Page 2 of 2 BOOK
REVIEW A law unto
itself The Corporation That Changed
the World by Nick
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
appointed by Parliament sought to
overthrow Warren Hastings, the Company's governor
of Bengal, on charges of corruption.
backlash of state regulation was, however,
short-lived. Hastings weathered the storm and
embarked on wars and mercenary missions to crush
peasant revolts. Natives unable to pay exorbitant
taxes were slaughtered or "confined in open
cages". The traditional
rights of Indian producers were harmed to an
extent that the productive capacity of Bengal was
inevitably reduced. Frantic military expeditions
and wars followed to fleece the last ounce out of
a hemorrhaging Indian economy.
and wanton pillage of India by the Company were
popular in Britain. Burke's impeachment trial of
Hastings lasted seven years, and an unfair English
judicial system guaranteed that it would be a lost
cause. Hastings' defense that India was a
primitive and inferior land in which different
standards of justice should be applied was upheld
by the minders of Pax Britannica. Imperial pride
and patriotism interfered in efforts to bring the
Company to justice.
Lord Cornwallis, introduced the English model of
landlordship in India to build up a political
class of gentry (zamindars) who would
support Company rule. Twenty million small
landholders were dispossessed of their rights as a
"rule of property" was pushed through. "India was
not European or Christian, and so was ultimately
subjected to a second-class settlement, treated as
a piece of property rather than a living community
of people" (p 140).
In the 19th century,
the Company's military operations burgeoned and
its army grew tenfold. Lord Wellesley, the
governor general up to 1805, had a voracious
appetite for land and fortresses, looting rare
Indian treasures and shipping them to museums and
country houses in Britain. In Malabar, tax rates
were raised and land for plantation was usurped by
children, were kidnapped to work as slaves "with
clothes stuffed in their mouths to keep them
quiet" (p 144). Rebellions were stamped out by the
Company's strong-arm tactics that proclaimed, "The
more villages you burn and the more cattle and
other property that are carried off, the better"
(p 145). By 1820, military impulse was the master,
not the servant, of business opportunity.
With the opening of trade and the surge of
new British entrepreneurs in the 1830s, the
Company lost its monopoly. To make up for the
loss, its tea sales to China were doubled and paid
for with contraband smuggling of opium. The need
to maintain a monopoly over opium production in
India to sneak the poison into China led the
Company to wage wars on the Marathas and Sindh.
The Company also sent out military support to
British forces in the 1842 Opium War against China
that opened a new chapter of colonialism in Asia.
In Britain, the imperial benefit of opium trade
justified its blatant illegality.
twilight years in India, the Company was guided by
an arrogance of power resting on the alleged
superiority of Western civilization. Racist scorn
and verbal abuse by Company staffers mounted, with
"nigger" becoming a common expression for Indians
in the 1840s and 1850s. John Stuart Mill, the
Company's loyal executive for three decades, put
the icing on the cake by envisaging dictatorship
over India as an "educative force and a legitimate
mode of government in dealing with barbarians" (p
161). Increasing racial and administrative
haughtiness lay at the root of the Revolt of 1857
that terminated the Company's rule of India.
British troops recaptured lost territories after
the revolt with extreme savagery, paralleling "a
ferocious bloodlust in British society" (p 164).
From 1858, direct rule by the British crown was
installed in India, but Indians had to continue to
pay dividends on the stock of the extinct Company
in the form of interest on transferred debts until
World War II.
The British establishment
"has not yet confronted its corporate imperial
past", what with monuments to Clive and other
Company notables enjoying pride of place in the
heart of the current power structure of the United
Kingdom (p 170).
The Company was allowed
free rein in its heyday and is now being given a
sympathetic makeover in exhibitions and events
commemorating "nabobs" and their penchant for
Indian culture. Nostalgia for bygone imperial
domination, coupled with Prime Minister Tony
Blair's new call for Britain to become a
mini-America, still cloud an honest appraisal of
the Company's black deeds.
Robins draws a
number of lessons from the Company's history.
Enforceable systems of justice have to hold
powerful corporations to account for damage to
society and the environment. Both managerial
personnel and shareholders should ensure that
their hunger for financial returns does no harm.
Mergers, acquisitions and cartels to widen
the market and narrow competition have to be
prevented by a global competition authority
outside the environs of the World Trade
Organization. Robins concludes that the chief
obstacle to democratizing world markets and
rebuilding "ethical equality between East and
West" is the administration of US President George
W Bush, which seeks to free businesses of any form
of redress for their actions overseas.
1700, India and China accounted for 47% of world
gross domestic product while Western Europe's
share was a mere 26%. By 1870, the Asian giants
slumped to a combined 29% of world GDP and Western
Europe leaped to 42%. The East India Company was
the primary device for this reversal of world
scales. In the 21st century, with China and India
once again rising to world economic prominence,
monitoring and controlling Western multinational
corporations is a cardinal responsibility.
The Corporation That Changed the World:
How the East India Company Shaped the Modern
Multinational by Nick Robins. Pluto Press,
London, September 2006. ISBN: 0-7453-2523-8.
Price: US$24.95, 218 pages.