The East India Company

The East India Company (EIC) was a British trading company founded in 1600 to trade within the Indian Ocean, first the East Indies and later with East Asia.The company imported Asian commodities to England mainly textile but also silks, tea and spices exercising a monopoly on British trade across the world. It also used slave labour and transported enslaved people. For a century the EIC conquered, subjugated, and plundered vast areas of South Asia.  It fought numerous wars and colonised modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma.

At its peak, the company was the largest corporation in the world and its armed forces were twice the size of the British army. At times, the EIC revenues would exceed those of Britain itself; it was the world’s first multinational corporation. It was also one of the first joint-stock companies, with many British people owning EIC stock; at one time a quarter of Britain’s Members of Parliament owned stock in the EIC.

From the early 18th century to the mid-19th century, as the EIC became more involved in politics, it acted as an agent of British Imperialism. The company gained control of large parts of the Indian subcontinent and eventually came to rule large areas of India, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757, after the Battle of Plassey, and lasted until 1858.

The ‘Nationalizing’ of the EIC, with its powers gradually being removed, was concluded with the India Act of 1858. It gave the British Crown its trading links in all continents, its navy army and a range of territories including India. The British rule in India is commonly known as the British Raj, which last until 1947. India became known as the Jewel in the British Crown due to its location and resources.

The East India Company Trade, c.1800 [World History Encyclopaedia]

Many individuals and prominent North Yorkshire families had stocks in the EIC, including the Dundas Family of Aske Hall [ZNK]. The record of stock in the image below shows the stocks invested by Sir Lawrence Dundas in the EIC in 1769.The record says ‘£72,000 & India stock amount to £191,715’. In today’s money, that is worth over £16.5 million.

Account of East India stock bought for account of Sir Lawrence Dundas [ZNK X 1/11/41]

A lot of money was to be made. The EIC was a profitable enterprise and, at times, generated more revenue that the British Crown. The Dundas family continued to have connections with India. Lawrence Dundas (1876–1961) held significant positions with the British Raj, he became governor of Bengal, then later Secretary of State for India in 1935.

Many company servants who went to India in the 17th century dreamt of making a fortune in exotic new lands. Whilst it was a profitable enterprise for some, many company servants did not make a fortune and died from diseases such as malaria. The average lifetime in India was approximately 10 to 15 years. The company servants hoped to earn money by employing ships in the Asian port-to-port shipping, but this was risky. English servants would invest in several voyages to spread the loss-making risk. It was very difficult to make a fortune to take back to England in this way.

Letter from William Hornby setting out conditions of company servants pp.13-16 [ZNK X 1 /2/322]

The above letter extracts record lists the names of the company’s covenanted servants in 1777 and exemplifies the difficulty in making a fortune in India. It shows the time of arrival, name, time served in years, if they are currently in India, or if they died in India, and if they returned to England with fortunes. It is clear from this that a large percentage of company servants died ‘insolvent’, meaning they did not have enough money to pay off their debts. It sadly illustrates the large number of servants that did not return home, and the relatively small number of individuals who returned home as wealthy men. A servant named William Taylor appears to be one of the few that returned to England with great wealth. The record shows he served 34 years with the company, returning to England in 1759 with about £10,000. This would be worth over £1 million in today’s money, but as can be interpreted from the letter, this wasn’t the rule for everyone.