JOHN COMPANY

On the square plinth beneath his booted feet was carved one word: CLIVE.

It is sometimes said that Britain obtained its empire in a fit of absentmindedness. It wasn’t so much a desire to conquer and rule that motivated the British. Rather, it was more of a slow acquisition of territories by default: a kind of global game of pickup sticks where the sticks were colonies, countries and resources.  At its zenith, the British Empire extended over 25% of the globe and contained within it a similar percentage of the world’s population. In school atlases, the pale pink wash denoting the countries and territories of the Empire was familiar to every pupil for generations. The sun never set on the British Empire and it was always time for a G and T somewhere. And the jewel in the Empire’s crown was India.

The British never set out to conquer India. It was actually a small company, housed in a nondescript building on Leadenhall Street in London, that set in motion the events that would lead to the control of the Empire’s greatest asset. That institution was called The East India Company. 

On the 22nd of February, 1599, a group of merchants and financiers convened in a pub called the Nags Head Inn opposite the church of St. Botolph in Bishopsgate, London. Their aim was to establish a company to trade in spices from the East Indies, a trade dominated at that time by the Dutch and the Portuguese. Armed with a Royal Charter guaranteeing them exclusive access to all the seas and countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan, the East India Company, as it came to be known, began trading with the kings and rulers of Asia.

The risks involved were huge. Many ships were lost, along with their crews and cargoes. Piracy, danger, hardship and violence were the only factors that could be relied upon. But the profits were enormous. As its trading links with the rest of the world expanded, the company began gradually to establish footholds on the continents and territories it traded with. In India, the company’s first trading post, or factory as such outposts came to be called, was established at Surat on an inlet of the Arabian Sea on the western coast of the subcontinent in 1612. Bombay (now Mumbai) was added in 1668 and further factories were established around the entire coastline of India. 

The company’s greatest factory was established on the Hooghly River, an exit tributary of the Ganges, in 1698. There were three villages in the area – Kalikata, Gobindapur and Sutanuti – and the town that grew up around them took its name from one of them: Kolkata. Initially, the company built a fort they named Fort William on the eastern bank of the Hooglhy at Kolkata.

There were frequent skirmishes with the French in the region and the fort and factories were sacked by the Nawab of Bengal, resulting in the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta incident, in 1756. But the town of Kolkata (or Calcutta as the British called it) survived and grew to become the seat of power for the company.     

At the Victoria Monument, a vast domed marble edifice surrounded by fountains and gardens in the centre of Kolkata, I came face to face with the East India Company in the form of a statue. The subject stood resolute on its marble plinth. His eyes, set in a strong face with a rigid jaw and a slight scowl, stared rigidly out into the distance. In his left hand, he held a half-rolled scroll of documents; his right hand rested lightly on his sword. On the square plinth beneath his booted feet was carved one word: CLIVE.

Robert Clive (1725-1774), First Baron Clive, KB, FRS was the man who took the East India Company from a predominantly commercial trading company to a full-fledged military power with suzerainty over the entire Indian subcontinent. Prior to the Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the company’s forces under the command of Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal, the East India Company (or John Company, as it was informally known) had concentrated on trade. For one hundred and fifty years the company had been content with buying goods – predominantly spices and cotton – for shipment back to England. But Clive changed all that.

By the time of the Battle of Plassey, the EIC already had a substantial army, composed mainly of Indian troops known as Sepoys. The troops were used to enforce the company’s often unpopular regulations, to protect its interests and assets and to generally ensure that what the company wanted, the company got. After Plassey, the company essentially became the rulers of India.

For the next ninety years the East India Company treated India like a cash cow, milking it of resources and establishing the highly dubious trade in opium which gave rise to the mid-century conflicts with China known as the Opium Wars. But all was not well in John Company. Since its zenith in the 18th century, the company’s  profits had steadily declined. Its increasingly patrician (and, in many cases, oppressive) rule of the subcontinent had grown more and more unpopular among Indians.     

In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, in which the sepoys rose up against their oppressors, the British Government took over control of the company. By then, the East India Company was in decline. Its assets were nationalised by the British Government. Its army, possessions and all of the machinery for administering and controlling India were ceded to the Crown. 

John Company was finally dissolved on June 1st 1877. In an editorial, The Times commented that:

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.

In my travels across India I encountered the legacy of John Company, and its successor, the British Raj everywhere I went. In the buildings, the railways, the bureaucracy; in the vast self-indulgent monuments, in the cemeteries, in the layout of towns and in the place names.    

In the 1980s, a group of Indian entrepreneurs bought the rights to the name East India Company and established a clothing brand under that name. The company traded until the early 1990s when it too folded. In 2010, the moribund corporate name was once again acquired as the trading name for a clothing brand. Today, a British company trades under the name The East India Company, London. It sells tea, coffee, chocolates, nuts and spices. John Company still lives. It didn’t set out to create an empire. But it did.

GARDEN OF STONE

…their brick bones stripped of stucco skin.

Beyond the pedimented gateway, the roar of traffic on Park Street fades to a low, susurating murmur. The flagstone path is slippery with moss and from the gentle rain tapping on the blue and red umbrella that the gatekeeper has lent me. The path runs directly from the entrance to the back of the cemetery, intersecting at regular intervals with the grid of other paths laid out with geometric British precision.

I am surrounded by a garden of rainforest greenery and stone. Tombs of sandstone and brick stand in tiered rows between the trees. Their minarets and columns, domes and obelisks are rimed with moss and lichen. Acid rain has etched the limestone with black, cancerous stains. Some of the tombs are crumbling, their brick bones stripped of stucco skin. A litter of leaves and palm fronds lies scattered across the ground. 

Yet amid the decay and dampness there is a quiet dignity in these silent memorials. Their plaques of polished marble tell poignant stories of great achievement and lives cut short; of devoted and unswerving service to John Company; of camaraderie and bravery; of love and loss. And even though these memento mori are almost two hundred years old, their stories still seem fresh and vital.

Opened in 1767, the Park Street Cemetery is one of the largest non-church Christian cemeteries in the world. Its tombs and monuments have stood in silent remembrance for more than two hundred years while the world around them changed. It remained in use until the 1830s.         

The tomb of Hindoo Stuart stands beneath a magnolia tree in a back corner of the Park Street Cemetery. It is a smallish domed structure built from a combination of stucco-coated brickwork and black marble decorated with carvings of various Hindu deities. It’s inscription reads:

The tomb of Hindoo Stuart.

MAJOR-GENERAL CHARLES STUART
(KNOWN AS HINDOO STUART)
1758-1-4-1828
QUARTERMASTER OF THE 1st BENGAL
EUROPEAN REGIMENT & LATER COMMANDED
THE 10th ANDIS REGIMENT

Born in Ireland, Stuart was an officer in the East India Company and was well known throughout the Company as being one of the few officers to embrace Hindu culture. Stuart was not only fascinated by Hinduism, he saw it as the most comfortable way in which to live in the torrid, crowded, disease-ridden conditions of the subcontinent. He encouraged the English ladies of the Company to adopt the “elegant, simple, sensible and sensual” saris worn by Indian women instead of the heavy (and heavily engineered) iron busks worn by the white Memsahibs. He described these as “the prodigious structural engineering European women strapped to themselves in order to hold their bellies in, project their breasts out and allow their dresses to balloon grandly up and over towards the floor.”

When Stuart died, on March 31st, 1825, he was buried in the South Park Cemetery in a tomb styled on a Hindu temple. But although he had adopted Hinduism as his religion, ha had not completely abandoned Christianity, describing the deity Krishna to be: “the spirit of God who descends upon Earth for the benefit of mankind.”

Beyond the screen of foliage and branches I can see the glass and steel towers of the city. A pair of rabbits scamper across a patch of green grass inside a quadrangle of tombs. Funereal crows, like black-winged sextons, gurgle and squawk in the trees. I stop beside the middle tomb in a row of three: squat, triangular obelisks. The white marble plaque inset into its base has an intriguing inscription which reads:

Sacred to the memory of 
Elizabeth Jane Barwell
(The celebrated Miss. Sanderson)
Married the 13th September 1776 to

RICHARD BARWELL. Esq
(the friend of Warren Hastings)
Member of the Council of the Hon. East India Co.
Died the 9th November 1778.
Aged about 23 years.

There is no indication as to what Miss Sanderson did to become “celebrated” but in the torpid, breathless, straight-laced (on the surface, at least) world of Kolkata in the early 19th century, I imagine it involved something steamy. As for Warren Hastings, he was the energetic Governor of Bengal who succeeded the psychopathic Clive in 1875. To be a friend of Warren Hastings”, as Miss Sanderson’s husband was, according to their plaque, was to be admitted to the highest echelons of power in the East India Company.

As I walk along the pathways I feel as though I am moving in slow motion, like a voyager returning from a distant galaxy to find that time has slowed down. I have a pocket full of technology and yet I am surrounded by the remains of a world that no longer exists. I stop to rest on the step of a colonnaded tomb surmounted by a graceful sandstone cupola. I take out my communicator and update my social media. I have a story to tell: a story that I discovered back in December while sitting in a café researching my trip…   

SEVEN ISLAND SUITE

Seven islands on the high side of the bay as you’re looking west…
– Gordon Lightfoot

Dusk on the Arabian Sea. As the sun dips behind the distant skyline of the Deccan Traps, a warm breeze ripples the bay where the sea touches Mumbai. The ferry leaves its stone pier beside the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the arrival of George V and the Empress Queen Mary in 1911 and cuts its way out onto the darkening waters. Oil rigs and tramp steamers lie moored in the sunset light. Seabirds wheel and swoop alongside the ferry’s superstructure. The fare to Alibag, an hour away on the farther shore, the Indian shore, is 25 Rupees.

The modern city of Mumbai comprises what was, originally, seven separate islands: Colaba, Old Woman’s Island, Mahim, Mazagaan, Parel, Worli and the Isle of Bombay. The island’s first inhabitants were the Koli people, who migrated from Gujarat sometime in prehistory. The islands were incorporated into the Mauryan Empire under the Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka encouraged the islands to become a centre of Buddhist culture and they remained so until they came under the suzerainty of the Moghul Empire in the 14th century. The Gujarat Sultanate took over control in the 15th century and they, in turn were succeeded by the Portuguese, who acquired the islands as part of the Treaty of Bassein in 1535. 

The Gateway of India

By then, European powers were exerting an increased amount of control in the subcontinent. The British entered the picture in 1661 when the islands were ceded to them as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II. Strapped for cash, Charles rented the islands to the East India Company in 1668 for the sum of £10 per annum. By 1845, the islands had been merged by land reclamation into one landmass. 

For several decades, Mumbai – or Bombay, as the British called it – was the hub of the East India Company’s operations in India. Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, control of the subcontinent was wrested from the increasingly inept and dangerous East India Company and India became the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire and the heady days of The Raj, celebrated in novels and songs, began.

But nothing in India lasts forever. The endless cycle of death and rebirth are a natural part of life and, as the Buddah said, everything must pass. By the time King George and his wife arrived to inspect their Indian dominion, the glory days of the Empire were past. The grand sandstone arch of the Gateway of India would not be completed until 1924. A cardboard model was all that was there for the King and his missus to see in 1909. 

Everything must pass. Even empires. The ferry motors east into the night. The lights of Mumbai fade astern.