ESTABLISHED BY A group of London merchants, the East India Company (EIC) was given its first royal charter by Elizabeth I. By the time it was abolished 250 years later, Queen Victoria was on the throne. The East India Company took on pirates, princes and rival traders in its pursuit of profit – changing the world in the process.
A new gallery at the National Maritime Museum, in Greenwich explores this history and continuing relevance of Britain’s trade with Asia today, looking at this story through the lens of the East India Company. For over 250 years, the East India Company uniquely shaped trade between Britain and Asia. The galleries explore the influence of Company trade and power, tracing the changing relationships between Britain and Asia that this brought about. Traders: the East India Company and Asia examines the commodities that the company traded, the people that shaped its tumultuous career and the conflicts and rebellions that were its ultimate undoing.
British involvement in India during the 18th century can be divided into two phases, one ending and the other beginning at mid-century. In the first half of the century, the British were a trading presence at certain points along the coast; from the 1750s they began to wage war on land in eastern and southeastern India and to reap the reward of successful warfare, which was the exercise of political power, notably over the rich province of Bengal. By the end of the century British rule had been consolidated over the first conquests and it was being extended up the Ganges valley to Delhi and over most of the peninsula of southern India. By then the British had established a military dominance that would enable them in the next 50 years to subdue all the remaining Indian states of any consequence, either conquering them or forcing their rulers to become subordinate allies.
At the beginning of the 18th century, English commerce with India was nearly a hundred years old. It was transacted by the East India Company, which had been given a monopoly of all English trade to Asia by royal grant at its foundation in 1600. Through many vicissitudes, the Company had evolved into a commercial concern only matched in size by its Dutch rival. Some 3000 shareholders subscribed to a stock of £3,200,000; a further £6 million was borrowed on short-term bonds; 20 or 30 ships a year were sent to Asia and annual sales in London were worth up to £2 million. Twenty-four directors, elected annually by the shareholders ran the Company’s operations from its headquarters in the City of London.
Towards the end of the 17th century, India became the focal point of the Company’s trade. Cotton cloth woven by Indian weavers was being imported into Britain in huge quantities to supply a worldwide demand for cheap, washable, lightweight fabrics for dresses and furnishings. The Company’s main settlements, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta were established in the Indian provinces where cotton textiles for export were most readily available. These settlements had evolved from ‘factories’ or trading posts into major commercial towns under British jurisdiction, as Indian merchants and artisans moved in to do business with the Company and with the British inhabitants who lived there.
The exotic spices the company imported brought exciting flavours to Britain. The calicos, muslins and silks carried on its ships shaped fashions, clothing rich and poor alike. But its greatest success was tea, which it helped transform from an expensive luxury to a national pastime. However, the British cup of tea had a darker side: opium. This illegal drug trade was interwoven with the company’s business, resulting in war with China on two separate occasions.
The company can be seen as a forerunner of the modern multinational. But its power and global reach were unique. At its height, the company minted its own currency and ruled over a sixth of humanity. It had its own navy, the Bombay Marine, and had 250,000 soldiers at its command. Regarded by the British establishment as too big to fail, the Company was repeatedly bailed out and ended its days shrouded in controversy.
This permanent exhibition showcases the museum’s collection of objects relating to Asia and the Indian Ocean, including Japanese, Chinese and Burmese swords; ship models, as well as navigational instruments. There is also Nelson’s Japan-pattern breakfast service on show and Victoria Crosses awarded during the Indian Mutiny. On a more personal note, there are also journals kept by Company sailors.
The new exhibition and galleries are arranged in five sections: The Maritime World of Asia is an introductory section giving visitors a sense of this environment in Asia. It examines the region as a well-established centre of bustling trade and fabulous wealth before the arrival of European traders. The second section, Spices, looks at the general trading for spices in Asia and at the Company’s spice trade with Indonesia following its foundation in 1600. In Textiles, supplying cloth to the world explores how the Company became a textile merchant to the world in the 18th century. Vast quantities of textiles were imported from India, changing European fashions and tastes in the process. The fourth section, Tea: Breaking into the Tea Trade explores this important trade and how it became a dominant for in world economics at the time. By the late 18th century, the Company’s business focused on the tea trade with China. This trade also had its darker side: the illegal smuggling of opium into China to help pay for the Company’s exports of tea. The final section covers ‘The Company in Crisis’. This gallery looks at the Company’s collapse in the 1850s. Through a combination of war and rebellion in Asia and mounting criticism at home, the Company was brought to its knees. This section invites visitors to consider the legacies and consequences of the Company’s history and enter into the debate on the limits of corporate power today.
The galleries also contain portraits of key figures from throughout the East India Company’s history including Sir James Lancaster, commander of the first Company voyage; Bomanjee Jamsetjee Wadia, master shipbuilder at Bombay Dockyard; the ship-wrecked and imprisoned Robert Knox, said to be the inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe; the appropriately named Money brothers, who made their fortunes in Asia; and Commodore Sir William James, a poor Welsh miller’s son who ran away to sea, and rose to become commodore of the Bombay Marine and Chairman of the Company.
To celebrate the opening of Traders, which opened on 28 September, the National Maritime Museum, is staging a festival of events from 1 October to 19 February 2012. Traders Unpacked, explores the complex legacy of the EIC and its contemporary significance though events including a textile-themed walking tour of London’s East End; an alternative East India Company pub quiz; an evening of Japanese psychedelia; Singaporean deep house and sea shanties; the Curry and a Pint nights, which explore the origins of the great British curry; a series of international tea parties; and a night of nautical games for grown-ups.
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated history of the Company, which draws extensively on the collections of the Museum. Monsoon Traders: the Maritime World of the East India Company is published by Scala and written by Robert J. Blyth and John McAleer, curators of Imperial and Maritime History at the National Maritime Museum and H. V. Bowen, Professor of Modern History, Swansea University. Additional information for this article was taken from Professor Peter Marshall’s introduction to the East India Company.
National Maritime Museum, Romney Road, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF, www.nmm.ac.uk. Hours: Daily 10-5.