The Dishonorable Company


By Shristri Choudhari, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger

As the world becomes increasingly globalised with the pervasion of internet technology in most spheres of life, perhaps there was never a more significant time to discuss colonization and the subsequent chain of events that created what we now know as the ‘modern world’.

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron has previously remarked that the empire should be ‘celebrated,’ saying on a visit to India in 2013, “I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for.”

Another former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has termed the Empire as a ‘crime against humanity.’ Yet frequent surveys prove that the majority of British citizens, especially school children, remain unaware of the horrific consequences of Britain’s colonial past, and the British school curriculum does not examine on the British Empire from a post-colonial lens.

It is often forgotten that it all began with one dangerously unregulated private company run in India, headquartered in London out of a small office, occupying less than 200 yards of city street frontage. In the 18th century, the East India Company started as a relatively conventional corporation, trading in silks and spices, with the aim to establish trade, not Empire.

But the decline of the Mughal Empire in India, and the competition faced alongside the French East India Company, created the perfect opportunity and motivation for the British to consolidate their power over the subcontinent.

By the end of the 18th century, 250 East India Company clerks, backed by the military force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers, had become the effective rulers of Bengal. Using its rapidly growing security force, it swiftly succeeded in subduing and seizing an entire subcontinent. Soon the Company morphed from an international trading corporation into an aggressive colonial power. In 1757, company rule was formally established in India and went on till 1858, when after the Revolt of 1857; the Government of India Act was passed that led to formal rule of the British Crown over India.

It is essential then to examine, how, when and where exactly did the Empire begin, and what were the major events which led to one modest London company changing the course of world history.

In a fascinating session taking place at the British Library for JLF@ British Library on 20th and 21st May 2017, this issue of ‘The Dishonorable Company’ will be explored by William Dalrymple, Co-Director of the Jaipur Literature Festival. He will be in conversation with John Keay, British historian specializing in histories of the Far East, India and China; Jon Wilson, author of India Conquered and senior lecturer in British and Imperial History at King’s College London; Giles Milton, British historian and writer specializing in narrative history; and Zareer Masani, author of Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist amongst others.

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