This is a story of trade and exploration, of ambition and foresight, of silk and spice, of tea and cricket, of timber and gunpowder, of cities and ports. It is the story of how a band of traders created a company that far exceeded the sum of their ambitions, uniting distant markets, bringing people together, building and sustaining an empire. It all starts in 1600 and continues on today.
1600 ROYAL CHARTER
The Company of merchants of London trading into The East Indies is granted a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth I, established with 125 shareholders and £72,000 of capital. Sir Thomas Smythe is The Company’s first Governor. Elizabeth also limited the liability of the EIC’s investors as well as her liabilities in granting a Royal Charter. This made The Company the world’s first limited liability corporation.
1601 THE FIRST VOYAGE
Five vessels leave Woolwich for the Spice Islands or East Indies led by James Lancaster holding six letters of introduction from The Queen, each with a blank space for the name of the local King. Lancaster intended to trade Iron, lead and British broad cloth for Spice, but made little impression the Dutch controlled trade, and the broad cloth was deemed too heavy to be of value by those living in the tropics.
1608 LANDING IN INDIA
Ships belonging to The Company dock at Surat and in the next two years establishes its first “factory” as trading posts were called, in the town of Machilipatnam of the Coromandel coast of The Bay of Bengal. Landing in India gave The Company access to spices not controlled by Dutch traders.
1615 FIRST TREATY WITH MUGHAL EMPEROR
Sir Thomas Roe was instructed by James 1 to arrange a commercial treaty with Emperor Nurudin Salim Jahangir. This gave The Company exclusive rights to reside and build factories around Surat in exchange for rare commodities from Europe. This provided a secure base for operations to wage trade wars with Portuguese and Dutch governments and merchants.
By 1668 The Company had established factories in Goa, Chittagong, Bombay, Madras and three small villages in the east of India called Sutanati, Gobindapore and Kalikata which was renamed Calcutta in 1690. The major factories became the walled forts of Fort William in Calcutta, Fort St George in Madras and Bombay castle, which developed into the great Indian Cities of today. Of these forts Fort William remains active as the HQ of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army.
1684 TRADE WITH CHINA
The Company receives Chinese permission to trade from Guangzhou (Canton) importing silk, tea and porcelain. Trade was made with the Chinese Hongs (trading companies) who controlled trade within China. In England, the demand for tea booms, in 1664 The Company placed an order for Tea for 100lbs, by 1750 annual imports had reached 4,727,992Lbs. Having initially traded tea for silver, the English are concerned that too much silver is leaving their shores. They begin to trade the highly addictive drug opium for tea, this leads directly to the opium wars between Britain and China, as the Chinese government tries to stop this trade.
1667 LONDON WEAVERS ATTACK EAST INDIA HOUSE
Weavers, dyers and linen drapers in England protest that imports of Indian cloth are threatening their own industries. They riot and attack East India House in London. Initially, The Company responds by re-exporting Asian textiles to other countries in Europe. But market forces soon overshadow the cries of protesters, and Asian textiles continue to be hugely popular in England throughout the 18th century.
1733 ST HELENA, THE FORGOTTEN COFFEE
The East India Company bring coffee plants and seeds from Yemen to St Helena on board the ‘Houghton’ from the Red Sea port of Mocha. Napoleon Bonaparte, exiled to the island in 1816, remarked on the quality of St Helena coffee. St Helena coffee is unique, as it is not just a pure Arabica coffee, but produced from a single type of Arabica bean known as Green Tipped Bourbon Arabica. This coffee is still grown in St Helena today and is amongst the world’s finest, respected and rare coffees.
1754 SEVERN YEARS WAR
The French and British East India Companies and their respective Indian allies were at war with each other. The East India Company led by Robert Clive defeat the French ally, Siraj Ud Daulah, at the battle of Plassey ending the rule of the last independent Nawab of Bengal. This is judged to be one of the pivotal events leading to the formation of the British Empire in South Asia. The resulting central administration and governance starts a process that leads eventually to the formation of unified India.
1773 BOSTON TEA PARTY
The Boston Tea party was driven by resistance throughout British America against the Tea Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1773. Colonists objected to the Tea Act because it violated their right to be taxed only by their own elected representatives. Men thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped 342 chests overboard three ships, the ‘Dartmouth’, the ‘Eleanor’ and the ‘Beaver’, loaded with tea from The East India Company.
1784 EAST INDIA COMPANY ACT
The East India Company had grown into a powerful political and trading organisation, rivalling that of the British Government, in effect ruling many of The British Empires territories. The bill differentiated The East India Company’s political functions from its commercial activities. In political matters The East India Company was subordinated to the British government directly. The process was slow and required subsequent parliamentary acts to allow The British Government to fully separate The Company’s political control from its commercial activities.
1813 THE CHARTER ACT
This asserted the sovereignty of the British Crown over the Indian territories held by The Company. It renewed the Charter of The Company for a further twenty years but ended its Indian trade monopoly except for trade in tea. At this point The East India Company was forced to open India to missionaries, who had previously been banned.
1848 DARJEELING TEA ESTABLISHED
Robert Fortune, a botanist, was hired by The Company to obtain the finest tea plants from China to establish plantations in India. He disguised himself as Chinese ‘from a distant province’, hired an interpreter, a precaution as the Chinese were extremely protective of their virtual monopoly on tea production. His efforts resulted in the shipment of 20,000 plants to the Himalayas, establishing Darjeeling as one of the finest tea producing regions in the world, and India as the dominant world tea producer it is today.
1873 EAST INDIA COMPANY STOCK REDEMPTION ACT
By the time of The Act’s passing, The Company had been effectively dissolved anyway, as The Crown assumed all governmental responsibilities held by The Company by The Act for the Better Government of India. The Company’s 24,000-man military force was incorporated into the British Army, leaving it with only a shadow of the power it had wielded years earlier. Queen Victoria was the ruling monarch at the time, and thanks to her new authority over India, became the first monarch to use the title Empress of India.
“It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other company ever attempted and as such is likely to attempt in the years to come”
-The Times 1874