This is the story of The East offering her Riches to Britannia, a painting commissioned by the 24 Directors of the East India Company.
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In 1778, the directors of the East India Company installed an extravagant new painting in their London headquarters, East India House. Like much corporate art before and since, the quality of the painting was generally regarded as poor, with one commentator describing it as ‘a work too feeble to confer any credit either on the artist or his employers’. But the directors were not seeking applause for the artistic merit of their commission. Ten feet across and over eight feet high, Spiridione Roma’s giant allegory of The East Offering Her Riches to Britannia was designed to impress. Fixed to the ceiling of the Company’s revenue committee room, where the directors monitored the flow of profit and loss, the purpose of The Offering was simple: to convey the commercial domination that the Company had now achieved in Asia, specifically India.
At the heart of the painting is the relationship of three women, each representing their country. The scene is an Asian shoreline. Sitting high on a rock high to the left, a fair Britannia looks down on a kneeling India who offers her crown surrounded by rubies and pearls. Beside her, China presents her own tribute of porcelain and tea. From a grove of palms trees to the right comes a convoy of labourers carrying bales of cloth, along with an elephant and a camel, all directed westward by a stern Mercury, the classical god of commerce. The British lion sits at Britannia’s feet, as does Old Father Thames, a sign that it was to London that much of this wealth would flow. Far off, beyond the figures, one of the Company’s famous merchant ships sails into the distance, laden with the treasure of the East, its striped ensign fluttering in the wind.
Combining economic muscle with its small but effective private army, the Company’s forces under Robert Clive had defeated the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey (Palashi), 90 miles north of its trading base of Calcutta (Kolkata). The Company quickly installed Mir Jafar – a general who had betrayed the defeated Nawab – as the first of a series of puppet rulers of Bengal. More of a commercial transaction than a real battle, Plassey was followed by the systematic looting of Bengal’s treasury. In a powerful symbol of the transfer of wealth that had begun, the Company loaded the treasury’s gold and silver onto a fleet of over a hundred boats and sent them downriver to Calcutta.
In one stroke, Clive had netted £2.5 million for the Company and £234,000 for himself. Today this would be equivalent to a £232 million corporate windfall and a cool £22 million (as of 2006) success fee for Clive. Historical convention views Plassey as the first step in the creation of the British Empire in India. It is perhaps better understood as the East India Company’s most successful business deal. However it was the loot of the Kingdom of Arkaad or Arcot or Carnatic that laid the foundations for the Plassey Plunder. It was the key to the riches of the hills of Tirumala Tirupati temples as we have detailed in our report here – Robbing God: The Smuggling Syndicate of Tirumala Tirupati Temples.
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In the decade that followed, the Company used its dominant position to monopolize the foreign and internal trade of Bengal, driving out Asian, Dutch and French merchants in the process. In August 1765, the Company’s supremacy was formally recognized by the impoverished Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II with the grant of Bengal’s diwani. This office of state gave the Company control over tax collection for more than 10 million people. For a stock market listed company with profit as its primary motive, this acquisition of a country’s public finances was truly revolutionary. Not surprisingly, the Company’s share price boomed when news of the acquisition reached London’s financial markets in April 1766.
Just as Spiridione portrayed, the wealth of the East began to pour into England. This represented an extraordinary turnaround. Before Plassey, the ‘balance of trade was against all nations in favour of Bengal’, wrote Alexander Dow in his 1773 History of Hindostan. Bengal had been ‘the sink where gold and silver disappeared without the least prospect of return’. Now that flow was reversed. Monopoly power and windfall revenues combined to create unrivalled purchasing power that bought ever-increasing quantities of Eastern goods to European markets. In spite of tough trade barriers against cheap Indian calicoes, Bengal’s textiles, notably the soft Dhaka muslins, were still an essential fashion item for Britain’s female elite. Indeed, Spiridione’s Britannia seems swathed in muslin. But tea was now the Company’s prize commodity and the riches of Bengal helped to boost shipments from the Company’s Chinese subsidiary in Canton (Guangzhou) three-fold in the five years following 1768.
The annual consumption of tea rose to some one pound for each man, woman and child in England. On the streets of London, the Company also made its presence felt, not least at its imposing headquarters on Leadenhall Street, the huge dock complex in Blackwall and the fi ne merchant houses around Stepney Green. For a Parliamentary Select Committee investigating the Company’s affairs five years later, 1778 – the year of Spiridione’s triumphal portrayal of commercial success – would be seen as ‘the high flood tide’ of its exports from Asia.
Yet much is missing from this vast tableau. Like so many high profile corporate ventures since, the takeover of Bengal proved to be an acquisition too far for the East India Company. Initial stock market euphoria quickly gave way to excess, mismanagement and collapse. As the Company transformed itself from a modest trading venture into a powerful corporate machine, its systems of governance completely failed to cope with the new responsibilities it faced
Oppression of local weavers and peasants became the norm. Military spending spiraled out of control as adventurers took over from traders. Corruption assumed epidemic proportions and speculation overtook its shares, stoked up by Clive and others. Then, in 1769, conflict in south India rattled nervy investors, sending its share price into free fall. Financial crisis stalked Europe and the Company faced bankruptcy.
Across the world in Bengal, drought turned to famine as Company executives profiteered from rising grain prices. Parliament was forced to intervene, while over the Atlantic in Britain’s American colonies, patriots focused on the Company’s tea as a symbol of oppression. For one ‘Mechanic’ appealing to the tradesmen of Pennsylvania, America was faced with ‘the most powerful Trading Company in the Universe’, an institution ‘well-versed in tyranny, plunder, oppression and bloodshed’. On the night of 16 December 1773, patriots dressed as ‘Indians’ dumped East India Company tea into Boston harbor, the symbolic start to the American War of Independence.
War still raged in the Americas when The Offering was first unveiled in the Company’s headquarters. In London, the Company’s share price continued to languish at half the level it had reached during the 1760s. To the east in India, the Company’s most senior executive, Governor-General Warren Hastings, had taken a succession of desperate measures to restore the Company’s financial health. Looking back on this era as Parliament once more sought to bring the Company to account in the early 1780s, the philosopher/politician Edmund Burke was savage in his criticism. For him, India had been ‘radically and irretrievably ruined’ through the Company’s ‘continual Drain’ of wealth – a phrase that would haunt the next 150 years of British presence in India.
Yet, none of this – the speculation, wars and corruption – could be allowed to disturb the expression of supreme corporate confidence that the Company’s 24 directors had commissioned Spiridione Roma to portray. Then, as now, some things are always hidden.
Excerpt from The Corporation that Changed the World by Nick Robins.