Sunday, April 6, 2008

The East India Company by Brian Gardner

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

The East India Company represents, in its 300 or so pages, the summarizing of a huge swath of history that the general reader would never have reason to know, unless he stumbled upon this book or one like it. For almost three centuries, however, from the time of the Company’s founding in the very last years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign up until it was dissolved in the 1870s, its shareholders not only ventured into the spice trade and made a profit in good years – which was the original point of the venture – they also governed large parts of India, and sent their own armies, for better or for worse, into wildly exotic places like Kandahar and Kabul, to treat with local rulers.

When the Company sent its ships to India beginning in the 1600s, its employees met an unknown, fairy-tale world of steaming green jungles, heat, disease, fabulously rich potentates, and weird cruelties. Hindu widows were burned alive; a hidden religious sect called the Thugs waylaid and strangled travelers as part of their ritual. India’s Hindu population was governed in large part by their powerful Muslim conquerors, the Moghuls, but good-sized territories of the southern subcontinent remained independent fiefdoms fielding dangerous armies. To pursue trade meant the Company had to venture farther and farther from its first landing points, arranging treaties, greasing palms, and defending itself against shahs and khans who saw no good reason why Englishmen should suddenly appear unchallenged in Allahabad and beyond.

The French and the Russians saw no good reason for it either, nor did the Dutch, who had their own East India Company patrolling modern-day Indonesia. Enemies lay everywhere.
Men who survived to reach the top of the Company service did return to London with immense fortunes, sometimes, but many more died young and anonymous in India. By the 1830s, the entanglements of a commercial firm with this ethnic and religious maelstrom – imagine Microsoft governing Iraq, perhaps – required that the British Crown take things over.

Until reading this book, I had not realized that many of the topics and names that crop up either in biographies or in nice juicy historical novels set during this long period have, as their background, the existence of the East India Company. Robert Clive, the trial of Warren Hastings, the Black Hole of Calcutta, the early career of the young Duke of Wellington, the massacre (and later, retribution) at Cawnpore, even the existence of the famed Raffles Hotel (named for Company employee Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore) – all may be glanced upon in other books, but are subject headings in the Company’s long history. Brian Gardner’s book is a good overview of the major points. His prose style is not the most thrilling in the world, but I do think anything that shines a light on this great tract of fairly recent history, and then brightens up other, juicier reading, is very worthwhile.

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