British East India Company Research Paper

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Stockholders formed the English East India Company (later the British East India Company) to import Asian goods by sea. With a monopoly enforced by the British crown, the company governed its trading posts, waged wars, and even conquered India, in order to protect its interests. A massive revolt in India caused the British government to take control of the country and dissolve the company in 1859.

The English East India Company was a British trading company, responsible for the import of Asian goods, expanding English and British interests in Asia, and conquering India. The company was dissolved in 1859 when the administration of India passed to the British government.

The English East India Company was created as a stockholders’ company in 1599 and granted monopoly for trade with East India in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth. The British initiative followed the successes of the Dutch East India Company and Portuguese traders that imported Asian goods by sailing around the horn of Africa, surpassing the traditional caravans. The seventeenth century was marked by intense competition and frequent battles between the European companies.

Main products from Asia in the seventeenth century were pepper and spices, which demanded a high price per quantity in the home market. However, a successful voyage demanded planning, strong support, and patience as it took about two years to be completed. Dangers faced by the traders included storms, tricky waters, pirates (especially European competitors), and diseases, which combined to regular losses of sailors and ships. Consequently, state backing and shareholders who could afford to wait for returns on their investments were essential, while the final rewards were significant.

From the 1640s cotton and silk cloth became important trade objects. Most cloth was from India, though calico patterns, popular in Europe for their aesthetic and exotic quality, were actually patterns adjusted to European taste. By 1700 the English East India Company clearly controlled the European market for Indian cloth, with annual imports approaching one million pieces of cloth. The imports led the English textile industry to protest against foreign competition and a law was enacted allowing only raw silk imports, rather than silk cloth, to secure work for English silk weavers. The law had little effect on the company, as much of its market was in continental Europe, unaffected by the English law.

During the seventeenth century trading activities were based from relatively small trading stations, or factories, such as Bantam in Java and Madras in India. These provided a steady settlement in which expatriate employees could worship freely, as Christians for example, and rule by their own laws in agreement with the local rulers. A noticeable exception was China, which, except for the Portuguese in Macao, did not allow foreigners a permanent base, demanding all trade to be conducted through Chinese middlemen responsible for adherence to Chinese rules.

From around 1750 the (now British) East India Company increasingly participated in Indian politics, leading to its conquest of India. It is debated whether conquest was intended from the start, or if it was the unintended consequence of interfering in Indian politics in favor of regional stability for the sake of company trade, but once conquest started, the company rapidly gained control over parts of India as the ruling Mughal Empire weakened. Most company expansion resulted from local authority being threatened by the Marathas, a major people from the western coast of India whose main families joined in the Maratha confederacy in the eighteenth century and aimed to expand Maratha power at the expense of the weakened Mughals. The company offered armed aid and as reward received land, titles, and influence. Consequently, the company gained control and authority as local rulers became increasingly dependent on it. This process continued until its culmination in 1818, when most of India was under direct or indirect company control. This is a prime example of “reluctant empire,” imperial expansion run by private companies, not government policies.

The company ruled India as a military state, organizing a rigid interpretation of Indian traditions and caste, creating an inflexible social system. Apart from trade, a process of attempted Anglicizing began with an influx of Christian missionaries and English values. Among the customs attacked was suttee, the burning of widows; however, the British attempt associated suttee with the higher classes, and thus it became desirable to the lower classes. Other attempts to strengthen the position of women against “barbaric” traditions had similar effects.

Economically, the industrial revolution in Britain ruined the Indian textile industry in the 1820s and made the company focus on new areas of trade, chiefly opium sold to China. This led to the Opium Wars from 1839–1842 and 1856–1860, which forced China to open up to unfettered British trade. However, opium did not cover the total of the British imports from China, and to cover the deficit, silver from India was used to balance the trade. During the same period, the British parliament abolished the company’s monopolies on trade to India (1813) and China (1833).

In 1857, millions of Indians rose in revolt in the Great Mutiny. As a consequence, the British parliament decided to take over the government of India from the company in 1859, ending the East India Company’s period as rulers of an empire and leading to its complete abolishment.


  1. Bowen, H. V. (2008). The business of empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756–1833. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Bowen, H. V. et al. (2006). The worlds of the East India Company. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press.
  3. Chaudhuri, K. N. (1978). The trading world of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660–1760. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Lawson, P. (1993). The East India Company: A history. London: Longman.
  5. Marshall, P. J. (1998). The English in Asia to 1700. In N. Canny (Ed.), The Oxford history of the British Empire: The origins of empire (pp. 264–285). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  6. Marshall, P. J. (1998). The British in Asia: Trade to dominion, 1700–1765. In P. J. Marshall (Ed.), The Oxford history of the British Empire: The eighteenth century (pp. 487–507). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  7. Ray, R. K. (1998). Indian society and the establishment of British supremacy, 1765–1818. In P. J. Marshall (Ed.), The Oxford history of the British Empire: The eighteenth century (pp. 508–529). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  8. Washbrook, D. A. (1999). India, 1818–1860: The two faces of colonialism. In A. Porter (Ed.), The Oxford history of the British Empire: The nineteenth century (pp. 395–421). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  9. Webster, A. (2009). The twilight of the East India Company: The evolution of Anglo-Asian commerce and politics, 1790–1860. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press.

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