London & the East India Company

Headshot of James
Written by James
Published on 2nd September 2012 at 13:44 • No comments yet, be the first!

Watching the London Olympics recently, it occurred to me that despite all the amazing performances of Jess, Mo, Chris etc etc.....etc, maybe the biggest star of that magical fortnight might be the residents and city of London itself. The whole world got to see what a diverse, dynamic, outward-looking city London is, with big populations originally from the Caribbean, East Africa, the Indian subcontinent and everywhere in between.

However grimy and overcrowded the city can sometimes be, this fantastic mix of people in what's still one of the biggest centres of global trade is very much a legacy of London once being home to the biggest empire in history. It's only stretching the facts a little bit(...!) to say that this incredible combination of diversity and prosperity actually began with a spice company (and no, it's not this one).

Admittedly that sounds rather unlikely but there was a company, formed and based in the same part of London as the Olympic park, which became the most powerful the world has ever seen - at one point it was said to control nearly half the worlds trade and a fifth of the worlds population. It paved the way for the British empire (with all the subsequent good and harm it did to the world), created many of the worlds great cities (Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Singapore, Hong Kong) and in the process changed this country and the rest of the world forever.

Crosby Hall - an early home of the East India Company originally situated in Bishopsgate, later demolished and rebuilt in Chelsea

The East India Company was formed in 1600 with a royal monopoly granted over all trade to the east of the Cape of Good Hope. At the time the most important product traded in that region was spices and the company aimed to make big profits by sourcing them direct from Asia, while also stopping the Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese from dominating the trade.

The company weren't necessarily motivated purely by a love of spices, but they were motivated by profit and spices were the perfect product to trade. They were in extremely high demand (click here for more background about this), they were small, light, non-perishable, cheap at source and crucially the relatively small volumes that could be transported by the early sailing ships could be sold for huge profit margins (sadly for us, this no longer seems to be the case).

James Lancaster, the captain of the first East India Company voyage. It didn't start too well - it took them nearly 2 months to get from London to Dartmouth but when they finally returned over 2 years later the ship's holds were stuffed with spices that were sold for big profits. As an example of the numbers involved, a shipload of 800,000 lbs of pepper in 1622 was sold for £73,000 - the equivalent of £10,700,000 now

Over time it became clear that the Dutch were ruthlessly intent on protecting their domination of the spice trade (they tried to monopolise supply in the Moluccas in what's now Indonesia - click here for more about that), so the East India Company was forced to diversify into new products and new markets. This actually proved a blessing in disguise as the introduction of new, larger ships combined with the company’s growing presence in India allowed them to trade in textiles and ceramics, and later tea which all contributed far more than spices ever did.


The remains of the East India Company warehouses in Devonshire Square - as far as I can tell there's no plaque or marker, the only clue to its history are the smells from the kitchens of a couple of Indian restaurants in the building.

The Company warehouses must have been an incredible sight to people at the time - these are the words of John Masefield, Poet Laureate after a visit....

"..you showed me nutmegs and nutmeg husks, Ostrich feathers and elephant tusks, Hundreds of tons of costly tea, Packed in wood by the Cingalee, And a myriad drugs which disagree, Cinnamon, myrrh and mace you showed, Golden paradise birds that glowed, And a billion cloves in an odorous mount, And choice port wine from a bright glass fount, You showed, for a most delightful hour, The wealth of the world, and London's power."

The Company weren't always big innovators - Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama had arrived in the East Indies over a century before, and they weren't the first to trade in the region - Arab and Chinese traders had been there for centuries and many other European countries had their own trading companies, but the East India company were the first to trade globally on any significant organised scale, and they eventually did it with far more success than anybody else. Although the original voyages were all about sourcing cheap goods to sell back home, the real genius of the company was in the trade it made around Asia and eventually around the world. The Company soon found that in coming from Britain - a country with no significant natural resources, they had virtually nothing to sell that Asians actually wanted to buy. This meant they ended up trading pretty much anything they could get their hands on, with anybody and in any place they could, all along the trade routes. In fact many of the fortunes made by East India Company traders were made by men who left and never returned to Britain.

The Company church, St Matthias which is now a community centre on Poplar High Street right at the heart of what must be the most ethnically diverse part of the entire country, all in the shadow of the global trading centre of Canary Wharf - a very fitting setting!

 As the physical goods flowed in and out of the company warehouses in London, the city started to become a hub of global trade (many of the industries and businesses that sprang up then are still with us - insurance, currency trading, finance etc), but perhaps more important than the economic legacy was the flow of people, culture and ideas that really influenced this country and led directly to the modern interconnected world we know today. A huge amount of the economic, social and cultural makeup of modern Britain can be traced back to the East India Company but you'd struggle to find anything left in the entire city now to suggest it was ever here.



 The rather sad-looking East India Dock today - the whole area was devasted in the 2nd World War and the developments of the 1980's but despite some of the rather soulless Docklands streets having names like 'Clove Crescent' and 'Nutmeg Lane' there's pretty much nothing left from the Company.

The East India Arms in the City ;  Statue of Robert Clive (it does say Clive, not Olive on the statue in case you were wondering). 

In classic British style, the only visible memorial of the East India Company in the city is a pub. The old Company headquarters was demolished to make way for the Lloyds insurance building.

Robert Clive was a East India Company officer who was significant for his military victories including the Battle of Plassey, considered to be the point at which the Company secured India for the British with the enormous wealth that flowed from that. The fact that this huge statue stands alone and prominent on the steps between the Treasury and the Foreign Office says everything about how significant both he and the East India Company were in financial and political terms for Britain.

Interestingly I recently discovered that Clive spent several years living in Bath (no.14 The Circus if you're interested, a couple of doors down from Gainsborough)

There's obviously (and quite rightly), a great deal of shame and embarrassment in modern Britain about some of the companies activities over the two and a half centuries it traded for (piracy, drug dealing, corruption and the oppression of most of India amongst them...), which I'm guessing accounts for the fact there's no physical reminder of the company left.

Even so, it still seems slightly strange that this company who contributed so many positive things to the Britain we live in today has totally disappeared from view. If you wear any clothes made of cotton, have colourful patterned fabrics, china or porcelain in your home, drink tea or coffee, can't face a meal without ketchup, brown sauce or chutney plus thousands of other things that are part of everyday life in Britain, you've got the East India Company to thank.

I genuinely believe we wouldn't be doing what we do in our little company, anywhere else in the world apart from Britain, and that's in no small part due to the legacy of the East India Company. Being brought up to be so open, interested in and influenced by the people, culture and flavours of the entire world is so natural to British people that we take it for granted. Maybe one of the lessons we could take from hosting such a successful Olympics is that modern Britain isn't perfect by any means, but despite all our differences we all share a common story and are a great deal more open and tolerant than we ever give ourselves credit for. Our society has been shaped by travel, trade, migration (and spices!) for centuries and hopefully will continue to do so in future.

 The new East India Company shop in Mayfair - in the ultimate irony, the logo and rights to use the East India Company name have recently been bought by an Indian businessman who now runs an upmarket shop selling fine foods to wealthy tourists from China and the Middle East. He also apparently has plans to expand the brand into India. Surely the original founders would have thoroughly approved of his entrepreneurialism!

Recent Posts

Strange Flavour in Sichuan

by James on 12th March 2024

The incredibly hot and numbing food of Chongqing and Chengdu!

Read Full Post

Eaten all the 'Wheaten' Food in Beijing

by James on 12th March 2024

A journey of discovery through the fabulous food of Northern China

Read Full Post