Thematic Areas

Each volumeĀ in East India Company has been tagged with the era(s) in the history of British India from which it dates. See below to read short introductions to these major thematic eras and to their significance in the India Office Records series.

Early voyages

European rivalries and co-operation

Consolidation in India

Towards political power

War with France and Indian states

Domination over India

Regulation by the Crown

Loss of the Indian trading monopoly

The Opium Wars

Early Crown rule

Late Crown rule and independence

 

 

1599-1613 Early voyages


In 1600 a group of London merchants secured a royal charter from Elizabeth I to enjoy the monopoly of trade from England to the Far East, forming the English East India Company. Sir James Lancaster commanded the first voyage, which set out in 1601 and returned in 1603. Each voyage during this period was an independent financial venture with its own commissions (see, for example, that to Sir Henry Middleton in 1610) and shareholders. The earliest East India Company voyages concentrated on procuring and selling pepper from the islands of what is now Indonesia, where its adventurers faced strong opposition from the established Dutch. In 1612 the Company secured its first foothold in India when Sir Thomas Roe visited the Emperor Jahangir and secured a commercial treaty; at Swally (Suvali) the East India Company’s naval forces beat the Portuguese and established their first factory (trading post) on the Indian subcontinent.

From the earliest the Company’s Court of Directors met in London to steer its affairs. See court books and minutes IOR/B/1 to IOR/B/4.

 

1614-1634 European rivalries and co-operation

From 1614 the East India Company’s voyages ceased to be individual business ventures and became the efforts of a single, continuing joint-stock company. During this period the Company’s captains roamed throughout the Far East searching for commercial opportunity. Royal licences to ship bullion enabled the Company to trade silver for goods, but stable trading positions proved elusive. A venture to Japan via Java succeeded in extracting trading privileges from the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but the Japanese proved uninterested in English woollen cloth and the Company was unable to obtain the hoped-for Japanese silk for export to China. The factory closed after ten years. Further south co-operation which had developed with the Dutch turned sour, and in 1623 ten East India Company men were tortured and killed by factors of the Dutch East India Company on the clove island of Amboyna.

The Company’s focus, however, began to turn inexorably to India. In 1615 Thomas Roe led an expedition to Agra to obtain imperial protection for the Company’s factory at Surat, where in 1618 the Bombay Presidency was established. In 1626 the first East India Company military defences on India soil were constructed, at Armagon.

See court minutes IOR/B/4 to IOR/B/17.

 

1635-1670 Consolidation in India

Fort St George in Madras was begun in 1644, with a factory nestling under its walls. By 1647 the Company had 23 factories, and 90 employees in India. Oliver Cromwell renewed the Company’s charter in 1657 and after the restoration of the monarchy Charles II granted the Company numerous powers more usually enjoyed by states, beginning the Company's long transition from a commercial organisation to an administrative one – the right to acquire territory and exercise jurisdiction over it, mint coins, command military forces and make alliances, war and peace. He also granted land: the islands of Bombay and St Helena.

See court minutes IOR/B/17 to IOR/B/31.

 

1671-1715 Towards political power

As the Company began to become established it faced a potential crisis – in 1694 a deregulating act was passed allowing any English firm to trade with India. A ‘New Company’ was quickly established, but was heavily subscribed to by shareholders of the East India Company; scarcely ten years later the rival companies merged under the monopoly charter of the old, and in 1712 the restored monopoly was extended. By this time the Company had also become a considerable lender of money to the British government.

Despite these trials at home, the Company prospered abroad. A factory was opened in Siam in 1672, and Job Charnock established (albeit briefly) an English presence in Calcutta in 1686; a permanent factory was established there in 1690. In 1700 trade with Canton commenced, in silk, tea and porcelain.

See court minutes IOR/B/29 and IOR/B/31 to IOR/B/53 (directors) and IOR/B/255 (proprietors). See also memoranda of the Committee of Correspondence IOR/D/91 to IOR/D/94.


 

1716-1757 War with France and Indian states

In 1719 the Compagnie des Indes was formed to carve out for France a slice of the Indian trade. War between France and Britain in Europe spread to India by the mid-1740s, as the two companies and the states of Bengal, Carnatic and Hyderabad fought for domination of the Carnatic coast. At the Battle of Plassey in 1757 the alliance of France and the Nawab of Bengal was decisively defeated by Company forces under Robert Clive. This victory effectively ended French ambitions in India and enabled British dominance over the whole of Bengal, centred on Calcutta. Britain, through the Company, now had an Indian territorial empire, and the Company was no longer just a trading organisation but also a quasi-sovereign power.

See court minutes IOR/B/53 to IOR/B/74 (directors) and IOR/B/255 and IOR/B/256 (proprietors). See also records kept by the Committee of Correspondence (reports and resolutions IOR/D/18 to IOR/D/22, memoranda IOR/D/95 to IOR/D/106) and Auditor's References IOR/D/147 and IOR/D/148.

 

1758-1772 Domination over India

In 1765 the Company were presented by the Emperor Shah Alam II with the diwani, the right to collect the territorial revenues of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The Company was now as much concerned with governance and territorial conquest as with its original commercial ambitions, although efforts to increase trade with China by exporting Indian goods there continued. Clive, now governor of Bengal, attempted to establish a strong administration and reduce corruption, but the tradition of the Company nabob, accumulating vast wealth in India under often dubious circumstances, was to persist. In 1772 Warren Hastings was appointed the first governor-general of India. Meanwhile, war continued; the Company become locked in a series of conflicts with the southern kingdom of Mysore from 1767.

See court minutes IOR/B/74 to IOR/B/88 (directors) and IOR/B/256 to IOR/B/258 (proprietors). See also records kept by the Committee of Correspondence (reports and resolutions IOR/D/22 to IOR/D/27, memoranda IOR/D/107 to IOR/D/115) and Auditor's References IOR/D/148 and IOR/D/154.

 

1773-1812 Regulation by the Crown

In the late eighteenth century the Company continued its territorial expansion. The wars with Mysore resulted in the death of its ruler, Tipu Sultan, and the Company’s takeover of the state in 1799; war with the Maratha Empire broke out in 1775 and was to persist for decades. However, the Company’s independence of action was slowly diminishing, and financial problems, particularly with regard to paying the Crown for its monopoly, mounted. In 1773, Lord North's Regulating Act lent £1.4 million to the Company on the proviso that it reform its administration, and in 1782 a Parliamentary select committee investigating the Carnatic Wars concluded that the Company's military adventures had become detrimental to its trade. In 1787, having resigned and returned to Britain, Warren Hastings was impeached before Parliament and accused of misconduct and personal corruption. Though he was acquitted (and awarded a Company annuity, the India Act of 1784 appointed a Board of Control to bring the Company under the full scrutiny and influence of the Government, and although trade remained outside the Board's purview the Company was compelled to reserve space on its ships for the goods of private traders. From this point the Company effectively acted as an arm of the Crown, and the president of the Board of Control was effectively the minister for the Company. As such, the charter was renewed again in 1793.

See court minutes IOR/B/88 to IOR/B/156 (directors) and IOR/B/258 to IOR/B/265 (proprietors). See also records kept by the Committee of Correspondence (minutes IOR/D/1 to IOR/D/4; memoranda IOR/D/113 to IOR/D/131; reports and resolutions IOR/D/27 to IOR/D/54) and Auditor's References IOR/D/149 to IOR/D/174.

 

1813-1833 Loss of the Indian trading monopoly

Persistent wars in India led to yet further territorial expansion. The wars against the Marathas had finally culminated in British victory in 1818; the Company now dominated India. But its commercial power was in eclipse. Despite strong representations, by the East India Company Act 1813 (the ‘Charter Act’) the Company was finally deprived of its monopoly of trade with India, though that with China continued. (Following the act, trade between Britain and India in fact boomed, with sales of British cotton goods to India increasing tenfold between 1813 and 1833.) Further power was invested in the Board of Control, making the Company effectively powerless to make its own decisions. In 1833, the Government of India Act removed all the Company’s remaining commercial functions.

See court minutes IOR/B/156 to IOR/B/187 (directors) and IOR/B/265 to IOR/B/269 (proprietors). See also records kept by the Committee of Correspondence (minutes IOR/D/4 to IOR/D/17; memoranda IOR/D/131 to IOR/D/143; reports and resolutions IOR/D/27 to IOR/D/54) and Auditor's References IOR/D/170 to IOR/D/242.

 

1834-1858 The Opium Wars

In 1839 the government of China prohibited the trade in opium, which addictive drug was grown in British India and sold to Chinese merchants. After the destruction of Indian opium stocks in China without compensation, British and Company forces went to war with the Chinese in an attempt to reverse the prohibition on this valuable commerce. The superiority of the Western technology and methods of organisation at the disposal of the British proved overwhelming, and by the Treaty of Nanking of 1858 China paid reparations for the destroyed opium, opened five ports to Britain, ending the restricted ‘Canton system’ of foreign trade, and ceded Hong Kong Island.

In 1856 war broke out again, again heavily involving British-Indian forces. At the war’s end in 1860 the opium trade was relegalised and more ‘treaty ports’ were established, eventually numbering over eighty.

See court minutes IOR/B/187 to IOR/B/236 (directors) and IOR/B/269 to IOR/B/273 (proprietors). See also By-Laws of the East India Company, records kept by the Committee of Correspondence (minutes IOR/D/17; memoranda IOR/D/143 to IOR/D/145; reports and resolutions IOR/D/80 and IOR/D/90) and Auditor's References IOR/D/243 to IOR/D/252.

 

1859-1912 Early Crown rule

In 1857 a rebellion broke out in India against the rule of the East India Company, seen by many Indian nationalists as a war of independence. Though many areas remained calm, much of the north and centre of the country was in turmoil for just over two years. In the aftermath of the fighting the government of India was reorganised; rule was transferred from the Company (subsequently to be wound up) and vested in the Government of India, an arm of the Crown headed by the governor-general in Calcutta and the secretary of state for India in London. The Court of Directors was replaced by the Council of India, the Mughal Empire – long effectively a legal fiction – was abolished and Queen Victoria proclaimed Empress of India, and the Indian Civil Service was created to run the new Raj. It was a member of this body, Allan Octavian Hume, who was instrumental in the foundation in 1885 of the Indian National Congress, which would grow to be the foremost political party of India in the twentieth century.

See minutes of the Council of India IOR/C/1 to IOR/C/108.

 

1913-1947 Late Crown rule and independence

In the early decades of the twentieth century the government of India began to be reformed. The Government of India Act 1912 removed the link between the office of governor of Bengal and governor-general at the same time as the capital moved from Calcutta to New Delhi. In 1935, after nearly a million Indians had fought on the Allied side in World War I, a second act granted a large measure of autonomy to the provinces of British India and introduced direct elections. But British commitment to transforming India into a self-governing state was equivocal, and increasingly many Indians, led by the Congress and personified abroad by Mahatma Gandhi, agitated for full independence. Finally, after more than 2.5 million Indians fought in World War II, and with Britain exhausted, Indian and Pakistan achieved independence as separate dominions in August 1947. Burma, governed as part of British India since the nineteenth century, followed in 1948.

See minutes of the Council of India IOR/C/109 to IOR/C/122 and minutes of the advisers to the Secretary of State IOR/C/123 and IOR/C/124.