Empires - East India Company


From modest beginnings at Surat, on the coast of Gujarat, in 1608, the fortunes of the Company fluctuated wildly in the early days. Trade with the Indies was dominated largely by the Dutch during the 17th century, who had successfully displaced the Portuguese throughout the region.

From trading to government

Drawing of sailing ships on the Ganges.
Fleet of opium trading ships, 1850.

English concessions, and activities, grew slowly through the 17th century; limited mainly to areas that no one else was interested in - Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. It was only really from 1717 - when the Company was granted exemption from paying Mughal revenues throughout Bengal (the richest and biggest Mughal province) - that the fortunes of the company began to flourish.

The decline of the Dutch, and the virtual disappearance of the Portuguese, played directly into the hands of the Company and its French rivals (who were more active in South India, in the region of Mysore). The Anglo-French rivalry in Europe spilled into the sub-continent, but the French effectively gave up on their Indian ambitions by the 1790s.

The defeat of the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 saw the full and formal transformation of the Company from a commercial enterprise to a governing enterprise within Bengal, and a few years later the Company acquired the right to collect revenues on behalf of the Mughal emperor.

Bad government and the Indian Mutiny of 1857

Company rule was however calamitous, with a famine from 1769-70 estimated to have wiped out one third of the population of Bengal. Lord North's Regulating Act of 1773 however introduced certain reforms, including the position of a Governor General. Thereafter British rule was gradually consolidated through a series of wars and treaties to effectively cover most of the sub-continent.

But the habits of Company servants, estimated to be siphoning off more than 80% of trade on their personal accounts, was poisoning relations with Indian rulers and the wider population. Rebellion came when the ruler of the kingdom of Awadh (Oudh) was to be deposed on the grounds of bad governance. The rebellion that followed (in 1857) was far more widespread and vicious than anyone anticipated, and led to the formal dissolution of both the Mughal empire and the East India Company.

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