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Traders and British Raj


Lakshmi Subramanian

FOUNDATIONS FOR EMPIRE: ENGLISH PRIVATE TRADE IN INDIA 1659-1760
By Ian Bruce Watson
Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1980, pp. xiv 384, Rs. 125.00

VOLUME V NUMBER 6 May/June 1981

The increasing interest of historians in re-defining the nature and aspects of early British commercial interaction with the Indian sub-continent has found expression in a number of important publications. Among these the works of Holden Furber, Ashin Dasgupta and Pamela Nightingale have served effec­tively to highlight the intricacies and complexities of the Anglo-Indian inte­rrelation and the responses of the Indian merchants to its implications. One is made increasingly aware of the impor­tance of the private trade of the English East India Company Servants in the 18th century, in the general commercial and political processes of the period. The steady expansion of private trading interests entailed among other things voluntary and involuntary partnership with local traders and seamen. It is ironical that our understanding of the nature and dynamics of the English East India Company's private trade and of the emerging Anglo-Indian partnership (for want of a better word) has been for the most part limited if not obscure. Furber's work on the Bombay Pre­sidency in the mid-18th century raises queries for which no answers can be had, as the author himself confesses. Night­ingale's work on the other hand demon­strates just how powerful private trading interests had become in the last decades of the 18th century, and how these by virtue of their own logic and momentum propelled the corporate body to assume the political offensive in Malabar and Gujarat. How these 'private trade' inter­ests had come to be and the direction these assumed in the period between the mid 17th and mid 18th centuries—the gestation period so to speak, has re­mained an area of enquiry among his­torians and researchers. Ian Bruce Watson's book is concerned with pre­cisely this and fills the much felt gap in our knowledge of the subject. The scope of Watson's book is confined to an ex­amination of the complexities involved in the commercial and later political inter­action between Britain and India bet­ween 1658 and 1760. That the flag followed trade and that the Empire had but a logical step from fort to feitoria is a well-known theme. What is perhaps not so well known is that the servants of the English East India Company in their private and unofficial capacity as traders in their systematic pursuit of commercial interests forced on them­selves and more important on their employers—the Company in India, ...


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