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The Birth of Empire - The East India Company Episode 2


The East India Company (EIC), also known as the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) or the British East India Company and informally as John Company, was an English and later British joint-stock company, that was formed to pursue trade with the "East Indies" (in present-day terms, Maritime Southeast Asia), but ended up trading mainly with Qing China and seizing control of large parts of the Indian subcontinent.


The fall of Tipu Sultan and the Sultanate of Mysore, during the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799

The Opium Trade

In the 18th century, Britain had a huge trade deficit with Qing dynasty China and so, in 1773, the company created a British monopoly on opium buying in Bengal, India, by prohibiting the licensing of opium farmers and private cultivation. The monopoly system established in 1799 continued with minimal changes until 1947. As the opium trade was illegal in China, Company ships could not carry opium to China. So the opium produced in Bengal was sold in Calcutta on condition that it be sent to China.

Despite the Chinese ban on opium imports, reaffirmed in 1799 by the Jiaqing Emperor, the drug was smuggled into China from Bengal by traffickers and agency houses such as Jardine, Matheson & Co and Dent & Co. in amounts averaging 900 tons a year. The proceeds of the drug-smugglers landing their cargoes at Lintin Island were paid into the company's factory at Canton and by 1825, most of the money needed to buy tea in China was raised by the illegal opium trade.

The Nemesis destroying Chinese war junks during the Second Battle of Chuenpi, 7 January 1841, by Edward Duncan

The company established a group of trading settlements centred on the Straits of Malacca called the Straits Settlements in 1826 to protect its trade route to China and to combat local piracy. The settlements were also used as penal settlements for Indian civilian and military prisoners.

In 1838 with the amount of smuggled opium entering China approaching 1,400 tons a year, the Chinese imposed a death penalty for opium smuggling and sent a Special Imperial Commissioner, Lin Zexu, to curb smuggling. This resulted in the First Opium War (1839–42). After the war Hong Kong island was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Nanking and the Chinese market opened to the opium traders of Britain and other nations. The Jardines and Apcar and Company dominated the trade, although P&O also tried to take a share. A Second Opium War fought by Britain and France against China lasted from 1856 until 1860 and led to the Treaty of Tientsin, which legalised the importation of opium. Legalisation stimulated domestic Chinese opium production and increased the importation of opium from Turkey and Persia. This increased competition for the Chinese market led to India's reducing its opium output and diversifying its exports

Assault of Delhi and capture of the Cashmere Gate, 14 September 1857

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 (also known as the Indian Mutiny) resulted in widespread devastation in India: many condemned the East India Company for permitting the events to occur. In the aftermath of the Rebellion, under the provisions of the Government of India Act 1858, the British Government nationalised the company. The Crown took over its Indian possessions, its administrative powers and machinery, and its armed forces.

The company remained in existence in vestigial form, continuing to manage the tea trade on behalf of the British Government (and the supply of Saint Helena) until the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act 1873 came into effect, on 1 January 1874. This Act provided for the formal dissolution of the company on 1 June 1874, after a final dividend payment and the commutation or redemption of its stock. The Times commented on 8 April 1873:

It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other trading Company ever attempted, and such as none, surely, is likely to attempt in the years to come.

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Posted by George Freund on April 10, 2018 at 5:50 PM 77 Views