BOOK REVIEW: THE EAST INDIA COMPANY: The World’s Most Powerful Corporation by Tirthankar Roy


Khidki (Window)

–Read India Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about.

    This book is part of THE STORY OF INDIAN BUSINESS series. The series editor of which is Gurcharan Das. Before I take you through the summary of the book let me give you a brief introduction of the STORY OF INDIAN BUSINESS which Gurcharan Das has edited and has also provided a comprehensive introduction to it. There are ten books in this series which are as follows:

  1. Arthashastra: The Science of Wealth by Thomas R. Trautmann
  2. The World of the Tamil Merchant: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakalatha Mukund
  3. The Mouse Merchant: Money in Ancient India by Arshia Sattar
  4. The East India Company: The World’s Most Powerful Corporation by Tirthankar Roy
  5. Caravans: Punjabi Khatri Merchants on the Silk Road by Scott C. Levi
  6. Globalisation before Its Time: The Gujarati Merchants from Kachchh by Chhaya Goswami (edited by Jaithirth Rao).
  7. Three Merchants of Bombay: Business Pioneers of the Nineteenth Century by Lakshmi Subramanian
  8. The Marwaris: From Jagat Seth to the Birlas by Thomas A. Timberg
  9. Goras and Desis: Managing Agencies and the Making of Corporate India by Omkar Goswami
  10. India Railways: Weaving of a National Tapestry by Bibek Debroy, Sanjay Chadha and Vidya Krishnamurthi

    Let me also give you a brief introduction of both Tirthankar Roy and Gurcharan Das.

    TIRTHANKAR ROY teaches economic history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His book The Economic History of India 1857-1947, now in its third edition, has changed the way Indian economic history is studied and taught worldwide.

    GURCHARAN DAS is a world-renowned author, commentator and public intellectual. His bestselling books include India Unbound, The Difficulty of Being Good, and India Grows at Night. His other literary works consist of a novel A Fine Family, a book of essays, The Elephant Paradigm, and an anthology Three Plays. He is a graduate from Harvard University. Das was earlier CEO of Procter & Gamble India, before he took early retirement to become a full-time writer. He lives in Delhi and often comes on talk shows in electronic media.

    The subject book THE EAST INDIA COMPANY—The World’s Most Powerful Corporation was first published by Penguin Random House India in India 2012. The price of this book is Rs 299.

    Says the Business World—‘The East India Company’ is an interesting inspection of how a colonial company defined the way we do business today.’

    It is a first-time account of the East India Company from the perspective of Indian business history. This ground-breaking study examines how the East India Company founded an empire in India at the time it started losing ground in business. For over 200 years, the Company’s vast business network had spanned across Persia, India, China, Indonesia and North America. But in the late 1700s, its career took a dramatic turn, and it ended up being an empire builder.

    In this well researched account, Tirthankar Roy reveals how the Company’s trade with India changed its profile—and further how the Company changed Indian business. Fitting together many pieces of a vast jigsaw puzzle, the book explores how politics meshed so closely with the conduct of business then, and what that tells us about doing business now. Many of the facts mentioned in the book were hitherto unknown to me till I read the book. He has done some exemplary research but more than that he has put the findings in context, quite well. The book explains how politics meshed so closely with the conduct of business then, and what that tells us about doing business now.

    It is a mid-spine book of some 237 pages. It is divided into ten chapters. Where, Tirthankar connects the whole cycle of events all too well. We all know there was an East India Company that ventured into India and many other regions of the world and gradually it captured power through this company and brought it under the British Crown. No one can forget the famous saying—the sun never sets on the British Empire. But then how did all of this happen? Who started it? How did it start? What went into play in the Europe of those times? How did the Dutch, Portuguese, French and the Britishers battle it out amongst themselves? Who were the voyagers who sailed first? How did they fight the pirates? How meekly did the Europeans enter countries like Persia, China, India, Indonesia, Smatra, Jawa, Burma, and many more and acquired a formidable trader’s position in these countries. To know all this read the book.

    There is a lavish introduction of the book by Gurcharan Das. The book in all has ten chapters. It essentially narrates the Business History of India, which was largely trading then, or you could say exports and imports. If Masala, tea or silk went out of Asia, Silver came in return as there was no common currency. The book also explains the configurations of the East India Company and the history of certain generic products and trade routes. In those times there was the maritime route and the ground route.

    Business may lose its ethics while it’s in red. The point gets proven when the British sovereign building on East India Company even made money by drugging the Chinese youth with opium that was grown in Bihar. This led to a fierce battle when they forced Chinese to surrender Hongkong to the British Crown under a treaty. The book describes the famous ports of India such as madras, Calcutta and Bombay.

    It highlights the dictum that business is based on trust far more than contract. It talks of monopoly markets. It gives an excellent Maritime description. It talks about the origin of joint-stalk Company, conflict of interest when some employees of the East India Company start discreetly doing business in India in their own name, and their politicians back in London start supporting them.

    It explains the transformation of the Company from a trader to an empire-builder, with reference to its own organisational structure and to the opportunities that came its way. And what effects did the Company, as a trader and as an empire, impart upon the economy and business organisation in India. From 1833 the Company ceased to exist as a trading body. Thereafter it existed as an administrator of India in partnership with the Crown.

    It is an interesting book for those readers who are interested in digging into the business history of India. Generally when we think of British Crown and East India Company we think of the various wars that were fought on Indian soil. This is definite variation. The narration is a little monotonous but balances out well with the data and findings it brings with it. And one cannot blame the author as he has converted his research into a book. The language is plain and simple and in no way flowery. Quite a must read for people in business and even MBA students.

    I would give it seven out of ten.


By Kamlesh Tripathi



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