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THIS excellent chronicle of the rise and fall of the East India Company has real global resonance today.
The East India Company (EIC) was in many ways the first transnational corporation, starting life as a trading company in 1599 although, as author William Dalrymple notes, for some time the company struggled to get a foothold in India and the region.
That all changed in the mid-18th century. Over the 35 years to 1798 the EIC was effectively transformed from a trading company to an aggressive military combatant in the region, a privately owned imperial power with a standing army of 200,000 and territorial possessions far larger than that of its parent country.
The out-of-control nature of the company, run by a group of directors from Leadenhall Street in the City of London, was revealed in the 1770s when it hit difficulties. At the time it accounted for half of all British trade and it was a channel to transport Indian wealth into the pockets of the English elite.
The joint-stock nature of the company structure meant that many in that elite, including a large number of politicians, were heavily invested in the enterprise. So when it hit trouble, the EIC was regarded as “too large to fail” — a phrase more recently applied to unaccountable banks going bust in the 2008 financial crash.
The 1770s crisis also marked the point when Parliament would come to regulate and control more and more of the company's activities, and a major regulatory role was the price exacted for a huge £1.4 million loan extended to it by Parliament in 1773.
It continued to expand its influence, but direct control over it also grew, leading to the eventual disbandment of the EIC, with India becoming a recognised part of the British empire in 1857.
The great strength of this book is in revealing the truly brutal and aggressive nature of those pursuing the early stages of creating what was to become the British empire.
Dalrymple does a great service to history in revealing the reality of what went on, rather than the shiny image often presented in British history books of empire as some sort of civilising force for humanity.
Published by Bloomsbury, £30.
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