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Just over 400 years ago, a group of London merchants arrived
here on the Indian coast hoping to do some peaceful trading.
Those early pioneers dreamt of making huge profits.
From humble beginnings, this rag-tag band of adventurers
secured land from Indian rulers,
formed alliances with local craftsmen
and built from scratch a commercial enterprise
to export goods to Britain.
The East India Company was part of this tremendous
globalisation of the world
which really started in the 17th century,
and speeded up in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Over 200 years, the company grew into a commercial titan.
Its wealth rivalled that of the British state.
It had its own army,
and eventually ruled over 400 million people.
Its trade was vital to Britain's commercial success
and its shares were the centre point of London's financial markets.
It revolutionised the British lifestyle.
The East India Company changed the way we dress,
it changed the way we eat,
it changed the way we socialise.
And, by accident, created one of the most powerful empires in history.
They were instrumental in making Britain THE maritime superpower.
They helped lay the foundations for our own global trading system today
and they also helped to make English the world's language.
Every step of the company's rise is recorded in a unique archive.
"What a lucky fellow you are, Charley, going to India -
"you lead such a luxurious life!
"Why, you dog, when you come home you will be a rich man."
But the letters and diaries also chart its fall into profiteering,
nepotism and corruption.
"Every ancient friend of the family
"hoped I should live to be a major general."
And eventually a chilling story of drug-running and famine.
"Numbers of famishing wretches followed our army
"for the sole purpose of existing on the offal of the camp."
This is the story of the greatest company the world has ever known.
This is where it all started.
On December 31st, 1600,
The East India Company was established by royal charter
and granted a monopoly on trade with the East by Queen Elizabeth I.
It was the beginning of a new age in Britain's history -
an age of speculation and profit,
enterprise and competition.
Capitalism would change forever
the lives of its people and politics.
Trade would make Britain great
and turn London into the richest city in the world.
The company built a series of massive warehouses
across the City of London to store its goods.
There was Lime Street,
Fenchurch Street, Seething Lane.
Then when they filled up,
they built more warehouses near the Tower of London
and here on Cutler Street.
These buildings were filled with muslins, calicos and silks
from India and the Orient.
Thanks to the East India Company,
exotic goods like spices from Indonesia,
tea and porcelain from China,
became part of everyday life.
Every year, huge merchant ships of the East India Company,
known as East Indiamen,
would leave from right here, loaded down with silver bullion
and British merchandise,
heading up the Thames and out to sea to trade with the East.
On board were young men filled with hope.
Who they were and what happened to them
are questions we can now answer.
Thousands of them left behind
an extraordinary record of their daily lives in documents
now held at the British Library.
"Snakes have been found in the beds
"where gentlemen were about to repose.
"A lady was called in by her servant to see a snake
"that lay contentedly between two of her infants
"while sleeping in a small cot.
"This perilous situation produced the utmost anxiety."
In following their dreams,
these young men would inadvertently forge an empire.
"Wealth and honour will pour upon me
"and to crown my felicity, some high-born damsel
"will eventually become my wife."
An empire that would create thousands of winners,
but millions of losers.
"The vulture rising reluctantly from its bloody banquet
"flapped its broad wings in anger and joined the wild chorus
"with discordant cries."
Wills, diaries, letters - more than 100,000 manuscripts -
fill nine miles of shelving.
The letters and diaries of the people who lived and died
under the company's flag
are the lost voices of the East India Company.
Historian Robert Hutchinson has spent six years studying them.
There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of wills
of company employees, and all of them give insight
into life working for the company.
Most of these documents have never been seen before.
They put us in direct contact with the men and women of the company -
a unique glimpse of our social history.
They're very graphic accounts of the attitudes
and the beliefs and the commitment
to the lives they'd made for themselves in India.
They are extraordinarily graphic.
You've been through all of them?
Not all of them, but it's a lifetime's work.
They're just fragments of personal testimony.
But pieced together, they paint a vivid portrait
of daily life in the service of the Honourable Company.
Armed with these letters and diaries I'm going on a journey
to retrace the footsteps of this band of adventurers,
charting the rise and fall of the world's greatest company.
One country above all would play a pre-eminent role in that story...
..and become the jewel in the company's crown -
Our story began in 1639 at an unlikely spot on the east coast.
A place that became known as Madraspatnam.
When the company arrived here
it wasn't pursuing dreams of conquest or empire,
but looking for a secure base from which to conduct trade,
and one of its employees, Francis Day,
was convinced that this was the right spot.
And with good reason.
This is the Coromandel Coast -
a name synonymous with diamonds, pearls and the finest cotton.
In mid-17th century Europe,
Indian cotton was the height of fashion.
It was cheap, colourful and hard-wearing.
A fortune could be made exporting it.
Francis Day claimed a section of beach and set up shop.
Though he may have had other things on his mind.
This lusty young man had a girlfriend nearby
and he was keen to see her as often as possible.
He even threatened to resign unless the company accepted his suggestion.
Not for the last time, human history turned on an affair of the heart.
But this was hardly the place to start a trading post.
A dangerous sand bar,
just off the coast, would cause ships to capsize or run aground.
And if you made it ashore...
it wasn't much better!
"They have no drinkable water within a mile of them,
"the sea often threatening destruction on one side,
"and the river in the rainy season
"inundations on the other.
"The sun from April to September scorching hot.
"Madraspatnam is one of the most incommodious places I ever saw."
Incommodious or not,
the company had established a vital foothold in south India -
and began to trade.
They brought in what was the chief product of this area
from their point of view -
weavers and dyers to manufacture hand-loom cloth.
And this was the biggest export from here.
Within a year, 300 Bengali weavers had set up shop,
alongside a motley crew of publicans and prostitutes.
A handful of Englishmen were busy exporting cloth and spices
back home for sale in London -
much to the delight of the company's shareholders.
They could send their ships out here, fill the holds with spices,
and hopefully return rich men.
It was a very lucrative trade -
one that had been exploited by other European powers
for quite a long time now.
But, by making a monopoly,
they could ensure there'd be no domestic opposition
to threaten the shareholders' profits.
Even so, the company's investors were taking a huge gamble.
Each voyage could take two years or more -
a long and tense wait to see a return on investment.
Along the way there would be
potential loss of ships through storms.
There could be piracy,
there could be conquest by local rulers, etc, etc...
So this was a very high-risk venture.
But one that paid dividends from the beginning.
When company ships first returned from the East Indies in 1607,
investors had hit the jackpot.
Ah. That single voyage netted an absolutely vast amount of money
because of these... cloves!
A single cargo of this ensured that the investors made a 230% profit,
bringing them £36,000 -
that's tens of millions in today's money.
It's hard to comprehend just how much of a revolution this was.
Something that we now take for granted.
Used in medicine as a painkiller,
cloves were so highly prized
they were literally worth their weight in gold.
With the construction of a warehouse
and several homes, the company was turning three miles of beach
into commercial real estate.
Trade was valuable, so they protected their new settlement
with a stockade and called it
Fort St George.
The original Fort St George was built on this spot.
Now it's been massively strengthened and enlarged over the years,
but it took 14 years to build,
and the East India Company directors bitterly complained of the cost.
But this was like a big security barrier for their warehouse.
Madras was the springboard for expansion.
Within 50 years, the company was building two further settlements -
which they called Bombay and Calcutta.
These three urban centres
certainly owe their existence
to the East India Company.
They didn't exist before.
They grew out of small trading posts which were gradually fortified,
became more residential,
Indian communities moved in servicing the needs
of the company and British trade.
And, yeah, absolutely crucial.
In the early years, these three forts had very small garrisons.
About 550 men were serving here at Fort George
in what was then Madras.
Less than half of them were European troops,
the rest of them were locally recruited Indians.
The merchants were here to trade, not fight.
The trouble was, this was a dangerous place to do business.
Competition from other European traders was fierce.
Skirmishes were common.
Thick walls were a necessary precaution.
When you come up here to this battlement
you get such a sense of the defensive power of this fort.
Look at these walls - they're comfortably 30m thick.
Sloping here, so that any cannonballs incoming
will bounce harmlessly over the heads of the defenders.
And each of these embrasures here - these V-shaped embrasures -
would've had a big heavy cannon,
and these cannonballs would have flown out through here,
an interlocking field of fire,
making sure that anyone approaching these fort walls
would have been obliterated.
It's an incredibly tough position to take.
With the consent of the local Indian ruler,
the settlement grew rapidly.
By 1700, Madraspatnam had become a bustling town
with 80,000 inhabitants.
Trade was booming.
Goods were now flooding back from here to Britain,
and were having a profound effect on the British lifestyle.
Can I have a single tea, please?
It was the beginning of new kinds of diets -
of choice, of consumerism.
People could now choose to have sugar from the West Indies,
pepper from India.
It was also the start of the Brits' obsession with hot drinks -
tea and coffee arrived for the first time.
Thanks very much.
Gingham, silk, muslin, calico...
Back in Britain, the company was importing a cavalcade
of rich new fabrics.
Bowled over by the exquisite skill of India's craftsmen,
the British public went crazy.
18th century Indian textiles
held at London's Victoria and Albert Museum
reveal that an impressive range of techniques
were used in their manufacture.
All these objects are made of chintz, which is basically
cotton which has been hand-painted
rather than printed.
The Indians managed to find ways of dyeing cotton
so the colours remained brilliant and were colour-fast,
so that was very exciting for people in the West.
Cheap, washable and hard-wearing -
they made a huge impact.
Less formal clothing became acceptable and fashionable.
And it certainly worried the British textile industry,
because they were very fearful that there would be no demand
for their own wool and linen products.
And, at one point, it caused such a sensation,
and so much fear amongst the silk workers,
that they tore the clothes off people's backs.
-Because they thought their livelihoods were threatened.
It was that dramatic.
Company merchants were quick to respond
to the consumers' changing tastes.
The East India Company would report back regularly
after every shipment to Britain from India,
saying, "Well, we liked this, but these didn't sell so well."
And, "Could you do more of the floral sprigs?"
Or, "Could you do of more of this colour?"
"The long cloth you sent us proved so very coarse,
"ill-washed and packed,
"that it is unfit to be sent home.
"Our money is much better than such trash!"
The British retail fashion industry was born.
Pyjamas, bandanas, dungarees -
dozens of new words entered the English dictionary.
Demand for Indian textiles was so great
it threatened to destroy Britain's industry.
"Everything that used to be made of wool or silk,
"relating to either the dress of women,
"or the furniture of our houses,
"was supplied by the India trade."
The Government even passed a law to ban people
from wearing Indian textiles.
But it didn't work - testimony to the rising power of the consumer.
Over the next 100 years, sales of Indian textiles
would generate 60% of the company's income.
By 1700, it was operating 22 trading posts across India.
Calcutta was one of the biggest.
The company's star was rising fast.
But investors were about to be handed a commercial opportunity
beyond their wildest expectations.
For 200 years, India had been part of a vast empire
ruled by a powerful dynasty.
The Mughals had imposed a centralised government,
built imposing monuments,
and unified the country with a road system and single currency.
The population was huge compared with Britain's -
it was about 140 million,
and Britain then had about four million.
Erm, the economic position
was it was the second largest economy in the world,
with about 25% of the world's GDP.
For the first few decades,
the mighty Mughals barely even noticed the East India Company.
The British didn't cause trouble,
and besides, they paid good money.
The Mughal Empire had a tax on imports of bullion,
so they were doing quite well out of the company,
bringing in all this silver and gold.
They were also selling the company trading concessions,
and wherever they were able to set up factories,
they had to pay for it.
So it was quite a good sort of source of income for the Empire.
But, in 1707, the Mughal Empire began to disintegrate.
When the last great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, died,
his successors were unable to hold his empire together,
and power devolved into a patchwork of competing regional states.
Obsessed with its own problems, therefore,
the empire didn't have time to worry about
the little old East India Company.
Amid the confusion, a deal was signed.
In exchange for an annual fee,
the East India Company was granted
the right to trade - duty-free - across the state of Bengal.
No gift could have been greater.
Company merchants previously restricted to the coast
could now do business across an entire province.
And as the Mughal Empire weakened further,
the company expanded.
The East India Company was sucked into this vacuum.
It would back one local claimant to a throne against another.
And in return for its support,
it would be given little land holdings or trading concessions.
That meant, within decades, the East India Company was becoming
a sovereign entity in its own right.
It had the power to raise revenue,
to make war and peace,
to mint its own coins, to administer justice.
The East India Company was becoming a state.
A state that, by 1800,
would rule 140 million people across 94,000 square miles
and command an army a quarter of a million strong -
all controlled by 159 civil servants in a London office
some 14,000 miles away.
Their headquarters, East India House,
has long since disappeared under this towering structure -
the Lloyd's building.
It was from here that the company was run.
As its ships scoured the world's oceans,
they were controlled by directors elected by shareholders,
who were known collectively as the Court of Directors.
There would be weekly board meetings of their directors.
There'd be quarterly auctions of the company's products,
and then annual general meetings
which would often be ferocious affairs
where shareholders would be fighting over the size of the dividend.
TRADING FLOOR HUBBUB
Share dealing, corporate governance,
annual accounts - the company would help develop
all the paraphernalia of modern business,
turning London into the world's commercial capital.
In India, the company's affairs were generating a mountain of paperwork,
every transaction recorded for scrutiny back in London.
So it needed a large body of able, young men
to keep everything in order.
This awe-inspiring building was the nerve centre
of the East India Company's affairs in Bengal.
In here were based a group of men known as the writers.
They were bean counters and clerks noting down minutes of meetings
and financial transactions -
all the tedious day-to-day business of the East India Company.
For the well-connected young Briton of the 1700s,
a job with the company was a free ticket on the gravy train.
To get a job as a writer, all you had to do was ingratiate yourself
with one of the company directors.
They were free to give the jobs to whoever they chose,
and that meant that family connection counted for everything.
They gave them to their sons, their cousins, their nephews
and their associates' sons.
Things like merit or experience counted for nothing.
"I shall be placed on the staff,
"wear a cocked hat and laugh at the Governor General's jokes,
"and a capital appointment will follow in due course."
The pay wasn't great,
but you could do a bit of wheeler-dealing on the side.
Private trading was a good way for young men to
supplement their income.
The company did allow it, but there were rules.
A captain was allowed to have a portion of his cargo
to be reserved for his own private business.
And the young writers out here
were allowed to trade in certain commodities -
spices, diamonds, and textiles woven with gold and silver thread.
It was a nice little earner.
They lend money to Indian nobles at extortionate interest rates,
they speculate, they profiteer
and they engage in trade
and they use the East India Company monopolies
and its political power to create
very favourable trading conditions for themselves.
But a career in India came with considerable risk.
None of the company's men were prepared for the dangers
of a tropical climate.
They were greeted on arrival by
a withering barrage of heat and disease.
It was said that during the hot season here in India,
it was as dangerous a place as anywhere in the world
for humans to live.
"Here I passed a night in a bed
"which might be called a chop house for mosquitoes."
"The intemperance of the climate,
"together with the excessive heat of the sun
"are very noxious to our health."
"I had so bad a night of it, I really expected it to be my last.
"My stomach is so weak it refuses everything."
Many who came to Calcutta
ended up here, in South Park Street Cemetery.
There are so many stories of friendships, love affairs,
families torn apart by death and disease.
To just pick one out here...
John Blackistone, a junior officer in the company's army,
and he had a friend who he looked up to, a few years his senior,
called Lieutenant Rowley, who was in the Engineers.
Rowely got dysentery and slowly wasted away.
Blackistone wrote, "Poor fellow!
"He expired in my arms.
"To one so young as myself and unaccustomed to such scenes,
"this could not but be a most painful circumstance."
People grew to accept that death could be sudden.
"We've known instances of dining with a gentlemen at midday
"and being invited to his burial before suppertime."
Calcutta historian Sudip Bhattacharya
is researching mortality amongst the early settlers.
The cemetery was opened in 1767
and burials took place until 1790.
So it's quite a short period?
Yes, it's a very short period,
-which only goes to demonstrate the mortality, the high mortality.
There's one here that you might be interested in.
He was sincerely and universally regretted by Europeans and natives.
Superintendent of the police in Calcutta.
So it affected everybody. Just because you were high and mighty,
-it didn't mean you weren't going to get sick?
-No, no. For instance,
here you have a judge, he was one of the first judges
of the Supreme Court of Adjudication in Bengal.
They lacked the science, they lacked the knowledge
about how to combat these microbes?
-So everyone was in the same boat.
The worst period for sickness was of course the monsoon,
between June and September.
If you managed to survive September, around 15th October,
they would celebrate the fact that they had survived.
A number of deaths took place in September.
Many people died.
In one year alone, more than a third
of Calcutta's European population died during the rainy season.
The average life span of a Briton in Bengal
was said to be two monsoons.
The company regularly shipped blank tombstones from England
to meet demand.
This is the dark twin of the East India Company's success.
This is the one they probably wouldn't have wanted to talk about
when they were recruiting those young men, full of hope,
to come out here and grow rich and powerful.
The company tried to help.
It supplied ships and factories with vast quantities of wine
in the mistaken belief that alcohol would promote health.
It didn't help much - but the men couldn't have been more pleased.
And when the cellars ran dry,
there was always the local brew.
Toddy made from the sap of palm trees
was meant to cure griping of the stomach.
Then there was arrack, the locally brewed firewater.
It was supposed to promote health in young men.
When it became clear that Peruvian bark - or quinine - cured fevers,
people started taking that.
Trouble is, it was very bitter. They found they had to mix it with
sugar, soda water, gin and lemons -
the quintessentially British gin and tonic had been produced.
When men weren't busy dying,
shuffling paperwork or raking in the cash,
they were getting smashed.
Hard drinking was a central part of their louche lifestyle.
"Spent a severe night of punch,
"and having sung ourselves to sleep in our chairs,
"were awoke next morning at five by the gun,
"when we turned into our several nests
"to growl and keep our burning heads as cool as the weather would permit."
Rampant alcoholism put paid to many a promising career.
"More English fell in Hindustan
"by the intemperate and injudicious use of ardent spirits
"than by the sword."
Drinking, gambling and brawling -
they were the quintessential Englishmen abroad.
The staunchly Protestant company directors
soon realised they had a problem.
While they cared little about their employees' alcoholism,
they did care about their choice of women.
Some of them were apparently taking up with the locals
or, possibly even worse,
the Catholic daughters of Portuguese traders.
This had to be dealt with, and the company came up with
a brilliant suggestion, which was,
pack a ship full of British women and send them out here!
What could possibly go wrong?
The answer was...
just about everything.
One lady traveller divided these women into two groups.
"Old maids of the shrivelled and dry description,
"and girls educated merely to cover the surface
"of their mental deformity."
When the women arrived, they behaved just as wildly as the men,
forming relationships with locals and having a great time.
The plan was abandoned immediately.
The East India Company realised they should stick to shipping out tweed.
Company servants had no need of a matchmaker, in any case.
They were busy forming attachments of their own.
The allure of Bengali women was proving as potent
as the local firewater.
"The attachment of many European gentlemen
"to their native mistresses is not to be described.
"An infatuation beyond all comparison often prevails."
Many company men adopted the local tradition of polygamy.
"I have known various instances of two ladies
"being conjointly domesticated,
"and one of an elderly military character,
"who solaced himself with no less than 16 of all sorts and sizes."
Many of these relationships lasted a lifetime.
Thousands of company servants provided generously
for the future of their Indian mistresses and offspring
in wills held at the British Library.
So here we have Matthew Leslie, who calls himself
by his Muslim name - Meer Mohamed Hussein Khan -
and he talks about his wife and he talks about
his three mistresses, all of whom receive quite large sums of money.
His late wife Zehourun - for her sole and separate use of benefit,
20,000 sicca rupees to be paid
straight after his death,
the same sum of money is invested in company bonds
and quarterly payments made in every year.
The same kind of thing goes on for his other girls.
And the amounts seem to be going down here.
So there was favouritism?
There's a league table of favouritism here.
So here is Heera Bili. She gets 12,000 rather than 20,000,
and quarterly payments, so you can see his favouritism decreases.
But not only has he got four mistress heirs,
but he also, in his will, mentions
that if there's any of the young girls living in my family -
living in his house -
who may be with child at the time of my decease,
if they give birth within the requisite time after he died,
he's going to acknowledge that they're his children
and he leaves money to them.
And his executors will have discretion
to determine whether or not such child or children
"were or were not begotten by me".
So that's pretty brutal. If they look like him, they get the cash?
Absolutely. And he leaves 53,000 in ready cash,
in his will - £53,000 sterling that is, not rupees -
and today, in economic power,
that's worth about £62 million.
The East India Company had serious misgivings about its employees
cohabiting with local women.
But then again, knowledge of local markets was good for business.
Liaisons with indigenous women teach men languages,
so the company really has a vested interest in these relationships
being close and tightknit.
'By the middle of the 18th century,
'90% of company employees in India had local partners.'
'Many could now afford several mistresses
'and a house full of servants.'
Right, let's go!
But something odd was going on.
They'd arrived here as humble merchants,
but their new-found wealth
was having a bizarre effect.
They adopted the ostentatious, flamboyant lifestyles
of an Eastern prince -
surrounding themselves with armies of servants,
being carried from place to place in a palanquin.
The pomposity and extravagance of these white Mughals knew no bounds.
Much to the annoyance of their fellow countrymen.
"Many of the British inhabitants affect great splendour
"in their mode of living.
"They assume an air of much consequence,
"and often treat the rest of their countrymen
"with supercilious arrogance."
I think this is my favourite picture from the period.
It shows a man who looks like a Mughal emperor.
He's sitting on a cushion, smoking a hookah, attended by servants,
master of all he surveys, in his luscious robes and turban.
But that is no Mughal emperor.
In fact, it's an accountant from Yorkshire.
His name's John Wombwell.
He's living the dream.
While some lived like overblown maharajahs, others -
like Major General Charles Stuart -
engage with India on a more profound level.
Charles Stuart came out here from his native Ireland aged 19,
and immediately fell in love with the place.
He had a house here on Wood Street which he turned into a museum,
filling it up with Indian artefacts and carvings.
He was happy to show anybody around
and share his passion for all things Indian.
Stuart found the exoticism of Hindu myths irresistible.
"Whenever I look around me in the vast region of Hindu mythology,
"it appears the most complete and ample system of moral allegory
"that the world has ever produced."
Stuart's encounter with India changed his life.
Within a year of his arrival,
he had discarded Christianity and become a Hindu.
Hindoo Stuart, as he became known, learned the local languages,
dressed like a local,
would've been very comfortable in places like this.
He took a local woman as a wife and had a brood of mixed-race children.
He even hired a group of Brahmins, Hindu scholars,
to prepare the family's food in traditional Hindu manner.
Stuart wasn't unusual in embracing his new home.
Many Britons and Indians accepted each other in an atmosphere
of mutual understanding.
The British came to India before the 19th century
very much as explorers, adventurers, people out to make their money,
and they encountered a very old and very complex civilisation,
and they were often impressed by it.
And so they didn't feel that they were in any way superior to Indians.
They were just simply one of a number of groups jostling in India
to try and earn a living and to try and make their way.
And in the final analysis, integration was good for business.
In any case, the company's attention
was focused on a far bigger problem -
an escalating military confrontation with the French.
The British and French had set up trading posts
within a few miles of each other -
the French at Pondicherry and Chandernagore,
the British in Madras and Calcutta.
rivalry exploded into open warfare.
Driven by antagonism over colonial interests,
the Seven Years' War raged from Europe to North America
and across the world's oceans.
MILITARY BAND PLAYS
But in India, the ultimate prize was control over trade.
MEN SHOUT IN UNISON
The merchants of the East India Company
had traditionally tried to avoid war -
its costs were certain, but its outcomes far less so.
It was bad for business.
But as the French grew more threatening in the subcontinent,
the company realised it needed to get more serious
about the military side of things,
and the motley crews guarding its forts in India
weren't up to scratch.
What it needed was a serious standing army.
The company decided to strengthen its garrison at Fort St George.
In January 1748,
150 British troops arrived in Madras,
led by Major Stringer Lawrence,
an irascible old soldier known affectionately as Old Cock.
He's 50 years old, he's fought in the lowlands in Spain
and also in the Jacobite Rebellion, and he is a man with
great knowledge of military affairs,
and his job is really to re-form the company troops
out in India.
He begins by forming them into companies,
each commanded by an officer,
and those companies are equipped, trained and disciplined
exactly like British troops would be,
and of course the end result of all of this
is that it becomes a much more effective fighting force.
MILITARY BAND PLAYS
His new army was led by European officers,
but most of the troops were Indians,
known as sepoys, from the Persian word for "soldier".
Stringer Lawrence is seen as
the grandfather of the modern Indian army.
Many units are the direct descendants of those
he founded 250 years ago.
One young soldier in Lawrence's new army was the future national hero,
Clive of India.
Robert Clive was from a family of provincial gentry.
As a young boy, he was a bit of a tearaway
and loved getting into fights,
he was expelled three times from school,
so his father thought nothing much would come of him
and he might as well gamble and send him out here to India
to join the East India Company, which made men or broke them.
At first, Clive had been desperately homesick and hated the searing heat.
"If I should be so blest
"as to revisit again my own country, but more especially Manchester -
"the centre of all my wishes -
"all that I could hope or desire for
"would be presented before me in one view."
He was known as a man
who had a relatively short temper.
He was, as we discover in his later career,
a man with tremendous energy,
vigour and resolution,
and this must have seemed a pretty crushing way
to begin his career.
Clive would be the driving force in transforming the company
from commercial giant
to THE dominant political power in India.
In 1756, his great adversary was the Mughal ruler of Bengal.
Siraj ud-Daulah loathed the British
and bitterly resented the company's hold on Calcutta.
In June, he attacked the city.
Calcutta fell within hours.
And on the evening of June 20th,
146 British prisoners were taken to Fort William -
now the site of the government post office.
100 yards from this spot
stands a grim reminder of what happened next.
The most vivid account we have was left by a man called
John Zephaniah Holwell.
He'd been the chief magistrate of Calcutta. He'd been left in charge.
And he and his men were marched into a cell
just 18 foot wide at gun point.
It became known simply as the Black Hole,
and what happened in there became one of the most infamous stories
in the whole of British Imperial history.
It's said the prisoners, crushed together,
suffocating and fighting to stay upright,
were gripped by claustrophobic terror.
The heat was almost unbearable.
To try and slake his thirst,
Holwell took off his sweat-soaked shirt
and wrang it out into his mouth.
Other people trampled on the weakened bodies of their comrades,
desperately trying to reach the two small windows at the top of the wall
and gulp down some fresh air.
It was a night of unspeakable suffering and cruelty.
When the doors were flung open at dawn the next day,
the cell was filled with corpses.
To Holwell's horror, just 23 had survived.
Towards the end of the account,
there's a particularly memorable line.
He writes, "But oh! Sir, what words shall I adopt to tell you
"the whole that my soul suffered
"at reviewing the dreadful destruction round me?
"I will not attempt it. And indeed, tears stop my pen."
The news of what had happened to their fellow countrymen
at the hands of a barbarous Indian despot
electrified congregations right across Britain.
This, after all, was a generation that was starting to believe that
"Britons never, never, never shall be slaves".
The story of the Black Hole
left a deep scar in the British psyche for generations.
To Victorian schoolchildren, the events of 1756
were as familiar as the Battle of Hastings.
But historians like Sushil Chaudury believe Holwell's account
can't be trusted.
Holwell first mentioned that in the Black Hole,
165 or 175 people were confined.
Later, he revised the number.
He said it's 146, and out of 146,
23 were alive, but 123 died.
You don't think so many people could be packed into that small a space?
Surely not. It was impossible to put in 146 people in that small room,
which is 18ft by 14ft,
and then he said he knew most of the people,
but it was pitch dark.
It was impossible for anyone to recognise people there.
And then he said he looked at his watch.
How could he look at his watch? You know?
It's fabrication, no doubt.
What we don't know for sure
is how many actually perished that night.
The numbers range from three
to over 100. I suspect it's somewhere in between.
What is not in question is that this was an atrocity. Was it deliberate?
Almost certainly not.
It was unfortunate that this small, airless room was...
It happened on an incredibly hot and humid night,
some of the people inside were already wounded
from the battle that had taken place.
There were bound to be some fatalities,
but that there were so many was a point taken very seriously
by the remaining British in India and also the British back home,
and there was very much a sense that they wanted revenge.
Determined to re-assert supremacy,
Clive recaptured Calcutta,
and confronted Siraj at a village called Plassey,
120 miles north of the city,
in what would become a decisive moment in the history
of the East India Company.
At Plassey, Clive was terribly outnumbered
by more than 10 to 1.
But Clive had a plan that didn't just rely on military might alone.
He'd been in secret correspondence
with one of the nawab's key lieutenants -
the commander of his cavalry, a man called Mir Jafar.
The deal is done between Clive and Mir Jafar
that at a certain key part of the fight,
Mir Jafar will come onto his side.
In other words, he'll leave his chief,
and in return for putting him on the throne,
the company will not only be paid vast sums of money -
and we are talking about fantastical sums -
but also, it will be given a free rein in terms of its trade.
It was all over in a matter of hours,
but it had little to do with military might.
Mir Jafar, the traitor, had been paid off
and he ensured that the majority of the nawab's troops
took no part in the battle.
He was then installed as Britain's puppet.
This opened up the richest province of India to the company.
Robert Clive regarded this Machiavellian manoeuvring
as the pinnacle of his career.
Clive and the company were now rich.
Better still, in exchange for a single payment of £270,000,
the company was granted the right to manage
the Diwani - or the revenue and civil administration - of Bengal.
This allowed them to collect the land tax
from the entire population of Bengal - 10 million people.
It effectively turned them into the de facto government.
Robert Clive estimated that it would be worth
£1.7 million every year.
With control over the revenues of India's richest province,
the company's role had profoundly changed.
It's the point at which the East India Company really moves
from being a trading enterprise to an actual ruler of territory.
The Diwani was a licence to print money.
After the costs of administering Bengal had been met,
the company's profit margin was 49%.
The commercial floodgates had opened.
In 1766, news of the Diwani reached London.
The prospect of massive financial gains in Bengal
pushed the company's share price through the roof.
Now, this is partly fuelled by Clive,
who wrote to his friends from India,
advising them to buy stock
and he wrote to his own attorneys, as well,
telling them to make huge purchases on his behalf.
Not surprisingly, other British and foreign investors followed suit.
Robert Clive returned home a national hero
with a personal fortune equivalent to £38 million today,
and a generous income from landholdings in Bengal.
He went on a spending spree.
He bought a raft of properties, including his childhood home,
Styche Hall, which he renovated for his father,
and then he bought this place,
Walcot Hall, for the princely sum of £90,000.
Not bad for 6,000 acres.
Clive began transforming his new home into a lavish palazzo
with one of the finest gardens in England.
After ruling a state four times bigger than Britain,
Clive was determined to forge a political career
back in the old country.
His new Shropshire pile came with an added bonus.
Walcot Hall had traditionally been owned by the powerful Walcot family
and they'd been able to nominate the area's MPs.
When they fell badly into debt, Clive saw his chance.
He bought the estate
and with it came control of the local parliamentary borough.
That allowed him to basically appoint his cousin as the MP.
For the next 50 years, Clive's money ensured
that his family continue to live in style
and they continued to control the politics of the local area.
Clive added half a dozen seats in Shropshire
and further estates in Devon, Monmouth and Surrey
to a bulging property empire.
He was just one of a number of company men
who'd grown fabulously wealthy in Bengal
and then had returned home to improve their status in life.
They'd bought their way into the aristocracy,
they'd bought influence and power.
They became known as nabobs,
a term synonymous with vanity and absurd pretention.
They're perceived to be too rich for their own good,
to wear their diamonds too ostentatiously,
to wear textiles from India,
concerns about so-called Oriental despotism,
that they may have brought back from the Mughal Empire in India with them.
All of those are great concerns for people.
The nabobs represented the East India Company
at its most venal and corrupt -
a direct threat to the social and political order.
There was a concern that not only were they bringing back great wealth
but they were also infiltrating Parliament
with sort of Oriental corruption
and Asiatic practices of government,
which were viewed with a great deal of concern and scepticism and anxiety
by the ruling elite in Britain.
By the 1780's, they had become
a powerful minority, with one-tenth of the seats in Parliament.
But their good fortune would soon end.
A natural calamity was about to throw the honourable company
into the biggest crisis in its history.
Famine had long been a part of life in Bengal,
but one that began in the late 1760s
was turned into a full-blown humanitarian disaster
by the East India Company.
It's hard to come to terms with even after all these years,
but while the nabobs were back in Britain buying stately homes,
throwing parties, filling them with silver, wine and art,
the people of Bengal, who were paying for all that,
were experiencing some of the most appalling conditions imaginable.
A prolonged drought and a poor harvest
caused a famine that continued for three long years -
the worst in living memory.
The agony of the Bengali people is described in vivid detail.
The East India Company watched and recorded everything.
"7,600 dying in Calcutta in the last six weeks.
"Double that number in other towns in the province."
And then these chilling, terrible, awful words...
"Hunger drives many of them to such distress,
"that the strongest frequently, in some parts of the country,
"fall upon the weaker and devour them."
We're talking about cannibalism?
We're talking about cannibalism here.
They're forced into those kinds of horrible means of staying alive.
And then, in contrast, the next paragraph says,
"Balls, concerts and all public entertainments
"ought to subside at this time of general scarcity,
"but I'm sorry to say they have not.
"And under the doors and windows of these places of amusement
"lie many dead bodies, and others, again,
"in all the agonies of death, despair and want."
So as you're going out to a concert or something,
you're stepping over the destitute, dead and dying?
Piles of dead people.
Did the East India Company help or make things worse?
They make things worse.
They raised the taxes on agricultural produce.
They banned the hoarding of rice and grain,
which was traditionally used to tide over the population
through periods of scarcity.
They ripped up some of the food crops
to plant much more profitable indigo
and even-more-profitable opium.
And, finally, some of their junior servants
started to speculate
and profiteer from the sale of rice and grain,
selling it out of the province at grossly inflated prices.
The letters reveal where the company's priorities really lay.
While they lament "the distresses which the inhabitants
"may be reduced to thereby",
they can't divest themselves of anxious apprehensions
"concerning the effects which a continuation of the drought
"may have on the collections of our revenues".
So they're thinking profits rather than disaster relief.
It's estimated that between two million and ten million people died.
A salutary lesson on the dangers of unchecked corporate power.
You have streams and streams of people who are dying
walking to company officials saying, "Help us.
"You are now the rulers, you need to do something,
"you have responsibility for us,"
and the British do very little.
Nobody was ultimately brought to account for it,
but there was certainly a sense that
the nature of East India Company government at the time
had exacerbated the famine.
That it had made things worse, if it hadn't actually caused it.
The famine was a human tragedy
and a financial disaster.
The Bengal economy collapsed,
the company's income plummeted,
its share price crashed and all dividend payments were suspended.
The bubble was burst.
People wanted to know why - how could this have happened?
Parliament set up its own enquiry
and a scapegoat was lined up -
Robert Clive, Britain's richest man.
He became seen as the leader of the nabobs
and was nicknamed Lord Vulture.
Denounced for enriching himself with Indian loot,
Clive was hauled before Parliament.
He asked his accusers to remember the situation that he'd been in -
an opulent city had lain at his mercy.
He'd been shown through vaults full of treasure,
gold and precious stones on every side.
He finished by saying,
"By God, Mr Chairman, I stand astonished at my own moderation."
Well, if Clive was greedy or corrupt,
he certainly wasn't the only one in the House of Commons.
He was acquitted.
In fact, he was even thanked for services to his country.
But like a plot twist in a Victorian melodrama,
his life ended in tragedy.
In November 1774, Clive was found dead at his London home.
He'd suffered depression for much of his life,
and he'd become an opium addict.
It's very likely that he committed suicide.
Dr Samuel Johnson wrote that his crimes had driven him
to slit his own throat.
It was a scandalous and pitiful end to a life of extraordinary,
if controversial, achievement.
Accused of corruption, incompetence and greed,
the company's reputation was in tatters,
and there was worse to come.
The crisis that was affecting the company
really came to a head in 1772,
where there was a failure of a major Scottish bank, the Ayr Bank,
which created a credit crunch. About 30 other banks, in fact, failed
and that led to a major shortage of money in the economy.
The company had to go repeatedly to the Bank of England for loans
to tide them over. They were very indebted.
Now, starved of funds,
the world's greatest company had run out of cash.
There was only one possible way out -
massive government bailout.
For reasons that are spookily familiar, it was decided
that the East India Company was too big to fail.
The British Government rescued the company with public money
today equivalent to £176 million.
But its powers were progressively curtailed.
The India Act of 1784 transferred its executive management
to an independent board of control answerable to Parliament.
All kickbacks were banned.
The British State was now pulling the strings.
Instead of chancers like Robert Clive,
the British Government would now send out
its own, more reliable people to run India.
The Governor General here in Calcutta would rule supreme,
given sweeping new powers in revenue, diplomacy and war.
It was nothing less than the birth of empire.
Dan Snow travels through India in the footsteps of the company that revolutionised the British lifestyle and laid the foundations of today's global trading systems.
Four hundred years ago British merchants landed on the coast of India and founded a trading post to export goods to London. Over the next 200 years, their tiny business grew into a commercial titan. Using the letters and diaries of the men and women who were there, this documentary tells the story of the East India Company, which revolutionised the British lifestyle, sparked a new age of speculation and profit and by accident created one of the most powerful empires in history.
Yet inexorable rise ended in ignominy. Dogged by allegations of greed, corruption and corporate excess, by the 1770s the company's reputation was in tatters. Blamed for turning its back as millions died in the Bengal famine, and thrown into crisis by a credit crunch in Britain, the world's most powerful company had run out of cash, sparking a government intervention.