The East India Company

John, to its friends

Formerly when great fortunes were only made in war, war was a business; but now, when great fortunes are only made by business, business is war.
Christian Nestell Bovee (1862)

The East India Company administered St Helena until 1834

Company flag, 1685
Company flag, 1685
Company Coat of Arms, 1698
Company Coat of Arms, 1698
East India House, London, c.1800
East India House, London, c.1800

Below: Company History • St Helena • Dutch East India Company • Read More

No description of St Helena could be complete without reference to the East India Company (EIC), which administered St Helena from the 17th Century until 1834. The East India Company was the world’s first multi-national company.

Note that, unless otherwise qualified, references on Saint Helena Island Info to ‘the East India Company’ are to the British East India Company, not the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

Company History

Company Logo
Company Logo

The East India Company, also known as the Honourable East India Company or the British East India Company and informally as ‘John Company’, was formed as an English joint-stock company to pursue trade with the East Indies. However it ended up trading primarily with the Indian subcontinent and China. The Company received a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth on 31st December 1600, to George, Earl of Cumberland, and 215 Knights, Aldermen, and Burgesses under the name Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies.

The Company’s shares were entirely owned by wealthy individuals and aristocrats - the Government owned no shares and exercised only indirect control. The governance of the Company was in the hands of the Court of Directors, comprising a governor and 24 directors, who in turn reported to the Court of Proprietors which appointed them. The Records make many references to correspondence between the island and the Court of Directors. The Company’s headquarters in London was East India House in Leadenhall Street (drawing, right).

Sir James Lancaster commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601, returning in 1603 via St Helena.

In 1711 the Company was renamed, from The Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies to The United Company of Merchants of England trading to the East Indies. And in 1773, with the Company in financial trouble due to the loss of its lucrative tea market in America, the Regulation of India Act gave the Crown regulatory control over The Company.

Despite being just a business, the Company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its own private armies, exercising military power and assuming the administrative functions normally reserved for a sovereign government. Unfortunately its activities were not always successful, which eventually lead to its closure.

The East India Company was dissolved following the Indian rebellion of 1857, which resulted in widespread devastation in India. Many condemned the East India Company for permitting the events to occur. The Company remained in existence in vestigial form, continuing to manage the tea trade on behalf of the British Government (and the supply of Saint Helena) until the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act 1873 came into effect, on 1st January 1874. This Act provided for the formal dissolution of the Company on 1st June 1874.

Historians dispute whether the East India Company started out as a merchant, and became a sovereign by accident, or whether it always set out to become an empire-building institution.

St Helena

In 1649 the East India Company ordered all of its homeward-bound vessels to wait for one another at St Helena. It was granted a charter to govern the island by the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth Oliver Cromwell in 1657 and the following year the Company decided to fortify and colonise St Helena with Planters.

A fleet commanded by Captain John Dutton arrived at St Helena in 1659 and took control of the island, Dutton becoming the first governor from 1659-1661. A fort, originally named the Fort of St. John, was completed within a month and houses were built further up the valley.

The Company lost control of St Helena for five months in 1673 when it was conquered by the Dutch but after regaining possession a further 28 Company governors administered St Helena. The Company’s reign encompassed a further Charter from Charles II in 1673; settlement and fortification of the island; destruction of the Great Wood; the first planting of St Helena Coffee; a recurrent battle with drunkenness in the garrison; and the guarding of the island’s most famous exile Napoleon, though with support from the Crown. The Company initially flew its own flag over St Helena, until in 1687 it started flying the Union Flag.

A provision of the India Act of 1833 transferred control of St Helena from the East India Company to the Crown with effect from 22nd April 1834. The last Company governor, Governor Charles Dallas, stayed in post after the India Act came into force, not leaving until the first Crown governor Governor George Middlemore arrived on 24th February 1836.

In 1739 The East India Company’s assets on St Helena were valued at £28,489. Around 100 years later, in 1834, the Crown paid The East India Company £100,000 as compensation for handing over the island. If you hover to see the Today’s Money values and do some maths you will see that The East India Company earned roughly 0.15% per annum (compound interest) on its investment. Not a good return by any standards.

The Dutch East India Company (VoC)

Dutch East India Company (VoC) Flag

Clearly the Dutch thought the idea of the English East India Company was a good one because in March 1602 they founded the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VoC), known in English as the ‘Dutch East India Company’. The VoC had similar aims and objectives to the English one. According to the Wikipedia:

VOC was in fact a proto-conglomerate company, diversifying into multiple commercial and industrial activities such as international trade (especially intra-Asian trade), shipbuilding, and both production and trade of East Indian spices, Formosan sugarcane, and South African wine. The Company was a transcontinental employer and an early pioneer of outward foreign direct investment. The Company’s investment projects helped raise the commercial and industrial potential of many underdeveloped or undeveloped regions of the world in the early modern period. In the early 1600s, by widely issuing bonds and shares of stock to the general public, VOC became the world’s first formally listed public company.

Of particular relevance to St Helena is that the Dutch VoC invaded and captured St Helena in December 1672, being driven off by the English in May 1673.

Read More

Below: Sources • Article: Directors’ Letter, 3rd August 1687

Sources

Read more about the East India Company on the Wikipedia.

The significance of the East India Company can be measured by the fact that our newspapers have mentioned it around 300 times since 2000.

Article: Directors’ Letter, 3rd August 1687

Some extracts illustrating how The Company felt about the citizens of St Helena…

Captain Gregory Field is a mere useless burden to us and therefore we do hereby dismiss him from our service. Give him leave to come home at his own charge and we shall admit him into our almshouse which he petitioned for.

Mr. Nathaniel Cox we are satisfied have misspent his own time and our money and therefore do herby dismiss him. At Bencoolen he may employ his talents and his stock in making sugar for himself if he think fit.

ou must not dispense with our orders, nor suffer the inhabitants to disobey yours, but make it your business to undeceive those ignorant inhabitants by convincing them of the truth that we are entrusted by His Majesty with the execution of Sovereign power in that Island as well Legislative as Executive and that we would govern them as well as our soldiers by marshall law as often as we or you find it necessary and as the Dutch do their Colonies in India.

You must always wear the King’s Flag{1} and force a due respect to be paid to it by all ships that come into that road.

[…]

Make an extract of all our orders and enter them in a book to be always lying on our Council Table, such our orders being to you as good law as Magna Charta is to England; and he that thinks it to be otherwise doth but to discover his own ignorance, all foreign plantations being indisputably subject to His Majesty’s despotical power. Which whosoever doubts, may easily be satisfied by looking into our Statute Books, where he will soon observe that our English Acts of Parliament extend no further than to the Kingdom of England dominion of Wales and the town of Berwick upon Tweed; neither is the municipal or common law of England of any further extent.

If our Governor were a Mr Cher, a boy and not a soldier of experience, armed with the King’s authority and law as well as with swords and muskets, we would wonder the less at the weak paragraph in one of your letters, wherein he says some of the Freemen stand out and will not have their cattle marked. We would have you do as the law is here, and as every little lord of the manor daily practises:- and if after notice, by reason of the wildness of the cattle, you cannot drive them to the Company’s cow-pound, in such case you may commission some of the soldiers to shoot them - a quarter to the soldiers, a quarter to the Company and the remainder to the proprietor.

The Dutch at the Cape have more for licensing one tavern than we have for all the Revenues of St Helena. We order to be paid in future £4 per annum, which you can’t think hard while there is none at the Cape without paying the Dutch Company £400 per annum.

Upon perusal of your Council Books, beginning June 1686, we approve of your manner of trying the Blacks, but think very meanly of you for the matter of your sentence, and wonder the more how you could be guilty of such weakness as to let those Blacks pass with a whipping, which an Englishman could have been condemned to dye herewith a jury. Especially since Mr Cox was present, who knows the English could not keep the knife from their throats at Barbados, if they did not punish their thievish Blacks with far greater severity. Those Blacks that were whipped but once, if you are minded to save their lives for their masters’ sakes (which we vehemently suspect), You should rather have whipped them six or eight times by intervals, keeping them in the interim to hard imprisonment.

[…]

Laugh at funny The East India Company humour - LOL

Footnotes:
{1} Previously the island flew the East India Company flag.

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