Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia

By Farrington, Anthony | History Today, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia


Farrington, Anthony, History Today


FOUR HUNDRED YEARS ago this year, four English ships arrived in the Javanese port of Bantam. The following summer they sailed for home laden with a cargo of pepper. They left behind a small force to form a permanent trading post (or factory). This encounter, less than two years after Queen Elizabeth had granted a charter to the Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies, was the beginning of the British presence in the Indian Ocean and the Far East.

Over the next 233 years, the Company came to dominate European trade with South and East Asia, and in the whole trading life of the Company, about 4,600 ship voyages were made from London. Between 1620 and 1700 sailings averaged eight ships a year, mainly laden with broadcloth, iron and silver on the outward half of the eighteen-month round trip, and with pepper on the return journey. After 1800 the average was forty-two sailings a year, of much greater individual tonnage; by now the most sought-after commodity was tea. All this activity made the Company the biggest single commercial enterprise of its day in England and Britain. Yet in terms of the total volume of Asian maritime trade it was never more than tiny.

Maritime trade with Asia proved to be one of the historical forces which created the modern `globalised' world. Yet by the twenty-first century, the English East India Company had disappeared from the British consciousness almost without trace. There are a few physical remains in London, like the empty basins of the East India Docks now ringed by skyscrapers, or a massive warehouse block now converted to smart offices and loft apartments. Yet the influence of its trade is still around us, in our tastes, in our language, and in our history.

There was nothing inevitable about the rise of the English East India Company. The Portuguese had been trading in the Indian Ocean for more than a century; and the Dutch had arrived in Bantam six years earlier. The English, like the other Europeans, arrived without much that the complex and sophisticated trading system of the Indian Ocean wanted; and although they needed to employ sheer force to get themselves noticed, their growth required the collaboration of Asians at every stage.

In 1614 James I sent his personal envoy, Sir Thomas Roe, to the court of the Mughal emperor Jahangir to win favourable conditions of trade for the Company in Gujarat. Twenty years later a local Hindu prince invited the Company to settle at Madras, where they built their first fortress, Fort St George. In 1661 the Portuguese base at Bombay was transferred to Charles II as part of the dowry of his wife Catherine of Braganza, and Company trade in Bengal was consolidated after 1696 when permission was granted to fortify the settlement at what was to become Calcutta. At the turn of the eighteenth century the English presence in India consisted of a sprinkling of small factories along the west and east coasts, plus these three strongpoints. All owed their existence to Indian permission, partnership and complicity in the business of making money.

The prize product of the Indian trade was the enormous quantities of different kinds of cloth, made by highly skilled handloom weavers. Some cloths were patterned in the loom, others had gold or silver threads woven into them, but the supreme Indian achievements lay in the mastery of colour-fast dyeing techniques and the fabulous designs and colour combinations produced by hand-painting and wood-blocking.

In the early seventeenth century, the English had made little attempt to trade directly with China, as the Chinese state, unlike the Mughal Empire, refused to allow any Europeans into its ports except the Portuguese at their enclave in Macao. But from 1672 they were established on Taiwan, and by the end of the century on the mainland in Canton, where conditions of trade were strictly controlled: the Chinese state, while projecting a Confucian disdain for foreign barbarians and their mercantile activities, was well aware that Europeans could be dangerous and managed to keep them at a distance. …

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