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The East India Company 1600–1858: A Short History with Documents

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By Ian Barrow
Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2017
208 pages, ISBN: 978-1624665967, Paperback
Reviewed by Michelle Damian

Ian Barrow’s slim volume uses the East India Company (or, as he refers to it throughout the book, simply the “Company”) as a case study through which to examine Britain’s colonial journey. From the Company’s inception in 1600 to its formal dissolution in 1874, its trajectory reflects England’s expanding global trade to obtaining a foothold in foreign lands to its problematic role as a colonizing country, through the growing challenges to and eventual collapse of that colonial authority. It is a concise history, but works well at bringing those multiple threads into one story.

One of the strengths of this volume is the way it treats the ripple effect of maritime trade, particularly as conducted on a global scale. In the
first chapter, Barrow follows the various products that were of interest to the Company, beginning with spices and proceeding on to silver, textiles, and eventually tea and sugar. It is not a simple exchange, however; as one product became available on the market, it affected other aspects of seventeenth-century life. As the Company increased its trading capabilities in India and silver flooded the market, for example, it resulted in a population shift as weavers moved to the cities to take advantage of that increased trade. The resulting availability of cotton print textiles allowed merchants to sell them cheaply in England, causing domestic sales of woolen clothing to plummet. Parliament intervened by creating laws to force citizens to wear wool clothing and raised import duties on cotton. This engendered an initial backlash against the Company but eventually ended with a new industry developing in England: dyeing of the imported plain white cotton. Though that is just one example of the complexities of seventeenth-century global trade, it provides a more robust picture than simply noting that textiles were an important commodity for the
Company.

The second chapter, focusing on the eighteenth century, notes that while the Company’s role began with trade, as its network expanded, so
too did its power abroad. Military ventures in India became more important, and Barrow focuses on political and economic methods that the
Company used to strengthen its authority on the ground there. There was, however, a growing disconnect between those working for the Company in its colonial outposts and those watching it from back home. As its influence abroad grew, it was subject to additional restrictions from Parliament. The Regulating Act of 1773 created a governor general position and court system based in Calcutta that shifted some of the Company’s power to politicians, intertwining the interests of the state with the interests of the Company. The influx of wealth created class divides both among the British and the Indians. “Nabobs” (from the Arabic and Urdu title nawab), or Company employees, would make as much money as quickly as possible in India and then return to England to live large. New classes of landowners and rent collectors in Bengal often then sold to others the rights to collect rents, creating multiple layers of oversight. The discussion demonstrates the ramifications of the growing presence of the Company and its shift from a focus on trade to landholding and government.

Barrow’s detail on the stories of the colonized countries, particularly the Indian interactions with the Company’s representatives and the conflicts that ensued, is a valuable aspect of this work. Instead of writing a story only about the colonizing power, Barrow looks at the complexities of Indian reactions to the changing Company influences. His descriptions of the various uprisings in the nineteenth century are particularly illuminating of the different factions within India. In addition, his focus on the contentious role of religion in the Company’s actions in Asia is an important one. Barrow traces the shifting attitudes toward religious involvement in Asia as a parallel to Britain’s conflicted relationship with religion. He begins with the Company keeping the church at arm’s length to using Hindu and Muslim temples as a gateway to interactions with the locals to a gradual rise of evangelicalism and the growing power of the church as it came to influence political reform in India. After over 250 years of waxing and waning fortunes, the Company’s demise after increased rebellions in India seems almost anticlimactic, as this highly influential power suddenly disappeared from the political and economic landscape of British-Asian relations.

One slightly disappointing aspect of the book stems from its subtitle, A Short History with Documents. I had expected and hoped that the primary sources would comprise a significant portion of the volume. Instead, there were eighteen documents, some of which were only selections from the original source, making up thirty-four pages of the 176-page book. Admittedly, my reaction may have stemmed from my home department’s teaching curriculum, which prioritizes the analysis of primary sources in our introductory classes, and I anticipated a more robust selection of sources. Still, the documents are usually not even explicitly referred to in the body of the text. A reference in the footnotes that a longer excerpt is available at the end of the book, or perhaps the inclusion of several documents at the end of each relevant chapter, would have been helpful.

On a similar note, several images (political cartoons, broadsides, and artwork) are scattered throughout the body of the text. While their inclusion is certainly appreciated, it would have been extremely interesting had these, too, been explicitly put forward as another type of document to be analyzed. Too often historians focus on “documents” solely as the written word present in sources such as letters, statutes, and laws, and overlook these other types of evidence as having a wealth of information in their own right. Figure 3, for example, is a political cartoon depicting the corruption of the Company as embodied by Warren Hastings, Governor General in 1788. It is a rich source, and Barrow’s caption does call attention to Hastings’s clothing (“Oriental”), the king scooping coins from the toilet upon which Hastings
sits, and the other figures in the image. That being said, there is more to this scene that is left unmined. Additional words are in the cartoon, including Hastings speaking something, more words inscribed on the toilet, and an unclear inset that, had they been transcribed, could have provided the reader with additional information. One corner is filled with hats outstretched for handouts that appear to represent people from many different social strata, including what appears to be a representative of the church, but there is no acknowledgment of that. Several objects that may be medals are in a lower corner, but again are unclear. While the inclusion of these images is appreciated, as a volume that is privileging source documents in its title, I would hope that these types of sources would receive as detailed attention as
the more typical diaries and news articles in the documents section.

In a more positive light, there are many resources in this volume that will be beneficial for students and nonspecialists. A chronology, glossary, and series of maps provide useful aids to understanding and visualizing new concepts in the readings. Barrow closes with a concise and easily comprehensible summation of how the Company’s story is important as a case study of colonial rule and imperialism, and this will be one of the book’s most valuable aspects for educators. It is story that is easy to follow, even in its complexity, and incorporates economic, religious, ethnic, political, and military history throughout the narrative. Students should find various topics that will hold their interest in this very readable book. ■

MICHELLE DAMIAN is currently an Assistant Professor in the History Department of Monmouth College, Illinois. She has an MA in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology from East Carolina University and a PhD in History from the University of Southern California. Her current research focuses on maritime trade routes and networks of medieval Japan. She is also a member of the Board of Directors for the Museum of Underwater Archaeology (http://www.themua.org).