native languages of the colonies and replacing them with English He once remarked that the world was divided into two categories of people – civilized and barbaric. Britain of course was, in his scheme of things, the torchbearers of the former category and the colonies, the latter.
But even an asshole like Macaulay was alarmed enough by the shenanigans at the EIC that he had this to say about it…..“The traders of the East India Company simply wrung out of the natives every drop of blood as speedily as possible, so that they might return home to marry a peer’s daughter, buy some rotten borough in Cornwall and throw balls in St. James’s Square.”
All these “venerables” denounced the East India Company as a bloodstained bunch of thugs, bent upon mercilessly raping a nation of its wealth. Some historians consider the aftermath of the 1770 Bengal famine as the beginning of the end of the East India Company’s presence in India.
Around the same time as the Bengal famine, other events were conspiring to pull the rug from under the EIC’s feet. Its stock price crashed on the London market, in lock-step with a Europe-wide financial meltdown. The EIC’s handling of the Bengal famine came to the notice of the British parliament and did little to bolster investor confidence.
By the turn of the 18th century, the British government had taken away EIC’s monopoly and finally in 1873, the East India Company ceased to exist. India now became a full-fledged colony of the British Empire.
During its heyday, the East India Company not only established trade through Asia and the Middle East but also effectively became the ruler of territories. It created colonies like Singapore, an island that the EIC purchased from the ruler, the Sultan of Johor, and developed into one of the world’s richest and busiest mercantile hubs.
The East India Company has had quite a few parallels, in the modern age. The American conglomerate United Fruit Company owned every tiny Central American nation, to ensure unimpeded imports of fruits, especially bananas, into North American and European ports. The American mob co-owned Cuba, with the American telephone monopoly International Telephone and Telegraph. The solid gold telephone that the ITT rep presents Batista in Godfather II, really happened.
Some commentators opine that if Stalin’s Soviet Union hadn’t gone overboard with its purges and gulags, American style capitalism would have lost out to socialism and we would not have had to see the Reagans and Thatchers gloating obscenely, mistaking overkill for victory of the forces of good.
The late comic genius, Robin Williams, put it quite simply in December 2008 when he was performing in front of Britain’s Prince Charles. Referring to the placard that the US President, Harry Truman, had hung up on the wall behind his desk, which read, ‘the buck stops here’, Williams gave it a twist – ‘Yeah right, the buck stops here…for just a wee moment….and then it sorta ambles on, to Boeing and GM.”