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British East India Company

The British East India Company, originally two very similarly named companies, and popularly known as John Company, founded by the Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I on December 31, 1600, became one of the most powerful commercial enterprises in its time.

The original company, The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies, merged in 1702 with The English Company Trading to the East Indies (which had been formed in 1698), to become The United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies.

Flag of the British East India Company


Based in Leadenhall Street, London, its influence reached out to all continents: it presided over the creation of British India, founded Hong Kong and Singapore, employed Captain Kidd to combat piracy, established the cultivation of tea in India, held Napoleon captive on St Helena, and made the fortune of Elihu Yale, and its products were the subject of the Boston Tea Party.

Its flag possibly inspired the Stars and Stripes (as argued by Sir Charles Fawcett in 1937), its shipyards provided the model for St. Petersburg, elements of its administration survive in Indian bureaucracy, and its corporate structure was the most successful early example of a joint stock company. But the demands of Company officers on the treasury of Bengal contributed tragically to the province's incapacity in the face of a famine which killed millions (1770).


Initially, however, it made little impression on the Dutch control of the Spice trade and could not establish a lasting outpost in the East Indies in the early years. Yet it succeeded beyond measure in establishing military dominance and a political empire for Britain in the East, gaining strongholds in the 17th century in Surat, Bombay (1668), Madras (1639) and Calcutta.

In 1711, the Company established a trading post in Canton (Guangzhou), in China to trade tea for silver.

In 1757 Clive's victory at Plassey for the company during the Seven Years' War achieved British supremacy over the French on the Indian peninsula allowed the company to take effective control of Bengal, India's most populous and lucrative province.

In the 1770's, British attempts to extend the Company's monopoly on tea to the American colonies lead to the Boston Tea Party and was one of the factors leading the the American Revolution.

In the years 17751783 North America gained independence from Great Britain, imperial focus was brought across the globe to India where it was the center of colonial interest for the first time. The Eastern British armies at home swelled as did those of the East India company.

By the middle of the 19th century, the Company's rule extended across most of India, Burma, Singapore and Hong Kong, and a fifth of the world's population was under its authority. The Company had at various stages defeated China, occupied the Philippines, and conquered Java. It had solved its cash crisis needed to buy tea, by exporting Indian-grown opium to China, whose efforts to end the trade led to the two Opium Wars with Britain.

The efforts of company in administering India was the model for the civil service system in Britain.

Deprived of its trade monopoly in 1813 and wound up as a trading enterprise twenty years later, the Company lost its administrative functions to the British government in 1858 following the Sepoy Mutiny of the previous year. When the Company finally reverted to the Crown in 1874, The Times reported, "it accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other company ever attempted and as such is ever likely to attempt in the years to come."

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