The Corporation That Changed The World
If multinationals believed in ancestor worship, they would have to genuflect before the first forebear, the Honourable East India Company. John Company, which began with a trading post in Surat in 1608, grew to become the virtual government of India and helped several generations of adventurers to ‘shake the pagoda tree’ until it was finally sent packing, 250 years later by the British Crown.
The Company’s reign, for the most part, was distinguished by plunder, human rights abuse and systematic extortion, resulting in a crippling famine and a bloody insurrection. In particular, it is remembered with horror for being the white leech that bled the wealth of Bengal, beggaring it beyond description and forcing its master weavers into mutilating their own thumbs to escape its oppression. As Jawaharlal Nehru wrote with a rare stab of anger in his otherwise stately Discovery of India, what better measure of this misrule than the East India Company’s contribution to the English lexicon—the Hindustani word, loot.
The scale of corruption in John Company and the lavish nabob lifestyle of its petty clerks so appalled those in the home country that in the early 1800s, the leading utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham proposed to Parliament that two statues be raised in London—one of the corrupt governor general Warren Hastings, and another beside him, of a “long-robed accomplice lodging a bribe into his hand”. The proposal, regrettably, was not passed, but it indicated the open contempt in which the Company men were held, not least by a young Karl Marx, who went on to write his seminal history of the First War of Indian Independence.
The brutality of the 1857 uprising shook Britain in much the same way that 9/11 shook America. The Times could scarcely contain its outrage. The defence came from Marx who wrote in The New York Tribune, “However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England's own conduct in India. To characterise that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy.”
In The Corporation That Changed The World, British historian Nick Robins takes an unsparingly critical stand. He tracks the EIC's growth from the merchants’ landing in Surat in 1608 not as conquistadors with flag and drum but as commercial supplicants who went from strength to strength using all the tricks of corporate warfare—an unprecedented tax holiday (the 1717 firman from the Moghul emperor absolved them of paying taxes), monopolistic rule (no other British merchants were allowed to trade from Indian ports), mergers and creeping acquisitions (annexations through warfare, forgery and guile), and the free-for-all of capitalism (mercantilism as it was then called).
There is an uncomfortable resonance between this vocabulary of ills and the malaise afflicting today’s big corporations such as Microsoft and Enron, accused of monopolistic bullying and, in the case of the latter, cooking the books. Robins makes these linkages to assert that his primary purpose in doing a post-mortem of a colonial company is to show how the East India seed has impregnated and shaped the modern corporation. He calls for checks and balances—say an international court—to control the otherwise unstoppable march of big corporates, some of which are so bewilderingly huge that they are above country-specific law. It is vital, he says, for us to always, in the ringing words of Edmund Burke, “Remember! Remember! Remember!”
A popular history, written in a lucid, ironic style, Robins’ book is held together by its singularity of vision. The structure, the selection of material, and the laser sharp moral stance are all governed by the author’s one aim—to inform and convince that the EIC was a blackguard of the deepest dye. His view is quite at variance with the renewed romanticism that the East India Company is being invested with in this era of globalisation, with the captains of free trade holding it up as an icon of corporate adventurism and inspiration. Robins reminds that the EIC was but a “rump of unconstitutional power”.
There are many, Indians not least, who will argue that the John Company was not all bad, that its contribution to the social and cultural landscape of India was substantial—from much-needed reform such as banning sati and child marriage to the translation of ancient scriptures, setting up of literary societies and introducing the concept of modern schooling. Bombay, too, benefited under enlightened governors of the early 1800s like Mount Stuart Elphinstone and John Malcolm.
To this hymn of praise, Robins has a sharp retort. These good deeds are but a bundle of rags when weighed against what the Company should be judged for—its role as de facto government of India, a responsibility it grievously abused. Corporates, he rightly says, should be judged not by peripheral acts of philanthropy but by their core business activities. Union Carbide can play Santa Claus to all the orphanages in the world, but it still needs to atone for the industrial crime of Bhopal. Moreover, if at all Indians remember British rule with vestiges of love—for the Railways, the English language, the administrative machinery—he points out that most of this institution building took place in the post-Company phase, when public works replaced plunder.
But Robins has gone so fiercely native in his choice of prism that he glosses over the role played by the Indians themselves, who sold compatriots and country over and over again. Treachery and self-profit have as much a role to play in the chains-and-dust tale of India as British imperialism. And not much has changed, especially on the self-profit front. The deal that the now-disgraced Enron struck with the Maharashtra government ten years ago is only one sign that the dubious legacy of the East India Company is alive and well.