I am reliably informed that school kids nowadays are taught in detail about this important and fascinating subject. Certainly in China and India, the way the East India Company "Changed the World" has for decades informed part of their self identity and their economic history narratives. But for the rest of you, who may feel like me that this subject was under represented in our education, this excellent book is the best way to to make amends.
And what a story it is. All economic life is here. I started to make a list (in alphabetical order) of the facets and issues which the company's history throws up; Agency / principle issues, Boston tea party, business ethics, capture of the political system, corruption, drug dealing, economies of scale, exploitation, famine, government bail-outs, gunboat diplomacy, imperialism, insider dealing, military conflict, monopoly, outsourcing of government services, protectionism, racism, regulation, speculation, terms of trade. And I am sure you will find more! Also notable figures from history crop up in connection; Adam Smith, Duke of Wellington, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Thomas Malthus.
So why did this company change the world? The answer is that it did so in many small ways, but the big central point is this; 300 years ago, both China and large parts of what is now India were in all practical ways, more economically accomplished and well placed than Europe. They had thriving production in goods that Europe soon fell in love with, like spices, cotton clothes, porcelain and later tea. Europe and Britain on the other hand produced nothing that caused such consumer desire in these oriental countries, and therefore gold and silver had to flow in the opposite direction. The nub of the later part of the story of the EIC is how it reversed this dynamic, essentially through quite controversial means; military, political and dodgy deal shenanigans in India, and facilitating the dealing of Indian grown opium in China. It is therefore completely justified for the title to claim that the East India Company was; "The Corporation that Changed the World".
Like me, you may have had an education which emphasised the inventiveness of the plucky British industrialist, which missed out this sharper, darker history, full of greed and plunder. The reasons for the former neglect of this subject, (and the lack of visible reminders of this massive company in London), are perhaps a mixture of slight national shame and a poor fit with the inventiveness and free market narratives that have since been adopted to explain British economic success. But things are changing for the better.
With a history background and a City related job, Nick Robins is obviously the right person to contribute to this enlightenment. His rich, broad approach spans the company's diverse story. The business dimension such as the company's fluctuating share price and its original and innovative financial arrangements are included, of interest perhaps to today's city guys who hustle a living on the same London streets. Also included are the more literary and cultural references of interest to history junkies, which also link notable people and events of that time to the story.
Besides the big point regarding the pivoting of the international economic upper hand in favour of Britain, there are many smaller things to take away from this epic saga. The company's activities have links with many of the notable events and issues in the history of the last 400 years, and one could imagine that the study of the not that "Honourable Company" would be a good vehicle for a complete education in politics, economics and moral philosophy / business ethics. As I said earlier, all life is here. ...
Imagine a long overdue BBC Four documentary series covering the different periods of the company's history. All those old ships and reconstructions of historical events, ... mmm pure bliss for a Sunday night!