The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India

By Philip J. Stern | Go to book overview

5
“The Most Sure and Profitable
Sort of Merchandice”
Protestantism and Piety

By the later seventeenth century, establishing effective, productive, and just government over settlements and subjects abroad had become a guiding preoccupation within the East India Company. In doing this, they faced no deeper problem than religion. In the early modern period, religion was intertwined with almost every aspect of lived experience, and most certainly politics; ecclesiastical institutions, ritual behaviors, and political theology underscored the practices and ideologies of statecraft, and sovereignty went hand in hand with the responsibility for the soul.1 As John Holt had insisted in East India Company v. Sandys, care for religion was the “prime and original end” of government, and in Asia, the English government was the English East India Company.2

Though plagued with an enduring reputation as either commercial agnostics or godless apostates, rulers over an emergent polity so deeply concerned with the integrity of its jurisdiction and authority over places and people could not help but have religion front and center in their minds.3 Attitudes toward religion in the Company-State mirrored the tension between liberty and authority that informed its political and economic ideology, balancing the toleration of freedom of religious practice incumbent upon a commercial and cosmopolitan colonial society with the prerogatives and demands of jurisdiction and sovereignty. Like elsewhere in the early modern world, Company officials seemed to take providence, piety, and biblical thinking quite seriously.4

In a world only just beginning to come to grips with the concept of probability, so risky and dangerous a venture as a transhemispheric commercial and political operation could not help but call upon some degree of faith.5 All the

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