Sunday, November 18, 2012

Indian Mutiny 3 - the Company

Fortuitously, current discussion that began with Rum, money & power - NSW history repeats itself allows me to combine NSW in the days of the Rum Corps with my earlier series on the Indian Mutiny, thus keeping a foot in both camps. But that is so very NSW Corps anyway! What's more, I can add a dash of Canada!

The Seven Years War was a truly global conflict, one whose influence continues into this day. In the blue corner, we have Great Britain, Prussia, Portugal, with allies. In the green corner, France, Spain, Austria, Russia, Sweden with allies. The map gives an indication of scale.


In Europe, the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) had seen King Frederick II of Prussia, Frederick the Great, seize Silesia from the Austrian Empire. In North America, the French and British were contending for control of the North American continent. Faced with King Frederick's aggression,  in 1756, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria formed an alliance combining traditional enemies Russia, Austria and France in an alliance against Prussia. Britain had previously formed an alliance with Prussia.

In April 1756, the French attacked and ultimately seized the British controlled island of Minorca. The war that followed was critical in establishing British power. For our immediate purposes, two battles were critical.

On 13 September 1759, General James Wolfe defeated the French at Quebec. This would ultimately deliver control, if briefly, of the North American continent to the British Empire.

Two years earlier in India, A British East India Company force under Robert Clive had defeated the last Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey (23 June 1757). The Nawab had been supported by the French East India Company. This made the British East India Company the dominant political  power on the Indian subcontinent.

The painting is entitled Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, oil on canvas (Francis Hayman, c. 1762). Mir Jafa had supported the British.

By the Battle of Plassey, the East India Company was 159 years old. Founded in 1600 by Royal Charter from Elizabeth I as the Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies, the company had been given an exclusive license to trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. Initially, the company struggled to achieve success in the East Indies spice trade against the rival Dutch East India company.

In 1620, the Company established a factory (trading post) at Surat. Later in 1690, the Company acquired three villages in Bengal. This became Calcutta, the heart of British power in India and until 1911 the capital of the Indian Empire established after the Indian Mutiny (1857).

While the Company was very successful, it's fortunes fluctuated. In 1770, a great famine in Bengal in which an estimated third of the population died  placed great strain on the Company's finances and attracted considerable concern in Britain. In 1773, the British parliament passed the Tea Act. This gave the Company greater autonomy in running its trade in the American colonies, and allowed it an exemption from tea import duties which its colonial competitors were reqFile:Boston Tea Party Currier colored.jpguired to pay.

One outcome was a rather famous "tea party" held in Boston on 16 December 1773.

You see how history lingers on. Who would have thought that an act of the British Parliament passed because of a famine in Bengal in 1770 would provide the basis for a modern American political movement in the twenty first century?  

In 1788, the new colony in what would become Sydney was included in the East India Company monopoly trading territory. Captain Arthur Phillip was specifically instructed to prevent private individuals from trading with India, China and the colonies of any European nation. To this end, the local building of any craft capable of such trading was expressly forbidden. In the days of the Asian century, it's perhaps useful to remember that in the early days of NSW the great trading partners after England were India and then China, a reflection of the power of the Company. And, of course, those pesky US merchants and whalers who kept bringing goods in.   

There was no way that the freebooters of the NSW Corps and their allies would accept the restrictions on trade. As early as 1792, a consortium lead by a certain  Lieutenant John Macarthur, aided by a complaisant Lieutenant Governor Major Francis Grose, privately chartered the British supply ship and whaler Britannia to bring goods in from the Cape of Good Hope in breach of the monopoly. Tsk!

In many ways,the East India Company became the model of a modern global organisation. It was well run, with merit based selection for positions, something later adopted by the British and Indian civil services. It was vertically integrated, including ship building and docks. It maintained its own schools and training programs to ensure a supply of skilled staff. Yet it also suffered from quite modern problems.

On the eve of mutiny, the Company had actually become an arm of the British Government. In 1833, an act of the British parliament removed the Company's trading functions. That act was quite a modern one. It provided, among other things, that no Indian subject of the Company would be debarred from holding any office under the Company by reason of his religion, place of birth, descent or colour.

Things didn't quite work that way.

In 1857, the East India Company in India was organised into three great presidencies, Madras, Bombay and Bengal.  The old more free-wheeling system that had actually emphasised identification with, understanding of, India's languages and cultures, had been replaced with more professional and remote administrative systems that carried in English prejudices with less understanding of the great variation in local conditions.

The ground was set for mutiny.  


Evan said...

That last paragraphy but one just bristles with implications doesn't it?

Jim Belshaw said...

I hoped it would, Evan!

Rummuser said...

Indians resent it being called the mutiny! It is the first war of independence!!

Jim Belshaw said...

But independence of what from whom!