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Thursday, July 14, 2011

The British East India Company in South Asia

For more than 200 years, a private company virtually governed India and the entire South Asia. Granted a Royal Charter on December 31,1600 by Elizabeth I of Great Britain for trading privileges in India, the British East India Company grew from a trading corporation to a virtual government entity as it acquired not only governmental but military powers as well.

Company Flag (1801)
At the beginning, other countries like France and Portugal tried to muscle in on the lucrative India trade. Robert Clive, an employee of the company, led a military expedition in 1757 and defeated an army of natives led by Siraj Ud Daulah, an official of the Mughal Empire, and backed by the French. This battle effectively established British supremacy in India, but it led to a break in the relationship between the company and the Mughal Empire, which was then ruling India. A Mughal Emperor in 1615, Jahangir, granted the company exclusive rights to trade in some areas of India. By the 16th century, the Mughal Empire was in decline and the Indian Empire was breaking up into different enclaves ruled by various local rulers. It was here during this time that the policy of divide and conquer was used with deadly efficiency by the British. One by one, the company’s army defeated various resistances from the local rulers

Not content with trade, the British East India Company gradually started to takeover the administration of regions in the subcontinent. By the 18th century, the company was the uncontested master of almost the entire region. The company’s stockholders became fabulously wealthy, and the wealth derived from the India trade also contributed considerably to the growth of the British Empire. A legendary diamond taken by the British from the Mughal Empire, called the Koh-i-noor, is now part of the British Crown Jewels.

As the wealth and power of the company and its officials grew, some members of the English Parliament became concerned with the increasingly despotic nature of the company’s rule in the region. A prominent member of parliament, Charles James Fox, called the tyranny of the British East India an “abominable despotism,” for it was just that, and more: it was an enslavement of thirty million people for the profit of a few handfuls of men.

In 1773, the English Parliament passed an Act in an effort to control the company’s functions in the region. The Crown appointed Warren Hastings as the first Governor-General of India, but the company was still allowed complete monopoly over trade and a large degree of control over the administration of the region. However, little by little, through various laws and other events, the company began to decline. The Sepoy Rebellion (a rebellion of the Company’s Indian soldiers) in 1857 finally ended the company’s administrative functions; control of the administration of India went to the British Government and India then became a formal Crown Colony. The British East India Company was finally dissolved on January 1, 1874.

After the company’s demise, an English newspaper stated, “It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other company ever attempted and as such is ever likely to attempt in the years to come.”
True. For the degree of greed and exploitation shown by the British East India Company not only in India but also in the whole Asian continent is unequalled in history.

Many tried to equal it, though.

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