The Desperate Wail of a Lost Empire | A Story of the Rise and Fall of the East India Company

On 22 September 1599, a group of merchants who called themselves ‘The Adventurers’ met. They made a commitment. There was a contract, a sum of money involved as well as the intention to get rich while doing it.

As exciting and as promising as it all sounds, this tale is not free of fabrications, falsehood or propaganda. And the best part of it–it wasn’t even what actually happened. Seen through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, the spectators of a long lost past fail to hear the real and true echoes of a past that can no longer be heard.

They won the war, I can hear you say. Sure, they did. But they lost all their money. They started the largest corporate empire the world has ever known. Sure, they did. But what exactly do you mean by ‘largest’?

They were the first to command and control the Indian subcontinent. Were they, now? There have been many before them who arrived in India. Some stayed and some have long departed, never to return ever again except on tourist visas.

The Jewel of the Empire

The empire on which the sun never sets. It is a famous phrase and one that has not only been used by the British. The long lost gentleman who came up with the phrase was Herodotus. Like every empire that awakened at dawn, this self-proclaimed heavyweight champion, too, would one day see its very own sunset and pave the path for a new sunrise to be born.

The phrase, however, continues to be used nostalgically; to describe certain global empires that were so extensive that it appeared to its rulers that it was always daytime in at least one part of its territory. By virtue of its scale, its mass and its sheer magnitude, the creators of those empires grandiosely thought themselves too big to fail, to falter, or to fall.

But with the surety with which the sun rises and sets and by which the moon waxes and wanes–so do the empires which rise only to fade away.

Or perhaps it only appears that way to human eyes.

Money, Money, Money

Long before the emergence of The Big 4 tech giants–Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook–there was the EIC, which would go down in history as one of the world’s biggest and most dominant corporations. Founded in 1600 in Britain by royal charter, the East India Company company was formed to trade with what was then called the ‘East Indies’.

When the EIC first visited the Indian Mughal court in the early 17th century, they came as supplicants attempting to negotiate favourable trading relations with Emperor Jehangir. The company had initially planned to try and force their way into the lucrative spice markets of Southeast Asia, but quickly discovered that the region was already dominated by the Dutch. After EIC merchants were massacred in Indonesia in 1623, the company turned their attention to India.

The early adventurers–much like any other adventurers–encountered loss, failure, setback and all those other realities of life. They did not just walk into India and their arrival was not welcomed with open arms.

When Sir Thomas Roe arrived at the port of Surat in September 1615, he came with a letter from King James I to the then reigning Mughal Emperor Jahangir seeking a trade agreement. The ambassador would go on to spend four years of negotiations at the Mughal court, eventually returning to England in 1619 without the trade agreement he sought.

It was, however, the first formal introduction that would mark the beginning of a relationship spanning centuries, the significance of which cannot be overstated.

Under the Mughal patronage, the British set up the first factory in Surat, which was then followed by the acquisition of Madras in 1639, Bombay in 1668, and Calcutta in 1690. With Emperor Jehangir’s permission, they eventually began to build small bases and factories on India’s east and west coasts.

From these coastal footholds, they started a highly profitable trade in spices, textiles and luxury goods. Their commercial success was based on doing business with Indian artisans and producers through Indian middlemen.

Meanwhile, the ‘joint stock’ organisation of the company spread the cost and risk of the individual voyages between its investors. The company grew in both size and influence during the 17th and 18th centuries. While the company remained volatile as an entity, EIC shares became an important bellwether of the British economy and with time, emerged as one of London’s most powerful financial institutions.

One of the major commodities exported from India to Britain was tea. In the 1820s, the East India Company began commercial tea production in Assam. A rapidly growing industry, by 1900 there were around 4000 tea estates in India as well as over 2000 in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka). This popular drink generated a hugely profitable industry and a quintessentially British tea culture emerged in Britain.

The Early Days

Despite the many fruits of commerce, the first years of EIC were notorious for their corruption and profiteering. The late 18th century, however, saw the development of what would become the basis of the EIC state in India, as traders sought to become administrators and develop systems of rule which were compatible with both their ideas of political economy and the specific circumstances in India.

India’s large population and longstanding social, political and economic institutions rendered the imperialistic dogma of terra nullius inapplicable in the subcontinent. As a result, the EIC never did achieve the level of control over the resources of land and labour that characterised the settler communities of Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

It could even be asserted, without any great deal of debate, that there was never any intention for the British to permanently settle in India the way they had in many other former colonies.

India’s value to the EIC lay primarily in the profits that could be made by controlling India’s internal markets and international trade, in essence by appropriating its large labour force and collecting tax revenue. These taxes paid for both a large standing army and a sizeable number of EIC employees as well as covenanted civil servants who worked in India but who did not ultimately have intentions to settle there.

British Rule in India perhaps remains the most controversial and the most debated debacle in the history of the British empire. The admirers and defenders of British rule frequently point to the economic developments, the legal and administrative system, and the fact that it was Britain that thrusted India into the centre of world politics. Some proponents of British rule even argued that Indians were poor and oppressed by their own leaders before the British arrived and that British rule was less harsh on ordinary Indians than rule by Indian princes.

India, however, had a huge population and was just as developed or arguably more developed than Britain in the 1700s when the British arrived. It is said that the British were able to take what turned out to be temporary control of India mainly because India was not ‘united’.

The British signed treaties and made military and trading alliances with many of the independent states that now make up the nation state of India. The British were very effective at infiltrating these independent states and gradually taking control.

Despite the truth and the reality of the British empire, a third of people in the UK still believe Britain’s colonies were better off for being part of an empire. Britons are also more likely to say they would like their country to still have an empire than people in France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany or Japan, a YouGov polling found. These results were shared with The Guardian in 2020 as Britain prepared to find a new place in the international order after Brexit.

Is Brexit somehow intricately connected to Britain’s nostalgic yet unaddressed imperial past? Or is it the pain that Britain still feels from losing its grip on a world it once believed it firmly held in its grasp?

Where Britain Fell

In Singapore, where The Mercantile is based, the signs and signposts which point to the fact the British were once here have not been erased; but neither are they omnipresent. The memories reside and remain within a few preserved buildings and monuments.

Through our history lessons and the lingua franca of the nation, we remember that we were once part of an empire that has faded, not into obscurity, but into a chapter that no one quite seems to recall or remember. The nostalgia that Britain feels towards its ‘subjects’ is not a nostalgia that its subjects feel, even if the influence of that period in history continues to ripple through time.

Economics, however, has always told a different story to the stirrings of the human heart, mind and soul. In an economic rendering of the world, there are clear winners and losers based on measurable benchmarks of performance.

But when we look into people’s hearts, the nostalgia is not only not shared, but it has also been forgotten.

Immigration in the Commonwealth

Post WWII immigration into Britain was intimately connected to the ebb and flow of the British empire’s soon to be lost attachments. The British Nationality Act 1948, which was principally an attempt to hold together what remained of the British Empire, led to the acceptance of the migration of ‘non-white people’ from the new Commonwealth countries into Britain as a trade-off.

This trade-off has since been seen as an unfortunate but necessary byproduct of maintaining the relationship between Britain and the flailing empire. Although the British Nationality Act prompted the establishment of some recruitment programs targeted at migrants from the Commonwealth; post-war labour shortages, however, were primarily addressed through the facilitation of European labour.

Nostalgia for the good old days usually comes with an inability to see the good old days with clarity. This nostalgia I have seen and I have heard from many Britons who reside outside their Motherland is sometimes combined with a reluctance and inability to see contemporary and post-colonial British racism as a legacy and byproduct of imperial and colonial power.

During British colonial rule, people were systematically exploited and degraded on the basis of race. It was a system that was maintained through the brutal means of violence, humiliation and oppression.

Revival of a Lost Relationship

Recent policy soundings, however, suggest that the British government wishes to strengthen economic ties with the Commonwealth countries as the UK’s relationship with its European neighbours deteriorates. It may seem an ironic turn of events, considering the context with which Britain joined the EU close to half a century ago.

Its membership followed decades of post-war decline and indecisiveness about whether to discard its economic dependence on ailing Commonwealth markets–and with it any prospect of a lasting imperial role for Britain. The decision to join the EEC also coincided with the closure of Britain’s borders to people from its former colonies.

Britain may have emerged as ‘a victor’ at the end of WWII, but its economy, which was then intimately intertwined with the Commonwealth, was utterly battered. Even as the Labour party rejoiced at its landslide political triumph, the nation continued to face grave problems. The war had stripped Britain of its foreign financial resources and the country owed debts to other countries which amounted to several billion pounds.

The British economy was also in disarray. Industries such as aircraft manufacture were far larger than what was now needed, while others, such as railways and coal mines, were short of new equipment and in bad shape. With nothing to export, Britain had no way to pay for imports or even for food.

Over the next 20 years, however, Britain would witness significant political and social changes in both its society as well as its place in the world. As a new world order was born, Britain faced many dilemmas and struggled to redefine a new place for itself in an international scene which was now dominated by the Cold War.

Debt

UK national debt peaked in the late 1940s at over 230% of GDP. From the early 1950s to early 1990s, however, the debt-to-GDP ratio saw a consistent decrease. The chief reason the UK debt to GDP began falling in the post-war period was due to the sustained period of economic growth and near full employment which transpired till the late 1970s. This growth saw rising real incomes which in turn led to higher tax revenues and falling debt to GDP ratios. There was also a positive inflation rate, which helped erode the real value of debt.

Some have drawn parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and wartime experiences. Aside from the financing strains of the antivirus measures, which seem set to come close to the 25 per cent of gross domestic product peaks of wartime deficits, the biggest challenge is how to withdraw the huge stimulus when the emergency ends.

One thing is for sure, the postwar years set an emotional course that still marks the collective memory of the British nation. In Singapore, a former British colony, the story that Sir Stamford Raffles ‘founded’ the nation is beginning to fade.

Instead, there has been a resurgence in revisiting a long past and attempting to reintegrate it into collective memory. In those memories, there are many others–others who came before Raffles, like Sang Nila Utama; and others who came after him like Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew–who have captivated the public imagination and defined the true trajectory of the nation’s forebears.

The signs that the British were once here remain. A growing percentage of the population speaks English as a first language. The old post office which has been converted into a hotel, the former buildings of the judiciary which now house the city’s museums. Yes, yes… We remember that the British were once here. But it always seems that they remember it a lot better than we do.

And that, too, with a clarity that we have long forgotten.

The New Nations of Southeast Asia

When heroic figures emerge on the scene, they leave a lasting impact on the future development of a nation. In Southeast Asia, in particular, there arose a close-knit group of founding fathers. The story of a founding father is intimately tied to the creation of any nation-state as they were the driving force behind how the country and its economy developed post-independence.

The question here is that: how did a group of largely English-speaking leaders who were foreign-educated–with zero experience in either politics or revolutionary tactics–manage to lead a people whose languages they did not speak, whose culture they may not have shared, and whose hardships they only understood intellectually?

The nation-states that were born with the death of the colonial empires may well have been ‘new’ nation states in the postcolonial context, but they were by no means new cultures. The traditions and civilisations of these cultures go back thousands and thousands of years.

Independence was not only the beginning, but a rebirth. It was not so much the creation of new nation states, but a rebirth of the old ones that had existed long before the British ‘founded’ them and single-handedly wrote their own stories and their own histories in their image.

In the dramas which unfolded and ensued post-colonisation, new paradigms and modalities were carved out, in some cases, seemingly out of thin air. There was the security paradigm, the urban revolution paradigm, the anti-insurgency paradigm and the communist paradigm.

Some of these paradigms succeeded, while others failed. Decades after independence, however, the jury concluded that people generally opted for law and order and good living conditions over revolutionary fervour. There were many trojan horses embedded within the post-independence struggle that may not have been immediately apparent to onlookers.

Before independence, there were certain factions which banded together to create a more powerful political vehicle. After independence, these factions disbanded, divorced and went their separate ways. Within hours of any disagreement or knowingly incurred losses, factions of friends would ally themselves with who had been an enemy only months prior.

Except for the skeletal core of the independence movement, the various moving parts and organs would disappear and reappear as enemies who were once disguised as friends and vice versa. As the various factions struggled for survival, the leaders of that generation fought for their lives. The lifelines that leaders relied on quickly morphed into near-suicide missions. Many leaders of that era were even assassinated.

They were like the hermit crab and the sea anemone, invested in a symbiotic short-term relationship that was never intended to last. The temporary unity and ideological truce was to ensure the collective survival of both organisms. Once they had both survived the ordeal together, they simply went their separate ways; or turned against each other.

Who Am I?

When I was first asked to write an article and teach a class on the EIC, I quite frankly didn’t have an opinion on it. And perhaps you could even say that I still don’t. I wasn’t around when it all happened and if my grandfather was alive, perhaps he would have told me some stories to jog the memories I do not possess.

Singapore’s founding, commemorates not independence from the British, but separation from Malaysia. Should these episodes of history inform who I am? That depends, on whether or not it has made me who I am… And if you ask me, I just can’t say that it has.

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