Era of gentlemanly capitalism secured jewel in the crown

The Business of Empire
December 15, 2006

This is a remarkable feat of scholarship that will immediately become an indispensable guide to the later history of the British East India Company. As H. V. Bowen rightly points out, the rich historiography on the institutional dynamics of the East India Company tends to peter out with the dramatic territorial conquests of the mid-18th century. After that, historians write about the "Company state" and "British India", but the company itself tends to fall out of view. Bowen's study provides a wealth of new information on many aspects of the company's operations in Britain in the century after the conquest of Bengal in 1756. Thematic chapters explore relations between the company and the British state, the internal governance of the company, the social composition of stockholders, the role and composition of the directors, administrative systems and commercial dynamics. Each chapter relies on massive data sets laboriously gleaned from the company's huge archives, and from contemporary pamphlets.

The author writes that these data sets will eventually be deposited in the British Library and the UK Data Archive at Essex University, and they will be a valuable resource for other scholars.

Bowen's analysis tends broadly to support P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins's characterisation of the East India Company as a pillar of British "gentlemanly capitalism". The company, he writes, "played an important role in tying together the City of London, the state and the empire in a series of entangling relationships". Bowen argues on his first page that "Britain's Indian Empire was not created and expanded as part of any state-sponsored imperial project, but through the actions of the East India Company, a private commercial organisation". Yet the evidence he provides about the tangled relationship between company and state suggests that the company could itself be characterised as a "state-sponsored imperial project", just as the British state became an empire through commercial sponsorship. The mutual financial and political support of company and state, channelled through a complex web of loans, taxes and services, was a subtle form of imperial risk-sharing that was crucial in weathering the storms of empire.

Bowen turns up a wealth of information of great historical importance, from travel times to and from Asia, to the growth of the company's official archives. He shows that two thirds of company stockholders came from London and the surrounding region.

During the wars of the late 18th century, the body of shareholders became more clearly British (as foreign investors, most importantly the Dutch, pulled out) and also more male. Directors continued to be drawn from the commercial, banking and shipping magnates of the City, though after 1790 increasing numbers of former company officials with direct experience of Indian service were parachuted in.

The company's bureaucracy expanded and became more professional with the growth of the business of empire. The final two chapters show how the company struggled to adapt to the gradual loss of its trade monopoly, describing in detail the shifting composition of Anglo-Indian trade in the era of British industrialisation. In a penetrating and wide-ranging final chapter, Bowen argues that the imprint of the company's operations on the British economy was deeper and more diverse than previously thought. An ever-widening circle of British people depended on the company for all or part of their incomes, including stockholders and bond-holders, sailors and shipbuilders, and producers of copper, small arms and woollens exported to India.

In a book that offers so much, it seems churlish to ask for more. Bowen is strongest on the period to 1813, and gives more cursory attention to the 1820s and 1830s. More important, his main focus on the company's domestic operations leaves largely unexplored the connections between India House in London and the wider sphere of empire. It remains unclear how Bowen's picture of an empire run by penpushers and accountants, cautiously pragmatic and commonsensical, fits with recent portrayals of the company state in India as a "bureaucratic-military despotism" and a "garrison state".

Company directors in Leadenhall Street were squeezed ever more tightly between an expansive metropolitan state and powerful pro-consular regimes in India. It is at least arguable, therefore, that the company's domestic institutions gradually became a mere cipher within the wider structure of imperial governance, its shareholders in effect holders of imperial annuities, and its directors, consultants to the imperial state.

Robert Travers is assistant professor of history, Cornell University, in the US.

The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756-1833

Author - H. V. Bowen
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 318
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 521 84477 0

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