The Twilight of the East India Company, Anthony Webster

The Twilight of the East India Company - The Evolution of Anglo-Asian Commerce and Politics 1790-1860, Anthony Webster

For much of its existence the British East India Company enjoyed a monopoly of trade between Britain and India and Britain and China. During the period covered by this book those monopolies came under attack every time the company charter came up for renewal. The Company survived intact in 1793, but in 1813 it lost its monopoly of the Indian trade and in 1833 it lost both the China monopoly and its commercial role, leaving it with only its political role in India.

This book looks at the changing nature of the commercial relationship between Britain and India, the campaigns against the Company, the impact the changes had on the Company, who replaced the Company in the India trade, and how well they performed in the increasingly liberalised trading environment. The basic questions being asked here is why did the Company lose its privileges, who were its opponents and how did they campaign against it and how did those opponents perform once they had won access to the Indian market. As the book goes on the Company fades increasingly into the background and the companies that replaced it take centre stage, as they lurch from crisis to crisis.

Military matters only appear in the background - this is the period of the Napoleonic Wars, military expansion in India, the Burma Wars and the Opium Wars, but the details of the wars are ignored. The focus here is on their impact on the Indian economy, the British East India Company and its rivals. This is an aspect of these conflicts that is often ignored - as an example the Company had to borrow large sums of money in India to pay for the First Burma War. This caused a rise in interest rates, which in turn increased the costs of companies trading in India. This helped trigger a massive crash in 1830-34 in which all of the major India Agency Houses went bankrupt. Somewhat ironically another cause of this was the market liberalisation that followed the loss of the Company monopoly in 1813, and the disruption that caused to long-standing patterns of trade (along with the tendency of these houses to act as both bankers and speculative investors)

The book covers a wide range of economic issues. These include a look at the problems with the Company's own business model - it always struggled to fund its trade with China, and ended up in a position where it needed to make profits in India to fund the tea trade with China so that it could use those profits to pay its debts and dividends back in Britain.

This book is of great value for anyone interested in the history of India. For those more focused on military history there is little of direct relevance, but it does provide a valuable insight into the background behind the wars of this period, as well as serving as a reminder that the East India Company was at heart a trading company, something that is often almost forgotten in more military books.

1- Introduction: The end of the East India Company , the historians and the evolution of Anglo-Indian commerce and politics
2 - The origins of the East India Company and the rise of non-Company commercial interests in Britain, India and Asia 1600-1793
3 - War, politics and India: The battle for the East India Company trade monopoly, 1793-1813
4 - Accommodating free trade: India, the East India Company and the commercial revolution of 1814-1830
5 - Crisis and trade liberalisation 1830-1834: Financial chaos and the end of the East India Company's commercial role and privileges
6 - Re-ordering Anglo-Asian commerce and politics, 1833-1847
7 - Crisis, the resurgence of London and the end of the East India Company: 1847-1860
8 - Conclusion: The decline of the East India Company and the evolution of British commercial and political interests in Asia, 1793-1860

Author: Anthony Webster
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 214
Publisher: Boydell
Year: 2009

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