East India Company

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The East India Company in North America

Although its Charter only gave the East India Company a monopoly on trade to the east of the Cape of Good Hope, the sheer scale of its enterprise meant that the Company had a significant influence on the newly emerging American colonies. Indeed the American historian Henry Newton Stevens maintained that the Mayflower which participated in the third voyage of the Company was the same ship that later was to take the Pilgrim Fathers on their voyage from Plymouth.

The Virginia Company

In the early days of the seventeenth century the small circle of influential merchants in the City of London who formed the East India Company in 1600 had their fingers in a number of other trading pies. The Governor of the East India Company in its first decade, Sir Thomas Smyth, was also the first Governor of the Virginia Company founded in 1606, and the two Companies shared their headquarters in Smyth's house, along with that of the Levant Company. The Virginia Company was the first British colonial enterprise in North America, following on the naming of that state after the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. The Virginia Company founded the colonial port of Jamestown on Chesapeake Bay, now a Colonial Heritage site.

Captains from Hudson to Kidd

One of the key issues at the time of the foundation of the Company was the search for the "North West Passage" over the top of North America to the Indies, considered of vital interest because of the continued dominance of the sea routes east by the Spanish and Portugese. The Company financed expeditions in order to find the supposed passage, and on one such voyage the Captain, Henry Hudson, was cast ashore to die by his mutinous crew in the bay which now bears his name. Forced to share the sea-lanes on the more conventional route to China and the Spice Islands, the Company had little contact with America until it had successfully established its trade in India; then private traders or "interlopers" based in New England caused many headaches for the Company by joining in with the trade and, as the Company saw it, interfering with their monopoly. The situation was aggravated by the activities of American pirates on the trading lanes between India and the Middle East. Eventually the Company gave a contract to the newly appointed Governor of New York to get rid of this menace. He found a well armed ship and an experienced commander named Captain Kidd, who soon, far from suppressing piracy, became one of its most notorious practitioners until his capture and execution in 1701.

The Yale brothers

The second-generation American bothers, Elihu and Thomas Yale, forged notable careers for themselves in the Company's service. Elihu rose to become Governor of Madras, and from there in 1689 he sent Thomas on what was the Company's first direct trading mission to China, paving the way for the eventual opening up of that unknown country to the Company's traders. Although his brother was later disgraced, Elihu returned to America with the fortune that he had earned in India, donating part of it to his old school, which, in gratitude, renamed itself "Yale College" in 1718.

The Union Jack and Stripes

The story of the origin of the Stars and Stripes, the American flag, forms an essential part of every schoolchild's education in the United States, but it is not commonly known that the inspiration for Betsy Rose's gift to Washington was the flag of the East India Company, which consisted of a Union Jack and stripes. Even now, the state flag of Hawaii is the same as the East India Company's flag — a memorial to the Company's involvement in the voyages of Captain Cook, who was to die there.

Colonies Lost and Won

Two events marked the low point of the Company's involvement with the fledgling independence movement in the American colonies. One, the infamous Boston Tea Party in 1773, was a direct result of the drawback of the government in London of duties on tea which enabled the East India Company to dump excess stocks on the American colonies, and acted as a rallying point for the discontented. The other, the defeat of General Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 resulted in American Independence; Cornwallis himself was later to serve with great distinction in the Company's service in India, and it was said of him that whilst he lost a colony in the West, he won one in the East.

Whilst the East India Company brought new goods and fashions to Europe, America was never far behind. The light cottons of India were well suited to the humid summers of the South Eastern states, and calicoes, chintzes, silks, spices, coffee, cocoa and Chinese earthenware as well as tea, all found their way across the water, mainly shipped by private traders from the Company's warehouses in London. Even after American Independence the East India Company remained a highly competitive importer of goods into the United States, resulting in occasional flare-ups such as the trade war between 1812 and 1814.

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