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English: "A list of the names of all the ...

“A list of the names of all the adventurers in the stock of the honourable the East-India-Company, the 12th day of April, 1684,” broadside on paper, 32 cm x 20 cm, published by the East India Company, London. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The East India Company, often referred to as the Honourable East India Company or more colloquially as “John Company”, was established with a Royal Charter from Elizabeth I on December 31, 1600. The Company was originally chartered as the Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies, with the intention of pursuing trade throughout the East Indies. As it turned out, however, the Company ended up trading primarily with the Indian subcontinent, Balochistan, and the North-west frontier provinces.

The Company was created by a group of influential businessmen who gained government permission to monopolize trade in the East Indies for a period of 15 years. Thus, the British Raj was established, and fortunes were made dealing in ivory, silk, cotton, and spices.

Interestingly, however, English traders never looked at India as a permanent home. East India Company merchants went to India to establish trade and to rule. While few EIC employees stayed permanently, British rule over India lasted nearly 200 years.

As the British EIC moved into the territory, they had to face a certain amount of foreign competition. The Dutch East India Company in particular had a tight hold on the Spice Islands; thus, the British EIC focused its attentions on the Indian mainland. The first trading station was established in 1613, and by 1647, the Company had 23 factories and 90 employees throughout the subcontinent.

The Company built forts throughout India and established its own private army comprised of both British officers and native soldiers. Through this martial rule, it was easy for the Company to collect profits. Lands could be seized, local rulers could easily be deposed, and taxes could be extracted from the general populace.

It took a few decades before the EIC really became profitable; however, once it did, it became a juggernaut, dominating both the business and political spheres. As the Company’s power grew, so did England’s on the global scene.

East India House in Leadenhall Street was the ...

East India House in Leadenhall Street was the London headquarters of the East India Company. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By 1784, the power of the EIC rivaled that of the British Government, in that it held rule, in effect, over a vast number of British territories. To combat this, the government passed the East India Company Act, separating the Company’s commercial activities from its political functions. Through this act, the EIC was subordinated to the government in regard to all political matters.

The Charter Act of 1813 further subjected the EIC to Crown rule. While the act extended the Company’s charter for another 20 years, it ended the trade monopoly in all products except tea. This event also led to a greater influx of British citizens in India, as the EIC was forced to allow missionaries to establish works in the country – something that had previously been banned.

By 1873, the Company had all but dissolved. Over time, the Crown had absorbed much of the power once held by the EIC. So too, the Company’s army of 24,000 was incorporated into the British army, effectively removing the “muscle” that the Company had once relied on.

The East India Company Stock Redemption Act was passed in 1873, but little remained of its former glory. Power had effectively transferred to the government, and Queen Victoria ruled as Empress of India.

In the early days of the Indian Raj, mixed marriages were encouraged in the hopes of improving relations between the two cultures. Young British soldiers and civil servants spent years away from home, and the majority took up with Indian prostitutes, mistresses or wives.

East India House in Leadenhall Street was the ...

East India House in Leadenhall Street was the London headquarters of the East India Company. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Lord Cornwallis came to power as Governor General of Bengal in the 1780s, things began to change. Cornwallis rapidly initiated a number of divisive reforms that drove a gradual wedge between the British and Indians. Children of mixed race were banned from education in England, and were unable to procure employment with the East India Company.

With each subsequent reform, sexual relations with native women became a greater taboo. Of course, the young EIC employees were soon seriously frustrated. Many still frequented brothels, leading to regular outbreaks of venereal disease in the garrisons.

In order to remedy the problem, the authorities turned their sights on the wealth of British girls back home. At the time, a full third of British women aged 25-35 were unmarried. Parents of these unmarried girls saw India as prime husband-hunting ground, and happily sent them off in pursuit of marriage. Meanwhile, the EIC felt that paying to ship the girls over was a worthwhile investment in keeping the men happy.

Thus, the girls of the “Fishing Fleet” began to arrive. Each was offered an allowance of £300 a year for life if they were able to find a husband within a year. While there were plenty of prospective husbands, the Company kept the girls to a strict set of rules. If a girl misbehaved in any way, she would be put on a bread and water diet and shipped home. If a girl was unable to secure a husband within a year, she would be sent home, disgraced as a “returned empty.”

Symbols on East India Company Coin: 1791 Half Pice

Symbols on East India Company Coin: 1791 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, this put an enormous pressure on the girls to find a husband right away. Some girls were snapped up while still on the voyage. Others began courtships within days of landfall. With each ship’s arrival, eligible British bachelors were invited to dinner on board – to look over the “cargo” as it were.

The prettiest girls of the lot were always married off quickly, and they often secured husbands in good social standing. The lucky ones would soon find themselves comfortably settled in a breezy bungalow with a bevy of servants. The plainer girls would often have to look further afield, ‘up country’, where life was tough and comforts were few.

Nonetheless, the girls of the Fishing Fleet continued to flock to India. Throughout the late 1800s, the number of unmarried women in Britain continued to rise. For many, India was the perfect solution. After all, that’s where the men were.

Despite the hardships, sickness and struggles that India presented, many of the Fishing Fleet girls fell in love with the country and the culture. They were intoxicated by the breathtaking beauty and the exotic thrills. Those who returned to England upon their husband’s retirement keenly felt the loss and longed for the country that had become their home.

In the late 18th century, the implications of colonial expansion were being hotly debated. East India Company merchants in particular, were socially derided and criticized. These merchants, labeled “nabobs”, had amassed enormous fortunes through their business ventures in India, and effectively ruled huge territories in the name of Britain, thus increasing the trade, property and power of Great Britain. While they did serve a purpose, many looked on Britons of the East India Company as corrupt criminals at the worst, or vulgar nouveaux riches at best.

East India House in Leadenhall Street was the ...

East India House in Leadenhall Street was the London headquarters of the East India Company. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British society saw them as despotic and given to decadence and “oriental vices”. This is partly due to the fact that European women were scarce in India until around 1837, so many of the traders took Indian wives or mistresses. Polite society at home looked on this as succumbing to the temptations of the exotic and largely unknown India.

After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the East India Company transformed from a private trading enterprise into more of a ruling bureaucracy in India – with merchants acting as rulers or “princes” over the Indian territories. Seeing as the merchants of the EIC rarely stood higher than middle class, the elite in Britain were made increasingly uneasy about these nabobs ruling such a rich and populous resource. The Britons back home assumed that the nabobs would simply ransack the treasures of India for their own enrichment – to the detriment of the nation at large.

Toward the end of the 18th century, the nabobs were typically looked on as common criminals. For example, the anonymous satirical poem The Nabob or the Asiatic Plunderer depicts the Anglo-Indians as cruel and indifferent to the suffering of the native Indians. Some like Edmund Burke even passionately fought to defend Britain from the “vices” brought back by the nabobs from the east. He argued that the nabobs’ sole intent was to plunder, oppress and destroy India, and pressed for reform of the EIC.

Eventually, governor Lord Cornwallis and his successors did reform the way business was conducted and put much focus on overcoming nepotism and bribery among the nabobs in India. Britain also began to see the treasures of India as a way to relieve mounting British debts.

Slowly, Britain began to look on India less and less as the victim and more as a seducer and corrupter of British subjects. During the last part of the 18th century, this became ever more the sentiment toward India. Britain became convinced that India needed a “civilizing mission”, giving rise to the overwhelming notion of European superiority.

While the nabobs were no longer looked on as purely criminal, they were still considered “corrupted” by India. This caused ongoing negative sentiments toward them. The nabobs were left walking a very fine line of trying to fit into British society by masking their Indian connections while still holding on to that part of their lives. After all, many had Indian wives or mistresses and children – in fact, quite a significant Anglo-Indian community had formed.

English: Dutch East India Company Merchant Ship

English: Dutch East India Company Merchant Ship (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After living life as princes in India, some traders returned to England, hoping to expand (or at least maintain) the miniature empires they had built. While they had gained great wealth, the traders had little to no social standing in England, and they hoped to improve that as well. To their surprise, their welcome home was far from warm – in fact, the public reaction was near hostile. They were branded with extremely negative stereotypes and smeared in popular media.

The nabobs were also looked down upon for their “decadence” and “oriental tastes”. Diamonds, precious stones, gold and certain fabrics were heavily connected to the picture of the “wickedness” of the orient. Possessing these items was considered a serious lack of decorum. The nabobinas (women of the merchants) were typically condemned for their similar tastes for these luxuries.

Unfortunately, most nabobs often fared poorly financially in the end. Though some tried to live lives as country gentlemen, they were looked on as presumptuous by the ruling class. Some quickly lost their fortunes to gambling and other vices, while others like Warren Hastings even faced confiscation, disgrace and impeachment.

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