Trade & the East India Company

Some of you may have been recently intrigued by the doings of the East India Company by the BBC series Taboo, starring Tom Hardy. You now probably have the idea that the East India Company was the true evil of modern capitalism. Well, you may not be wrong about that, but perhaps you are not entirely right. What you will sure know about is that as an organisation the EIC held a huge amount of power, sometimes even more than the crown itself, at least in terms of trade and the politics behind it. What I want to talk about today with you, our lovely and curious readers, is actually about what the EIC traded and what this was worth for them.

So, how did the East India Company come about? This was an organisation previously known as (behold the redonculous name) Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies – EIC much more catchy. This organisation was created by a royal charter in 31 December 1600 with the aim of taking control of the spice trade that England was missing out due to the heavy dealing of Spain and Portugal in the East Indies. What perhaps to Elizabethan contemporaries may have seen as the greatest ordeal actually became a very profitable enterprise, as the EIC gradually became a monopolistic corporation with an overwhelmingly firm grip over trade with the orient. Just so you get an idea of the scope of this institution, the EIC had their own ships, private armies and even their own coinage! When originally established in 1600 the EIC would have had £68373. By the end of the 19th century, around 280000 men would have been counted amongst their ranks. So, you know, just your average trader really…

This is the map I have made just to give you an idea of the sites and scope of their domain…All the way back to England of course.

So here is the analysis by location:

Bombay: with the blue ‘house’, this was one of the headquarters for the EIC. It was transferred in 1668 by Charles II for the ludicrous amount of £10 of annual rent…

Madras: (brown ‘house’). The fort of St. George built-in this site in 1644 would become the citadel that acted as the base for the EIC in this area – real handy.

Calcutta: given the yellow star for a relatively obvious reason – this was the capital of the British territories of the zone until 1911.

Bantam: appropriately marked as a shopping bag, this was the first factory the East India Companies created in the east, and one of their most important trading markets – their mall essentially. Slowly but surely, Bantam became a powerful site due to its economic drive.


Now all we need to know is where we are getting what and for which purpose. So let’s have a look at the ‘goods traded’ list (like you would in a game of Civilization V or VI depending how up to date you are…):

Pepper: this came from the area of Sumatra and Java (our dark grey trapezoid). The EIC first expedition in search for this took place in 1601, so pretty high up in their list of priorities.

Spices: these came from all over India, and they would have included things that perhaps we do not think about today such as cloves, nutmeg and mace. These items were important not just for food, but due to their medicinal properties. Furthermore, these essences will shortly be introduced in perfume production, which was at its peak in England during Tudor times.

Indigo: commonly known as “blue gold”, this was a high value commodity in Europe because of the richness of the colour and the sheer difficulty and craftsmanship that was required to obtain it. This was a key resource to control in all of India. The EIC acquired the whole monopoly for the sale of this precious dye with great profit; perhaps its most important trading item!

Saltpetre: this would be a known item for the Taboo watchers. Scientifically known as potassium nitrate, this was one of the key components in gun powder which, as you may know, was in high demand in Europe. The East India Company was a big player in the transport and acquisition of saltpetre that came from several areas comprised in the map above. We know that by 1682 the EIC was importing around 1500 tons of this stuff back into the West.

Fabrics: we all know of the use and desire for things such as silk throughout history as a luxurious item. However, the use of these fabrics for the EIC was not just for the purpose of European markets. It seems that the Indian textiles were good items to trade with at the Bantam markets, to the point that by the mid 18th century, this constituted 60% of the sales by the EIC.

Tea: this should not come as a surprise. We know that by 1699 the East India Company had solid arrangements for the trade of tea with China. In fact just 50 years later around 2150 tones of tea were traded each year from Canton (red trapezoid in our map) in exchange of silver.

Porcelain: before establishing their connection with the area of Canton in the 18th century, this would have been acquired by the EIC in the markets of Bantam (you see now why they needed all those pieces of cloth huh?).

Opium: and here comes the great evil of this economic enterprise. This became the go to resource for the trade with the China when the rest of British goods loss their value, particularly cloth and silver. Therefore, instead of the carts loads of silver transported over to Canton, illegal opium became the trading commodity in this area by the 19th century. Of course, this did not work very well: just in a matter of years the First Opium War (1839-1842) came knocking into the EIC’s door to let them know the price to pay.


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