20 Facts About The East India Company

Adam Dalrymple

6 mins

26 Sep 2019

The East India Company (EIC) is one of the most infamous corporations in history. From a office in Leadenhall Street in London, the company conquered a subcontinent.

Here are 20 facts about the East India Company.

1. The EIC was established in 1600

The “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies” as it was called at the time, was granted a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth I on 31 December 1600.

The charter granted the Company a monopoly on all trade east of the Cape of Good Hope and, ominously, the right to “wage war” in the territories in which it operated.

2. It was one of the first joint stock companies in the world

The idea that random investors could buy shares of a company’s stock was a revolutionary new idea in the late Tudor period. It would transform the British economy.

The world’s first chartered joint-stock company was the Muscovy Company trading between London and Moscow from 1553, but the EIC followed close behind it and operated on a far larger scale.

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3. The Company’s first voyage made them a 300% profit…

The first voyage got under way just two months after the East India Company received its charter, when the Red Dragon – a repurposed pirate ship from the Caribbean – set sail for Indonesia in February 1601.

The crew traded with the Sultan at Acheh, raided a Portuguese ship and returned with 900 tonnes of spices, including pepper, cinnamon and cloves. This exotic produce earned a fortune for the company’s shareholders.

4. …but they lost out to the Dutch East India Company

The Dutch East India Company or VOC was founded just two years after the EIC. However, it raised far more money than its British counterpart and seized control of the lucrative spice islands of Java.

During the 17th Century the Dutch established trading posts in South Africa, Persia, Sri Lanka and India. By 1669 the VOC was the richest private company the world had ever seen.

Dutch ships return from Indonesia, laden with riches.

It was due to Dutch dominance in the spice trade, that the EIC turned to India in search of wealth from textiles.

5. The EIC founded Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai

While the areas were inhabited before the arrival of the British, EIC merchants founded these cities in their modern incarnation. They were the first three large settlements by the British in India.

All three were used as fortified factories for the British – storing, processing and protecting goods that they had traded with the Mughal rulers of India.

6. The EIC fiercely competed with the French in India

The French Compagnie des Indes competed with the EIC for commercial supremacy in India.

Both had their own private armies and the two companies fought a series of wars in India as part of a wider Anglo-French conflict throughout the 18th Century, which spanned the globe.

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7. British civilians died in the Black Hole of Calcutta

The Nawab (viceroy) of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah could see that the East India Company was developing into a colonial power, expanding from its commercial origins to become a political and military force in India.

He told the EIC not to re-fortify Kolkata, and when they ignored his threat, the Nawab made a move on the city, capturing their fort and factory there.

British captives were held in a small dungeon known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Conditions were so awful in the prison that 43 of the 64 prisoners kept there died overnight.

8. Robert Clive won the Battle of Plassey

Robert Clive was the Governor of Bengal at the time, and led a successful relief expedition, which recaptured Kolkata.

The conflict between the Siraj-ud-Daula and the EIC came to a head in the mangroves of Plassey, where the two armies met in 1757. Robert Clive’s army of 3,000 soldiers was dwarfed by the Nawab’s force of 50,000 soldiers and 10 war elephants.

However, Clive had bribed the commander-in-chief of the Siraj-ud-Daulah’s army, Mir Jafar, and promised to make him Nawab of Bengal if the British won the battle.

When Mir Jafar withdrew in the heat of the battle, the discipline of the Mughal army collapsed. The EIC soldiers routed them.

Robert Clive meets Mir Jafar in the aftermath of the Battle of Plassey.

9. The EIC administered Bengal

The Treaty of Allahabad in August 1765 granted the EIC the right to run the finances of Bengal. Robert Clive was appointed as the new governor of Bengal and the EIC took over the tax-collection in the region.

The Company could now use the taxes of the people of Bengal, to fund their expansion across the rest of India. This is the moment that the EIC transitioned from a commercial to a colonial power.

Robert Clive is appointed as governor of Bengal.

10. It was EIC tea that was dumped into the harbour during the Boston Tea Party

In May 1773, a group of American Patriots boarded British ships and dumped 90,000 lbs of tea into Boston Harbour.

The stunt was done to protest taxes imposed on the American colonies by the British state. The Patriots famously campaigned for

“No taxation without representation.”

The Boston Tea Party was a crucial milestone on the road to the American Revolutionary War which would break out just two years later.

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11. The EIC’s private military force was twice the size of the British Army

By the time the East India Company occupied the capital of Mughal India in 1803, it controlled a private army of about 200,000 soldiers – double the number that the British Army could call upon.

12. It was run out of an office just five windows wide

Although the EIC governed around 60 million people in India, it operated out of a small building on Leadenhall Street called East India House, just five windows wide.

The site is now under the Lloyd’s building in London.

East India House – the office of the East India Company on Leadenhall Street.

13. The East India Company built a large part of the London Docklands

In 1803 the East India docks were built in Blackwall, East London. Up to 250 ships could be moored at any given moment, which boosted London’s commercial potential.

14. The annual expenditure of the EIC amounted to a quarter of the total spending of the British Government

The EIC spent £8.5 million annually in Britain, although their revenues totalled an extraordinary £13 million a year. The latter is equivalent to £225.3 million in today’s money.

15. The EIC seized Hong Kong from China

The Company was making a fortune growing opium in India, shipping it to China and selling it in there.

The Qing dynasty fought the First Opium War in an attempt to ban the opium trade, but when the British won the war, they gained Hong Kong Island in the peace treaty that followed.

Scene from the Second Battle of Chuenpi, during the First Opium War.

16. They bribed many MPs in Parliament

An investigation by parliament in 1693 discovered that the EIC was spending £1,200 a year lobbying ministers and MPs. The corruption went both ways, as nearly a quarter of all MPs held shares in the East India Company.

17. The Company was responsible for the Bengal Famine

In 1770, Bengal suffered a catastrophic famine in which about 1.2 million people died; one fifth of the population.

While famines are not uncommon in the Indian subcontinent, it was the policies of the EIC that led to suffering on that incredible scale.

The Company maintained the same levels of taxation and in some cases even raised them by 10%. No comprehensive famine relief programmes, like the ones previously implemented by the Mughal rulers were put in place. Rice was only stockpiled for company soldiers.

The EIC was a corporation, after all, whose first responsibility was to maximise its profits. They did this at an extraordinary human cost for the Indian people.

18. In 1857, the EIC’s own army rose up in revolt

After sepoys in a town called Meerut mutinied against their British officers, a full-scale rebellion broke out across the country.

The sepoy revolt in Meerut – from the London Illustrated News, 1857.

800,000 Indians and around 6,000 British people died in the conflict that followed. The revolt was savagely suppressed by the Company, in what was one of the most brutal episodes of colonial history.

19. The Crown disbanded the EIC and created the British Raj

The British Government reacted by essentially nationalising the East India Company. The company was liquidated, its soldiers were absorbed into the British army and the Crown would henceforth run the administrative machinery of India.

From 1858, it was Queen Victoria who would rule the Indian subcontinent.

20. In 2005, the EIC was bought by an Indian businessman

The name of the East India Company lived on after 1858, as a small tea business – a shadow of the imperial behemoth it had been before.

More recently, however, Sanjiv Mehta has transformed the company into a luxury brand selling tea, chocolates and even pure-gold replicas of East India Company coins costing upwards of £600.

In a stark contrast to their predecessor, the new East India Company is a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership.