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The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company Review


It is amazing how much the tone of a subject can change in 30 years. To refer to the "glorious conclusion" of British plans in Bengal under Clive nowadays is a phrasing that appears quaint at best, malicious, cruel, and apologetic for imperialism at worst. In the early 90s when these words were published by John Keay, they mut have appeared completely innocuous or merely noted a raised eyebrow. The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company may not be a celebration of the British Empire, but it is a celebration of European expansion and a peaen to the English East India company in particular and the exploits of its servants. In this, it perfectly encapsulates what one should expect from the book: it is an older style narrative of triumphal colonialism, exploring principally the European mechanisms and the organization which made it possible, instead of a critical analysis of its impact and negative developments as is today common.

The later East India House in London, a focus of surprisingly substantial length in the book.

The later East India House in London, a focus of surprisingly substantial length in the book.

A simple chronological organization suffices for the book, with four sections - "A Quiet Trade, 1600-1640," "Fluctuating Fortunes, 1640-1710," "A Territorial Power, 1710-1760," and "A Parting of Ways, 1760-1820." These sections are somewhat generalized and if anything are arbitrary and often don't even correspond to what they ostensibly are titled - for example, the beginning of the company was far from quiet as it very quickly fought a succession of wars with both local powers and the Dutch, while it did not pick up as a territorial power until the 1750s - by contrast, most of the years in 1710-1760 were marked by the EIC's complete lack of territorial expansion, in a period of relative quiescence compared to the rest of its history in the East. It starts out initially with the quest for spice trade and catalogues the various voyages that the English sent out to the East, before moving on to the establishments in India, their wars, pirates, commerce, trade, and the development of outposts. By the mid 18th century it graduates to the wars that the EIC fought with the French, the development of its rule in Bengal, the tea trade with China, and then finally the growing contradiction between its territorial presence in India and its commercial role that saw it gradually become obsolete, losing its monopoly and ultimately the purpose of its existence. Along the way it devotes substantial time to discussing the organization and the political evolution of the Company, and the fights for its very existence in the face of reform and political upheaval at home.

The book is more a record of the glories of the company, its gains in exploration, colonization, discovery, battles, than its more humble, if primary objective: making money. This does cross Keay's mind at times but it is assigned the role of a secondary feature to be glanced at. The book is almost entirely lacking in graphics, statistics, figures, and these only pop up intermittently.

So, if one was entering into the book purely out of interest in the economic side of the company, would be quite disappointed. It is, as some of the earlier reviewers written on the book itself note, almost a novel in its composition. Tales of daring-do and dash make it up, always with an eye to the charming, the amusing, anecdote, from a Scottish drunkard capturing a fort during the Bengal campaign of 1757, almost on his own, and being reprimanded for his breach of discipline, to a Cape of Good Hope native, kidnapped and brought to England, before being returned with a fine suit of plate armor, and a too-fine-sense of the cost of cattle in London, which he put to great use in correcting the asking prices when the British tried to buy livestock from his tribe again! Little expeditions, massacres, drama, haunt its pages.

Clive meeting Mir Jaffar after the "battle" of Plassey, really more of an elaborate theater to transfer power to Jaffar as the British puppet in Bengal.

Clive meeting Mir Jaffar after the "battle" of Plassey, really more of an elaborate theater to transfer power to Jaffar as the British puppet in Bengal.

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In addition to the amusing stories, the narratives of expansion and development, the forays and adventures of the Company, there are two other substantial strengths - other than the readability, although that is tightly bound up with the second strength. Firstly, it gives a good snapshot and evolving impression of the organization of the EIC, as it changed from originally being a half-way house between a guild and a modern joint-stock company, to a fully fledged permanent institution. The way in which battles of influence played out within, in the battles to control the company's higher echelons to to eliminate it, as rivals popped up, jealous of the Company's trade monopoly with the East and suspicious of its massive concentration of power, wealth, and privilege - is understandable, comprehensible, well argued, and illumining. The second strength is indirect - understanding what judgement and opinion has been passed on the company by historians, and at least 30 years ago, what the historical orthodoxy was. Constantly, Keay makes references to what the historical opinion was on different phases, actions, and events of the EIC, be it the relative quiescence from 1700 to 1730, where it seemed to be little more than a smoothly functioning, but boring, enterprise, concerned with the excessive costs of its table in Madras or tucking away in paragraph 47 of its communications the fact that Spain and England were at war, or be it the little built of guilty accompany Clive's take over of India, entered into historical celebrity thanks to later British writers who were fascinated by the duplicity of Clive in creating a contract where the Indian agent of the company was misled and denied his desired 5% cut of the profits by having him sign a false contract, while a real one was not shown to him. Events like this speckle the pages, showing what issues and events were important to English historians, so that even if Keay doesn't agree with them, one understands the contours of these events.

One purely technical problem with it is that it lacks a footnote system. This makes examining some of the claims found within difficult. For example, at one point the book begins to discuss the possible agitation for effective independence of the East India Company from Britain, immediately following the American Revolution. This would have been a fascinating subject to study and see what the source for it was, but without footnotes it is impossible to look up.

Generally, while Keay is very good at providing a tactical history of the Company, he has little to say about its broader impacts of the Company and explaining important historical frameworks it was operating in. Consider mercantilism - while he makes reference quite often to the opposition to the company based upon the idea that England should be exporting manufactures and husbanding its silver, rather than "wasting" vast sums of money on the export of luxuries from the East, he never really lays out a firm overview of mercantilism and its role in England. Furthermore, the effects on England, the economic benefits of the trade, whether it had any relationship to the Industrial Revolution through its promotion of a commercial revolution, even its effects on the Indian economy - none of these receive any attention. Or what about saltpeter? Its export from Bengal was one of the vital reasons for why Britain was able to sustain wars as it did, with a massive bonus in the firepower of its forces, and a great penury for its enemies due to the lack of this massive export. This is not even mentioned in the book, although admittedly, this aspect of the India trade might not have been analyzed at the time. It is as if the Company existed in a vacuum, and Keay ignores the broader impact of the Company on the world.

Preparing saltpeter in India

Preparing saltpeter in India

For a history of the broader development of European colonialism, its structures, the economic history of the EIC, how it structurally developed the English economy, even many of the ground-level features such as how communications and trade cycles happened, how Indian agents were recruited, a detailed breakdown of trade, relations with the local population, etc. - this is not the book to read. A previous book which I read on the French equivalent to the EIC, La prémière compagnie des Indes is an excellent example of a book which covers these finer details in excellent precision. The Honourable Company by contrast lacks greatly for these, and it is an orthodox, traditional history of the triumphs and glories of the East India Company. It is an engaging and readable book for this however, and presents an excellent view of the development of the company at the top, as well as some of the politics that divided it and defined it back in England. This makes it a book which is still a useful and good read for learning about the narrative of the East India Company, but one which is best off when supplemented by other works to understand both its finer details and what its impact was.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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