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Published:June 15th, 2007 01:32 EST
Pirates of the Caribean: The real history of The East India Company

Pirates of the Caribean: The real history of The East India Company

By Krzys Wasilewski

It is just good business, " says perplexed Lord Beckett while his flagship, the Endeavor, is being ruthlessly attacked by the guns of the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman. Pirates triumph. It is not only the end of Beckett`s long-cultivated dream to rid the seas of piracy; with the death of its leader, the entire East India Trading Company sinks, as well. Such a scenario is painted by Pirates of the Caribbean: At World`s End, the current box office hit. In the world without Jack Sparrow and Calypso, however, it was the other way around: years after the last pirate was killed, the East India Company was enjoying glory and wealth envied by countries which dared to call themselves empires. The East India Company knew how to do good business.

England entered the 17th century in a boisterous mood. Queen Elizabeth I, who was crowned in 1598, restored peace and stabilized in the country after decades of bitter feuds among aristocratic families. Moreover, expansion initiated by her grandfather, Henry VII, toward new territories continued; the new world was peppered with the English flag. No one could put it better than the virgin Queen herself: This is the Lord`s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes. " It`s no wonder England celebrated the last day of 1600 with an optimistic outlook for the future: the country was basking in stabilization and wealth, with its ships sailing all the known seas and oceans. But even then the Queen and her ministers were fully aware of gaps in the national treasure which prevented them from developing a true imperial policy. The monarch`s pockets might have been empty, but there were still some people in the realm more than willing to share the heavy burden. After all, it was capitalist England where, as Charles Dickens noted, the true business precept " was to do other men, for they would do you. " There was some good business to be done and, New Year`s Eve notwithstanding, Queen Elizabeth I presented the Honorable East India Company with a monopoly on all trade in the East Indies a few hours before Big Ben announced the arrival of the New Year. An empire was born.

In short, the history of the East India Company can be described as a rise from humble beginnings to great wealth. In comparison to its Dutch competitor, the English company was just a poor relative craving for table scraps that its affluent uncle might generously leave. Whereas the Dutch India Company consisted of six merchant chambers with the total capital of 6.5 million, the Dutch guilder-- the newly established Company of Merchants of London Trading in the East Indies-- could hardly garner a mere 72,000 pounds. Not surprising, those 125 brave shareholders who had invested in such a risky business received messages from South Asia with their hearts pounding fast. The first several years churned out failure after failure. The Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and these bloody French " merchants had outwitted the English with an ease that could hammer even the biggest of optimists in London. Then came 1608. That year, the Company`s first trading post in Surat (northwestern India) was established. Two years later, the English settled in the Bay of Bengal, which King James I of Stuart (who meanwhile took the English throne after Elizabeth died childless in 1603) greeted by renewing the charter for an indefinite period. The business was finally bearing fruit.

Along with interest rates flowing smoothly to the bank accounts of the shareholders came international prestige. The English East India Company was no longer an insignificant player scavenging for leftovers. No, this was a distant past. In 1612, the Company defeated the Portuguese at the Battle of Swally, ending the Portuguese presence in India and beginning the English offensive in the region. Apart from the battle, the Company won something equally important-- the favor of the Indian emperor and most powerful man on the subcontinent, Jahangir. The ruler gave the English merchants carte blanche in India as long as they agreed to respect his sovereignty. This was English diplomacy at its best: silver tongues of diplomats promised everything that Asian or African satraps wanted, only to break any agreements when the right time arrived. Lord Beckett might have been a figment of a screenwriters` imagination, but his deceitful character was perfectly tailored for (a perfect depiction of) any of the real Company`s employees. Love it or hate it-- if gold didn`t find its way to the pockets of princes, muskets were introduced. By the end of the 17th century, the Company had seized most of India, laying the foundations for its complete integration with the British Empire. Apart from the crown jewel, the Company added to its valuable collection such trading diamonds as posts in China (Canton), pioneering European trade in the Middle Empire and South Africa, where the British defeated the Dutch. Meanwhile, in Great Britain, King Charles I was beheaded, the army took power, and the monarchy was introduced again; yet, throughout all these blustery times, the Company had remained the favorite of the rulers, whoever they might be. However biased and unfair Karl Marx`s opinion on this first world-wide corporation was, he hit the right point saying that: The power the East India Company had obtained by bribing the Government, as did also the Bank of England, it was forced to maintain by bribing again, as did the Bank of England. At every epoch when its monopoly was expiring, it could only affect a renewal of its Charter by offering fresh loans and by fresh presents made to the Government. "

Contrary to what Pirates of the Caribbean suggests, piracy was not the most burning issue of the Company. It is true that pirates kept attacking the Company`s ships " losses were great, especially if they were ships smuggling opium to China " but the noble merchants wouldn`t dirty their white gloves by dealing with some barbarians. This was done by their own good " pirates. Known as the Bombay Marine, the Company navy was comprised of whoever wished to serve as long as he didn`t ask too many questions. It was not unusual to find Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans and others on the Company`s ships; thus, any time a ship came to an English port, people would muscle through the narrow streets of London or Liverpool to catch a glimpse of this mosaic of races and languages. On the seas, the Company acted no less brutally than on shore: within months of launching the Bombay Marine, pirates avoided the Southeast Asian waters whenever it was possible.

Back in London, the world seemed devoid of brutality. The city was blooming, winning over Paris as Europe`s capital. In France, the Revolution raged on, claiming more and more of its children, whereas a revolution of quite a different kind swept on the other side of the British Channel. The steam engine, spinning jenny, or flying shuttle were all results of the Industrial Revolution which changed Britain more impressively in one century than the previous ones put together. Among the things that foresaw better times for the country were new buildings and among them there was one which particularly stole people`s hearts and minds. At the onset of the 19th century, the East India House was erected-- a grandiose palace, overshadowing with its sumptuousness and magnificence even the Buckingham Palace. Newspaper articles from that period crowed over the building and its owner. In his Handbook of London, Peter Cunningham wrote: East India House, Leadenhall Street-- the House of the East India Company, the largest and most magnificent Company in the world-- was built on the site of a former house by Mr. R. Jupp, in 1799. " Another journalist simply summed it up as: East India House is a vast edifice. " The House`s ceiling painting, entitled The East Offering Its Riches to Britannia, " left no doubts from where the modern world revolved. The Company was powerful and wanted everyone to know it.

Paradoxically, it was the Company`s power that led to its downfall. When Londoners watched in awe the opening of the East India House, the Company could boast complete control over India, except for Punjab, as well as the possession of less glamorous outposts in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The ships with white and red stripes on their flagpoles outnumbered those with the Union Jack. The Company had its own army, navy, and civil service envied in the whole of Europe. There was no power on earth that could confront the East India Company. No power, save for bureaucracy. Suddenly, the king and Parliament remembered Dickens` warnings to do other men, for they would do you. " An act was brought about " Charter Act 1813; unlike before, this one limited rather than expanded the Company`s credentials. It was stripped of all its power in India, which became another colony governed by a vice-royal. What is more, Parliament liberalized trade in the British Empire, successfully dismantling the private empire. In 1600, a monarch`s signature marked the beginning of the two-century long East India Company`s reign over all the world seas and oceans. Two hundreds years later, another signature was enough to do what no country could do-- defeat the undefeated enterprise.

The East India Company was officially dissolved in 1874 by the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act. What was good business in the 17th and 18th centuries, became a formidable obstacle in the period of unfettered liberalism. The defeat of Napoleon`s France as well as the success in the Crimean War, catapulted Great Britain to the most powerful country in Europe. The portrait of Queen Victoria hung on the walls of garrisons spread on all the continents; the imperial Rule Britannia " was heard from Kenya to Delhi to Sydney to Toronto. A new era had come " the era of the British Empire.

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