The East India Company, which described itself as "the Grandest Society of Merchants in the Universe," controlled half the world's trade at its height. This grand book, obviously the subject of many years of research, often reads more like an adventure yarn than a book about a business, even the grandest in the universe. The Company, which received its Royal Charter on the last day of 1600, moved through a series of fits and starts, disasters and triumphs, as it moved through a turbulent 220 years of history. From its initial fumbling start on the obscure nutmeg island of Run, it eventually turned into a quasi-government ruling vast parts of India and the most important enterprise in the China trade. It outlasted absolute monarchy in Britain, and saw the rise of the modern corporation.
John Keay has done a masterful job of telling this story, but look at the material he has had to work with! The Honourable Company often seems to have been pretty dishonourable, characterized by ferocious infighting, both in the headquarters in London and overseas. The characters who set up trading operations in far-flung corners of the world appear to have been either indolent drunks or superhumans burning with ambition. There are enough pirates and battles and exotic names to please any reader. And the leitmotiv of British salesmen anxiously trying to unload tweed cloth to unidentifiable buyers in the tropics.
The East India Company, although a monopoly, had competition. It came from many sources, including the Dutch, the French and particularly from "interlopers," traders working on their own account. The Company also had to compete with its own employees who, paid a pittance, conducted business on their own accounts as well. The strength of this book is that it gives the impression of boundless activity, even when things went badly. Given the different locations the company operated in, and different local conditions, it is remarkable that the narrative flows as smoothly as it does.
The writing is often superb. No Imperial apologist, Mr. Keay often makes the point that historians have tended to look to the Company as a harbinger, almost the organizing idea, for the British Empire. This foreshadowing is strained. The Company men, to judge from those described in the book, were motivated primarily by greed and self-interest. Some, such as Warren Hastings, who became Governor-General in India and held the position for thirteen years, were genuinely fond of India. Hastings is a fascinating character and Keay's writing does him, and his colleagues, honour:
""The Great Moghul," as Hastings was called in Calcutta's first newspaper, stood alone, a sad and self-righteous Caesar, embattled but unbowed, solicitous but ruthless, fastidious but careless, lofty yet devious-a man, in short, crying out to be misunderstood. Contemporaries duly obliged; so has posterity."
With this kind of writing, I must recommend this book highly. Just have a bookmark available because it is necessary to keep flipping back and forth to the maps. Just where is Benkulen anyway?