400 years of the East India Company

Huw V. Bowen asks whether the East India Company was one of the ‘most powerful engines’ of state and empire in British history.

Sir James Lancaster commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601
Sir James Lancaster commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601

The year 2000 marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of the English East India Company, the trading organisation that acted as the vehicle for British commercial and imperial expansion in Asia. For over two hundred years, the Company stood like a colossus over trade, commerce and empire, and contemporaries could only marvel at its influence, resources, strength and wealth. Writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the political economist David Macpherson was unequivocal in his assessment that the Company was ‘the most illustrious and most flourishing commercial association that ever existed in any age or country.’

Today even the most powerful firm pales by comparison in terms of longevity and wide-ranging economic, political and cultural influence. In an era before fast travel and instant communication, the East India Company established a far-flung empire and then set about governing, controlling and exploiting it from a great distance in London. It managed to do this until it was finally rendered obsolete by the tumultuous events surrounding the Indian Mutiny in 1857.

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