1625--1862 "JOHN COMPANY"LIFE AND DEATH OFHATED BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY [history]


THE COMPANY WHICH RULED OVER INDIA

"It does not appear to be ascertained where the East India Company first transacted their business," says an historian of the great Company, "but the tradition of the house is, that it was in the great room of the "Nag's Head Inn," opposite Bishop'sgate Church, where there is now a Quakers' Meeting House. The maps of London constructed soon after the Great Fire place the India House in Leadenhall Street, on a part of its present site. It is probably the house, of which a unique plate is preserved in the British Museum, surmounted by a huge, square-built mariner, and two thick dolphins. In the indenture of conveyance of the dead stock of the Company, dated 22nd July, 1702, we find that Sir William Craven, of Kensington, in the year 1701, leased to the Company his large house in Leadenhall Street, and a tenement in Lime Street, for twenty-one years, at £100 a year. Upon the site of this house what is called the old East India House was built in 1726; and several portions of this old house long remained, although the subsequent front, and great part of the house, were added in 1799, by Mr. Jupp.The fa├žade of the old building was 200 feet in length, and was of stone. The portico was composed of six large Ionic fluted columns on a raised basement, and it gave an air of much magnificence to the whole, although the closeness of the street made it somewhat gloomy. The pediment was an emblematic sculpture by Bacon, representing the commerce of the East protected by the King of Great Britain, who stood in the centre of a number of figures, holding a shield stretched over them. On the apex of the pediment rose a statue of Britannia. Asia, seated on a dromedary, was at the left corner, and Europe, on horseback, at the right."The ground floor," says a writer in "Knight's London," describing the old India House in 1843, "is chiefly occupied by Court and Committee Rooms, and by the Directors' private rooms. The Court of Directors occupy what is usually termed the 'Court Room,' while that in which the Court of Proprietors assemble is called the 'General Court Room.' The Court Room is said to be an exact cube of thirty feet; it is splendidly ornamented by gilding and by large looking-glasses; and the effect of its too great height is much diminished by the position of the windows near the ceiling. Six large pictures hang from the cornice, representing the three Presidencies, the Cape, St. Helena, and Tellicherry. A fine piece of sculpture, in white marble, is fixed over the chimney; Britannia is seated on a globe by the sea-shore, receiving homage from three female figures, intended for Asia, Africa, and India. Asia offers spices with her right hand, and with her left leads a camel; India presents a large box of jewels, which she holds half open; and Africa rests her hand upon the head of a lion. The Thames, as a river-god, stands upon the shore, a labourer appears cording a large bale of merchandise, and ships are sailing in the distance. The whole is supported by two caryatid figures, intended for Brahmins, but really fine old European-looking philosophers."The General Court Room, which until the abolition of the trade was the old sale-room, is close to the Court Room. Its east side is occupied by rows of seats which rise from the floor near the middle of the room towards the ceiling, backed by a gallery where the public are admitted. On the floor are the seats for the chairman, secretary, and clerks. Against the west wall, in niches, are six statues of persons who have distinguished themselves in the Company's service; Lord Clive, Warren Hastings, and the Marquis Cornwallis occupy those on the left, and Sir Eyre Coote, General Lawrance, and Sir George Pococke those on the right. It is understood that the statue of the Marquis Wellesley will be placed in the vacant space in the middle. The Finance and Home Committee Room is the best room in the house, with the exception of the Court Rooms, and is decorated with some good pictures. One wall is entirely occupied by a representation of the grant of the Dewannee to the Company in 1765, the foundation of all the British Power in India; portraits of Warren Hastings and of the Marquis Cornwallis stand beside the fireplace; and the remaining walls are occupied by other pictures, among which may be noticed the portrait of Mirza Abul Hassan, the Persian Envoy, who excited a good deal of attention in London in the year 1809. The upper part of the house contains the principal offices and the library and museum. In the former is, perhaps, the most splendid collection of Oriental MSS. in Europe, and, in addition, a copy of almost every printed work relating to Asia."Our trade with India may date its real commencement from the last day of the sixteenth century, when 215 London merchant adventurers, elated by the capture of a Portuguese ship laden with Indian gold, pearls, spices, silks, and ivory, obtained a charter to trade with Hindostan for fifteen years. King James, with some reluctance (being, no doubt, tampered with by courtiers), renewed the charter, in 1609, "for ever," providing that it might be recalled on three years' notice from the Crown. In 1612, after twelve voyages had been made to the East Indies, the whole capital subscribed, amounting to £429,000, was united, and the management taken out of the hands of the original twenty-four managers. The Company suffered at first from the ordinary rapacity and injustice of the Stuarts. In 1623 (James I.), just as a fleet was starting for India, the Duke of Buckingham (then High Admiral) refused to allow it to sail till the Company had paid up a disputed Admiralty claim of £10,000, and £10,000 claimed by the king. In 1635, Charles I., breaking the charter, allowed a Captain Weddell, for some heavy bribe, to trade to India for five years. In 1640, the same unjust king compelled the Company (on bonds never entirely paid) to sell him their whole stock of Indian pepper in their warehouses, which he instantly re-sold at a lower price, at an eventual loss of £50,000. In 1655 the Republican Government, nobly antagonistic to royal monopolies, from which the people had so long groaned, under both the Tudors and the Stuarts, threw the trade to India entirely open, but the Company was reinstated in its power two years afterwards. In 1661, Charles II. (no doubt for a pretty handsome consideration) granted the Company a fresh charter, with the new and great privilege of making peace or war. Now the Company's wings began to grow in earnest. In 1653, Madras was made a presidency; in 1662, Bombay was ceded to England by the Portuguese, who gave it to Charles as part of the dower of poor ill-starred Catherine of Braganza; and in 1692 Calcutta was purchased by the ambitious traders, who now began to feel their power, and the possibilities of their new colony. From 1690 to 1693 there were great disputes as to whether the king or Parliament had the right of granting trade charters; and on William III. granting the Company (rich enough now to excite jealousy) a new charter for twenty-one years, an angry inquiry was instituted by the Tories, who discovered that the Company had distributed £90,000 among the chief officers of state. A prorogation of Parliament dropped the curtain on these shameful disclosures.In 1698 the old Company was dissolved, and a new Company (which had outbid the old in bribes) was founded, rivalled, in 1700, by the old Company, which had obtained a partial resumption of its powers. In 1708, however, the two Companies, which had only injured each other, were united, and called "The United Company of Merchants of England, trading to the East Indies," a title which it retained till its trading privileges were abolished, in 1834. On the renewal of the charter in 1781 (George III.), the Government made important changes in the charter, and required all despatches to be submitted to them before they were forwarded to India. The Government was already jealous of the imperial power of a Company which had the possibility of conquering 176 millions of people. In 1784 the blow indeed came, with the establishment of the Board of Control, "by which, in everything but patronage and trade," says a well-informed writer on the subject, "the Company's Court of Directors was rendered subordinate to the Government" of the time being. In 1794 private merchants were allowed to export goods in the Company's ships, another big slice out of the cake. By the year 1833 the private trading had begun to exceed, in value of goods, those carried by the Company. In 1833 an Act was passed to enable the Company to retain power until 1854, but abolishing the China monopoly, and all trading. This was cutting off the legs of the Company, and, in fact, preparing it for death. Their warehouses and most of their property were then sold, and the dividend was to be 10½ per cent., chargeable on the revenues of India, and redeemable by Parliament after the year 1874. The amount of dividend guaranteed by the Act was £630,000, being 10½ per cent. on a nominal capital of £6,000,000. The real capital of the Company was estimated, in 1832, at upwards of £21,000,000, including cash, goods, and buildings, and £1,294,768 as the estimated value of the East India House and the Company's warehouses, the prime cost of the latter having been £1,100,000. The Company was henceforth to be entitled the East India Company, and its accounts were to be annually laid before Parliament. The old privileges of the Company were now limited.The General Court of Proprietors was formerly composed of the owners of India stock. After 1693 no one who had less than £1,000 stock could vote. Later still, the qualification was lowered to £500, and the greatest holders had no more. By the last law (that of 1773) the possession of £1,000 only gave one vote; £3,000, two; £6,000, three; and £10,000 the greatest number allowed—namely, four. The Court of Proprietors elected the Court of Directors, framed bye-laws, declared the dividends, and controlled grants of money above £600, and additions to salary above £200. Latterly the functions of this general court were entirely deliberative, and the vote was by ballot. In 1843 there were 1,880 members of the Court of Proprietors. The meetings in old times were very stormy, and even riotous; the debates virulent. In 1763, Clive, as unscrupulous as he was brave, laid out £100,000 in India stock, to introduce nominees of his own, who would vote at his pleasure. The directors were then appointed annually; latterly they were elected for four years, six retiring yearly, and the chairman and deputy-chairman, who communicated with the Government, did the greater part of the work.The Board of Control, established by the Act of 1784, was nominated by the Crown, and (after 1793) consisted of an unlimited number of members, all of whom, except two, were to be of the Privy Council, including the two principal Secretaries of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Three only of the commissioners were paid, and all changed with the Ministry. They had supreme power to keep or send despatches; had access to all books, accounts, papers, and documents in the East India House, orders, or secret despatches; and communicated with the Secret Committee.In old times "John Company" employed nearly 4,000 men in its warehouses, and, before the trade with India closed, kept more than 400 clerks to transact the business of this greatest company that the world had ever seen. The military department superintended the recruiting and storing of the Indian army. There was a shipping department, a master-attendant's office, an auditor's office, an examiner's office, an accountant's office, a transfer office, and a treasury. The buying office governed the fourteen warehouses, and so worked the home market, having often in store some fifty million pounds weight of tea, 1,200,000 Ibs. being sometimes sold in one day, at the annual tea sales. The tea and indigo sales were bear-garden scenes.The despatches and letters from India poured ceaselessly into the India House. From 1793 to 1813 they made 9,094 large folio volumes; while from 1813 to 1829, the number increased to 14,414 folios. In a debate on East India matters, in 1822, Canning mentioned, in eulogy of the Company's clever and careful clerks, that he had known one military despatch accompanied by 119 papers, and containing altogether 13,511 pages. These were the men who had heard of Clive and Warren Hastings, and remembered that Macaulay had spoken of Indian writers as fallen from their high estate, because then (1840) they could only expect, at forty-five, to return to England with £1,000 a year pension and £30,000 of savings. They never forgot, we may be sure, that India yielded £17,000,000 in taxes.It must never be forgotten, in describing the old East India House, that that most delightful of all our humourists, Charles Lamb, was a patient, humble, and plodding clerk at its desks for thirty years. "My printed works," he used to say, with his quaint stutter, "were my recreations; my real works may be found on the shelves in Leadenhall Street, filling some hundred folios." His half painful feelings of pleasure on at last regaining his freedom, he has himself beautifully described; and in one of the best of his essays he has sketched the most fantastic of his fellow-clerks. James Mill, the learned author of the "History of India," and worthy Hoole, the heavy translator of "Tasso," were also clerks in the India House.
OLD HOUSE FORMERLY IN LEADENHALL STREET. In 1858, in consequence of the break-up occasioned by the mutiny, and the disappearance of the Company's black army, the government of the vast Indian empire was transferred to the Crown; the Board of Control was abolished, and a Council of State for India was instituted. The Queen was proclaimed in all the great Indian cities, as the successor to poor old dead-and-gone "John Company," November 1, 1858. The East India House, in Leadenhall Street, was sold with the furniture in 1861, and pulled down in 1862. The handsome pile of the East India Chambers now occupies its site, and the museum was transfered to Whitehall.The Council of India now consists of fifteen members, at £1,200 a year each, payable, together with the salary of the Secretary of State, out of the revenue of India. The old twenty-four directors received £300 a year each, and £500 for their "chairs." At first eight of the council were appointed by the Queen, and seven by the Court of East India Directors, from their own body, In future, vacancies in the Council will be filled up by the Secretary of State for India.
From: 'Leadenhall Street and the Old East India House', Old and New London: Volume 2 (1878), pp. 183-194. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45089 Date accessed: 15 February 2009.