Clio Edition 4 - page 16

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A little over four centuries ago, a company was founded
that would account for half the world’s trade, and rule over
what was the beginning of the British Empire in India. A
company formed merely to pursue trade with the West
Indies, it acquired its own private army and stood steadfast
in its rule over global commerce for more than 40 years. So
how did the East India Company manage to acquire an entire
subcontinent, and did it cause its own demise?
After the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Queen
Elizabeth I found herself presented with a petition to allow
London merchants to sail to the Indian Ocean. There were
many British investors and businessmen who had seen the
Dutch making money from importing spices and who were
keen to exploit the potentially lucrative trade in the East
Indies.The first few attempts were, however, unsuccessful,
with ships lost at sea or never quite making it to their
destination. It was only due to a group nicknamed “the
Adventurers” ( who kept trying to reach the East Indies but
never quite made it) constantly petitioning the Queen to
support them, that on 31 December 1600, she eventually
granted a royal Charter to “George, Earl of Cumberland,
and 215 Knights, Aldermen, and Burgesses” under the name
Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading
with the East Indies. The company struggled to get a foothold
in the spice trade due to fierce ompetition from the Dutch
East India Company, but centred its profits around imports of
pepper from Java.
The East India Company did not have an easy start.
There was hostility between European trading companies,
especially the Portuguese and Dutch. The Company’s first
major trading expedition left for Asia in 1601 with four
ships and returned two years later with five hundred tons of
pepper- a lucrative bounty. There were, however, frequent
skirmishes between the Dutch and the British over spices,
yet in the Battle of Swally in 1612 the English traders came
out triumphant. This victory led the company to set up a
series of factories in Surat in India with the blessing of the
Mughal Emperor Nuruddin Salim Jahangir. In return for
these exclusive rights the Company would give the Emperor
goods from the European market. Nuruddin wrote to James
The East India Trading
Company
The island of St. Helena, owned by the East India Company
By Lydia Stables
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