The East India Company was not about trade
When acclaimed writer and historian William Dalrymple commented at last year’s Dhaka Lit Fest that the UK authorities do not teach British schools the history of the colonial enterprise, many seemed unaware that the East India Company was the original corporate raider.
“The British Empire does not figure on the syllabus in textbooks,” Dalrymple exclaimed. British children read about the great explorers but do not speak about those colonial officers punished for plunder, corruption, and other atrocities.
British relations with India began not with diplomacy and the meeting of envoys, but with trade. On September 24, 1599, 80 merchants and explorers met at the Founders Hall in London and, in a petition to Queen Elizabeth-I, had the idea of starting a company.
Thus the infamous East India Company was born.
Reputed Indian economist Utsa Patnaik estimates that the British colonialists siphoned close to $45 trillion from South Asia -- which is now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its pillage of India. One can certainly debate the amount of wealth transferred to the imperial national exchequer from the colonies, but such claims are worth discussing.
The East India Company, in addition to its political rule in India, had an exclusive monopoly of the tea-trade, as well as of the Chinese trade in general, and of the transport of goods to and from Europe. The monopolies on salt, opium, betel, and other commodities were unlimited mines of wealth.
The former Indian minister, and a member of the parliament, Shashi Tharoor demanded Britain pay reparations to India and other former colonies for its decades of imperial rule. He made the case in a debate entitled “This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies,” organized by the Oxford Union in 2015. Tharoor pointed out: “India’s share of the world economy, when Britain arrived on its shores, was 23%. By the time the British left it was down to below 4%.”
The governor general of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, Warren Hastings, favoured sycophants in receiving contracts, and they accumulated money out of nothing. According to one of the lists laid before the British parliament, the company and its employees, from 1757-1766, received 6,000,000 sterling pounds from the Indians as gifts, argues Sushovan Dhar.
A senior official of the old Mughal regime in Bengal wrote in his diaries: “Indians were tortured to disclose their treasure; cities, towns, and villages ransacked; jaghires and provinces purloined.”
Bengal’s wealth rapidly drained into Britain, while its prosperous weavers and artisans were coerced “like so many slaves” by their new masters, and its markets flooded with British products, Dalrymple observes.
A portion of the loot from Bengal went directly into Major-General Robert Clive’s pocket.
After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the entire Bengal treasury was simply loaded into 100 boats and sailed down the Ganges from the Nawab of Bengal’s palace to Fort William, the company’s Kolkata headquarters.
An observation by historian Irfan Habib on this immense drain of resources is informative: It is obvious that the drain of resources and bullion from India to England created a serious impact on the economy of India and had a favourable effect on the economy of England. Calculations reveal that more than one-third of the Indian national income was transferred by the British officials in some form or the other.
The East India Company remains history’s most acute warning about the potential for abuse of corporate power -- and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders become those of the state. 315 years after its founding, its story has never been more current, concludes Dalrymple.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and is a recipient of the Ashoka Fellow and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be followed on Twitter @saleemsamad.