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Trade and Empire Building

Trade and Empire Building The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756-1833 by H V Bowen; Cambridge University Press, 2006; pp 304,


Trade and Empire Building

The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756-1833

by H V Bowen; Cambridge University Press, 2006; pp 304, £ 50 (hardbound).


t is always a little daunting to review yet another history of the English East India Company (EIC) whose huge and somewhat drab archive has inevitably generated an impressive corpus of later histories, some inspiring, others not but almost always incremental. The result is that there is a sense of ennui about the subject; growing up on a regular menu of company history and its dubious record of private trade, corporate planning, military aggression, twisted negotiations with the British Crown, it is not always easy to find that spark of enthusiasm for going back to a history of the EIC. However, it goes to H V Bowen’s credit that he is able to capture the reader’s interest in presenting not merely a detailed anatomy of the company after the historic battle of Plassey (1757), but is able to connect it with larger issues of British industrialisation and corporate transformation in the 18th and 19th centuries. Analysing company documentation in detail and with meticulous precision, Bowen teases out many of the gaps that remain in our understanding of the EIC’s structure and workings in the second half of the 18th century and of its impact on the British economy. What would have made the study even more illuminating is to have taken a closer look at the representation of the EIC in British public life – and how the company withstood some of the more damaging indictments that it faced in parliamentary debates. This gap is especially evident as Bowen himself alerts us to the complexities of the relationship between the EIC and the British state in the second half of the 18th century and how this produced shifts in perception. An elaboration of this issue would have enabled a more textured social history of the EIC and its location in contemporary Britain going beyond the indices of consumption, employment, remittance and treasure transfers.

The focus of the study, as set out explicitly in the introduction is on the internal changes that occurred in the structure of the EIC after it had made the transition from merchant body to sovereign ruler (“Company Bahadur”) in India, how this change in status affected its interactions with larger society in Britain and how its global operations generated significant economic consequences for the metropolitan city of London as well for the larger British society. For example, Bowen contends that the EIC was one of the largest employers in 18th century Britain and even as the presence of the EIC was thin on the ground in the colony, it had a significant number of employees on its payroll in Britain. Equally striking was the fact that the EIC spent nearly 70 million pounds as funds for export goods – an investment that had long-term consequences. At the same time, albeit ironically, the expansion of the EIC’s presence in India eroded the more modern features of its profile; after 1760 as it recast its financial, administrative and political relationships, the company began to act much less like a modern form of joint stock organisation.

Complex Motives

This institutional metamorphosis was a consequence of the changing relationship between company and state. Before the acquisition of territories in India, the company had played a central role in the creation of a national debt, stock market and system of credit. Prior to 1756, the state had depended on the EIC’s reserves for meeting war expenses but, thereafter, the relationship of dependence changed. Furthermore, the state began to increasingly cast the company in the role of a guardian of an important national concern with the result that controls became more stringent and the company, from being a free dealing commercial organisation ended up becoming a limb of the state. At the same time, the volatility of stock prices produced more changes in the composition of the company’s stockholders in the decades after 1760 – a change that made the company a different proposition from its early 18th century incarnation. For one, the stockholders became increasingly national – the cosmopolitanism of an earlier era disappeared as more and more of the gentlemanly elite of the south-west invested in company stock. The replacement of foreign investors by local ones and the contraction of opportunities for Dutch capital made the EIC even more of a national institution. Bowen mentions in passing that for some of the stockholders, the motivation was in the nature of pursuing a public good – a point that could do well with some elaboration. What was it about the EIC’s India possessions that encouraged investors to think of their connection in such a fashion?

For the directors in charge of the actual business of running the EIC, the motivations were complex. The issue of patronage was crucial but here again Bowen suggests that the question of personal gain was less of a consideration in the years after 1820

– when in any case the profile of the EIC had changed substantially. Reform and regulation had reduced the scope for illicit activities and there was an added emphasis on the virtues of decency and integrity that came to be attached to the office of the director. There is in this connection an excellent section (chapter 5) on the day to day activities of the junior servants and clerks whose ennui at the exhausting workload is evocatively described. The breeding of a professional and standardised class of writers and clerks whose labour produced the early colonial archive – the empire in writing – had important implications. It set the basis for a new taxonomy that would be imposed on India and its people. While Bowen does not choose to locate this clearly within the larger intellectual context of 19th century Europe, he documents the beginnings of a classificatory project undertaken by the company servants who followed precise instructions on what, when and how to compile fact files and how these were subsequently processed and disseminated to the public via parliamentary committee reports. By

Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006 the beginning of the 19th century, the collection and organisation of information had brought a sense of order and purpose to the domestic affairs of the EIC. This went some way in consolidating its reputation for efficiency and administrative competence, testified to by public declarations of faith in the company.

The concluding chapters of the work focus on the influence of the EIC on the British economy. Bowen demonstrates just how interlinked the EIC had become with the expansion of the city of London, how it provided an immense source of employment to vast sections of the British population – in 1,800 over 90,000 Britons being dependent on it one way or the other. Bowen, however, does not draw out the implications of these indicators or linkages and his attempts to qualify the understanding of external trade in British industrialisation remain more of an assertion rather than of an argument. On the other hand, it is not entirely clear whether Bowen completely jettisons the idea that the EIC was not a commercial organisation and that it was a colonising one. Imperial as well as business history scholars have looked at the English EIC as a pre-eminently commercial organisation and have gone on to suggest that the empire in India was an unplanned consequence of the EIC’s eccentric location in 18th century India and that the focused character of the company’s commercial organisation was a precursor of the modern multinational form. Where would Bowen’s work lie? If indeed the EIC was in the late 18th century less and less of a modern trading company, and more of a colonising force, then how is it that the colony is almost entirely absent in the story? If indeed, the EIC was central to the configurations of British economy and society as Bowen so eloquently demonstrates, then surely its experiences in India as empire manager could not have been so marginal at least in the company’s self-definition. It is this aspect of the story that remains conspicuously absent.



Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006

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