Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

John Keay : The Honourable Company

Warren Hastings
by Lemuel-Francis Abbott

There's plenty of both forests and trees in this account of 300 years of world history as it involves the world's greatest trading company.  It was too much for John Keay to handle - so much of this book comes off as a jumble of historical incidents, some entertaining, others less so. And for whatever reason, the author ran out steam in the  early decades  of the 19th C. with the establishment the first Governor General (shown above) , so there's no mention of what followed:  the Afghan wars, the Opium Wars,  or even the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 (that finally finished the Company off)

What I take away is:

*a sense of South East Asian  geography - built around the trading route between Canton and the west coast of India.  The British were desperate to establshing a trading base with the Chinese  - since the Manchu emperors wisely forbid them to settle on the mainland.

*an appreciation for the reckless daring of the British adventurers who went to India. The average life span was three years.  Robert Clive - the juvenile delinquent who became a national hero - was probably typical.  And given the 12-months it took for London to communicate with Calcutta, the home office of the company had very little to say about what its agents were doing - other than to continually accuse them of fraud.

*the bizarre utter collapse of the Moghul empire after the death of Aurunzareb - the warlike orthodox Muslim emperor who took it to its greatest geographic extent. (though even he had trouble with the Afghans).  That empire's disintegration, more than British imperialism, led to the Raj.

*As a contemporary capitalist, like Jack Warner  might say, the first responsibility of a business corporation is to its investors.  Since they were so poorly paid, and their job was so perilous, the agents of the East India Company were mostly interested in building their own  personal wealth through private trading. But whatever their commitment - it certainly was not to the folks who, mostly by default, came under their political authority.

The 10 millions deaths from the 1770 Bengal famine made that quite clear.