This history of the East India Company shows how the Company used violence to establish itself and its home nation as the colonial rulers of India. After its victories over Mughal armies,
The company, which had started off as an enterprise dominated by privateers and former Caribbean pirates, [transformed itself] into a relatively respectable international trading corporation, wich a share price so reliable its stock was regarded almost as a form of international currecy. [It was not only] a vehcile of trade operating from a scattering of Indian coastal enclaves, [but] the ruler of a rich and expansive territorial empire extending across South Asia. (p. 201)
The author shows that it was not British imperial forces that conquered India, but traders. By ensuring that members of Parliament were financially interested in their success, they then gained the backing of Britain’s government and military forces:
India’s transition to colonialism took place through the mechanism of a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors.
The Company’s conquest of India almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. (p. 394)
While the extent of its violence is unmatched, the East India Company’s efforts are part of a larger story of state-making and organized crime. Particularly during the period from about 1600-1900, the lines between legitimate governments, criminal syndicates, and corporations are quite blurry. Consider, for example, the Sicilian mafia which enjoyed early success cornering the market for citrus sales to the British navy.
The initial decision to use violence was made by those present in India, not back in London:
This was something quite new in Indian history: a group of Indian financiers plotting with an international trading corporation to use its own private security force to overthrow a regimate they saw threatening the income they earned from trade. This was not part of any imperial masterplan. In fact, the EIC men on the ground were ignoring their strict instructions from London, which were only to repulse French attacks and avoid potentially ruinous wars with their Mughal hosts. (p. 121)
It was this financial backing, first from the Indian merchant class and later from upper-class Brits, that enabled the company to pay for its mercenary armies (p. 366).
Eventually the British government realized that the Company ruled large portions of India with a firm hand. Once that realization sunk in, the government sent General Cornwallis to serve as Commander-in-Chief, Governor, and reforming influence. Having learned from his defeat at the hands of Washington’s revolutionary army, Cornwallis was careful not to allow for the establishment of an Anglo-Indian middle class that could eventually challenge Britain’s rulership (p. 327).
This colonial rule, and in particular the hollowing out of the middle class, has had an enduring impact on India. Another persistent impact has been the idea of a joint stock corporation, “one of Tudor England’s most brilliant and revolutionary innovations” as an institutional form (p. 7).
When historians debate the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea, and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much as any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweights that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.
While that may be overstating the case somewhat, Dalrymple’s description of the Company’s impact on Indian history is thorough and detailed. This was a chapter of history that I did not know much about prior to reading this book. It left me wanting to know even more about how the Company administered its nascent empire. Violence was a part of the story, but so was bureaucratic administration. The East India Company seems to have truly created a state.