British India: The Crowning of the Merchant Princes

Philip II of Spain, whom we last met assuming the crown of Portugal in 1581, was a wearer of many jewel-encrusted hats; he was also the King of Naples, the King of Jerusalem and, until 1558, the co-monarch of England. Because he held that title only by virtue of marriage to Mary I, however, he lost it upon her death, and the whole of the English crown passed to Mary’s sister Elizabeth. Though Mary had been a militant Catholic, Elizabeth was an equally militant Protestant, and Philip regarded her as a heretic, ineligible by right to take England’s throne. What is more, Elizabeth was an enthusiastic supporter of the Protestant Dutch in their revolutionary bid against the rule of Philip’s Habsburg dynasty. In order to secure the integrity of his kingdom, Philip sent the ‘Invincible Armada’ of 1588 to unseat Elizabeth and restore Catholicism across the Channel.

east india company
East India Company, Photo from Flickr

The Armada, however, met the same fate as all ‘invincible’ and ‘unsinkable’ things and ended largely submerged in the North Atlantic. The result was a massive blow to the global prestige of Spanish arms, hitherto seen as the mightiest in the world, and an equally massive boost to the confidence of the English nation. The Spanish hulls had scarcely hit the ocean floor when a company of merchants flocked to Elizabeth’s court, requesting permission to undertake a voyage to the East, which the Iberian powers had previously held closed to English shipping. Although initially rebuffed, they eventually received royal approval to mount their expedition which, although not greatly profitable, demonstrated the feasibility of English ventures in the East. On New Year’s Eve 1600, they met again to charter the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading with the East Indies, which would come to be known more popularly as the East India Company (EIC).

The Company was the first of its kind—a wholly private venture operating altogether independently of the Crown, which nonetheless enforced its monopoly on the Indian trade. At first, the trade did not go as well as might have been hoped. The VOC, founded only two years later, was quick to establish its dominance in the lucrative spice trade, drawing on the wealth of mercantile infrastructure the Portuguese had left in Holland. Many of the EIC’s initial voyages largely bypassed India to explore opportunities in what is now Indonesia or parts of the Far East. On 5 September 1612, however, Captain Thomas Best, in command of the Company’s tenth voyage, arrived in the city of Surat, which served as the principal port for the wealthy Mughal Empire, whose name betrayed its rulers’ origins as the descendants of Mongol conquerors who had entered India four centuries before. By coincidence, a small Portuguese squadron arrived on the 13th. While Best was in negotiations with the local governor for trading rights, the Portuguese attempted to secure their monopoly attacking him. Best sailed his flagship, Red Dragon, directly through four Portuguese galleons, running three of them aground, and successfully countered a Portuguese fire ship attack to make good his escape.

Anywhere else along the Indian coast, this would have been an unremarkable encounter, but it greatly impressed the Mughal Governor of Gujarat, who reported the events to the Emperor. The Emperor, in turn, granted exclusive trading rights to the EIC. The Battle of Swally, as it came to be known, thus marked the official end of the Portuguese monopoly, began the Company’s official entry into Indian trade, and, in encouraging the Company’s directors to establish a proper navy for the defense of their shipping, came to be seen by later generations as the beginning of the modern Indian Navy.

Thus secured, the British swiftly established a factory in Surat, followed by one in Machilipatnam. By 1647, the Company was operating twenty-three factories. Although the Dutch were still masters of the spice trade, the EIC’s new holdings were extremely profitable for other goods, including cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre, tea, and opium. The Company flourished in these alternative markets, surviving three wars with Holland and the collapse first of the Stuart dynasty in the English Revolution and then of Cromwell’s Commonwealth.

The Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II brought two important changes. Charles’ marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza brought the custom of tea-drinking, already popular among the Portuguese nobility, to the English court (thus opening a market the EIC would grow rich supplying), and brought the city of Bombay to the English crown as part of her dowry. Charles, for his part, issued a series of edicts around 1670 granting the Company the right to acquire territory, mint money, conduct diplomacy, raise troops, and exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction. Although the Crown retained suzerainty over all the Company’s holdings, the Company was thus entitled to exercise all the powers of government on the Crown’s behalf.

This became relevant first in Bengal, a territory to which the English had been invited by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (remembered chiefly for his construction of the Taj Mahal), who had granted a royal decree allowing the establishment of a factory and the residency of Company agents. Over the ensuing decades, the slow growth of the English presence and power in the region began to unnerve many Mughal officials, who suspected (often correctly) that the English were meddling in local politics. The situation had already deteriorated into intermittent armed conflict when an English pirate, Captain Henry Every, attacked a Mughal fleet making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in 1695. The convoy included Ganj-i-Sawai, rumored to be the largest ship in the Indian ocean. After a chase of several days, Every overtook both ships, looting them thoroughly and committing outrages against the passengers, who included a relative of the Emperor, to make them confess the hiding places of the ship’s riches. The loot amounted to approximately half a million pounds sterling—an unheard of sum at the time—and ranks still as the richest plunder ever taken by pirates. Emperor Aurangzeb was furious and ordered attacks on four of the Company’s factories, whose officers, imprisoned, were nearly lynched. Parliament, aiming to appease the Mughal government before trade was cut off completely, launched history’s first global manhunt.

Aurangzeb was placated, but Bengal became an independent principality in 1717, and its new rulers grew ever more suspicious of British activity in their domain. By the eighteenth century, it was not Holland but France that primarily opposed British interests on the Subcontinent, and the two countries were heavily invested in a game of proxy wars and secret coups to maintain the allegiances of local princes and access to local markets. This game might have gone on indefinitely had British and French rivalries in Europe and the Americas not flared into the Seven Years’ War that brought Quebec under British rule and set the stage for the American Revolution. On the other side of the world, it made explicit a series of local power struggles previously carried on covertly. On 23 June 1757, Company forces under the command of Colonel Robert Clive defeated the newly enthroned Prince of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah, who had been supported by French arms. When the British-backed usurper turned against his former allies as well, the Company had him replaced and, being in clear military control of the region, had itself appointed by the Mughal Emperor, who was still nominally the lord of the Princes of Bengal, as the diwan, or tax collector, of the region. Armed with this appointment and the grants previously issued by Charles II, the Company became overnight the effective government of Bengal, both taxing and administering the civil law of the principality.

From that point forward, the East India Company became less a corporation and more a state. Although the Portuguese remained in Goa, and the Dutch and the French continued to inherit the Portuguese legacy of forts and trading posts elsewhere in the Subcontinent, the agents of the East India Company became the heirs to the Indo-Greek kingdoms of two thousand years before—the masters of an alien land that they would change, and that would change them, more deeply than they could imagine. It is through the eyes of those bewildered Company clerks that we will survey the India of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in our next installment.

Author: R. Joseph Capet


  1. I read about “British India” during my school days, after a long-time it is nice to read about the history “East India Company”

  2. Incredible insight into an important part of our history. Loved reading it. Look forward to more.

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