Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Book I Read: The Honourable Company by John Keay
I had been interested in learning more about the history of the spice trade and the emergence of the trading corporations and empires that grew out of this trade. When learning of the discovery of the New World and the age of the explorers, it dawned on me years later that history teachers in High School and college never really delved into what drove such men to go exploring in the first place - access to the spices of Southeast Asia. I'd always thought it odd that men were driven to sail towards the rim of a then "flat-Earth" all for the sake of nutmeg, cloves, and peppercorns. Certainly when looking at the racks of barely used Durkee bottles lining my mother's pantry door did any of this history make sense. Why was it that the search for spices lead to the emergence of the European empires and the beginnings of stock offering corporations?

The Honourable Company doesn't exactly explain why spices in particular were so fancied by European consumers. However, it does sketch out the great lengths to which rival European nations endeavored to develop this trade and secure greater access to spice sources. Keay's focus is on the history of the English East India Company, and lays out the full timeline of the company's difficult start trying to establish itself against better formulated rivals: the Portuguese and more importantly, the great Dutch V.O.C. Keay details the early efforts of the English Company to open up trading posts or factories in various locations littered throughout the coasts of Java, Sumatra, and other Spice Island locations far enough out of sight from powerful Dutch patrols. The Company's efforts did not get going until much later - after the opening of factories along the coasts of India. It is here that Keay's narrative condenses and dwells predominantly, careful to explain and reveal the events that over the course of years led a private economic enterprise to become the main power broker of Indian lands and peoples.

The course of the history is not what one may think, and Keay takes great pains to inform the reader that the it was not preordained that English Empire in India was an obvious result of The Company's trading and economic actions. If anything Keay reveals how unconnected events, such as the break-out of Seven Years War between France and England produced events - which caused both English Crown and Parliament to look at the operations of the largely independant Company with greater emphasis on the larger geopolitical importance - that the Company's overseas locations offered for both defense and treasury enrichment.Indeed, for the most part, Keay shows the extent of the Company's ambitions up until its operations were nationalized and absorbed into the English covernment - profit and not Empire remained its primary motivation up to the end.

Beyond the book's scope, the geographic and political effects of the trading Companies actions remain to this day. Cities like Mumbai (Bombay), Chennai (Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta) owe much of their current preeminance to their birth as the major trading centers of the Company. The entrepots of Singapore and Hong Kong serve largely the same function today as they did in the time of their founding - as trading gateways for transhipment of commodities produced in nearby hinterlands, namely China and Southeast Asia. Indeed, even the modern corporation may claim the trading Companies as their first ancestor. And critics of the modern corporation (and capitialism) can fume with indignation at these developments as being the Square One from which the economic and social crimes of modern times followed (see The Corporation for a comprehensive critique). I enjoyed the book greatly, especially savoring Keay's breezy narrative and entertaining prose. Interestingly written interesting history.


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