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The Evil Of The East India Company

Updated: Apr 15

The Mughal emperor Shah Alam hands a scroll to Robert Clive, the governor of Bengal, which transferred tax collecting rights in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the East India Company. Illustration: Benjamin West (1738–1820)/British Library

The notion of the British conquest of India masks a deeper truth. In the late 18th century, it wasn't the British government, but a perilously unregulated private company, located in a small London office and led by an unstable sociopath named Robert Clive, that seized control.

Established in 1600, The East India Company stands as one of the most influential yet controversial entities in British history. Originally chartered for trade with the East Indies, its dominion eventually extended across continents, leaving an indelible mark on global commerce and politics. However, beneath its opulent façade lay tales of exploitation, corruption, and scandal, revealing a darker side to its legacy.

Robert Clive

Queen Elizabeth I's grant of a royal charter to London merchants on December 31, 1600, marked the birth of the East India Trading Company. Initially focused on the spice trade, it swiftly expanded its reach, establishing trading posts and monopolizing commerce in regions like India, China, and Southeast Asia.

Strategic alliances with local rulers facilitated the company's ascendancy, bolstering its economic and political power. Figures such as Sir Thomas Smythe and Sir Thomas Roe played pivotal roles in navigating diplomatic complexities and securing advantageous trade agreements.

By the 18th century, the East India Trading Company had become an economic behemoth, dominating global trade routes and amassing immense wealth. Its control over key commodities such as tea, silk, and spices fuelled Britain's industrial revolution but came at a grave human cost.

Exploitative practices, including unfair trade agreements, forced labour, and ruthless suppression of local competitors, tarnished its reputation. The Bengal Famine of 1770, exacerbated by the company's grain hoarding and exploitative land policies, resulted in the deaths of millions.

The company's history is rife with scandals and controversies. The "Nabob of Arcot" scandal exposed rampant corruption, with company officials in India accepting bribes and kickbacks. The resulting outcry highlighted the depths of corruption within its administrative apparatus. The Bengal Famine of 1770, exacerbated by grain hoarding and exploitative land policies, resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10 million people.

Military exploits further fuelled controversy. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny or the First War of Independence, marks a pivotal moment in British colonial history. The uprising was fuelled by a confluence of economic, social, cultural, and religious grievances. Economic disparities, exacerbated by British land policies, had deeply impacted Indian farmers and landowners. Additionally, the introduction of new rifles with cartridges rumoured to be greased with cow and pig fat, offending both Hindu and Muslim soldiers' religious sensibilities, served as a catalyst for discontent among the Indian sepoys (native soldiers).

The spark that ignited the rebellion occurred in Meerut on May 10, 1857, when sepoys, refused to use the new cartridges. The unrest quickly spread across northern and central India, encompassing regions such as Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, and Jhansi. It soon escalated into a full-fledged revolt against British rule.

The rebellion saw the emergence of notable figures on both sides. Leaders such as Nana Sahib, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Bahadur Shah II (the last Mughal emperor), and Tatya Tope played significant roles in organizing resistance against British forces. On the British side, figures like Sir Colin Campbell, Sir Hugh Rose, and Sir Henry Lawrence led efforts to suppress the rebellion.  British officials and civilians faced brutal attacks, while Indian rebels suffered retaliatory massacres and punitive actions. The Siege of Lucknow, the Battle of Kanpur, and the Relief of Cawnpore are among the most notable engagements of the conflict.

One of the only known photographs of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, taken after his trial in 1858

Despite initial successes, the Indian rebels ultimately faced defeat due to superior British military tactics, weaponry, and reinforcements. The rebellion was quelled by 1858, marking the end of the East India Company's rule in India and the beginning of direct British control under the British Crown, known as the British Raj.

Bahadur Shah Zafar II breathed his last in a shabby wooden house in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1862.

That very day, his British captors buried him in an unmarked grave in a compound near the famous Shwedagon Pagoda.

Defeated, demoralised and humiliated, it was an inglorious end for a man whose Mughal ancestors had for 300 years ruled a vast territory including modern-day India, Pakistan, large parts of Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Though his rule could not compare with that of illustrious ancestors like Akbar or Aurangzeb, he became the rallying point for the failed "Indian uprising" of 1857, when soldiers from undivided India rose against the British East India Company.

The company's exploitative practices extended to its opium trade with China. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the East India Company controlled the opium trade between British-controlled India and China. The Company, with support from the British government, actively encouraged the cultivation of opium in India and its export to China. This trade was immensely profitable for the Company, as opium fetched high prices in China.

However, the Chinese government, recognizing the harmful effects of opium addiction on its population and the drain of silver reserves to pay for opium imports, attempted to crack down on the trade. In 1839, the Chinese government confiscated and destroyed large quantities of opium belonging to British merchants, triggering the First Opium War.

The East India Company played a central role in the conflict by providing military support to British forces. Company ships and troops were deployed to China to protect British interests and secure favourable terms for the opium trade. British victories in the First Opium War resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which legalized the opium trade and ceded Hong Kong to Britain.

The Second Opium War, which occurred from 1856 to 1860, saw similar involvement from the East India Company. Once again, Company forces participated in military campaigns against China, leading to further concessions and the expansion of British influence in China.

Overall, the East India Company's involvement in the Opium Wars illustrates its role in promoting and profiting from the opium trade, despite the devastating consequences for Chinese society and the erosion of China's sovereignty.

Furthermore, the company's role in the transatlantic slave trade cannot be ignored. enslaved Africans to the Americas, primarily to British colonies such as Jamaica, Barbados, and Virginia. While the Company's primary focus was on trade with Asia, it occasionally engaged in the transatlantic slave trade to meet the labour demands of its colonies in the Caribbean and North America.

The Company's involvement in the slave trade primarily revolved around supplying goods used in the trade rather than directly transporting slaves. It supplied various commodities, including textiles, metalware, and firearms, which were traded for enslaved Africans on the West African coast.

Additionally, the Company's ships occasionally transported enslaved Africans as part of broader trading ventures. While these voyages were not as frequent or extensive as those undertaken by dedicated slave-trading companies, they nonetheless contributed to the perpetuation of the transatlantic slave trade and the exploitation of enslaved labour in the Americas.

In 1874, after decades of mismanagement and scandal, the British government dissolved the East India Trading Company. Its demise was a culmination of several factors, including economic mismanagement, political corruption, and increasing public scrutiny of its activities.

  1. Economic Decline: By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Company faced significant financial challenges. Its monopoly on trade had been eroded, competition from other European powers had intensified, and its military expenditures in maintaining control over its territories had strained its resources. Additionally, the Company's role in the opium trade with China, while lucrative, was politically contentious and morally controversial.

  2. Political Reforms: The Regulating Act of 1773 and subsequent Acts of Parliament aimed to reform the Company's governance and oversight. These measures sought to address the rampant corruption and inefficiency within the Company's administrative apparatus, but they also weakened its autonomy and control over its territories.

  3. Revolts and Rebellions: The Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, dealt a severe blow to the Company's authority in India. The widespread uprising among Indian soldiers and civilians against British rule exposed the Company's vulnerabilities and prompted calls for its dissolution.

  4. Public Outcry: Scandals and controversies surrounding the Company's activities, including corruption, exploitation, and human rights abuses, sparked public outrage in Britain. Reformers and abolitionists criticized the Company's role in perpetuating slavery, supporting the opium trade, and suppressing indigenous peoples in its colonies.

  5. Government Intervention: Amid mounting pressure and public outcry, the British government intervened to address the Company's mismanagement and abuses. The Government of India Act of 1858 transferred control of British India from the Company to the British Crown, effectively ending the Company's rule in India. Subsequent legislation, including the India Act of 1874, led to the formal dissolution of the Company and the absorption of its assets and territories into the British Empire.


  • Dalrymple, William. The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

  • Marshall, P. J. The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America, c.1750-1783. Oxford University Press, 2005.

  • Bowen, H. V. The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756-1833. Cambridge University Press, 2006.



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