Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
Most people today have heard of the British East India Company (EIC) even though it closed its doors in 1833. From 1600 until its demise, it profoundly impacted not just England but the world. Its vessels made more than 4,000 voyages between London and Asia, brought exotic imports of tea, porcelain, and textiles home, and devised a complex system of trade that brought other peoples under British rule. Monsoon Traders, a companion book to the National Maritime Museum’s new permanent gallery “Traders: the East India Company and Asia” (NMM), explores the history of the EIC through a series of essays generously illustrated with gorgeous color photographs of artifacts and paintings from the museum’s collection.
John McAleer, Curator of Imperial and Maritime History at the NMM, pens the introduction, which is a concise and well-written overview of how the EIC came to be, its early trading days, and the company’s maritime world, which incorporated not only the actual business of trade, but also diplomacy and war. He also writes the second chapter “Places far remote . . . cause much expectation” that covers two centuries of encounters and diplomacy in Asia. This chapter also looks at how England received the strange and exotic offerings from the regions. His chapter four, “In trade as in warfare,” examines the conflicts and conquests that occurred in the Indian Ocean between 1600 and 1815. This chapter includes a section on piracy and how it impacted the trade routes the EIC used. Among the pirates mentioned are the Barbary corsairs, the Angrians, and William Kidd.
H. V. Bowen is Professor of Modern History at Swansea University and one of his special research areas is the EIC. He writes the first chapter, “Uncertain Beginnings,” which discusses the EIC from 1600 to 1709. One of the key points this essay, and the book, focuses on is that on entering Asian waters, unlike those of the New World, “they entered a very different extended maritime space that was already defined by the existence of a series of long-standing, complex and interconnected regional maritime economies.” (24) This presented unexpected challenges and kept them at arm’s distance rather than permitting them to control and influence the region’s development. The other point that Bowen brings out is the fact that while we think of the EIC as a well-developed monopoly, that description didn’t apply to the early days of the company.
“The most illustrious and most flourishing commercial organization that ever existed” is also written by Bowen and focuses on the EIC empire from 1709 through 1833, a time when the company became “a sovereign as well as a trader” and “corruption and misrule” eventually filtered back to England. One intriguing element of this chapter is his examination of East India house, which includes the building itself as well as its sphere of influence on London and its people. This section includes a painting by William Daniel that depicts the fascinating contrast between Western architecture and waters filled with junks and other Asian watercraft in Canton. Bowen also discusses the actual voyages and the dangers and conditions seamen endured while sailing for the EIC.
The final chapter, “Smoke, and flame, and thunder,” examines the demise of the EIC and its legacies. It is written by Robert J. Blyth, who is also a Curator of Imperial and Maritime History at the NMM. He begins with the loss of the EIC’s charter and its monopoly on trade with Asia, then explores the First China War, anti-piracy campaigns and the Second China War, the Indian Mutiny, the final days of the company, and how technology impacted trade with Asia.
Nearly every page includes artwork, and the book opens with two maps. The first depicts the EIC’s maritime world from 1600-1858, while the second focuses on India, China, and Indonesia. Each chapter ends with a conclusion, and the book contains notes, a bibliography for further reading, and an index. Monsoon Traders is a clear and absorbing look at the EIC and offers readers a succinct and rewarding introduction to the company and its influence and impact on the world.
Learn more about John McAleer
Review Copyrighted ©2012 Cindy Vallar
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