“A State in the Disguise of a Merchant”
“It is strange, very strange”, reflected the author, statesman, and East India Company employee Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1833, “that a joint stock society of traders … which, judging a priori from its constitution, we should have said was as little fitted for imperial functions as the Merchant Tailors’ Company or the New River Company, should be intrusted with the sovereignty of a larger population, the disposal of a larger clear revenue, the command of a larger army than are under the direct management of the Executive Government of the United Kingdom.”1 For many then and since, the English East India Company’s victory over the nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and its assumption eight years later of the Mughal office of diwan (revenue collector and administrator) in eastern India had transformed a commercial body into something novel, unnatural, and, in Adam Smith’s words, a “strange absurdity”: that is, a Company-State and a merchant-empire.2 Yet, the constitutional, institutional, and ideological roots of what Edmund Burke pilloried as “a state in the disguise of a merchant” traced to an era when such a thing was not so much “strange” as typical: an early modern world filled with a variety of corporate bodies politic and hyphenated, hybrid, overlapping, and composite forms of sovereignty.3 While the English East India Company may have become a territorial power in South Asia in the mid-eighteenth century, it had actually been a form of government, state, and sovereign in Asia for some time.
From its inception in 1600, the East India Company, as a corporation, was by its very organization a government over its own employees and corporators. It claimed jurisdiction over English trade and traffic in Asia and thus over English goods, ships, and subjects throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. By the second half of the seventeenth century, the Company had also become a colonial proprietor, governing a small but growing network of plantations in Asia and the South Atlantic and their polyglot European, Asian, and African populations. In these capacities, the Company did what early modern governments did: erect and administer law; collect taxes; provide protection; inflict punishment; perform stateliness; regulate economic, religious, and civic life; conduct diplomacy