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Early History of the Honorable East India Company, by Towers Trevorian Millett

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Towers Trevorian Millett (1852-1882) wrote this history while serving as a policeman in Madras, India.  It was published in the Penzance newspaper The Cornishman in May and June 1885.  Towers Trevorian Millett died of typhoid fever at Rajahmundry on 5 August 1882.



By the late Towers Trevorian Millett, of the Madras Police



250 years ago a few British merchants were humbly petitioning the Princes and potentates of India for permission to trade in their dominions.  At the present time almost the whole of the vast region stretching from Cape Cormorin to Thibet and from Siam to Cabul is virtually under British rule.  It will be my endeavour to trace, accurately and concisely, the means whereby such a marvellous transfer of power has been effected :  to watch the progress of a trading association, composed of a few merchants, through many dangers and depressing difficulties :  to mark its feeble progress and slow development through various stages of joint-stock associations and incorporations, into a company protected by royal charter :  its dangers from rival companies and ultimate fusion with them into that wonderful body – half political, half commercial – through whose agency such a work has been performed :  to describe its constitution and the nature, progress, and effects of its commercial operations :  to exhibit the legislative proceedings and schemes of government :  in short, to give a brief review of the early history of the Honorable East lndia Company, familiarly yet affectionately styled by its servants “OLD JOHN COMPANY."


From the time when Vasco de Gama weathered the Cape of Good Hope, for nearly a hundred years, the Portuguese enjoyed, without a rival, the commerce of the East.  Vague rumours of the wealth brought thence began, however, to excite the adventurous spirit of the English.  In 1558 a Mr. Anthony Jenkinson made a voyage to Persia and brought back considerable treasures.  He performed the voyage seven times and opened a considerable trade with Chinese, Indian, and Persian merchants in raw and wrought silks, spices, and precious stones.  Accidental circumstances also brought the admiration excited by prospects of trade with India to a great height.


Sir Francis Drake, while harassing the shipping of the King of Spain, took a ship from India belonging to the Portuguese.  Her cargo, which proved to be of immense value, thoroughly aroused the cupidity of the English merchants and a still more important capture was made when an expedition, fitted out by Sir Walter Raleigh and commanded by Sir John Boroughs, captured, off the Azores, a Portuguese vessel of 1600 tons with a crew of 700 men and armed with 36 cannon.  She was carried into Dartmouth, and was the largest vessel which had ever been seen in England.  Her cargo consisted of spices, calicoes, silks, gold, pearls, drugs, porcelain, and ebony.  An Englishman named Stevens, who had sailed with the Portuguese from Lisbon to Goa, around the Cape of Good Hope, now published an account of his voyage, and information regarding India began to be drawn from various other channels.  The result of this popular excitement was a memorial addressed to the lords of the council by “divers merchants” in 1589, asking the royal permission to send three ships and three pinnaces on a voyage to India.  The result of this memorial is unknown;  but, in

1591, the first fleet for India sailed under Captain Raymond.  The fleet was fitted out, not so much for trading purposes, as for cruising against the Portuguese in the Indian seas.  Its fate was disastrous in the extreme.  Before the Cape was reached, scurvy made such ravages amongst the crews that one of the three ships was sent back with invalids.  Shortly after doubling the Cape the largest ship was lost in a gale, and Captain James Lancaster, after an unsuccessful cruise in the bay of Bengal, sailed for the West Indies, where he was wrecked :  and, after innumerable hardships and privation, managed to return to England with a few men in a French privateer.  The ill-success of this voyage damped the ardour of the English and, for some time, nothing further was done;  but, in 1595, the Dutch fitted out a fleet for India, and its success again aroused the ambition of the British merchants;  who, in 1599, formed an association and raised a fund of £30,000 in 101 shares.  After some time a committee of 15 was chosen to manage the affairs of the association and to procure permission from the Queen to trade with India.  The Queen was favourably impressed with the plan, and signified her consent :  but, as negotiations for a treaty with Spain were afoot, delays took place until, after some months, the Queen sent John Mildenhall, overland by Constantinople, on an embassy to the Great Mogul.  The result of the embassy was unsatisfactory, owing to the intrigues of the Portuguese agents, but the adventurers renewed their efforts.


At last the government consented that preparations for an Indian voyage might be made, though the patent of incorporation was still under consideration.  The preparations were carried out with vigour, and five ships were soon ready.  Capt. James Lancaster, whose return from the previous unsuccessful expedition I have mentioned, was appointed to the command of the whole, and, on the 3lst Dec., the charter of privileges was obtained.


It constituted the adventurers a body politic and corporate, by the name of “The governor and company of merchants of India trading to the East Indies,” and vested in them the usual privileges and powers.  The plans already adopted for the management of their affairs by a committee of twenty-four and a chairman, both to be elected annually, was confirmed and rendered obligatory.  With a prohibition tending to aid such places already occupied by the subjects of states at amity with her majesty and whose objection to rivals should be declared, the privilege of trading to the East Indies, i.e. to all places between the Straits of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope, was vested in the company.


According to the principle of the times, the charter was exclusive, prohibiting the rest of the community from trading within the limits specified :  but permission was accorded to the company to grant licenses to others for trading purposes.  The charter was granted for l5 years, and might be annulled at two years’ notice if found to be disadvantageous to the nation;  but could otherwise be renewed for a further period of 15 years if the company desired.


It is one thing, however, to excite enthusiasm, and another thing to keep it up, as the committee soon found out.  Though the subscription-lists were speedily filled-up, yet the calls for payment of the instalments were imperfectly obeyed.   Instead, therefore, of exacting the stipulated sums and trading as a joint-stock company, those who had paid-up were invited to take upon themselves the whole expenses of the voyage, and, as they sustained the whole of the risk, to reap the whole of the profit.  Over £68,000 were thus subscribed;  the fleet was fitted-out, Captain Lancaster was again placed in command;  and, on the 16th May, 1601, it sailed from Torbay.


This voyage was a great success, and, after establishing agents in Bantam, Lancaster returned to England, in 1603, with a handsome profit to his owners.


From this year to 1613 eight other expeditions were fitted-out, and, with one exception – that of 1607, when both ships were lost – all were prosperous, the profits generally being between 150 and 200 per cent. on the capital.


Up to this time the voyages of the East-Indian traders had been conducted on the terms of a regulated, rather than a joint-stock company :  each venture being the property of a certain number of individuals, who managed it for their own account, subject only to the general control of the company.  But, on the return of the last of the eight expeditions mentioned, it was resolved that, in future, the business should be carried-on as a joint-stock company only;  the committee to manage for the subscribers.


The directors divided the fund into four portions, setting out each a fleet each year.  But the experience of these four years’ trading did not set the management of a court of directors in a favourable light, when compared with that of individuals taking charge of their own affairs :  for, whereas the average profit on the previous eight voyages was 171 per cent., the average profit for the present four ventures was only 87½ per cent.


Meanwhile the Portuguese had embroiled themselves with the Great Mogul, a circumstance soon taken advantage of by the English;  for, in 1614, we find them assisting that potentate in repelling the attack of the Dutch at Swally, where the common enemy lost a large number of men.  As a result of this exploit a firman was obtained authorising general trade;  and, in the same year, took place the celebrated embassy of Sir Thomas Roe, who concluded a treaty in which liberty was promised to the company to trade and establish factories in any part of the Mogul’s dominions;  Surat, Bengal, and Sindy being particularly named.


In 1617-18 a new subscription was opened and was carried to the large amount of £1,600,000.  This fund was called the Company’s 2nd joint-stock, but, as the Company’s accounts are not remarkable for clearness, we are in ignorance whether the two funds were amalgamated or in separate accounts.  But we shall see afterwards that the directors soon had in their hands the funds of several bodies of subscribers, which they employed separately for the separate benefit of each, and that, in consequence, they and their agents abroad experienced much inconvenience in preserving their accounts separate and distinct.


The Dutch had, for years passed, been supplanting the Portuguese in the Indian trade, owing to the Spanish government, whose subjects the Portuguese had become, having been busily engaged in the conquest of the New World.  The accumulations of wealth in Holland had been very great, and the Dutch pursued their enterprises with great vigor, while the English, harrassed by civil wars and misgovernment, found themselves unequal competitors with a people so favourably situated as their rivals.  After wearisome interchanges of hostilities a treaty was made at London, in 1619, by which the English were to enjoy one-third, and the Dutch two-thirds, of the trade in the East.  A committee of defence was arranged, consisting of four Dutch and four English members.  The two companies were to unite in mutual profit and defence, each providing 10 ships of war for mutual protection in India, and the treaty was to be in force for 20 years.


The fate of this solemn engagement is a proof, if any were wanted, of our imperfection in the art of making treaties.  The principal stipulations were so vague, the execution of them so dependent on so many unascertained circumstances, that the grounds of dispute were multiplied rather than reduced.  Experience taught here, what experience always teaches, that in all vague arrangements the advantages are reaped by the least scrupulous and the strongest party.  The voice of four Englishmen in the council of defence was a very poor protection against the superior capital, energy, and armaments of the Dutch.  The English, to secure their rights, should have maintained a superior naval and military force to that of the Dutch.  Had they done so they would have been the expellers of the Dutch from the spice-trade, and, having themselves acquired it, would have overlooked the continent of India, because their capital was not large enough to have extended to that trade;  India would have been left to the enterprise of other nations;  and the brilliant empire, established by the English, would never probably had a commencement.


However, disputes broke out between the companies;  and the Dutch acted with so high a hand that the English commissioners of the council of defence reported the impracticability of continuing the English trade unless measures were taken to check the oppressive action and overbearing insolence of the rivals.  In Surat, however, the English were able to hold their own, and in 1622 defeated the Dutch in a severely-contested naval engagement, following up their successes by capturing Ormus.


Feeble attempts were now made to establish factories at Masulipatam and at Tanjore, but these failed.  A piece of land was, however, purchased at Armegam, a little south of Nellore, and here, in 1628, a factory was built and fortified.


In 1631-32 a new subscription was started for a joint stock, and a fund of £420,700 was raised.  Still we are left in darkness with respect to some important details.  We do not know in what degree the capital, which had been placed in the hands of the directors by former subscriptions, had been repaid, nor indeed if it was ever repaid at



With this new fund two more expeditions were fitted out :  but of the amount of money embarked we have no record.  The company, like most unskilful, and for that reason unprosperous, traders had always competitors of one description or another to whom they ascribed their own want of success.  They were continually condemning the conduct of their agents in India who had been for years carrying on a clandestine trade on their own account, and whose gains they said exceeded those of the directors.  At last an event occurred which appeared to involve unusual danger.


A number of persons, with Sir William Courten at their head, had, through a gentleman-in-waiting on the King, prevailed on his Majesty to grant a license for a new association to trade to India.  The reasons for such a breach of faith, as given in the license, were that the East India Company had misconducted itself, and had accomplished nothing for the good of the nation in proportion to the great privileges they had enjoyed nor with regard to the amount of wealth they had spent.  We may presume that this was but the general opinion of the English nation :  but it was surely unjust to bring the charter to a sudden termination when, by giving the notice stipulated in the original charter, a legal end might have been put to the monopoly.


The company were in despair, and petitioned the King, but in vain.  Courten fitted-out a fleet, which returned in 1637 with large profits to the adventurers.


As if the misfortunes of the committee were not enough, the original subscribers now demanded that their accounts should be closed and any effects belonging to them in India brought home.  A still heavier calamity overtook them, the King having determined on war with the Parliament, and, finding himself destitute of money, cast his eyes on the warehouses of the company, and bought on credit the whole of their pepper at a high price;  immediately selling it at a lower, and thus obtaining over £50,000 in ready money.  Bonds were given, to be paid by the Customs, but only £13,000 were ever paid.


Meanwhile trade was languishing for want of funds, and the agents in the east attempted to supply, by loans, the failure of supplies from home.  An effort was made, in 1642, to raise a new subscription, but only £105,000 was produced, for the English now thoroughly distrusted joint-stock enterprises in the east.  During this time the agents of the company, finding Armegum unsuitable for their purpose, obtained the permission of a native chief to build a fort at Madrasapatam.  The works were begun in 1640, and the place named Fort Saint George.  During the wars between the King and the Parliament the affairs of the company seemed to get worse and worse, and great complaints were made by the agents abroad, who urged a separation of the stocks.  At last, after long arbitrations and consequent delays, the company and the rival merchant adventurers effected a coalition.  On the strength of this union a new subscription was opened in 1657 and filled up to the amount of £786,000.  A settlement was made with holders of former stocks and the directors started afresh under much improved conditions, having now but one general fund to administer.  But the operations of the new joint-stock were not more prosperous than those of the old.


On the accession of Charles II. a new charter was granted to the company and, in addition to their ancient privileges, they were invested with authority to make war or peace with any native states not being Christians, and to seize unlicensed persons and to send them to England.  These were important privileges and, with the right of administering justice, consigned almost all the powers of government to the discretion of the directors and their servants.  Still the company’s business was feeble and unprofitable.  In 1668 Bombay, which formed part of the dowry of the Infanta Catherine, was offered to the company by the King of England, and was accepted by them at an annual rent of £10 in gold !


In 1664 Sivajee, the founder of the Mahratta dynasty, while waging war against the Mogul, attacked Surat.  The company’s servants retired to their factory and, calling to their aid the ships’ crews, made so brave a defence that Sivajee, after pillaging the town, retired.  The Mogul was so pleased with this exhibition of bravery that he thanked the governor and gave new privileges of trade to the company.


In 1670 another attack was again successfully repulsed.


The wages granted by the company were at this period very small.  Sir George Oxenden, when elected to be president and chief director of Surat and of all other factories in India, received a salary of £300 and a gratuity of £200 in compensation for private trade – an evil which the company were most earnestly labouring to suppress.


The time, however, was now approaching when the weakness and improvidence which had so long characterised the operations of the English in India was drawing to a close;  for the tonnage sent to India greatly increased and also in proportion the values of the cargoes.  The trade to Bengal increased so much in value that it was raised into a separate agency, instead of being a branch of Fort St. George.  The difficulties which now occurred in directing the operations of the company began to be serious.  The directors, from their ignorance of local circumstances, often transmitted orders which would have been dangerous for their servants to have executed.  Their agents abroad often took upon themselves, and with good reason, to disregard the orders which they received.  A door being thus opened for discretionary conduct the instructions of the directors were naturally as often disregarded for the convenience of the agents abroad as for the company at home.  Disregard of their authority and continued violation of their explicit orders was a frequent subject of uneasiness and indignation of the directors.  Nor was this all.  From quarrels regarding rank and precedence arose animosity among the agents;  and, to cure this evil, seniority was adopted as a principle of promotion;  but nomination to the important office of member of council at the agencies and presidencies was reserved to the directors.


Amid all these difficulties the company was again threatened by competition of their fellow subjects.  Among various means used by William III. to support his government and to raise money was the plan of establishing a new East-India company, the capital of which was to be lent to the crown.    This, though a wilful and scandalous violation of the charter of the existing company, was, after much opposition, carried into effect;  and the “general company”, or English company, was incorporated in 1698, the old company being called the “London company.”


But this new company was not allowed to trade in quiet by the wronged London company;  and as it had neither the experience, the enterprise, nor the capital of the latter, its operations proved it to be a very unequal competitor.


We find, in 1698, that the old company sent out 13 ships, of 1500 tons aggregate burden, and stock worth £525,000;  while the rival company sent out but three ships and stock worth £178,000.  As might have been expected, the rivalry of two companies in India produced the most unhappy results, and, after several acts of violence on the part of either, it was found absolutely necessary to amalgamate the two;  after which a wearisome arbitration was carried into effect, and, on the 22nd of July, 1702, the rival companies took the common name of “The united company of merchants trading to the East Indies.”


For nearly 50 years after the union of the rival companies the history of the British connection with India presents nothing but a detail of the operations of trade, varied only by the efforts of the company to obtain the protection of native princes, and to exclude all others seeking similar privileges.  So humble were the views of the directors that we find they objected to pay £100 for a carriage and a pair of horses to be used by the president of Calcutta, observing that if their servants wanted such superfluities they themselves must pay for them out of their own pockets.  I may read here the description of the progress of the Embassy, sent from Calcutta to THE EMPEROR (as the Mogul emperor, Ferrokshall, was styled.)  (Vide Auber’s India, vol. 1, pages 16-17.)


In the year 1744 war was declared between England and France, and Madras was taken from the English by the French, under Labordonnais.  It may not be uninteresting to give a brief account of Madras.  (Vide Mill’s India, vol. III, pages 46-47.)


In 1749 news reached India of the signature of peace at Aix-la-Chapelle, by which treaty Madras was restored to the English.  During the war the French and English, in the other presidencies, were prevented by the native magnates from committing any hostile acts against each other.


Notwithstanding its mishaps in Madras the company’s dividend during the war was never less than 3 per cent.


With 1749 begins a new era in the history of the East India company.  Up to the present they had occupied the position of humble traders, endeavouring to preserve a footing in India under the protection, or oppression, of the native powers.  But with this year begins those wars and brilliant exploits with which history has made you all familiar, and which it would be uninteresting, if not wearisome, to recount fully.


I have presumed to think that all are not so perfectly acquainted with the earlier periods of the company’s history, and have, as you perceive, dwelt on them at some length.  I cannot, however, pass on to the “beginning of the end” of the East India company without referring to an account of the defence of Arcot by Robert Clive – a defence which at once placed the hero in the foremost rank of military commanders.  Vide Thornton’s India, vol. I, p. 103, 111.


Time does not permit me to do more than allude to the tragedy of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and to the swift vengeance taken by Clive at Plassey, A.D. 1757.  From this date the rise of the British power in India is known to every schoolboy.  I will now sum-up a few of the causes which led to that awful scene of massacre and ruin – of slow, but sure and terrible, retributions, which Sir John Kaye has so eloquently recorded – the Indian mutiny, which was the death-blow of the company’s rule in India.  Vide Sir John Kaye’s Lepezar : vol. i, pages 180, 181, and 183.


You all know the story of the greased cartridges and the mutiny.  Many, if not most of us, remember the awful news coming to England.  You all know how sternly it was suppressed and at what cost of life and treasure.  At the close of that terrible time Her Majesty assumed the control of India and issued her famous proclamation of religious equality.  On the 1st Nov., 1857, THE HONORABLE EAST INDIA COMPANY ceased to exist.


Since its decease India has made rapid strides in prosperity and general civilization, but the change has not always proved to be for good.  The old Haileybury civilian has given place to the competition wallah.  The Suez Canal has brought India within three weeks’ steam from England.  The type of officer who made India his home for life, throwing his love into his labour, has disappeared.  Men go to India for a few years, caring little about the country and carrying their European peculiarities with them.  We look in vain for such men as Munro, Henry and John Lawrence, Nicholson,     Herbert Edwardes.  It is still much disputed whether we are, or are not, going too fast – cramming hasty, often imperfect, legislation on the people ere they are sufficiently advanced to receive it.  With officers, knowing nothing and caring less about their men, anxious only to put-in enough service to qualify for furlough, to get out of the country as fast as possible, we may hesitate with reason to declare that we are better off now.  The best proof of the kindly yet firm rule of the old régime that I can give you is that while admitting the many superiorities in modern style of rule Europeans and natives still speak with affectionate regret of the good old days of Old John Company.



Source:  The Cornishman (Penzance) Thursday 28 May 1885 p. 7, 4 June 1885 p. 7, 11 June 1885 p. 7 and 18 June 1885 p. 7.



References in text:


Auber, Peter.  History of the rise and progress of British power in India.  London,

W. H. Allen, 1846.  2 v.


Kaye, Sir John William.  A history of the Sepoy war in India, 1857-1858.  London,

W. H. Allen, 1870-1879.  3 v.


Mill, James.  The history of British India.  London , J. Madden, 1858.  9 v.


Thornton, Edward  The history of the British Empire in India.  London, W. H. Allen, 1841-1845.  6 v.