I’m slowly getting to know Poplar. I love the fact that Tower Hamlets captures in its name the way it is a burrough of small villages, but even so it surprises you just how different each one feels. This despite the fact that they now run together, with no separation in the urban fabric, unless you perhaps count the enormous roads that break up the east end cruelly with snarling lines of traffic. Planners always put roads, interchanges, major arteries right down through the poorer neighbourhoods and here you can only imagine what used to be when you come across the small pockets of emptiness dead-ending into these thoroughfares.
But back to Poplar…exiting the DLR you can see The City in the distance, the original centre of banking might:
But its new cluster at Canary Wharf looms high above you to your left
Part of me responds to this landscape — my love of trains and altitude and contrasts between new buildings and old are all at work here. But it is only this little section that I find appealing, the rest is an uninspired towering of metal and glass with no distinction. I was once, after a long day spent on coaches and trains that were all severely delayed, trapped in Canary Wharf in the rain. If you don’t know it, it is almost impossible to escape on foot, and one of the most alienating landscapes I could imagine. But I will look at that later.
I failed to take a picture of the community centre and football fields — only later in the day did I learn how hard the community had to fight to get them and keep them. There is a long passage bringing you to Poplar High Street, full of the young students from Tower Hamlets College. I really like this high street:
But the church — St Matthias Old Church, was an even more wonderful surprise. You can see its spire from all of Poplar, walking down the high street you come to a turn off that carries you to the church itself, removes you from the city
It is beautiful here, you enter this green space and automatically take a great breath, relax your shoulders, smile:
Looking up the church itself I found its lovely website with a long and detailed history, just an excerpt:
St Matthias, Poplar is one of London’s most surprising buildings. Externally it is Victorian, but inside its stone-clad walls is a rare example of a mid-seventeeth century classical church which has survived in surprisingly unaltered form. It is the oldest building in Docklands.
Originally known as Poplar Chapel, it had two purposes: it served as a chapel for the inhabitants of the hamlets of Poplar and Blackwall, who had previously been obliged to travel several miles to the overcrowded parish church of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, and desired a more local place of worship; secondly, it served as the chapel for the East India Company, which had an almshouse and a dockyard hard by. It is their coat of arms that is carved upon the ceiling boss inside the church, and their history that is central to the story of the Poplar Chapel.
I love old churchyards, and it is nice that this one retains its gravestones where they lie. I found the one above curious, because it is all women, a grandmother and two little girls and no clear relationship between the first two and the last. There is a story here, of women’s lives in the mid 1800s, but no other hints.
More of the church, I may hate the East India Company, but I love what they have built:
Turning away from the church, however, you understand the psychological impact of Canary Wharf as it stares down at Poplar, inescapable in its looming over a landscape both more human and more natural.
I was more than happy to find that this was actually my destination, the church now known as St Matthias Community Centre, to talk to Sister Christine Frost who is even more of a treasure to Poplar than this place. She is part of South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Secure Housing (SPLASH) and knows everything there is to know, I think, about Poplar and the challenges it is facing.
Leaving St Matthias after a lovely discussion of struggle and future possibilities I went for a bit of a wander — after reading Ann Stafford’s book on the dock strike I wanted to find Shirbutt Street where Will Crooks was born. It was just around the corner, the new estate bearing his name sitting right on Poplar High Street:
Community garden plots fill much of the space around the estate’s edges, I cannot tell you how happy they made me…
On Will Crooks, a pivotal figure in the docker’s strike of 1889, and his talks at the gates of the East India Company:
He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).
Hale street remembers another key radical figure from Poplar, George Lansbury:
More about him in later posts, but I love this mural.
And a little further down you get a full sense of St Matthias and the open space here — and did I mention the public bowling green on the corner? I don’t think I did, but it made me happy too.
It’s a good comparison to this, the oldest drawing of the church
I continued down to East India Dock Road
To find the Queen Victoria’s Seamen’s Rest, another place I had heard a great deal about:
QVSR started life as the Seamen’s Mission of the Methodist Church in 1843. Known originally as the Wesleyan Seamen’s Mission, the aim was to minister to the spiritual needs and promote the social and morale welfare of seafarers and their families in the vicinity of the Port of London.
Over time a need arose for a meeting place of some kind in the new sailor town that had sprung up at Poplar. Right opposite the ‘seamen’s entrance’ of the local Board of Trade Office on the East India Dock Road in Jeremiah Street stood a small public house called The Magnet. In 1887, the license of The Magnet was withdrawn, providing the Mission an opportunity to rent the public house and it was transformed into a Seamen’s Rest.
What it once looked like:
And what it looks like now, expanded far beyond it’s humble beginnings though I am so glad they’ve kept the original lovely facade:
Continuing West you come to the Manor Arms:
I am almost certain that this was mentioned as one of the pubs where striking dockers were able to get breakfast, the Irish woman who owned it supporting the strike.
I turned left here, with only time for a quick circle. Again you feel Canary Wharf looking over you, on the right is a Catholic school dwarfed by corporate wealth (they have managed to make even the Catholic church look small).
Daniel Defoe is more than a bit curmudgeonly in this tract, but not curmudgeonly enough given I agree with all of it where I understand what the hell he’s talking about — and it’s almost three hundred years since he first wrote this scree. I am sad to find so much that resonates with his opinion of the stock market and those making a living by speculating on its ups and downs, along with the suckers they take in:
’tis a Trade founded in Fraud, born of Deceit, and nourished by Trick, Cheat, Wheedle, Forgeries, Falshoods, and all sorts of Delusions; Coining false News, this way good, that way bad; whispering imaginary Terrors, Frights, Hopes, Expectations, and then preying upon the Weakness of those, whose Imaginations they have wrought upon, whom they have either elevated or depress’d. If they meet with a Cull, a young Dealer that has Money to lay out, they catch him at the Door, whisper to him, Sir, here is a great piece of News, it is not yet publick, it is worth a Thousand Guineas but to mention it: I am heartily glad I met you, but it must be as secret as the black side of your Soul, for they know nothing of it yet in the Coffee-House, if they should, Stock would rise 10 per Cent. in a moment, and I warrant you South-Sea will be 130 in a Week’s Time, after it is known… Are you sure of it, says the Fish, who jumps eagerly into the Net?
I’ve been reading so much, but still can’t be bothered to find out the identities of Mr. T—s chief Agent or Lord M—r‘s Broker, but ‘that Original of Stock-Jobbing, Sir J— C—-‘ is of course, Sir Josiah Child of the East India Company, in connection with tales of how he and the Company passed along false notices of news and manipulated the price of stock to their profit.
I quite enjoyed this summary of the differences between thievery through the stock market and armed robbery:
their Employment was a Branch of Highway Robbing, and only differ’d in two things, First in Degree, (viz.) that it was ten Thousand times worse, more remorseless, more void of Humanity, done without Necessity, and committed upon Fathers, Brothers, Widows, Orphans, and intimate Friends; in all which Cases, Highwaymen, generally touch’d with Remorse, and affected with Principles of Humanity and Generosity, stopt short and choose to prey upon Strangers only. Secondly in Danger, (viz.) that these rob securely ; the other, with the utmost Risque that the Highwaymen run, at the Hazard of their Lives, being sure to be hang’d first or last, whereas these rob only at the Hazard of their Reputation which is generally lost before they begin, and of their Souls, which Trifle is not worth the mentioning.
I think also his warning about what happens when men trusted with public moneys are also involved in stock speculation is as valid today as it has ever been, and truly ‘more fatal to the Publick than an Invasion of Spaniards’ (a phrase that is funnier today than it was at the time I am sure):
But when we find this Trade become a Political Vice, a publick Crime, and that as it is now carried on, it appears dangerous to the Publick, that whenever any Wickedness is it Hand, any Mischief by the worst of the Nations Enemies upon the Wheel, the Stock Jobbers are naturally made assistant to it, that they become Abettors of Treason, assistant to Rebellion and Invasion, then it is certainly time to speak, for the very Employment be∣comes a Crime, and we are oblig’d to expose a Sort of Men, who are more dangerous than a whole Nation of Enemies Abroad, an Evil more formidable then the Pestilence, and in their Practise more fatal to the Publick than an Invasion of Spaniards.
And then there are those who simply put the public at risk through their own selfishness:
yet if it appear they are hearty Knaves too, will do any thing for Money, and are, by the Necessity of their Business oblig’d, or by the vehement Pursuit of their Interest, that is to say, of their Profits, push’d upon Things as effectually ruinous and destructive to the Government , as the very buying Arms and Amunition by a profest Jacobite, in order to Rebellion could be, are they not Traytors even in spite of Principle, in spite of the Name of Whig; nay, in spite of a thousand meritorious things that might otherwise be said of them, or done by them?
This means to say that they act upon their own financial interests, bet against the state, make runs upon the national bank rather than shoring it up…it all sounds so familiar. As does the government bailing them all out. That’s at best. At worst?
But to see Statesmen turn Dealers, and Men of Honour stoop to the Chicanry of Jobbing; to see Men at the Orfices in the Morning, at the P— House about Noon, at the Cabinet at Night, and at Exchange-Alley in the proper Intervals, What new Phoenomina are these? What fatal Things may these shining Planets (like the late Great Light) fore-tell to the State, and to the Publick; for when Statesmen turn Jobbers, the State may be Jobb’d.
The State may be Jobb’d. Maybe a phrase we should bring back into general use.
The Center of the Jobbing is in the Kingdom of Exchange-Alley, and its Adjacencies; the Limits , are easily surrounded in about a Minute and a half (viz.) stepping out of Jonathan‘s into the Alley, you turn your Face full South, moving on a few Paces, and then turning Due East, you advance to Garraway‘s; from thence going out at the other Door, you go on still East into Birchin-Lane, and then halting a little at the Sword-Blade Bank to do much Mischief in fewest Words, you immediately face to the North, enter Cornhill, visit two or three petty Provinces there in your way West: And thus having Box’d your Compass, and sail’d round the whole Stock-jobbing Globe, you turn into Jonathan‘s again; and so, as most of the great Follies of Life oblige as to do, you end just where you began.
The map of ‘the whole Stock-jobbing Globe’ is below, showing where the coffee houses stood before destroyed by fire in 1748:
Here is a print showing the interior of Jonathan’s:
And another showing the second reincarnation of Garraway’s rebuilt after the fire, but this also demolished:
(There is an immense and wonderful history of coffee houses explored by many authors — a good summary and collection of every resource available to you online and off can be found at one of my favourite blogs – The Public Domain Review)
Now Exchange Alley is simply Change Alley, and you can follow Defoe’s instructions, but it looks very different — cold and fairly empty and immensely uninviting. Public space that no longer feels very public. There are no longer any shops at all, selling coffee or otherwise. Entering it from Lombard St:
South a few paces and then East to Garraway’s:
Further East, to emerge into Birchin’s Lane:
But first we pass other memorialisations of food, warmth and hospitality that make you positively nostalgic for the banking and stock-jobbing that was:
Birchin’s lane is still a pleasant enough place however, if it weren’t for the bankers:
The Sword-Blade Bank does not have a plaque. To Cornhill:
More pictures of what was from a wider view, standing on Aldgate Street and looking to where Leadenhall and Fenchurch Streets split. Exchange Alley runs between them, though further down (as they become Cornhill and Lombard Street):
And the towering structures that now represent banking might:
But to return to the scenes of non-scenic corruption — the East India Company members buying up seats in Parliament to ensure its support of their profits:
It may easily be remember’d, that the first Occasion of the Exchange-Alley Men engaging in the Case of Elections of Members, was in King William‘s Time, on the famous Disputes which happen’d between the Old East-India Company and the New; which having held a great while, and having embarrass’d not the City only, but the whole Nation, and even made it self dangerous to the Publick Business, it was expected it should be fully decided by the House of Commons: To this End the Members of both Companies, with all the Trick, Artifice, Cunning and Corruption, that Money and Interest could arm them with, bestirred themselves to be chosen Members.
Brokers rid Night and Day from one End of the Kingdom to the other, to engage Gentle∣men to bribe Corporations, to buy off Competitors, and to manage the Elections. You will see the State of Things at that Time, and the Danger this Stock jobbing Wickedness had brought the Publick to…
Sadly, bankers and stock market speculators continue to expose the public to such dangers, and we have not yet found a way to control the ups and downs of crisis, the state bailouts, or rampant greed setting policy and calling the shots for politicians. It seems to me it’s time to do so, it’s only been 294 years since Defoe first identified the problem though somehow it’s Robinson Crusoe that has become the more popular of his writings.
The answer to the implied question is, if you hadn’t guessed it, the East India Company. This is a great critical introduction to what the Company was, what it did, and how it relates to the corporate malfeasance we are so familiar with today.
Established on a cold New Year’s Eve, 1600, England’s East India Company is the mother of the modern corporation. In its more than two and a half centuries of existence, it bridged the mercantilist world of chartered monopolies and the industrial age of corporations accountable solely to shareholders. The Company’s establishment by royal charter, its monopoly of all trade between Britain and Asia and its semi-sovereign privileges to rule territories and raise armies certainly mark it out as a corporate institution from another time. Yet in its financing, structures of governance and business dynamics, the Company was undeniably modern (5).
Modern too, its insatiable greed and the split between this shareholder demand for profits and responsibility for any of the consequences.
From Roman times, Europe had always been Asia’s commercial supplicant, shipping out gold ad silver in return for spices, textiles and other luxury goods. European traders were attracted to the East for its wealth and sophistication at a time when the western economy was a fraction of the size of Asia’s. And for the first 150 years, the Company had to repeat this practice, as there was almost nothing that England could export that the East wanted to buy (7).
Essentially this is the story of how the East India Company forced this to change in search of profit. It is a harrowing story intertwined with English history in ways that this book doesn’t always tease out but bookmarks for us. For example, the literary figures who worked there, were surely influenced by their work even when not being explicit about it. Like Charles Lamb, Thomas Love Peacock, James and John Stuart Mill, James Bentham. On James Mill in particular there is this awesome anecdote:
One account describes how “when particularly inspired he used, before sitting down to his desk, to not only strip himself of his coat and waistcoat, but of his trousers, and so set to work, alternately striding up and down the room and writing at great speed.” (189)
This also connects to other histories of Empire, like one of those that fascinates me most — the evangelical project to settle Sierra Leone (read an early account here in relation to the Clapham Sect, another in relation to other trading companies here, and a later more fuller one here). I had as yet only ever heard of it as a way to resettle free Blacks from London to Africa, but here it is presented very briefly through the lens of the Lascars in London, noted because John Lemon, 29-year-old lascar and hairdresser and cook from Bengal married an Englishwoman named Elizabeth before they set off as part of the Sierra Leone expedition, surviving the passage but from there their future is unknown (21).
That is an aside however, a trail to follow. It’s almost a relief from the overwhelming anger and sadness this tale of greed inspires. Structural greed, as it’s three main flaws accoridng to Robins (and these remain unchanged today) are these, which lead to what can only be called villainy in the search for ‘immediate and excessive returns’:
Executives and shareholders can pursue own profit to the detriment of all others — there is no higher purpose of the corporation.
Limitation of liability frees shareholders and to a great extent executives of responsibility for their actions in the pursuit of these profits.
The separation of ownership and control allows executives to pursue profit and exploit the company for their own ends.
Within this greater framework of greed and exploitation, individuals were also on the look out to make their own fortunes:
For its executives, the purpose of a career with the Company was to achieve a ‘competence’, making enough money to be able to retire and adopt the conspicuous consumption patterns of the British landed gentry. This could bot be achieved by saving from the salaries received from the Company, which barely covered living expenses. As a result, the ambitious Company man had to use his position a a platform for patronage and private trade (29).
What separated this form of corporation from the present one is primarily the risk and the power. Because the risks were, of course, much higher — the round trip from India to London could take up to two years and there was limited communication or control possible. The East India Company also had to continually renew its royal charter, which required regularly justifying its existence outside of its investors at regular intervals.
On this other hand this royal charter allowed it to mint coin in oversees holdings, exercise justice, and the right to wage war — thus their army changed from private security to a tool for land acquisition. Robins quotes Niels Steengard as saying — ‘the principal export of the pre-industrial Europe to the rest of the world was violence.’ (44)
The history of the EIC is this its efforts to maximise its power, and to minimise risks and controls. Its impact on the monarchy was one example — after the Glorious Revolution brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne, commercial rights were high on the list of priorities in the minds of the British elite in drawing up the ‘unprecedented Bill of Rights that would bind the new monarchs’ (52).
This was matched by a long-standing and complex web of corruption and bribery in the interests of the company. Post 1688 it centered around the figure of Governor Sir Thomas Cooke, subject of a special inquiry. The sums are staggering for the time: £107, 013 paid out in ‘special services’, £80,468 to win a new charter. Another £90,000 used by Cooke to buy stock to shore up the chartering process.
A number of fortunes were made in autocratic bids to gain more power and profit — that of director Sir Josiah Child (‘Perhaps more than any other of the Company’s executives before or since, Josiah Child had demonstrated where an appetite for corporate power could lead’ (57)). The Pitt fortunes emerged, of course, from the ‘Pitt Diamond’, 410 carat rock obtained by Thomas Pitt, governor of Madras.
That would be another interesting distraction to follow. More inspiring perhaps, in terms of distractions, is the brief mention of a weavers’ insurrection in 1696, and their march on the East India House after 5,000 marched on Parliament against imports of Indian cloth. Later they ransacked and threatened homes of Company officials and very nearly sacked the Company storerooms. In view of what happens to weavers, you wish they had.
because we are about to come to the most horrifying period of the EIC’s fairly horrifying history. The period in which it caused Bengal to go from one of the richest areas in the world — hard to imagine today because it continues to be what the EIC made of it — one of the poorest.
The Battle of Plassey, 23 June 1757, is the turning point. Robert Clive attacked and defeated the nawab of Bengal, capturing Calcutta and thus ‘enabling the Company to achieve its long desired monopoly over the export trade, expanding into the internal market and appropriating the public revenues of Bengal for its own benefit’ (77).
One estimate states that in the decade after Plassey, Bengal lost 2/3 of revenues.
Bengal’s weavers were devastated — they were not rich but good evidence shows they lived and worked under much better standards of living than the weavers in England, with more control over their production terms and conditions. Any power they held over their labour was smashed. Their history says they cut off their own hands so they couldn’t be forced to work under the conditions demanded by the company. Rather than exporting cloth, Bengal began to export cotton and import cloth, devastating industry and all the lives that depended on it.
A new era of exploitation with impunity became the rule: ‘A new catchphrase entered the language — “a lass and a lakh [a lakh being Rs100,000] a day–to describe the lifestyle of the Company’s executives in Bengal’ (86).
They did not just devastate weaving, but all other systems of support and livelihood. When famine hit they continued exporting grain, and raised their taxes. I had not, until recently, even heard of this famine, this terrible murder of millions of people in 1770 (ish). Governor Warren Hastings gave the number of 10 million, a third of the population of Bengal. A hundred years later, another famine:
Working in the midst of the terrible 1877 famine that he estimated had cost another 10 million lives, Cornelius Walford calculated that in the 120 years of British rule there had been 34 famines in India, compared with only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millenia (93).
The Bengal Famine stands out as perhaps one of the worst examples of corporate mismanagement in history (97).
which seems to me to be a bit of an understatement, a bit missing the point perhaps. Besides, it depends how you define mismanagement, the point of a corporation is to make a profit, and the EIC continued to make a profit through these years, difficult as they found it. This is the damning indictment of our times.
Robins then points out the ideological inconsistencies of corporations and their neoliberal supporters — but they are a bundle of inconsistencies. Still, it is good to remember:
Reading Smith afresh…it is shocking how his penetrating critique of the corporation has been so comprehensively suppressed. Nothing of his scepticism of corporations, their pursuit of monopoly and their faulty system of governance, enters into the speeches of today’s neo-liberal advocates. Promoting his vision of free trade, they conveniently ignore that this can only be achieved with steadfast curbs on corporate power (119).
And through all of it, there is a particular ridiculousness and in-fighting:
General John Clavering, Philip Francis and George Monson–arrived in Calcutta in October 1774, tensions arose. Instead of the 21-gun salute they were expecting, Hastings had organised only 17 cannon to fire as they landed (126).
There is the spectre of Edmund Burke arguing for the Indian people in the trial of Governor Warren Hastings — and I do love that he was brought to trial. I also appreciate this in Burke:
‘Rather than viewing history as a civilisational contest between primitive and progressive nations, Burke believed that each society had its own intrinsic value, which should not be sacrificed to the interests of profit or power (141)
But I haven’t even started on the account of China yet, the stealing of their secrets of tea production, the enforced opium trade through war and smuggling. And slowly the EIC was losing its corporate character, though none of its greed.
Military victory alone was insufficient to restore British fortunes in India. A new regime had to be introduced to confront the extreme oddities created by a sharehold-owned corporation ruling over tens of millions of people. The reforms of the 1770s and 1780s had punctured the Company’s autonomy as a business, and the 1784 India Act had introduced a two-tier system — a ‘double government’ — with the Company maintaining a facade of authority, behind which the state pulled the strings through the Board of Control (173).
If anything good can be said of them it was that they were entirely secular, but with the increased blending of public and private interests this was to change. Driven through by Wilberforce:
After years of campaigning, Wilberforce and others managed to include in the 1813 charter Act provisions for the establihsmnet of a Church of England bishopric in India, as well as the removal of the Company’s longstanding ban on missionary activity (182).
These changes solidified by the need for military force after the uprising of 1857:
When the company retook Kanpur…where rebel troops had slaughtered European women and children, captured sepoys were made to lick the blood from the floors before being hanged. Summary executions became the norm. According to one officer, “we hold court-martials on horseback, and every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.” The Company’s recapture of Delhi was followed by systematic sacking, and the surviving inhabitants were tured out of its gates to starve (195).
Robins later mentions the Company’s practice of blasting captured rebels from cannons as lampooned in a cartoon in Punch. Such caricatures only work utilising common knowledge, and it is not mocking the practice itself, rather the Company’s bungling and mismanagement and corruption. This is the brutal experience of conquest and Empire that goes unspoken by Colonel Pargiter in Virginia Woolf’s The Years. I wonder where else it lurks, all the places I never imagined from the ways in which history and literature are taught so as to hide it.
But thus we come to the end of the EIC as company, and onto India as part of the British Empire. Robins states:
The Company is often regarded as an inevitable stepping-stone to the British Raj. Instead, the British Empire in India is better thought of as the product of the Company’s failure (196).
A key inversion I think, but I am not sure what else I think about it, what it might mean for how Empire is both narrated and understood. I don’t know enough yet. I will ponder. By 1858 the Company is done, the Crown has negotiated a long process to buy out stock in a structured deal that makes sure no one loses money.
Given their record, that is quite disgusting. Given the way this deal was financed even more so. Surely the EIC was not quite the bungler it appears.
Writing in 1908, Romesh Chander Dutt was outraged at the way in which the people of India had not only supplied the troops for their own conquest, financed the Company’s acquisition of the subcontinent through heavy taxation, but had also paid for the Company’s nationalisation. “And the Indian people are virtually paying dividends to this day,” he wrote, “on the stock on an extinct Company in the shape of interest on Debt.” (198)
And the key lessons Robins would have us take away?
From this continual metamorphosis, four facets emerge most clearly for our times: the Company as entrepreneur, its role as a revolutionary force in world affairs, its tendency to imperial dominion and the struggle to make it accountable for its actions (201)
For me it is all this, but also the efforts to control the Company and call it to account, how Burke exposed the weakness of Marxism in its wholesale buying in of social evolution and the march of progress, the attempts at uprising both in England and India, and finding out about this marvelous creation that I shall have to go and see as soon as possible at the V&A:
‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a carved and lacquered wooden semi-automaton in the shape of a tiger mauling a man, Mysore, India, about 1793. Museum no 2545 (IS).
But the tiger is not just mauling any man. It is a European man, expressing the hatred of the EIC by the Sultan of Mysore, who fell in battle against them. This was part of the spoils, which is why I can go to the V&A and see it, as the EIC museum in Leadenhall Street is no more. I hate that it has been looted, yet it is a most visceral reminder of the simple fact that Empire was not appreciated, did not bring civilisation, did not help the Indian people.
I wonder if people see it that way? Just as I wonder what effect removing the statue to Robert Clive from Whitehall would be as Robins argues for — something I would definitely like to try and see. They certainly had an impact on the fabric of London itself — there is a nice section on that at the end of the book — or better said, how much of that impact has been erased. But the natural world was changed forever by the EIC both in India and its other colonies, the immense wealth of India funded the changing monumentality of country houses and gardens, the profit driven import/export business shaped the lives of the most desperate of London’s poor, particularly the weavers and the dockers. There is so much more to explore here…
Given the single-minded purpose of the East India Company, it is hardly surprising that it should put everything in service of its profits — everything. I am only now learning the full contours of its terrible legacy: the millions dead of famine in Bengal, the industries destroyed, the conflict fomented, the culture and knowledge denigrated, the uprisings horribly put down. Impossible to summarise the damage that transformed Bengal from one of the wealthiest regions to one of the poorest or what that has meant to its people.
Could the colonised natural world have survived such an onslaught untouched?
What I appreciated about many of these stories, is that nature, on the whole, held its own. But not every time.
Frustratingly for me, being fresh and new and autodidacting this subject of Empire and the natural world, the principal theorisation for much of this, and the work that all of these authors are building upon, lies here: Green imperialism : colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1600-1860 by Richard Grove. The strength of this collection lies in the well-researched detail and the breadth of subjects and disciplines represented. Not so useful for a theoretical overview though, so I am looking forward to Grove.
Still, this was enjoyable and I pulled out a few quotes, like this from the intro by Alan Lester, on John Mackenzie who I also have not yet read:
‘Rather than thinking of core and periphery as two interacting but discrete spatial containers, each maintaining its own essential identity, he saw that one of these containers was actually constituted by the other’ (2).
That seems common sense to me, perhaps more in the sense of each acting upon the other…but I’ve never much liked ideas of core and periphery. CLR James is most effective in theorising the intensity of these connections in a different way through his work on the Haitian Revolution and cricket for example. Interesting, though, to think of scale as socially constructed projects:
Like gender, race and class in post-structuralist historical thinking, we might productively think of scales as entities constructed through particular projects with real effects in the world. These are the ‘effects of networked practices’. (12)
Not sure what I can do with that, but interesting.
Deepak Kumar is another among several writers here who seem to me to be forced to state the obvious:
Colonial discourse, it is true, is neither dictated nor possessed entirely by the colonizers. Postcolonial theorists find ample instances of ‘ambivalence’, ‘hybridization’, and ‘mimicry’ within it. (20)
But I loved how the various works in here explored this through diaries, log books, letters. They traced the movements not just of human beings (and some of their words echoing from the past have an unexpected emotive power), but of plants and animals, both from the colonies to London, but also from colony to colony. I sit here in my London room, which is full of cactus because a piece of me will always long for the desert, and I wonder that academics had to ‘discover’ the way that people traded both within and without officially ordered botanical practices in familiar crops and familiar plants, to fill their homes and gardens, their medicine cabinets and their bellies. This in spite of the undeniable fact that ‘official’ botanical knowledge and classification resided in the major city of the colonizing power. Still, it is fascinating to read of the ways New Zealand was landscaped along broad and sweeping lines first practiced in India, and the close trading ties between the two that did not involve the home country at all.
I liked the examination of the roles of men of science, both amateur and professional:
They had a dual mandate, one to serve the state, the other to extend the frontiers of knowledge. The state claimed superiority in terms of structure, power, race and so on. Science claimed superiority or precedence in terms of knowledge and, inter alia, helped the colonial state ‘appropriate’, ‘assimilate’ or ‘dismiss’ other epistemologies. (Deepak Kumar, 28)
It was fascinating how these shifted over time, from a much more respectful position of mutual learning in the early days, yet where knowledge was still appropriated and almost never credited. These early days of botany and medicine are most interesting to me, but so much is lost, not valued thus silenced, despite the vast amount of documentation the company produced. I also wanted to know more of men like Richard Blackwall – a surgeon who turned against the East India Company and joined the Mughals in their struggle against it.
I learned a little, but not enough, of Mughal traditions:
gardens designed to introduce new crops and to provide materia medica for local hopsitals had existed for a long time in both Hindu and Muslim traditions and had spread to Europe in the form of the ‘physic gardens’ and ‘acclimatisation gardens’ that emerged in Italy, Portugal, later Holland, and finally England and France and their colonies (60) In Mughal towns of the period, ‘householder gardens’ were common, along with royal gardens and tomb gardens and the leasing of gardens could provide civic revenue (Anna Winterbottom, 44).
The article closest to what I was expecting was Rohan D’Souza’s ‘Mischievous Rivers and Evil Shoals’, detailing the East India Company’s immense and ultimately wasted efforts in attempting to control the mighty delta in Lower Bengal. A textbook in everything that is wrong with this approach to the world and how we live in it:
Despite the delicate nature of the drainage pattern, colonial rule had, during the course of the nineteenth century, inaugurated a number of projects for road, railway and embankment construction in the region. These modes of transport with their emphasis on permanent all-weather structures and mostly built in unrelenting straight lines marked a sharp break from movement in the earlier era, which was predominantly based on circuitous rough paths and ‘crooked’ routes. The colonial transport network in Bengal, in fact, radiated along the East-West axis, while the region’s natural drainage lines, in contrast, dropped from North to South (139).
The river won, but the decades of struggle, and the resources used by engineers is sobering, as is their despair or resignation. Yet the real tragedy is in the human cost of flooding and famine as older, more flexible methods of navigation, cultivation and agriculture working with the changing river are lost or no longer possible. I don’t know that there is enough rage in this book for me.
One consolation was an entire chapter on the rafflesia arnoldii, the largest flower in the world and proof of a true ‘Malaysian encounter’ when sited by a tourist, also known as a corpse flower for its smell of rotting flesh and parasitic nature:
In 1819 Robert Brown was Secretary of the Linnaean Society, and it was his task to identify the flower, and he faced a conundrum. Should he name the flower for Raffles, who oversaw the expedition and was well known in scientific circles in London, or Arnold, who had been the chief naturalist, and the first white man to see the flower on the expedition? Brown spent the next eighteen months confirming whether or not it was a botanical novelty and contemplating it’s official classification (Barnard, 160).
This encapsulates so much of early botany — carried out for profit, subject to strict hierarchy and structured by racism, still partaking of adventure and a scientific excitement (on Arnold’s part) not fully tainted by the colonial enterprise of which it was part. Arnold would not survive to see the final classification.
My favourite Raffles is still this one, and I can’t help but think of Arnold as Bunny. But that is absolutely doing my favourite dynamic duo a disservice.
I am going to try to evoke the excitement and fascination of the rise of chartered companies. Awesome you say. But really, this is how England became an Empire.
I am slogging through it. Writing because that helps me understand.
To do it, I am going to depart slightly in interpretation from the dull and very partisan book I am basing all of this on and quoting from, A License to Trade: The History of English Chartered Companies by Sir Percival Griffiths (1974, London: Ernest Benn Ltd).
These companies were experiments beginning mostly in the 16th century but stretching back long before. They were slightly revolutionary, emerging in a time when the crown had enormous power and its subjects had none. Griffiths writes of the reasons that this form of organisation was necessary:
A charter was necessary in the first place because associations of individuals had no inherent right of meeting or electing officers or framing regulations. Without royal sanction the members of such an association would have been at continual risk of being punished as an unlawful assembly [I see why it was included in the U.S. Constitution]. Even the administration of oaths, or the export of goods, or the departure of an individual from England might require royal permission… (x)
So they had to invent something that would allow the pooling of resources necessary to carry out trading expeditions and explorations and that could meet regularly as a group with the crown’s permission, that gave them jurisdiction over their employees while they were abroad (again, normally a right belonging entirely to the crown), and at the same time had proof that the crown was backing them up. With force.
The charter was the outward sign to the foreign government that the company operated under the aegis of the English Crown and that injuries to its members would be resent by the Crown and might provoke retaliation (xi).
And finally, the wet dream of all capitalists everywhere, monopoly.
No body of individuals would have been prepared to accept all the risks then attendant on opening up overseas ventures without some assurance that others would not enjoy the fruits of its labours and all the early charters, therefore, conferred exclusive trading rights against all other Englishmen (xi).
I spy a hint of the classical economist’s assumption of freeloading here, which I hate, and that stupid idea that people are only motivated by profit, but I will let it slide. Particularly as on this occasion, most of these men were in fact motivated solely by profit, and did not let a single moral qualm stand in their way. It’s like free-market economics were invented entirely to describe them.
But what I find most interesting is that from their earliest beginnings, these chartered companies that sent out trading, exploratory and colonising expeditions around the world, were a strange mix of public and private, an uneasy combination of individual and collective and national interests, and a part of the crucible that created the very ideas of free trade and rights that are so familiar today. Though they were all decrepit and bailed out in the end, or just used as the vehicle for crown rule.
In thinking about that crucible, we must remember that while determining their rights and ‘exploring’ and ‘adventuring’ they were also extorting vast wealth and embarking on policies of conquest, slavery and genocide. This book doesn’t get into any of that however. At least, not where it can avoid it.
It mostly started with the merchant adventurers — who I shall hate forever for stealing the joy of the word adventure. There are mentions of merchant groups back in the 1200s, but in 1485 the English cloth merchants petitioned the crown as ‘Merchant Adventurers, Citizens of the City of London, into the parts of Holland, Zeeland, Brabant and Flanders’.
It’s not surprising, but interesting that they style themselves ‘Citizens of the City of London’, and set up branches in other cities. Citizens of London, not England.
There are few light notes in this tome, I admit. But here is one. These merchant adventurers had apprentices who misbehaved as apprentices will do, ‘liable to fines for immorality or drunkeness, or for playing cards for excessive stakes…”knocking and ringing at men’s doors, beating at windows and consuming the master’s goods”‘ (11).
Another ‘fun’ fact: members often traded individually but divided up the total trade. The portion belonging to each was known as his stint.
I won’t go too much into each of the companies, but I hadn’t realised quite how many there were, quite how early they were, nor how different they were. It’s interesting to see them all together and realise the scale of this early stage of building the Empire. Also interesting is that before the beginning of accounting (or perhaps in spite of it), it is hard to gauge actual profits and losses. The wealth of England shows that there were profits, company members seemed to continuously pay themselves large dividends completely unrelated to actual profits and losses, but they all in the end seemed to have received subsidies from the crown (though that went both ways) and most were eventually fully taken over by the crown. As we know. That Empire over which the sun never set.
I’ve pulled out exciting quotes — there were a few. Honest. Well, enraging really. But there’s some good gossip about Ivan the Terrible and a visionary named Wakefield.
The Russia Company:
Beyond theories of the Elizabethan spirit of adventure and daring ‘…it is clear that the driving force behind the pioneers of the Russia venture was the need to find markets for the newly created surplus production of England’ (19). So early, it seems too early, does it not?
Circumstances were thus propitious when, in 1553, two hundred and forty ‘grave Citizens of London and men of great wisedome, and carefull for the good of their Countrey’ banded themselves together under the governorship of Sebastian Cabot to promote a voyage for the discovery of a North East passage to Cathay and for the establishment of trade wherever possible (20)
I love this description of the Tsar Ivan the Terrible, pioneer of multiple costume changes, from pilot Richard Chancellor:
Before dinner hee changed his crowne, and in dinner time two crowns; so that I saw three severall crownes upon his head in one day (21).
In return for their trading rights to Russia, the crown extorted from the company a few things. Not that they pay a portion of their earnings to the crown’s overseas creditors (as many other companies were required to do), but instead that they provide all of the wax required by the Royal Household and all the cordage required by the navy. They could not sell either of these two commodities until the crown and the navy had had enough.
The Levant Company:
Ah, Turkey and Venice…and the companies formed to ‘wrest from the Venetians the existing trade between England and the Levant’ (42).
In 1581, Elizabeth I granted ‘letters patent’ to the Turkey company that ‘authorized them to make laws and ordinances for the government of the Company, and prohibited English subjects from even visiting Turkey without permission of the Company’ (46) and renewable after 7 years.
The Levant Company received its letters patent in 1592, and was entitled to also appoint an Ambassador to Turkey to represent both crown and company. After some prosperity it received a few infusions of cash from the crown, and failed.
God, this is a little boring. Except you wake up and realise the company was appointing ambassadors to represent England abroad, and you’re like what? There was a bit of struggle over this, but still…
The African Companies:
Of the great charter companies established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the African companies alone can be regarded as, on the whole, unsuccessful. From 1588 to 1672 a succession of companies chartered to trade to the Guinea Coast went out of business, and even the Royal African Company, chartered in 1672 to exploit what was thought to be the very lucrative slave trade, enjoyed only a brief spell of prosperity and eventually found itself unable to compete with private traders.
This is real banality of evil stuff, in presentation, not in subject. He discusses lightly the three phases: trade by private individuals with or without permission, trade by the companies focused mainly on gold, and from 1660 (what ho restoration and the joys it brought the rest of the world), companies were chartered mainly for the slave trade.
A quote from J.A. WIlliamson that gives the lie to all of the later quotes about civilization and for people’s own good and etc:
The Guinea traffic of this period is one of the fundamental transactions of British expansion…it produced an oceanic war with Portugal…and it occassioned the formulation of a British doctrine which was never afterwards abandoned, the doctrine that prescriptive rights to colonial territory are of no avail unless backed by effective occupation.
The first English slave raid on the Guinea Coast? John Hawkins, 1562.
The East India Company:
Chartered in 1600. I am reading tons about them (see another post here), so I am going to be brief here.
Young men went to India in the eighteenth century to make a fortune and since they were grossly underpaid they relied for this purpose on private trade–a practice at times allowed and at other times connived at by the Directors (97).
Like a swarm of jackals really…I’m mixing my metaphor there, but I like it. Griffiths skips lightly over this, as he does the horror-filled famine in Bengal in 1769 onwards, though he has to note Pitt’s Act of 1784 which arose to control the company’s abuses that gave rise to it.
It is only in thinking of profits that this makes any sense:
The China trade presented the brightest aspect of the Company’s affairs in the late eighteenth century. It consisted of the export of opium from India to China and the export from China of tea, silk and spices (104).
No mention of Opium Wars of course.
The Hudson’s Bay Company:
The 1670 charter granted it:
The sole trade and commerce of all those seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks and sounds, in whatsoever latitude they shall be, that lie within the entrance of the straits, commonly caled Hudson’s Straits, together with all the land and territories upon the countries, coasts and confines of the seas, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks and sounds aforesaid, that are not actually already possessed by or granted to any of our subjects, or possessed by the subjects of any other Christian Prince or State (112).
Thus they bring god into it robbery and theft. Their first sales in London were by
‘inch of candle’ at Garroway’s Coffee House on 24 January 1672. It was not a financial success–of between 2,700 and 3,000 lb of beaver put up for sale, only 789 lb. were sold, realizing £282 4s 0d.
Breaks my heart that does.
There’s more, like this:
Wedderburn had also shown much interest in land settlement as a means of providing for the Company’s retired servants and their half-breed offspring, and also of making servants and labourers available for the Company’s needs (126).
I almost ripped that page out of the book, but I didn’t.
It was unthinkable that the great prairies, large areas of which were believed to be fertile, should remain almost uninhabited. The only question was as to who should colonize them (131).
The Virginia Company:
They settled Virginia, most of them died, blah blah blah.
The Plymouth Company:
We’ve heard lots about them before.
The Massachusetts Bay Company:
This differed from the rest in that the government of the company was not required to remain in England. Good for founding theocratic states.
The Newfoundland and Guiana Companies:
The Darien Company:
A Scottish chartered company, but it didn’t quite get off the ground.
By the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, these companies were still being formed, but intellectual fashion had ‘swung strongly against monopolies’, so they didn’t have that going for them. The reason I am reading this book at all was the little I have found out about the
Sierra Leone Company:
When Griffiths writes this it is without sarcasm, but not when I copy it:
Even before the news of this disaster had reached London, it had become apparent to Sharp that philanthropic motives were not always by themselves sufficient for the maintenance of a colony and that commercial interests must be attracted to it (219).
The Governor was fortunate in the choice of his two Councillors — Zachary Macaulay, a leading member of the Clapham Sect, and William Dawes, a former marine officer at Botany Bay (221)
An evangelical abolitionist and the warden of a prison colony. Jesus.
I don’t even know where this comes from:
Like most visionaries, Wakefield was unbalanced and in his early days found himself in trouble with the law as a result of abducting an heiress (226).
The Royal Niger Company:
Prepare yourself for some truly righteous anger…
The determination of the British Government to suppress the slave trade led, in 1851, to friction with Kosoko, the King of Lagos. When he attacked the British settlement at Badagri, he was driven out and his successor, Akitoya, entered into a treaty for the abolition of the slave trade. He was succeeded by Docemo, who genuinely sought to observe the treaty, but opposition from his subjects was too strong and it became clear that nothing except direct British control would achieve the desired result. In August 1861, Docemo was therefore pursuaded to cede his kingdom to the Britain and was given a very adequate pension (238).
The pension is a nice touch.
…in the Delta, where many of the tribes keenly resented the presence of the Company. Its activities not only undermined their position as middlemen but also threatened their way of life, since the Company was determined to put an end to slavery and to suppress the barbarous customs of cannibalism and human sacrifice…bit by bit, either by peaceful treaty or force, the Company established its ascendency and within a few years the Delta was fully under its control (241).
In the words of a writer in 1898, unconsciously giving a better angle on what it really was all about:
The West Coast of Africa at the present day resembles a huge estate that has been split up into building lots, with desirable frontages on to the Atlantic, and boundary fences running back on either side of each lot, but in many cases having no fence at the end of the back garden… (A. F. Mockler-Ferryman, British West Africa, London: 1898. p 411)
The British North Borneo Company:
Never concerned with trade, this company just governed Borneo. You know.
The Imperial British East Africa Company:
As a Chartered Company, however, they were considered to have responsibilities almost as agents for Her Majesty’s Government and so had to undertake an unprofitable advance into territories from which that Government wished to exclude the Germans. As a result, the shareholder received no dividends and lost much of their capital (263).
The British South Africa Company:
Ah, South Africa, a monument to the benefits of Empire.
There were a host more of smaller, less important, more prone to failure companies. In spicing this post up with pictures I found stamps and coins…which demands a whole other post really. Of course they had stamps and coins, but I still ask myself, did they really have stamps and coins? Seriously?
I mock these things, but I know this is a history of conquest and slavery and a destruction of lives and cultures and languages and traditions and knowledges. Unimaginable horror. Driven by greed. Hidden behind discussions of chartered companies and their legalistic language and reasonings.
Which is why I am learning more.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.