The book and the author's contention is that the East India Company had a lot in common with the corporates of today, especially with the likes of Enron, and that a lack of appropriate corporate governance and weak oversight on the part of the government contributed to excesses therein. Specifically, "the drive for monopoly control, the speculative temptations of executives and investors, and the absence of automatic remedy for corporate abuse." [page 35]
The title may seem like hyperbole, but when you consider the impact that the Company Bahadur had on much of the world, including India and China, mostly for the worse, and mostly with tragic consequences, hyperbole does not seem like an exaggeration.
A must read.
In 1700, the GDP of Britain was $10.7 billion, representing 2.88% of world GDP. The respective figures for China were 82.8b, 22.3%, and for India 90.7b, 24.4%. By 1870, these had changed to $100b (9.1%) for Britain, $189b (17.2%) for China, and $134b (12.2%) for India. [page 7]
Disconnect and denial abounds in some quarters of the British aristocracy even today. The chief executive of the Standard Chartered Bank remarked that the challenge is now (in 2002) to "build upon the courageous, creative, and truly international legacy of the East India Company." [page 14]. "Rod Eddington, one time chief executive of British Airways" in a similar vein saw it "as a case study in how corporations succeed 'by dint of hard work, shrewdness and charm.' " [page 14, 15]
The author points out, correctly, that these "romantic interpretations ... fail to confront the costs associated with th Company's business practices." [page 15]
What contributed in no small part of the venality and the machinations of the Company employees in India was the fact that "... the Company's overseas staff received a minimal salary and the right to conduct private trade on their own account within Asia." [page 33]
The need for spices ("... so essential was pepper as a way of making preserved meat edible... " [page 41]) that "In the two centuries after 1600, about one-third of the silver produce in American found its way to Asia to pay for Europe's imports." [page 41]
One of the earliest and principal architects of the Company's vision was Sir Josiah Child. "Throughout the 1680s. he was either governor (chairman) or deputy-governor." of the Company. [page 47]. "... he fervently believed profit and power must go together." [page 48] "On 9 June 1686, Child underlined the imperative for the Company to transform itself from 'a parcel of mere trading merchants' into a 'formidable martial government in India'." [page 49]
It is often remarked by modern 'experts' that India cannot become a manufacturing power. It is therefore with some amusement that one reads that "The Indian subcontinent was then the workshop of the world, accounting for almost a quarter of global manufacturing output in 1750." and even more so that "Even in the first century AD, the Roman historian Pliny was complaining that the extensive importing of cotton fabrics from India was draining Rome of gold." [page 61]
So it should come as no surprise that "Indeed, trading houses, such as those headed by Jagat Seth and Amir Chand, were often far richer and better connected than the Company." [page 65]
The battles of Plassey and Buxar marked the beginning of the end of the supremacy of Indian trade, and the rise of the English loot of the subcontinent. "Plassey allowed the Company 'to carry on the whole trade of India (China excepted) for three years, without sending out one ounce of bullion'. The reversal of global economic eminence had begun." [page 74]
At the time, "there is compelling evidence that India'a weavers had 'higher earnings than their British counterparts and lived lives of greater financial security.'" [page 77]. When one reads about the abject poverty that Indian artisans live and die in today, one can only weep.
Exploitation is time invariant, as the author documents. "One practice that was particularly resented was the classification of perfectly good cloth as sub-standard (ferreted). ... According to William Bolt's celebrated account, 'various and innumerable' were the 'methods of oppressing the poor weavers, such as fines, imprisonments, floggings, forcing bonds on them, etc.' ... the Company's practices led to a shocking form of self-mutilation, stating that 'instances have been known of their cutting off their thumbs to prevent their being forced to wind silk.' " [pages 77, 78]
The corrupt and decadent lifestyles of the Company's leaders was such that "A new catchphrase entered the language - 'a lass and a lakh a day'." [page 83]
Expectedly, food shortages and famines were virtually unknown in India, prior to the Company's rule. "... Cornelius Wallard calculated that in the 120 years of British rule there had been 34 famines in India, compared with only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia." [page 90]
However, famine led to riches for Company officers. "One junior executive accumulated over 60,000 pounds, as rice prices soared from 120 seers per rupee at the beginning of the famine to just three seers a rupee in June 1770." [page 91]
"Not only did the Company continue to collect its land revenue throughout the famine - instead of introducing some form of relief in the Mughal fashion - it actually increased the rate." [page 92]
"In 1772, Warren Hastings estimated that perhaps 10 million Bengalis had starved to death, equating to perhaps a third of the population." [page 92]
"... in December 1770, when the Gentleman's Magazine reported that 'provisions were so scarce in the Company's new acquisitions that parents brought their children to sell them for a loaf of bread.' " [page 95]
However, it's not as if life for the Company employees was a bed of roses. "... for the Company a round trip from London to India and back could take up to two years. ... Over half its employees posted to Asia died while in service." [page 27]