Today, instead of an entry in the Personalities series, I realized I had not finished my write up from last May on the East India Company. Here is it in it’s entirety.
The East India Company
The Opium Trade
Fans of Becky Sharpe in Makepeace Thackery’s Vanity Fair will know a little of the East India Company, or The Company . The company was granted its charter from 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I and survived until 1874. By the time of the Regency it was a powerhouse and its actions had much to do with Regency Life. So it is a good backdrop for our Regency novels.
One officer of the company, Warren Hastings (1732-1818) who became the first Governor General of India from 1773 -1785 is reported to be the father of Eliza de Feuillide, cousin to Jane Austen and later her sister by marriage when she married Jane’s brother Henry . Hastings of course was fabulously rich, and was even famously accused of corruption and impeached in 1787 but acquitted in 1795. He later would serve as a privy councillor in 1814.
What is fascinating though is that as the riches from India, made our members of the Ton exceedingly wealthy, becoming perhaps the richest men on the planet, some of this trade was founded on the sale of opium to China. The money then from that sale would buy tea for Britain. Which would then pay for more opium purchased in Bengal, India for sale to China. Though China had prohibited the trade of opium since 1729, reaffirmed in 1799 by the Jaiqing Emperor, its use kept growing.
Britain had during the Georgian era the same problem the US has now with China. China had more sterling owed it, then they wished to spend. So Britain saw that trading opium back to China was one way of reducing the trade imbalance. In India, only The Company controlled the planting, harvesting and manufacturing of opium. It was a monopoly.
This was such a problem for China that it would lead to two wars, the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1842 and the loss of Hong Kong to the English. (Which is of course the Victorian Era.)
Opium would be smuggled into China from Calcutta by respectable British trading houses. The company had a factory in Canton where the opium was off loaded. From 1826 the trade through the Straits of Malacca needed to be protected and the company set up Settlements there to do so. They also became penal colonies for Indian Civilian and Military prisoners. One of these was Singapore.
If America had its Rum-Molasses and Slave trade, it would seem that England has its Opium-Silver and Tea trade. Neither a thing to be particularly proud about in today’s sensibilities, but necessary to have taken us to where we are today.
From Independent Company to the Treasury of the Empire
The Seven Years war (1756-1763) resulted in the defeat of French forces, giving the British great holdings in India and elsewhere. The Frencg had been a source of economic competition before this, but after, they did not face much opposition in India.
Now the Company, with Robert Clive leading its forces conquered much of the subcontinent. In 1757 the Company conquered Bengal. This set up the company to be estranged from the Mughals. Three Anglo-Maratha Wars between 1777-1818 further strengthened the British rule in India. This led to the end of the Maratha Empure and the firm establishment of the British East India Company in India.
Mysore offered resistance to the British as well, but it fell in 1799 with the death of Tipu Sultan. (DWW I have a view of Sean Connery and Michael Caine, campaigning in India for decades as they portrayed in the Man Who Would be King as I write this.)
Between 1736 and 1834, only 10% of the East India Company’s officers survived to return to England. It was not exactly the easiest of places to live during the Regency era.
Many of those who were employed in India were ‘Writers’, or the accounting clerks. Writers such as Henry Thomas Colebrooke and Charles Lamb.
During the end of the 1700s and the early 1800s, the company was obviously flexing its muscles and conquering much of India. However all was not well. The Bengal Famine of 1770 caused 1/3rd of the locals to perish and caused distress in Britain. Costs mounted and labour productivity declined.
Also at this time, there was trade depression in the world. It led to the Tea Act of 1773, and Americans will recall what that led to (DWW-The Tea Party)
Now a series of Acts were created that ultimately would transform the Company into a Colony. They were the East India Company Act of 1773, East India Company Act of 1784 (Pitt’s India Act), Act of 1786, East India Company Act of 1793 (Charter Act), East India Company Act of 1813 (Charter Act), Government of India Act of 1833. (DWW-there were a couple more, but that is for a later era.)
These acts moved India so that the Government of India Act of 1833 removed the Company’s monopolies, renewed the Company’s Political and administrative authority, invested the Board of Control with full power over the company (The Company seems to be subcontracting the work of administration for the government), invest the Governor General in Council with fill powers in all civil and military matters, begin to codify laws (India was comprised of many political groupings and kingdoms), equality of employment for Indians. In 1773 the first act, also known as the regulating act, was designed to remind the company that England and Parliament were it’s master. That the Company may have conquered much of India but did so for the Crown and government, not for itself. India was thus leased back to the company for a fee of £40,000 for two years. Now Warren Hastings became Governor General of India. He had been the Governor of Bengal. At first the Company welcomed these changes, but each year, the burden of administering India from their bank accounts, as well as paying off Parliament their license fee, weighed on the Company.
The Company continued to grow, with the aid of the Empire, ruling by the mid 19th century most of India, Burma, Malaya, Singapore and British Hong Kong. Nearly 1/5th of the world’s population was under it’s trading influence.
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