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The British East India Company : History

The name 'The British East India Company' needs no introduction to the world of business, commerce and industry. It was the most successful business ever and has a more colourful and adventurous history than any company in history.

It was founded initially on 31st December 1600, when a group of London coffee merchants were granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I. Over the next 250 years it became the most powerful commercial enterprise ever seen in the world of business and industry.

On 31st December 1600 the company had 125 shareholders and a joint capital of 72,000 (a considerable amount in those days). It was given a Royal Charter to trade in the East Indies; however it made little impression on the Dutch control of the spice trades in the East Indies (what is today known as Indonesia).

The company?s traders were frequently engaged in hostilities with their Dutch counterparts in the Indian Ocean, and realising the futility of waging trade wars in remote Dutch controlled Indonesia, they decided to explore their options for gaining a foothold in mainland India, with official sanctions of both countries.

In 1615 Sir Thomas Roe was instructed by King James I to visit the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, who ruled over 70% of the Indian subcontinent. The meeting was a success and a commercial treaty was made which gave The British East India Company exclusive rights to trade to and from India and England. Emperor Jahangir sent a letter to the King through Sir Thomas Roe.

Even with the patronage of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, the company had many enemies in India. The Portuguese had already established their bases in Goa and Bombay and the French were well established in Pondicherry, Mahe, Karikal and Chandernager. The Portuguese were allies of England but the French were bitter enemies and there were frequent skirmishes between them for control of Colonial Possessions. These skirmishes eventually escalated to war. On Indian soil, the war was fought between company troops and French forces.


Around this time (1742) Britain surged ahead of its European rivals, with the advent of the Industrial revolution. As home to the revolution, Britain experienced a higher standard of living and this spiralling cycle of prosperity, demand and production had a profound influence on the overseas trade. The company became the single largest player in the British global market and reserved for itself an unassailable position in the decision-making process of the government.

The war in India against the French was led by Robert Clive (first Baron Clive and the first British Governor of Bengal) and resulted in an astounding victory against Joseph François Dupliex, the French Commander of Forces in India. French ambitions on Indian territories were effectively laid to rest thus eliminating a major source of economic competition for the company.

The company continued to trade through to 1858 when William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, urged Queen Victoria to nationalise the company. All the stock of the company was taken over by the British Crown. The company was now in the hands of politicians and continued to decline until 1947 when India, quite rightly gained independence from Britain.

A legendary trading name is reborn

All the company’s stock and property in India was handed over to the Indian government, but the name 'The British East India Company Limited' remained the property of the British Government until 14th September 2004 when the name was purchased by a consortium of one Indian and two British entrepreneurs, who are keen to reinvent the company’s trading history outside any form of political control and into the 21st Century.

The British East India Company of today wishes to trade within the British Commonwealth of Nations and already a Board of Directors has been appointed. The Head Office is in the UK, and other offices have been opened in India, Kenya, Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates.

Some Interesting Notes

In 1620 the company laid claim to Table Mountain in South Africa.

The company occupied and ruled the island of St Helena.

James Matheson established trading and control of Hong Kong with the help of The British East India Company.

The company established Singapore and employed the pirate Captain Kidd to combat local piracy in the Indian Ocean and the South China Seas.

The company was the first to plant and cultivate tea in India taking the tea plant from China in around 1650.

The company was responsible for the imprisonment of Napoleon on the island of St Helena.

The company was responsible for making the fortune of Elihu Yale.

The company was responsible for the Boston Tea Party in Colonial America which led to the American War of Independence.

The company’s flag (stripes with a St George’s cross in the corner) inspired the Stars and Stripes of the American flag (the company dates back to 1600 whereas the USA adopted the Stars and Stripes in 1777).

The company’s shipyards provided the model for St Petersburg.

Elements of its administration survives in present day Indian bureaucracy.

The corporate structure was the most successful early example of a joint stock company.

The company claims responsibility for the spread of teaching theEnglish language in modern India.

The company was the forerunner of the present education system in India.

The company was the forerunner of the present banking and financial systems in India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Burma.

The company was the forerunner of the present civil service government administration in India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore.

When the company ceased trading as a private stock holding company, the Times of London reported “It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other company ever attempted and, as such, is ever likely to attempt in the years to come.”
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