The Company That Shaped History

Professor Tirthankar Roy of London School of Economics and Political Science details the rise and fall of history’s most powerful corporation and how the company forever changed the face of Indian businesses.

A historian’s fascination with the East Indian Company will never die. The forerunner of the modern MNC, the company’s enviable monopoly of trade across Asia, Africa and the Pacific for over 200 years will soon be, if it is not already, a thing of lore. Of course, they hadn’t yet invented Corporate Social Responsibility and its contemporaries looked on in shock as the East India Company continued to strengthen its dominion in brutal fashion. In a short span of time (relatively speaking of course, during times when a voyage to the subcontinent would take months instead of hours), the Company’s traders, who had initially tip-topped into India begging for trade concessions, were heavily involved in governing the colonies in partnership with the crown. The company’s transformation from a merchant firm to empire builder was total and complete by the time the mutiny erupted in 1857. Immediately after, the crown decided the company was expendable and, its services no longer required, the company’s army, administration and resources were transferred to the services of British India and it was formally dissolved in 1874.

Greed, vice, meteoric rise and a plummeting fall – these themes are eternally entertaining, even from the text-bookish point of view of Indian businesses. Tirthankar Roy in addition to capturing the best and worst of the company – fearless seafaring businessmen dealing in risky speculations who eventually turned into autocratic self-proclaimed ‘masters’ who kept a whole continent-sized country (China) dazed on opium– also details the lasting impact it had on Indian business model. The world’s earliest joint-stock company enforced trade with contracts rather than counting on trust. This is was necessary; the Indian traders might have dealt extensively with the British because the money was good but they were never going to be friends. Roy explains how the company changed India just as much as how India changed the company, if not more.

If it is true that details ruin the romance, then the dates, clinical facts and documented figures might not appeal to most. However, there is not denying that from recounting the company’s first voyage in 1601 to the Queen’s pronouncement in 1858 declaring British India a possession of the Crown, the company’s story is totally too badass for words and this is just one of the way to tell that story.

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