The Proudest Day: India's Long Road to Independence

By Anthony Read; David Fisher | Go to book overview

I
'In Quiet Trade'

The movement towards Indian independence began as soon as the British took power in the middle of the eighteenth century, and it was started not by the Indians, but by the British themselves. They had come to the sub-continent seeking trade not territory, and were, initially at least, reluctant rulers. When Parliament declared in 1783 that 'to pursue schemes of conquest and expansion of dominion in India are measures repugnant to the wish, the honour and policy of this nation' 1 most people in Britain readily agreed. For many years, the British in India had successfully avoided entanglements, because entanglements led to responsibility, and responsibility interfered with profit. The hard-headed London merchants of the East India Company wanted wealth not glory: to them, glory was an expensive luxury that counted for nothing on a balance sheet.

The Honourable East India Company had been founded on the last day of 1600 by a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I, to capitalize on the lucrative trade in spices from the Molucca islands in what is now Indonesia. Unfortunately, the Dutch East India Company, backed by ten times the English company's £50,000 capital, was already there, having displaced the first western traders, the Portuguese. The first cargo of cloves shipped back to Holland had made a profit of some 2,500 per cent, and the Dutch had no intention of sharing such riches with anyone. When English merchants had the temerity to set up a trading post or 'factory' junior merchants were known as factors the Dutchmen defended their monopoly by massacring them.

In the face of such ferocious opposition, the English merchant adventurers looked around for a safer alternative. They chose India, where they had recently managed to establish a small foothold, as their second-best bet. The pickings would be nowhere near as spectacular, but neither would the risks. It proved to be a wise decision. After a decidedly shaky start, the company settled down to an average annual return of 25 per cent on capital investment, rising at

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