- The Worlds of the East India Company
Among the many anniversaries celebrated in the year 2000 was the four hundredth anniversary of the founding of the English East India Company (EIC). Chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, this joint-stock trading company traded in spices, textiles, tea, coffee, opium, precious gems and metals and made enduring commercial and cultural links between Europe and Asia in the period between 1600 and 1858. The volume examines the ways in which the Company’s trade compared to its Dutch counterpart, Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), the domestic impact of the Company’s commercial activities, and the centrality of the East India trade to establishing links with China and Southeast Asia. By addressing some of these latter questions, this edited volume crosses the boundaries ordinarily observed among academics: between historians of Britain and Holland, between Europeanists and Asianists, and between those studying different parts of Asia. The volume is a joint project sponsored by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (England), the British Academy, and the University of Leicester, and is a compilation of papers delivered at a conference held at the National Maritime Museum in the summer of 2000, when the museum held an exhibit of the same name.
As Peter Marshall notes in the after word, “This majority of the contributions to this book deal with mundane activities… (255).” But lest anyone read this statement as a dismissal, it is a backhanded compliment at how much detailed information is provided through the fourteen essays. Essays by Om Prakash and Femme Gaastra provide a clear picture of the phases of competition and cooperation between the Dutch VOC and the English EIC. Both address why the East India Company emerged victorious in the Asia trade over the Dutch, particularly after the middle of the eighteenth century. The maritime aspects of the East India Company trade are made explicit in essays by Andrew Cook, Andrew Lambert, and Geoff Quilley, which take up the maritime aspects of the Company’s trade. Quilley’s essay addresses the visual aspects of the exhibition and discusses some, but not all, of the color plates at the center of the volume. Since the exhibit around which the conference was organized showed the centrality of sea-faring technologies to the growth of the Company and concomitantly to the expansion of British naval and global naval prowess, essays by Cook, Lambert, and Quilley will be especially welcome to naval and maritime historians.
Essays by Huw Bowen on the metropolitan debates that structured the expansion of the Company and James Thomas on British men who worked on behalf of the EIC in the British Isles are dense, empirical accounts that show that the Company’s activities were entangled in minute ways with what was happening in Britain. Jeremy Osborn’s essay examines how a voluminous and varied print culture brought news of imperial expansion to polite Georgian society; this essay is an especially sophisticated account that demonstrates the ways in which a middle-class British public was aware of and invested in what happened on the Indian subcontinent.
As the editors acknowledge, in a volume that addresses commerce, there is no essay that deals exclusively with the consumption of goods that were traded. A study on how spices were used, why particular textiles and clothes became fashionable, or why consumers favored tea over coffee, might have illuminated how a different definition of “domestic” activities intersected with the international economic and political developments described by many of the volume’s contributions. This absence is indicative of a larger orientation: many, although not all, of the essays favor of economic and political history, remaining faithful to conventional (national) historical turning points such as the Glorious Revolution or the Seven Years’ War.
Several of the essays address less central characters in the history of the Company: Anthony Farrington’s essay about the Company’s attempts to establish a port in Bengkulu, later Fort Malborough, is a fascinating...