THE EAST INDIA COMPANY ORIGIN AND LEGACY by Donal Kennedy


The BBC Book of The Week on Ra dio  concerning the origins of The East India Company is a “Warts and All” account of its origins.

 Would that all BBC historical and current affairs programmes aspired to its standard.

Robert Clive was born into the class that provided the Church of England with its Clergy, the Army with its officers, the Courts with their barristers and magistrates.He was too neglectful of study for the Church or the Law, too undisciplined for the Army and a thorough blackguard who ran a protection racket in his home village, breaking the windows of shops whose owners failed to pay him. Those were days when a child could be hanged for stealing a handerchief. But one of his family knew a director of the East IndiaCompany and managed to get him a job as a clerk in its London HQ where he was notorious for brawling with his colleagues.

He was sent to Calcutta, Bengal, at the time perhaps the richest place on earth.The East India Company was exceedingly wealthy, but developments there and rivalry with the French enabled Clive, at the head of forces he led, to, through bravado and bribery dominate and rob the region of amazing sums. There had been recurrent famines in the area, which Muslim rulers had done much to alleviate, through the stockpiling of food after good harvests, and importation of food and free distribution when stores ran out.

Under East Indian Company care, Bengalis starved in their millions, whilst they were being robbed blind by it. It which levied taxes on the starving and set up gallows to hang en-masse those not paying the tax.

The English “Nabobs” were resented in England and Clive, and later Warren Hastings. were summoned before Parliament to answer for their behaviour. Neither were made atone for it.

Their chief critics were Edmund Burke, who spoke on the impeachment of Hastings. And Samuel Johnson, a Tory with a moral conscience.

Famine remained endemic in India under British Rule. It might be mere coincidence that the Rev Thomas Malthus, whose 1798 “Essay on the Principle of Population” still inspires such luminaries as Prince Philip and David Attenborough, shortly afterwards taught at the East India Company’s Haleybury College in Hertfordshire.

When in 1942-1943 millions died in the Bengal Famine, deliberately caused and maintained by Winston Churchill, and an Old Haleybury Boy, Clement Attlee, was in his Cabinet.

In 1947,  under Attlee’s Premiership, Britain cut and ran from India in chaotic circumstances.

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