The Worst Things The Honourable East India Company Ever Got Up To

The Honourable East India Company (EIC), founded in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I, laid the foundation for future global domination by the British. Over its two-and-a-half-century tenure, the EIC set up shop around the word, establishing trade monopolies and a reputation of ruthlessness. The company carried out some less-than-honorable acts in the process, however, with torture, extortion, bribery, and manipulation being fundamental to its success. For its part, the British government was able to slowly take over the East India Company and piggy-back on its efforts as it established the British Empire. 

  • The EIC Reportedly Offered The Sultan Of Achin A British Virgin For His Harem
    Photo: Dutch geographer/engraver Olfert Dapper, 1680 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The EIC Reportedly Offered The Sultan Of Achin A British Virgin For His Harem

    As the British sought to out-explore and out-control other European countries, the East India Company used any means necessary to influence, control, and compel the governments they met to trade with them. In the early years of the 17th century, merchants from the EIC were purported to have offered the Sultan of Achin on the island of Sumatra a British virgin for his harem. King James I reportedly stepped in and stopped the exchange before it could happen, however.

  • The EIC Used Propaganda To Justify Conflicts With The Dutch
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The EIC Used Propaganda To Justify Conflicts With The Dutch

    The "big three" in terms of exploration during the early 17th century - England, the Netherlands, and Portugal - competed heavily for land, trade rights, wealth and power. The Portuguese fell by the wayside pretty early on, which left the main rivalry between the East India Company of the British and the Dutch United East Indies Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Dutch, or VOC) to heat up quickly. The EIC and VOC engaged in military skirmishes - something both were empowered to do, given their mandates - but the war of words was just as vicious.

    As part of this, the British, who were falling behind in the spice trade in the region, kicked off a propaganda campaign that destroyed the reputation of the Dutch in England and throughout Europe. In the 1630s, British pamphlets alleged horrible atrocities, described acts of extreme brutality, and contained images aimed at enraging the public.

    In 1652, after England passed the Navigation Act meant to give the British an upper hand on sea trade, Oliver Cromwell ordered the pamphlet reprinted to justify going to war with the Dutch. The First Anglo-Dutch War, the first of four that took place during the 17th and 18th centuries, helped establish the dominance of the EIC in maritime commercial trade and imperial dominance. 

  • The EIC Facilitated Opium Addiction In China
    Photo: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The EIC Facilitated Opium Addiction In China

    China was resistant to opening its ports and borders to European traders during 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but the British were determined to change that. In 1672, the EIC secured a trade headquarters in Taiwan and were soon able to venture to other Chinese ports to exchange goods.

    During the 18th century, the EIC established a monopoly of trade in the East Indies, trading wool and Indian cotton for tea and silk. There was an imbalance of trade, however, as the Chinese needed far fewer British items than the British desired. As a result, the revenue stream of the British waned, and they turned to producing more opium in India. Opium, a crop used for medicinal purposes, was exclusively under the authority of the EIC. 

    Opium was banned in China in 1729 as an illegal drug and became a heavily moved underground product - in 1838, the opium black market's estimated value was in the millions. When the EIC lost its trade monopoly in China in 1833, numerous British companies began to import massive amounts of opium and traded opium instead of silver for Chinese goods.

    Because opium was readily available, in large part due to the support from the EIC, more and more opium made its way into China - often via India - leading to widespread addiction, illegal use, and what many argued was social decay.

  • The EIC Bribed Anyone Who Could Get Them What They Wanted
    Photo: National Portrait Gallery / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The EIC Bribed Anyone Who Could Get Them What They Wanted

    In 1757, British general Sir Robert Clive fought against the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey. The Nawab, a semi-independent leader in the east of India, was defeated and replaced with a puppet nawab, one more willing to let the British trade and control the area than his predecessor.

    The treachery of the battle itself, however, was rooted in the bribes Clive's military paid to Mir Jafar, one of the high commanders of Nawab Siraj-uh-Daulah, as well as to the other Bengali soldiers. They were paid to stop fighting, surrender, turn on their fellow soldiers, and even join the British.

    After the battle, Mir Jafar was made the next Nawab of Bengal. From this point forward, Clive essentially controlled Bengal.