Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Brief History of the East India Company

A POPULAR parlour game among historians is debating when the modern world began. Was it when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, in 1440? Or when Christopher Columbus discovered America, in 1492? Or when Martin Luther published his 95 theses, in 1517? All popular choices. But there is a strong case to be made for a less conventional answer: the modern world began on a freezing New Year’s Eve, in 1600, when Elizabeth I granted a company of 218 merchants a monopoly of trade to the east of the Cape of Good Hope.

The East India Company foreshadowed the modern world in all sorts of striking ways. It was one of the first companies to offer limited liability to its shareholders. It laid the foundations of the British empire. It spawned Company Man. And—particularly relevant at the moment—it was the first state-backed company to make its mark on the world.
The relevance to today?
Ever since its ignominious collapse the Company has been treated as an historical curiosity—an “anomaly without a parallel in the history of the world”, as one commentator put it in 1858, a push-me pull-you the like of which the world would never see again. But these days similarly strange creatures are popping up everywhere. The East India Company is being transformed from an historical curiosity into a highly relevant case study.

The Company’s history shows that liberals may be far too pessimistic (if that is the right word) about the ability of state monopolies to remain healthy. The Company lasted for far longer than most private companies precisely because it had two patrons to choose from—prospering from trade in good times and turning to the government for help in bad ones. It also showed that it is quite possible to rely on the government for support while at the same time remaining relatively lean and inventive.

But the Company’s history also shows that mercantilists may be far too optimistic about state companies’ ability to avoid being corrupted by politics. The merchants who ran the East India Company repeatedly emphasised that they had no intention of ruling India. They were men of business who only dabbled in politics out of necessity. Nevertheless, as rival state companies tried to muscle in on their business and local princelings turned out to be either incompetent or recalcitrant, they ended up taking huge swathes of the emerging world under their direct control, all in the name of commerce.

The Chinese state-owned companies that are causing such a stir everywhere from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (where they account for some of the biggest recent flotations) to the dodgiest parts of Sudan (where they are some of the few business organisations brave enough to tread) are no different from their East Indian forebears. They say that they are only in business for the sake of business. They dismiss their political connections as a mere bagatelle. The history of the East India Company suggests that it won’t work out that way.
Sort of the story of the once-and-future King. Read the whole thing.

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