Jul 11, 2008

Book Review: The East India Company - A History

Lawson, Philip

New York: Longman, 1993

Lawson was an eminent historian of British overseas expansion who unfortunately died in 1995 at the relatively young age of 46. The East India Company: A History represents Lawson’s efforts to produce a useful synthesis of the history of the British East India Company (EIC) that offered scholars a brief overview of the Company and its metamorphosis from a trading firm into a de facto state. Lawson noted that his purpose in writing the book was to “take stock of what has gone before, synthesizing the old and new research and making the story accessible to readers of all backgrounds and interests,” and the author, to his credit, succeeded on all of these methodological and rhetorical fronts.

The author challenged readers curious about the origins of the EIC to shake off the semi-mythological assumptions of the “nationalistic cult” associated with the story of “a warrior queen [Elizabeth I] taking the fight for the spoils of the new worlds outside Europe to her catholic enemies.” Instead, noted Lawson, the development of the East India Company represented “the culmination of almost a hundred years of erratic attempts at securing direct access to eastern markets.” Lawson added that a number of factors were responsible for the rise of the EIC beyond the surface desire of the English monarchy to break up the Spanish-Portuguese monopoly on global trade. The rise of London in the sixteenth century as a “great port and financial centre,” noted the author, significantly improved England’s ability to raise the necessary capital for long distance voyages. In addition, Lawson argued that the late sixteenth century was a period in which a “wave of propaganda about opportunity in the new worlds of the Atlantic and the East Indies” swept over the country, influencing generations of future adventurers and aspiring merchants. Finally, noted Lawson, the English benefited from the gradual decline of Portugal as an imperial power, which he claimed gave the English “an opportunity for supplanting this ailing power in eastern waters.”

The Crown, moreover, took a dim view of creating a single organization to carry on sea trade with eastern markets, and Lawson argued that a number of factors brought about a change of monarchical heart. Chief among these was simple finance, noted Lawson, as “the granting of monopolies was attractive because monopolies provided much-needed capital to a monarchy verging on bankruptcy.” The Crown, which simultaneously faced a weak domestic economy in the last decade of the sixteenth century, believed that monopolistic trading firms might supply a much-needed stimulus in a period of economic depression. In addition, noted Lawson, the Crown gradually moved toward a favorable position on a monopolistic enterprise due to the growing availability of literature on eastern trade, especially the 1596 publication of the English version of the Itinerario by Dutch merchant Jan Huyghen van Linschoten.

The resultant East India Trading Company, which received its charter from Queen Elizabeth on 31 December 1600, quickly emerged as a profitable concern. Lawson attributed the early successes of the Company to several reasons:
The Company that evolved from the original charter succeeded because it possessed a sophisticated administrative structure that paid attention to details, and a mandate that everyone understood as being focused on trade and profit. The governor and committee system permitted speedy executive decisions to be taken; an absolute necessity in a trading endeavour where resources were tied so closely to fleets returning from voyages of over two years’ duration.
Yet the first century of the Company’s existence was not without its difficult years, especially the decades from 1640-60. Certainly the English Civil War proved to be problematic for the Company, especially in trying to curry favor with the various political factions. However, Lawson argued that a number of other factors contributed to this period of decline, including the commandeering of Company ships for the war effort, the relocation of trade away from Eastern luxuries and toward basic foodstuffs to feed the population, and finally the national political split that also drove a wedge between individual Company investors and officials.

East India House on Leadenhall Street in London as drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd in 1817Left: East India House on Leadenhall Street in London, as drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd in 1817

After the Restoration, the fortunes of the Company improved again, particularly with the acquisition of the port of Bombay, which the British Crown received as a dowry payment from Portugal for the marriage between Charles II and Catherine of Bragança. Lawson argued that the natural fortifications of the island enclave, especially its excellent harbor, helped ensure Bombay’s rapid rise as a center of regional trade. More importantly, noted Lawson, it was the “inspired leadership” of Gerald Aungier that paved the way for Company successes at Bombay and beyond:
Aungier was a remarkable man with a vision of what constituted successful English governance on foreign soil. His achievements included the setting up of courts of judicature in Bombay; the establishment of a stable currency; and the formation of a militia, together with the bare bones of a naval defence force (later called the Bombay Marine). He insisted on religious tolerance for Catholics, Hindus, and Muslims; local taxation was set by a general assembly of landowners on an equitable basis, and petty disputes were settled by elected magistrates in accordance with local community tradition and practice. Accountability of this sort, along with the ideal of representation and acknowledgement of local custom, represented innovative rule of the highest order.
The rise of Bengal as an additional center of trade has been the subject of historiographical debate for over two centuries, and Lawson argued that there were several reasons for this impressive ascent, not the least of which was pure luck. In addition, noted Lawson, political and economic stability in Bengal worked in the Company’s favor, unlike the more volatile situations in and around Bombay and Madras. Most important in the evolution of Bengal as a major locus of Company activity was the 1717 firman by the Mogul Emperor Farukhsiyar that granted the EIC the right to unlimited trade in Bengal without the payment of customs; Lawson described this as a “huge coup for the Company,” and noted that many historians regard this as an “unprecedented privilege for any European power operating under Mogul rule at the time.”

Major-General Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive of PlasseyLeft: Major-General Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive of Plassey

Lawson argued that the period dominated by the forceful personality of Robert Clive as something of a watershed for the Company, and that this was the period in which the Company unquestionably evolved into an entity much greater than a mere trading organization. The author, however, disagreed with historians who view the period as one of naked empire-building, and he instead argued that the “initial advance lacked precise deliberation or forethought.” Still, noted Lawson, the “final outcome of Clive’s legacy had been postponed, not resolved,” and the realities of what had been an unintentional but indisputable movement toward empire “would become chronic maladies for the Company and the state over the next two decades, that not even the finest pekoe teas could cure.”

The British government unwillingly became involved in Indian affairs, maintained Lawson, due to a number of reasons, not the least of which was the disinclination of the Directorate toward “putting Company affairs in order.” Lawson criticized what he described as “ineptitude of Company leadership in London and the wayward behaviour of many of its servants in India” as another contributing factor in the eventual direct role of the British government in Indian questions, adding that the “immense value of the Company’s activities to British tax and custom revenues could not be jeopardized” by inaction on the part of the government:
When Clive and his imitators had delivered territory and tax revenues to the Company and the state, there seemed every reason to celebrate at the expense of Britain’s rivals. After the full measure of Clive’s legacy became apparent, however, the Company’s iron will to succeed collapsed. As a result, the state had to intervene to salvage its own taxation sources and the Company’s overall finances. In this outcome the Company found itself without allies to defend its old powers and privileges which fell away like discarded clothes...the Company’s loss of control over its own trading policies and dalliance with territorial expansion had ruined its finances and left it exposed to the whims of politicians.
The East India Company, which was composed for Longman Publishing’s Studies in Modern History series, is an excellent overview that is well suited for general readers, non-specialist scholars, and graduate students seeking an abbreviated summary of the EIC that also includes relevant historiography. Lawson added an impressive 10-page bibliography with both primary and secondary materials, as well as a number of useful maps to aid understanding. The text would also serve as an exceptional component for a university-level course in European expansion, British imperialism, or modern economic history and it should be considered an essential addition to a basic modern history library.

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