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The Business of Empire

Review by: Gregory Harper University of Texas at Austin

The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1750- 1840Huw V. Bowen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 304 pages

Lest potential readers be wary of yet another book on the East India Company, rest assured that H.V. Bowen’s latest monograph does bring something new to the field. Its focus on the company itself sets this book apart from the literature: this business history traces the changes to the company as it transitioned “from trader to sovereign”. The period under study begins with the Company’s acquisition of Bengal in 1756, through the final loss of its commercial trading privileges in 1833. As the influence of free trade economics grew stronger in England, the East India Company moved from monopolistic trade with Asia to ‘the business of empire’, expanding its territorial holdings into what would become Britain’s Indian Empire.

Bowen does not describe the events on the periphery, rather he depicts how the Company (and the metropole) perceived and reacted to those events. The Board of Directors may have been wary of increased military ventures and land acquisitions, but the Company’s correspondence demonstrated its inability to reign in officials in India with any reliability. Still, the actions of those men on the spot forced reactions from the Company, as did political influences from multiple Regulating, India, and Charter Acts, and further external circumstances including the War of American Independence. As the Company enjoyed a prominence in the public eye comparable to that of the Bank of England, investors sought larger shareholdings, more people tried to gain influential positions on the Board, and Parliament looked to increase its control and oversight of the Company’s activities in Asia. Bowen organizes the analysis thematically, discussing in successive chapters the Company’s relationships with Britain and the government; the people involved with the Company, investors then employees; and then the Company’s methods of governance and trade. The chapter on record-keeping is especially illuminating as to how the Company struggled to meet the pressures of its growing responsibilities, as well as stave off further parliamentary encroachment, and adapt to society’s changing business climate. A concluding chapter usefully describes the Company’s wider influence on the British economy.

In the preface Bowen unapologetically offers this “old-fashioned study of institutional change”. Indeed, no apology is necessary, for this book stands as an excellent resource on a surprisingly neglected topic. Bowen has published extensively on the East India Company and the relationship between business and empire, and his comfort in this area of historiography is apparent. This text, however, presumes some familiarity with the histories of India and the British Empire, although readers do not need special economic or business knowledge. The book does not provide a chronology or a bibliography, but footnotes offer readers plentiful guidance for further studies.

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