What was the real East India Company? Taboo takes on the formidable corporation

The truth about the powerful body in the BBC1 drama (no, not Tom Hardy's)

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BBC1 period drama Taboo features historical trading body the East India Company as some combination of super-corporation, spy agency and government – and the history of the real company is even more colourful.

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Find out more about the powerful trading organisation below.


What are the origins of the East India Company?

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The East India company as depicted in Taboo 

Shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, various merchants sought permission from Queen Elizabeth I to sail the Indian Ocean towards the East Indies; after gaining approval, the first ships set sail.

Over the next decade different voyages were attempted with varying results, but one group’s exploration proved successful enough to be granted a royal charter from the Queen under the name Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies.


Rise to power

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The famous East India Company logo, which changed a few times over the years

Despite its name the new company didn’t end up trading that much with the East Indies, mostly dealing with the Indian subcontinent and China in commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea and opium.

The government owned no shares in the East India Company (which was instead owned by wealthy merchants and aristocrats) and thus had limited control of their operations. This relationship continued through the rules of the Stuarts and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, while the restoration of the monarchy brought even more power to the company after new acts passed by Charles II around 1670.

Said acts gave the East India Company the right to seize land for themselves, to mint money, form alliances, make war (or peace), exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction over areas they controlled and to command fortresses and troops. Initially they only had a few hundred soldiers as guards, but over the next 100 years their troops grew to 67,000 men, mostly Indian troops trained in European techniques.

By the 1700s the company had established powerful political influence in Great Britain through their lobbying arm, and had effectively established a trade monopoly after absorbing or outmatching their rivals. As the industrial revolution arrived and the demand for Indian commodities rose, their power and influence only grew.

Perhaps most notably, the company effectively ruled India with its own private armies and administrations for around a hundred years from 1757-1857, until the British Crown seized control in the mid-19th century.

“It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath,” argues William Dalrymple in the Guardian.

Other significant incidents include the Opium Wars in the mid-18th century, based around Anglo-Chinese disputes over British trade and Chinese sovereignty.


Dissolution

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Despite their boldness and brutality in governing, it became clear in later years that the company was not capable of ruling the various territories that it had captured over the years, while trade slumps in Europe led the company to appeal to Parliament for financial aid.

Later, the Regulating Act of 1773 (later known as the East India Company Act 1773) curbed the company’s military arm and established it as under the control of the Crown, while further legislation over the years further dialled back their power somewhat.

In 1857, the Indian Rebellion (pictured) was blamed on the East India Company’s inept rule, and in the aftermath the British Government nationalised the company and took control of its Indian possessions, administrative powers and machinery and armed forces. The company limped on for a few years as a shell of its former self to manage the tea trade for the government, before being formally dissolved at the start of 1874.

As the Times said at the time of its dissolution:

“It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other trading Company ever attempted, and such as none, surely, is likely to attempt in the years to come.”


Today

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While the original company no longer exists, its name and some of its accoutrements (including its iconic logo) have been adopted by a retail company, which sells food and lifestyle products and is (somewhat ironically) run by Indian businessman Sanjiv Mehta (pictured).


The East India Company in Taboo

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Taboo depicts the Company in 1814, slightly after its heyday but still when it possessed immense power and influence. However, some have criticised the series for being unrealistic in its depiction, with some historians arguing that there’s no way the company could have organised the sort of nefarious conspiracy seen in Taboo, and that the series paints them in unfairly negative terms.

“I believe institutions, and even individual need to be judged according to what was valid to their contemporaries,” series creator Steven Knight told RadioTimes.com when put the question about the accuracy of his depiction.

“It is very difficult to judge the East India Company according to our values. They did stop dealing in slaves but they had dealt in slaves. They did have some ethical constraints but they didn’t always have those ethical constraints.  And they did do some pretty terrible things in the colonial countries, things that wouldn’t be acceptable now.

“I hate the laziness of saying bad corporate good rebel because I am sure that the East India Company developed human society in many many ways. But in this narrative, we have an individual who has rebelled against that company; in their eyes they are the enemy.

“The idea that it didn’t have the means, I don’t understand that,” he added. “if they didn’t, who did?”


The East india Company in popular culture

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Keira Knightley and Tom Hollander in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series

The East India Company has popped up in TV and film a few times before, perhaps most notably in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series as embodied by fictional Governer/Lord Chairman Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who coincidentally shared scenes with actor Jonathan Pryce (who plays EIC bigwig Sir Stuart Strange in Taboo).

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Surprisingly, the company also has a Doctor Who connection – 2011 episode The Curse of the Black Spot was based on real-life pirate Henry Every, who attacked the Indian fleet in the 17th century and caused the furious Mughal people to attack East India officers and factories, and imprison others. Every was never captured, which Doctor Who depicts as the result of his decision to travel in space instead.