East India Company, British

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

East India Company, British

British East India Company, 1600–1874, company chartered by Queen Elizabeth I for trade with Asia. The original object of the group of merchants involved was to break the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade with the East Indies. However, after 1623, when the English traders at Amboina were massacred by the Dutch, the company admitted defeat in that endeavor and concentrated its activities in India. It had established its first factory at Machilipatnam in 1611, and it gradually acquired unequaled trade privileges from the Mughal emperors. Although the company was soon reaping large profits from its Indian exports (chiefly textiles), it had to deal with serious difficulties both in England and in India. During the 17th cent. its monopoly of Indian trade was constantly challenged by independent English traders called "interlopers." In 1698 a rival company was actually chartered, but the conflict was resolved by a merger of the two companies in 1708. By that time the company had established in India the three presidencies of Madras (now Chennai), Bombay (now Mumbai), and Calcutta (now Kolkata). As Mughal power declined, these settlements became subject to increasing harassment by local princes, and the company began to protect itself by intervening more and more in Indian political affairs. It had, moreover, a serious rival in the French East India Company, which under Joseph François Dupleix launched an aggressive policy of expansion. The victories (1751–60) of Robert Clive over the French made the company dominant in India, and by a treaty of 1765 it assumed control of the administration of Bengal. Revenues from Bengal were used for trade and for personal enrichment. To check the exploitative practices of the company and to gain a share of revenues, the British government intervened and passed the Regulating Act (1773), by which a governor-general of Bengal (whose appointment was subject to government approval) was given charge of all the company's possessions in India. Warren Hastings, the first governor-general, laid the administrative foundations for subsequent British consolidation. By the East India Act of 1784 the government assumed more direct responsibility for British activities in India, setting up a board of control for India. The company continued to control commercial policy and lesser administration, but the British government became increasingly the effective ruler of India. Parliamentary acts of 1813 and 1833 ended the company's trade monopoly. Finally, after the Indian Mutiny of 1857–58 the government assumed direct control, and the East India Company was dissolved.

See studies by B. Willson (1903), H. Furber (1948, repr. 1970), L. Sutherland (1952), and B. Gardner (1972); D. Gilmour, The Ruling Caste (2006).

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