Whitewashing the past

The British Library's new exhibition on the East India Company does not tell the whole story

Mike Marqusee
Friday May 24, 2002

According to the British Library, its new exhibition on the East India Company shows "how the work of 11 men, from a cold, wet and then relatively poor country, paved the way for what is now called 'globalisation'. The exhibition's principal sponsor is Standard Chartered Bank, "the world's leading bank for emergent markets", whose chairman, Sir Patrick Gillam, lauds "the courageous, creative and truly international legacy of the East India Company".

Until recently, the champions of today's world trade order have usually given imperial parallels a wide berth. They prefer to promote globalisation as a universal and secular creed, not a hangover from the colonial era. But with the increasingly casual talk of "regime change" and indefinite military occupations, not to mention the barely disguised calls for a resumption of the white man's burden, it's not surprising to find the imperial past being invested with a new respectability.

The exhibition has attracted criticism for downplaying the company's role as the biggest drug trafficker of all time, and its responsibility for the deaths of 17 million Chinese from opium addiction. The British Library insists it has offered a balanced account, and the exhibition does acknowledge the "vicious" opium trade and the deleterious effects of company rule on both China and India. But overall it handles the company with kid gloves.

Here, "free trade" is a multi-cultural encounter. The company is celebrated as the bringer to Britain of coffee and tea, muslins, ginghams and calicos, porcelain and curry. Its legacies are gleaming modern entrepots such as Hong Kong and Bombay, and "the now familiar Asian presence in and contribution to Britain's rich cultural diversity". But the concrete and bitter experience of centuries has a way of resurfacing, as today's protest outside the British Library by members of the Chinese community will demonstrate.

Clive's victory at Plassey in 1757 secured direct company rule over Bengal, then the richest province in India. The immediate upshot was the tripling of the land tax and a famine that killed 10 million people - one-third of the population. Two decades later, as a result of Cornwallis's "permanent settlement", which imposed English landlordism on Bengal, 20 million smallholders were dispossessed. Indigenous industries were crippled by the company's exactions.

With the end of its monopoly in 1813, the import of mill-made goods from Britain devastated the once-mighty Indian textile industry. "The misery hardly finds parallel in the history of commerce," said the governor general, William Bentinck. "The bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India."

Perhaps in ways neither the British Library nor Standard Chartered intended, this long discredited, blood-drenched monopoly, licensed by the English state and backed by its military resources, does offer an apt precedent for our current lopsided but frantic commercial order. In its day, the company occupied and manipulated the interstices of a truly global economy. Tea from China was bought with opium from India; Indian and later British textiles (made from cotton grown in India) purchased slaves in west Africa, who were sold in the Americas for gold and silver, which was invested in England, where the sugar harvested by the slaves ensured a booming market for the tea from China. The big winners sat in the City of London. The more numerous losers could be found in every corner of the globe.

"The conquest of the earth... is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much," Joseph Conrad observed in Heart of Darkness. "What redeems it is the idea only..." The idea in this exhibition is "trade" - an abstraction carefully disengaged from the forms it takes in the real world. As portrayed by the British Library, the company was ever guided by the invisible hand of the market, driven across the seas by the ineluctable laws of supply and demand.

The early managers of the company were more realistic. Josiah Child, one of its leading figures during the last quarter of the 17th century, explained its priorities: "The increase of our revenue is the subject of our care, as much as our trade: 'tis that must maintain our force..."

Since the most reliable sources of revenue at the time were rent and taxes, the company had to "establish such a politie of civil and military powers... as may be the foundation of a large, well-grounded, sure English dominion in India for all time to come." The company was seeking profit, not "trade", and it was in pursuit of profit that it turned to armed conquest.

The most arresting item in the exhibition is an enormous chintz from south India painted with Japanese-style flowers and birds, bamboo tracery and erotic motifs. Amid this elegant luxuriance, a harsher note is struck by a rectangular strip depicting an endless file of musket-toting Europeans. Centuries ago, the East India Company drew a lesson similar to the one recently drawn by the New York Times' laureate of globalisation, Thomas Friedman: "You can't have McDonald's without McDonnell Douglas."

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