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Company calling

It was British historian Lord Seely who coined the famous phrase that “India was conquered in a fit of absentmindedness’. Nick Robins begs to disagree. The fund manager turned author has an entirely different explanation: “The East India Company was doing what we would want any company to do, maximise profits. It got a windfall profit from conquest.”

Consider some little known facts: between 1758 and 1769, the share price of the East India Company more than doubled. But the bull-run in the company’s stocks came to an abrupt end when the British lost ground against Haidar Ali in the sub-continent. Its fortunes dipped so badly at that point that four years later it wasn’t able to pay a dividend.

Indian history is usually looked at in terms of politics or personalities. But fund manager Robins has brought his own special perspective to the events of that time in his book, The Corporation That Changed the World: How the East India Company shaped the Modern Multinational.

He looks at India and the sub-continent through the company that started it all. He has looked at share price movements and the corporate compulsions that powered events in India. Says Robins: “I’ve looked at it as a corporation. That’s an angle that hasn’t been studied often.”

What was it that attracted Robins to the East India Company' Partly, it was the fact that its doings and achievements have been almost erased from public memory in Britain. Walk down Leadenhall Street in the City of London and there’s barely a sign of the giant corporation that once dominated the throughfare and even English public life.

That, combined with the fact that he has an Indian wife, turned his thoughts to the sub-continent and the way that Britain and India had been intertwined for over two centuries. But Robins was also looking at it from the point of view of a manager who’s deeply entrenched in the modern corporate world.

In his daily life, he supervises the investments of what are called ‘ethical’ funds at British fund manager, Henderson Global Investors. Ethical funds, for instance, do not invest in cigarette companies or armaments makers. Also, they look at factors like a company’s environmental and labour records. Says Robins: “It can be tough to get managers to pull out of a stock if there’s a danger of losing money on the deal.”

He didn’t give up his ‘day job’ as a fund manager. But during evenings, weekends and holidays, Robins burrowed into the archives and stepped back into earlier centuries. As he worked, he was constantly trying to link his research to modern corporations (the Enron scandal had just broken at the time) and the rules that ensure they behave in an ethical fashion.

The company itself was the subject of constant debate in Britain and there were always voices who criticised its actions. Adam Smith for instance, who is always dragged out to defend unbridled capitalism, was a strong critic of the company and felt that its powers should be curtailed. That itself, says Robins, should be a subject of debate considering the fact that Adam Smith is always dragged out to defend the corporate world nowadays. Others like James Fox and Charles Burke also led blistering attacks on the company.

The company, of course, had plenty of other enemies. For a start, it represented the merchants of London against others like the merchants of ports like Bristol and Liverpool. With the clout of the London merchants, it won the exclusive right for trade with Asia. It was given exclusive rights because in those days trading with Asia was a very risky affair.

But the company had powerful friends including King George III. And throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, the battles went on as the company extended its hold both in India and on British life. It was also one of the pioneers of shareholder rights and interests.

So, did the East India Company live up to the high standards that we expect from modern corporations' Robins doesn’t like to give a cut-and-dried answer, but there’s little doubt about which way his feelings lie. To give one example, he concurs with earlier historians that the company was almost certainly responsible for the Bengal Famine in the 1770s because it hiked taxes in a bid to extract more revenue from its new dominions. “It had administrative control but its focus was on making money,” he says.

Then, there was the opium trade which was indefensible even by the standards of that time. The company was, of course, always engaged in a delicate balancing act between tea and cloth, spices and opium and between North America, China and India.

It’s hardly surprising that the company couldn’t continue always balance profit and its newfound empire. But Robins points out that the company didn’t actually die in 1857 after the Mutiny, as most people think. It continued in a half-life till 1874. But by then history had already passed it by.

Photograph by Rupinder Sharma

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