This Private Company had its Own Army, Navy, and Empire for Over a Century

This Private Company had its Own Army, Navy, and Empire for Over a Century

Larry Holzwarth - October 29, 2019

This Private Company had its Own Army, Navy, and Empire for Over a Century
Charles Cornwallis, an Earl when he was defeated by Washington, was made a Marquess following his service with the EIC. Wikimedia

21. Charles Cornwallis instituted reforms which benefited the company and institutionalized racism

Charles Cornwallis (who surrendered the British Army at Yorktown during the American Revolutionary War) arrived as governor-general of India and initiated reforms which affected company operations both in trade and administration. He removed the Indians from the company’s employ and had the Hindu and Muslim laws translated into English. In 1793 he imposed the Cornwallis Code, which established the British as the top of the imposed class structure which recognized both caste and religious hierarchies. He also changed the means of tax collection on property through a reform called the Permanent Settlement. Landowners were taxed based on the value of the land, whereas previously taxes were based on the income the land produced.

Cornwallis believed the changes would benefit the tenant landholders as much as the land owners, because improvements made by tenants would enhance the value held by the owner. Instead, the Permanent Settlement did the opposite, the landowners were left free to abuse the tenants by claiming for themselves as much of the crops from the land as they wished, since the produce of the land was no longer subject to taxation. Cornwallis led the EIC troops in the Third Anglo-Mysore War (1790-1792) which further expanded the holdings of the EIC through conquest, and for which Cornwallis was elevated in the British peerage to a Marquess for his success.

This Private Company had its Own Army, Navy, and Empire for Over a Century
East Indiamen built in India were used for the opium smuggling to China, as well as trade with other Asian ports. Wikimedia

22. Ships were built in India for the China trade, and banned from British ports

The EIC used Indian labor and design under the supervision of British officers to build many of the ships used for the China trade. The vessels were built and crewed by Indian sailors, out of mostly teak hulls and decks. The trade between India and China was dominated by such ships for the century between the mid-17 and mid-18th. The ships were built to be fast while carrying large cargoes, and sturdy enough to mount guns for protection against pirates. It was in these vessels that the opium smuggling into China began, and the vessels returned bearing Chinese silks, tea, and other commodities for trade.

The great tea clippers which had their heyday in the first half of the 19th century were built to support the tea trade, when speed was of the essence. Clippers were built by all maritime nations, but their hulls, designed for speed, were unable to carry enough cargo to make them profitable, other than in the tea and spices trades. The EIC built ships to carry its goods in India and Great Britain, though the vessels built in India were banned from entering British and European ports, limiting their use to the Indian Oceans and the South Pacific.

This Private Company had its Own Army, Navy, and Empire for Over a Century
Armed merchantmen and purpose-built warships were the core of the EIC Navy, which fought in several wars. Wikimedia

23. The modern Indian Navy has its roots in the East India Company

India has a long naval tradition, which existed before the arrival of the English, French, and Dutch, but the modern Indian Navy’s roots can be traced to the East India Company in the 1600s. In 1612 the EIC built a port facility at Suvali, a small village near Surat, to support a navy to protect commerce from piracy. The naval force was formalized as the Honourable East India Company’s Marine in September, 1612. The small navy was kept busy dealing with pirates along the coast and in river estuaries, and during its patrols, its officers, who were British employees of the EIC, charted much of the Indian and Chinese coasts.

In 1686, the navy had outgrown the port of Suvali, and the force’s headquarters was moved to Bombay and renamed the Bombay Marine. From 1824 – 1826 the Bombay Marine fought in the First Anglo-Burmese War, a conflict between the EIC and Burma, which ended in a victory for the EIC and territorial expansion in Burma. At the end of the war, which was not the end of EIC territorial expansion, the British East India Company – a private company – had its own army, its own navy, had conquered territory in its own name, and controlled half of the world’s trade, from an office building in London.

This Private Company had its Own Army, Navy, and Empire for Over a Century
The bloody Sepoy Rebellion in 1857 precipitated the end of the British East India Company. Wikimedia

24. The Great Rebellion of 1857 brought the company to its end

In 1857 troops of the EIC throughout India rose in rebellion against their British masters. The troops – known as Sepoys – gave the rebellion its most widely used name the Sepoy Mutiny. In India, it is known as the First War of Independence. At the time of the rebellion, more than 300,000 Sepoys were in the EIC armies, which were divided into three separate entities, the Bombay Army, Madras Army, and the Bengal Army. About 50,000 British troops were divided between the three armies, also employed by the EIC. The Bengal Army contained a large number of Sepoys who were higher-caste natives. The rebellion began in the Bengal Army.

It was rapidly and brutally suppressed by the EIC using Sepoy troops which remained loyal to the EIC. During the rebellion, religious strife emerged and massacres of prisoners and civilians were frequent. Atrocities were perpetrated by all sides and were widely reported in the press in Great Britain, where sentiment against the Indians hardened. But in the aftermath of the rebellion, sentiment turned against the EIC and its administration of India. In August, 1858, the British government enacted the Government of India act of 1858, transferring the control of India to the British Crown.

This Private Company had its Own Army, Navy, and Empire for Over a Century
A formal ceremony witnessing control of India passing from the East India Company to Queen Victoria, Empress of India. Wikimedia

25. The end of the British East India Company

Queen Victoria added the title Empress of India to her stylings, and the period known as the British Raj began in India following the Sepoy Rebellion. Most of the East India Company bureaucracy remained in place, though no longer employed by the company. The company itself remained in existence for another fifteen years, administering the tea trade for the British government, though it no longer had a monopoly. It also assumed the role of keeping the British outpost at St. Helena supplied, due to its importance to British ships and as a source of saltpeter, an essential component of gunpowder.

It was dissolved formally in 1874 by acts of Parliament. The company’s army and navy were absorbed by their counterparts under the British Crown. The Bombay Marine became Her Majesty’s Indian Navy. Most of the policies of the EIC regarding its military arm remained in effect under the Raj, as did those of the administration for some time. British influence continued to expand in the Indies through the middle of the 20th century, when Indian independence was finally granted as the British Empire broke apart in the aftermath of World War II.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia, 1600 – 1834”. Anthony Farrington. 2002

“The East India Company: The original corporate raiders”. William Dalrymple, The Guardian. March 4, 2015

“The British East India Company: The Company that Owned a Nation (or Two)”. George P. Landow, Professor of History, Brown University. Online

“The Anarchy – The Relentless Rise of the East India Company”. William Dalrymple. 2019

“The East India Company: A History”. Philip Lawson. 1993

“The world’s first multinational”. Nick Robins, New Statesman. December 13, 2004

“East India Company: Its History and Results”. Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune. July 11, 1853. Online

“The East India Company: 1784 – 1834”. C. H. Philips. 1961

“Company Curiosities: nature, culture, and the East India Company, 1600 – 1874”. Arthur MacGregor. 2019

“Lords of the East: The East India Company and its Ships”. Jean Sutton. 1981

“East India Company”. Entry, UCLA Social Sciences, MANAS. Online

“The Chinese Opium Wars”. Jack Beeching. 1975

“Warren Hastings and British India”. Penderel Moon. 1949

“The Great Mutiny: India 1857”. Christopher Hibbert. 1980

“The Aftermath of Revolt: India, 1857 – 1870”. Thomas R. Metcalf