Mention of the British East India Company brings to mind visions of imperialism, exploitation and oppression of colonial peoples in Asia, and India as the “jewel in the British crown”. The Company was all that and more.
In her first book A Business of State, Auburn history professor Rupali Mishra details the founding of the Company in 1600 and its formative years in the early 17th century. The book explores what Mishra rightly characterizes as “the very complicated relationship between the East India Company and the state” in the thirty-five years after Elizabeth I granted its founders a letter patent giving the Company “exclusive” rights over trade in the East Indies.
As Mishra notes, the Company’s founding coincided with England’s enhanced geopolitical position after its recent defeat of the Spanish Armada and its trade rivalry with the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. “The granting of the East India Company patent,” she writes, “thus reflected not only mercantile interests but also other geopolitical requirements of the state.”
The Company was composed of merchants, aristocrats, members of the gentry, and some government officials. Company leaders understood the value of state sponsorship and were “eager to tie [government and court officials] to the interests of the East Indies trade.” Beginning in 1603, the Stuart dynasty ruled England; Mishra’s work encompasses the reigns of James I and Charles I. The leaders of the Company constantly interacted with the monarchy, the Privy Council and Parliament.
“East Indies commercial ventures,” Mishra explains, “were deeply enmeshed with the regime.” Empire and trade developed together. Eventually, the East India Company acted as the British state with its own army and diplomats. But that happened much later.
Mishra describes the governing bodies of the Company and the rise of factual disputes among its leaders. She also notes the Stuarts’ penchant for sponsoring rival trade companies and subordinating Company interests to the interests of the crown. “[T]he relationship between the Company and crown,” Mishra notes, could be mutually beneficial or coercive “with either side capable (at times) of coercing the other.”
The Company traded with the Mughal Empire and Persia, especially after a combined Company-British-Persian force seized the island of Hormuz from the Portuguese in 1622. The seizure of Hormuz also increased growing strains in Anglo-Dutch relations. Less than a year later, ten Company employees were tried and executed at the direction of the governor of the Dutch East India Company on charges of conspiring against Dutch rule with Japanese mercenaries at Amboyna in the Moluccas (present day Indonesia). The British East India Company’s leaders cried out for reprisals against the Dutch, but with much of Europe at war (the Thirty Years War) neither James I (who sought neutrality) nor Charles I (who sought an alliance with the Dutch) supported them. Geopolitics trumped economics and justice.
In the 1630s, Charles I attempted to gain control of the Company. Mishra describes Charles’s “concerted campaign to weaken the Company,” which included licensing rivals to challenge the Company in the East Indies. He granted the Earl of Denbigh license to trade with the Mughal Empire and Persia. Charles also licensed Sir William Courten and his partners to venture to the Cape of Good Hope, Mozambique, the Persian Gulf, Sumatra, Java, the Philippines, Goa, the Chinese coast and Japan to develop trade. In the end, the crown’s power was greater than the Company’s.
Mishra’s book, as advertised, fills a gap in the history of the East India Company’s early years. The book would have benefited, however, from a more extensive geopolitical and historical context of the early 17th century and a summary of what the East India Company became—a tool of British expansion and colonial rule. She appears to have assumed that her readers know that context and history. Perhaps in a future edition or paperback edition of the book she will remedy that unwarranted assumption.