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Trading Into the Indies : THE HONOURABLE COMPANY: A History of the English East India Company, By John Keay (Macmillan: $25; 474 pp.)

July 10, 1994|Alexander Frater | Frater is chief travel correspondent of the London "Observer." His book "Chasing the Monsoon" is published by Owl Books

The seed from which the British Empire sprang was an obscure, tiny, wretchedly malarial island lying at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. Its name, Pulo Run, sounds like a consequence of having eaten bad curries, yet it once carried such resonance that James I chose to style himself "King of England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Puloroon" (Pulo Run). Even the pragmatic eye of Cromwell took on a feverish glitter when it was mentioned. Send a shipload of good Presbyterian settlers, he commanded, with chickens and goats; it must be ours for eternity. (They were dispatched but, fortunately for them, never got there).

What excited the Brits were a few acres of nutmeg gardens. On Pulo Run 10 pounds of nutmeg cost half a penny. In Europe it retailed for 1.60--a profit of 32,000%. Europeans craved the stuff; nutmeg street values, reminiscent of those commanded by certain forbidden substances today, led a group of English speculators, in 1600, to form themselves into "The Company of Merchants of London Trading Into the East Indies."

They came together to exploit the spices market and, almost inadvertently, changed the world. Indeed, they would eventually come to regard themselves as "the Grandest Society of Merchants in the Universe" creating their own army, navy and civil service, laying down their own laws, issuing their own currency. No multinational is likely to wield that kind of power again.

John Keay, a British historian with several outstanding books on India to his credit, has been following the Company's Indian path since the Sixties. "The Honourable Company" was a surprise bestseller in England--corporate histories don't usually make the lists--and it's not hard to see why. Keay has managed to produce both a formidable work of scholarship and a ripping yarn. His story, peopled by a remarkable cast of characters, pulses with life and incident. The saga of the Honourable Company is an adventure tale on an epic scale.

Though it started in spices, the Company soon diversified into anything likely to enrich the shareholders--cotton, salt, tea, silk, saltpeter. Tiny Pulo Run soon found itself on the back burner. There were bigger fish to fry.

Its activities encouraged the insular Brits to think, for the first time, of global possibilities. And the problems they encountered along the way, ranging from matters of high statecraft to personal dilemmas (a Company man locked in a Turkish "dogge's kennell" escaped by floating out to sea in an empty water butt) created a body of experience useful to the creation of empire.

At home they assembled the apparatus that would one day service its building the first London docks, creating the London money market. Abroad they were everywhere--in the American Colonies, China, Japan and the South Seas, starting sheep stations in Australia, failing to start the first European settlement in Southern Africa. (Ten condemned men awaiting execution in Newgate prison were put ashore in Capetown's Table Bay but, after only a few months begged to be taken home and hanged.) They traded through Burma and Malaya, opened up the coffee ports of the Red Sea, investigated Thailand.

But the country with which their name will forever be associated, and which forms the core of Keay's book is, of course, India.

In 1609 Capt. William Hawkins landed on the Bombay coast and journeyed to the Moghul court at Agra, Jehangir, the Emperor, took a shine to the Englishman, made him a khan, put him on the palace payroll and invited him to take a wife. Hawkins was appalled. He wanted Indian trading rights, not an Indian spouse and, blustering, told Jehangir he could only marry a Christian. To his horror Jehangir promptly produced one, an Armenian "mayden" whose father had died "leaving her 'only a few jewels.' " Hawkins, a loyal Company man, gritted his teeth, endured the nuptials, won the Company its first foothold on the subcontinent.

They established a settlement at Bombay, drained the swamps, built a city boasting a hospital, an Anglican Church, a Supreme Court (which impaneled India's first juries) and a mint "to turn the Company's bullion exports into ruppes, xeraphins, shahls, and all the other exotic denominations then in use." They founded Calcutta and Madras, both frightful places--the latter rendered hideously dangerous by the seas one had to negotiate to get ashore.

You had to slightly crazy to volunteer for Madras. In 1656 an open boat carrying Company personnel (including the captains of three East India ships) capsized as they sat reclining "verie merrie in discourse." But the upturned boat contained an air pocket; after two hours inside they tore off their clothes and swam for it. Sixteen perished in the undertow but the survivors, even in this hard-nosed Company town, encountered unexpected acts of kindness. The captains were running stark naked down a road when, one recalled later, he happened upon "a good Dutchman who lent me his hat and his slippers."

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