The East India Company: The original corporate raiders
March 4, 2015 7:24 AM   Subscribe

It was at this moment that the East India Company (EIC) ceased to be a conventional corporation, trading and silks and spices, and became something much more unusual. Within a few years, 250 company clerks backed by the military force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers had become the effective rulers of Bengal.
posted by Chrysostom (19 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
And getting all up in Captain jack Sparrow's face all the time.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 7:25 AM on March 4, 2015

It was something like this
posted by vorpal bunny at 7:55 AM on March 4, 2015

I was at the the Royal Naval Museum in Greenwich recently, and the coolest thing I saw all day was a video segment where an Indian businessman talked about how much pleasure it gave him to own the company that used to own his country.

(Technically, I think he only bought the right to use the name of the shambling zombie corporation a century or so after it was stripped of its powers after epically botching its saving roll against rebellion. But yeah, the video at the Museum was so awesome that we spent part of our last day in London tracking down an East India Fine Foods, so that I could buy stuff for my father, who was raised in Hong Kong during the British occupation and has a chip on his shoulder about England/colonialism as a result.

Also, the filled cheese savory biscuits they sell are so good. WORLD'S CLASSIEST RITZ-BITS SANDWICHES HOLY SHIT.)
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:07 AM on March 4, 2015 [8 favorites]

Is there a particularly good book about the East India Company? An entertaining history? I guess Dalrymple, the author of this article and a marvelous writer on India, is finishing one: "The Anarchy: How a Corporation Replaced the Mughal Empire, 1756-1803 will be published next year by Bloomsbury & Knopf". Are there others?

I just got back from a tourist trip to India which was amazing in many ways. One of the highlights was Kolkata, the capital of (now) West Bengal, the seat of the East India Company. So fascinating to see the remnants of this period of history. A terrible period of exploitation. But some opportunity, too. I was struck by how that period brought India in to the European sphere, many exchanges of people and culture back and forth. Increasingly as equals, particularly after the rapaciousness of the EIC was wound down and the British transitioned to building more of a functioning colony than simply extracting the riches. Colonialism is an awful legacy but in India the colonized did manage to wrest some value out of the subjugation.

I'd particularly like to know more about the 1857 Rebellion, or as the British called it "the mutiny". Every guide I met in India told me some aspect of that story and showed me some place or artifact related to it. I gather it's an essential part of their history of independence.
posted by Nelson at 8:30 AM on March 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

But in that year, the Persian adventurer Nadir Shah descended the Khyber Pass with 150,000 of his cavalry and defeated a Mughal army of 1.5 million men.
This is a war I hadn't heard of. I wonder what happened here to lead to such a dramatic Mughal collapse. It makes the English accomplishment in India a little less impressive. Did Nadir Shah ever face a European army?
posted by clawsoon at 8:37 AM on March 4, 2015

Nelson: The Honourable Company by John Keay.
posted by The Nutmeg of Consolation at 8:39 AM on March 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Nadir Shah is considered one of the greatest leaders of the era, a military genius, so you have to take a victory by him as a reflection on his opponents with a grain of salt. At the time the Mughals were past their zenith as well, and I'm not so sure about the 1.5 million men figure either.
posted by Palindromedary at 9:26 AM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite things to do at work, is put Crash Course youtube stuff on in the background. I wish these things had existed when I was a younger nerd. Just the other day I heard the one about the Mughal Empire

So much history we skip right over in US public schools (30 years ago.. I hear it's worse now)
posted by DigDoug at 10:21 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am currently reading a biography of Richard Burton, not that one, the 19th century explorer, writer, and translator, who started his career as a soldier in the East India Company's private army. The author refers to this company as John Company, a term generally used at that time. This personification is quite interesting...
posted by njohnson23 at 10:26 AM on March 4, 2015

Ugh, fine! ..."I pledge allegiance to the Wal*Mart, and to the Home Depot for which it stands..."
posted by sexyrobot at 10:29 AM on March 4, 2015

I recently read a great book called Merchant Kings that examines six different individuals critical to running early corporations including the EIC, the Dutch East-India Company, The Russian American Trading Company, etc. Fascinating book.

If you're ever in Amsterdam, be sure and check out the Scheepvaartmuseum (Shipping Museum). Has a lot of great stuff on the history of the VOC. Plus, ships!
posted by misterpatrick at 11:13 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am currently reading a biography of Richard Burton, not that one, the 19th century explorer, writer, and translator,

"Not that one?" There is another Richard Burton?
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:24 PM on March 4, 2015

See also Hudson's Bay Company, which was a weird thing to me because I learned about it as a kid in school as basically "the company that owned Canada and had a bunch of adventurer-explorer-trappers on the payroll", and then I forgot about it for years, and then as an adult I fell into a wiki-hole and stumbled across it again and I guess their thing is they own department stores now?
posted by jason_steakums at 12:36 PM on March 4, 2015

On the off chance you are serious, Mars Saxman - yes. Well known actor, married to Elizabeth Taylor twice.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:21 PM on March 4, 2015

I guess their thing is they own department stores now?

Growing up in Western Canada, I had the opposite experience. It turned out that the big old department store downtown had a much more significant history than I ever would have imagined.
posted by twirlip at 2:17 PM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not denying the evilness of their actions, but I am failing to understand the special opprobrium given for a private company doing this as opposed to any other power such as a recognised government. This is far from the worst colonial conquest story I've heard, I don't think that just because it was done by a private company makes any moral difference.
posted by wilful at 4:01 PM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, nominally speaking, and especially in the political philosophy of the times, the legitimacy of the state derived from the will of the people and was responsible to the same. The legitimacy of one of these companies derived from the state, but was responsible to the shareholders. Or, basically, nobody. As laughable as 19th century democracy was on the democracy front, I know which of the two I would

Especially considering that when things inevitably go south for the company, they will require bailout just on the economic front, but often require a literal military intervention by the state. as well.

Also, in the British parliament at least, MPs were regularly paid off with bribes of company stock. That's a bit of a conflict of interest situation, not to mention a great way for horrible abuses and corruptions to go investigated.

I mean, imperialism was horrifying and shameful, but I think there's a lot more reason to be concerned with giving private corporations gigantic armies without even considering morality or equivalence.
posted by absalom at 4:51 PM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

But absolom, I'm not sure how you can differentiate between 18th century "democracy" and shareholders. It was all just for rich people to screw over poor people. Maybe the State did it a tiny bit more gently. Maybe.
posted by wilful at 10:34 PM on March 4, 2015

Thanks, Chrysostom - it was a serious question, I've been interested in British colonial history and the Great Game for a long time so Richard Burton = explorer seems totally obvious. I looked the actor up on imdb and realized that I have heard of him before, probably for a similar reason, but I don't think I've ever seen any of his movies.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:35 AM on March 7, 2015

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