The East India Company and India: Myths and real history

Popular history and serious history do not always tell the same story. The gap is big with the British East India Company. Popular history projects an image of the Company as the “bad foreigners” who enriched themselves at the expense of the “good locals”, that is ordinary Indians who lost wealth, status, and dignity.

In Britain especially, many people believe that holding anti-Western sentiment makes them morally superior and use trashy readings of Indian history to support their biases. The Company serves that sentiment.

Answering seven questions, I set the record straight.

Was the Company a political entity?

The East India Company is often described as a political or military outfit that set out to plunder India and subjugate its people. In fact, for the first 160-170 years of its existence (the Company started in 1600, and effectively ended in 1858), it was a business firm with no power to loot. If anything, it was often bullied by Indian kings, who did not go too far because the Company was a strong power in the seas.

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Tea auction at India House, London, c 1800 (source columbia.edu)

Did Indians lose from the Company’s operations?

Their vast trading operation could never have survived without the collaboration and partnership of thousands of Indian merchants, agents, artisans, bankers, and transporters. The Company was the biggest business firm in the world of its time, and therefore, made many Indians fabulously rich. Some of the most famous entrepreneurs and business families of nineteenth-century India made their money trading with the Company or with European merchants. Palatial homes in the north of Calcutta attest to that wealth. These profits were much larger in scale than the profits the Company sent back to England.

 

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Raja Nabakrishna Deb’s home in north Calcutta (source: aamarcity.com)

Did the Company cause an economic decline in India?

Claims that the Company presided over a period of national economic decline are spurious. My economic historian colleagues (Read Broadberry-Custodis-Gupta in Explorations in Economic History, 2015) have analysed India’s income and found that it fell sharply between 1600 and 1750, when Indians ruled, stabilized and started rising after 1810 when the British had consolidated their rule.

Was the Company state the bad foreign rule?

In the 1770s, few Indians would even have seen this as a ‘foreign rule’. When the Company started sharing power in Bengal, there was no such thing as an Indian nation or Indian citizens, as the country existed as a set of kingdoms. Bengal, where Company rule began, was ruled by a Nawab who spoke Persian, not Bengali. The most powerful of these kingdoms were embroiled in near-constant warfare, which worried wealthy Indian merchants. Many saw the East India Company as their benign force and plotted with them to overthrow the state and install the Company as the ruler of Bengal.

Did Indians resent Company rule?

At the time, Indians themselves had mixed feelings about the East India Company – and many viewed their rule as the least bad option. Prior to the Company’s takeover around 1757-65, the strongest military power in India belonged to the Maratha Empire. Just before Company takeover, Maratha forces invaded Bengal, killed and robbed merchants, destroyed crops, and raped women. Merchants fled from this horror to Calcutta, then under the Company’s possession. One of the biggest roads in the city today was built over a huge barrier created in defence of the city from the Marathas, called Maratha Ditch, later renamed Circular Road.

Certainly, the average Bengali or Marwari merchant of that time would have felt positively about the Company. Similar sentiment prevailed among the Parsis of Bombay and Surat, and the Telugu and Tamil merchants of Madras. The most influential Indians in the port cities like Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras actively welcomed Company’s rule over Indian ones. Of course, merchants gained an economic advantage. But many contemporary intellectuals and reformers supported Company rule, believing that it would bring the best elements of European and Indian cultures closer to each other.

One, Rammohun Roy of Calcutta – described as the ‘first modern Bengali’ – was inspired by the great works of scholarship on Indian language, law, literature, geography, and botany produced by Europeans in East India employ. The Company’s own law courts used Sanskrit and Persian law books. Wealthy and influential Indians who supported the Company pooled money to set up colleges that taught students following western curricula. Without the Company rule, Bombay’s Elphinstone College and Calcutta’s Presidency College, two of India’s best institutions, would not exist.

Rammohun Roy
Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833)

 

Did the Company leave a destructive legacy in India?

By the time of independence in 1947, the port cities of India and Pakistan were home to some of the best schools, colleges, hospitals, universities, banks, insurance companies, and learned societies available outside the western world. A big part of that infrastructure was created by the Indians, with help from the state and with European manpower to run them. These developments had their origin in the East India Company’s rule.

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Fort St George from the sea

 

What is the ‘right’ history?

Well, we cannot generalize. Some Indians gained and some lost out. Those who gained did not just gain in money. Many felt they gained because the Company and its port cities in India represented a cosmopolitan culture. Some felt freer because the interior of India was steeped in religion, feudal loyalty, and a murderously brutal caste system. Their reasons are varied and diverse. One thing is for certain – branding Indians who lived under East India Company rule as ‘victims’ is just as reductive as portraying every foot soldier of the Company as a bloodthirsty oppress

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