Continued from John Company Conquers India – Part 1

In his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Sir Winston [Churchill] comments:

Modern generations should not mistake the character of the British expansion in India. The Government was never involved as a principal in the Indian conflict . . . Faced with the difficulties of communication, the diatance, and the complexities of the scene, [Prime Minister] Pitt left Clive a free hand, contenting himself with advice and support. The East India Company was a trading organization. Its Directors were men of business. They wanted dividends, not wars, and grudged every penny spent on troops and annexations. But the turmoil in the great subcontinent compelled them, against their will and against their judgement to take control of more and more territory, til in the end, and almost by accident, they established an empire no less solid and certainly more peaceful than that of their Mogul predecessors. To call this process “Imperialist expansion” is nonsense, if by that is meant the deliberate expansion of political power. Of India it has well been said that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind.

Churchill notwithstanding, it was the profits accruing to “a handful of adventurers from an island in the Atlantic,” as the historian Macauley described the Company to Parliament, which made possible “the subjugation of a country divided from the place of their birth by half a globe.” Macauley led the 1833 fight in Parliament to preserve John Company’s China monopoly and lost, but the Honorable Company was permitted to continue its administration of India, along with its monopoly of the Indian and, of course, opium trade. How was ruled the Company scarcely knew or cared, so long as peace was maintained and trade prospered.

The Company also did much good, let is grant. Not even the meanest of its employees was ever allowed to experience of pinch of poverty, and first -rate artists, writers, and intellectuals (of proper family, to be sure) were among the many Englishmen who found a sinecure with John Company over its long history, the brilliant and now all-but-unread satirist Thomas Love Peacock, for example. Another is the great essayist Charles Lamb, best known today for a book he wrote in collaboration with his mad sister Mary, Tales from Shakespeare. But the Company’s eloquent, yet futile, valedictory was composed by the best of them the philosopher John Stewart Mill. He solemnly reminded the nation that her magnificent empire in the East had been acquired for her by the Company and had been governed and defended without the slightest cost to the British Exchequer “at the same period at which a succession of administrations under the control of Parliament were losing to the Crown of Great Britain another great empire on the opposite side of the Atlantic.” Despite Mill’s pleading (and also without consulting the Indians), Parliament voted to dissolve the greatest multinational corporation the world has ever seen and as of 2 August 1858, Victoria succeeded to its dominions as Empress of India.