- The Twilight of the East India Company: The Evolution of Anglo-Asian Commerce and Politics, 1790–1860
Within 205 pages and eight chapters, and drawing on an impressive range of sources, Anthony Webster sets out to examine and explain an important development—the East India Company’s decline. His imaginative archival research has repaid handsome dividends. Between 1790 and 1860, the once-successful Company was in retreat. Webster analyses and scrutinises key players and developments, marking the emergence of new business interests and the 1793 Charter Act as the first steps in withdrawal. The struggle against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France altered the Company’s stance, while the 1813 Charter Act terminated its much-vaunted and jealously treasured monopoly of trade with India. The resultant liberalisation of trade with the subcontinent affected the British and Indian economies and British patterns of trade with Asia. Indicative of change, the Straits Settlements sought to be administered by the Colonial Office rather than by John Company’s bureaucrats. The early 1830s saw economic crisis in India, removal of the Company’s monopoly of trade with China, and a new pattern of commercial activity with both India and the Far East. Developments in agriculture, banking, and railways in the Indian subcontinent, while uneven, were rocked by a second crisis from 1847 to 1848. The Government of India Act of 1858 ended Company rule in India. Webster deals incisively with all of this and more.
Using the legislation that underwrote and confirmed the once-great commercial enterprise’s retreat, the author has made it easier for lay and professional readers to grasp and evaluate the crucial issues at stake. There are some instances of repetition, particularly with regard to opium’s illicit passage to China, and some stylistic shortcomings. Rather than making reference to “the end of the 1810s,” for instance, use of “by 1820” would have been neater (71). There are some proof-reading slips as well as some inconsistencies and infelicities in the references. While this may appear to cavil, such problems do detract slightly from the book’s overall impact.
Some elements, moreover, could have been explored further. The licensed private trade, or the “privilege trade” (25), merits closer examination given its financial and social significance in the context of both family and Company fortunes—as the careers of John Wordsworth and John Wyche ably demonstrate. Did this system, for example, work against Company fortunes? Was there any link between this practice and the abolition of the Company’s trade monopoly in 1813? Similarly, Webster informs the reader of the rise of agency houses in the Company’s three presidencies—Bombay, Madras, and Bengal—from the 1780s and that their sister agency houses in London had by the 1820s “become a powerful interest group within the East India Company’s Courts of Proprietors and Directors” (26). Just how powerful, and how this power might be calibrated—by stock amounts, by connections, or a combination thereof—is not made apparent. Such elements are important if the Company’s decline and demise is to be seen in its full and proper context.
Webster is correct in stressing the significance of the changes between 1810 and 1830. Monopoly loss, the strain of prolonged war against France (with the Indian Ocean forming the key theatre of operations post-1805), acquisition of Singapore in February 1819, and the run-up to the 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty were not without effect. [End Page 125] Similarly, the activities and influence of structures outside of the Company, including trade committees and John Palmer’s abortive attempt to establish a Calcutta Chamber of Commerce, meant that by 1830 the structures and the neat and well-recorded dimensions of the Company’s world were faltering. Strength, order, and unity of purpose were replaced by their very antitheses. The once-mighty Company, particularly in the financial context of the City of London, began to look like a shadow of its former self. By the...