The British East India Company, The Corporation That Changed The World

In the Asia Times Online, a review of Nick Robins new book on the British East India Company, The Corporation that Changed the World.

From the 17th to the 19th century, the East India Company shocked its age with executive malpractice, stock-market excesses and human oppression, outdoing the felons of our times such as Enron. Its contemporaries across the political spectrum saw the “Company” as an overbearing and fundamentally problematic institution.

Karl Marx called it the standard bearer of Britain’s “moneyocracy”. Adam Smith, the economist deeply suspicious of mighty corporations, was horrified at the way in which the Company “oppresses and domineers” in India. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, declared India to be “radically and irretrievably ruined through the Company’s continual drain of wealth”.

Established in 1600 by royal charter, the Company’s operations stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan. Colonial rule in India was the eventual outcome of the Company’s forays, but its ultimate purpose was profit-making with an eye to shareholders and the annual dividend in London.

Personal and private profits were the abiding motives of this Company, which “reversed the centuries-old flow of wealth from West to East and engineered a great switch in global development” (p 7). Robins challenges romantic reinterpretations of the Company’s past, now under way in Britain, for ignoring the abuse, misery, devastation and plunder that marked its presence in India. His point is that the Company should be assessed on the basis of its extortion, corruption and impunity rather than peripheral contributions to “discovering” Oriental culture.