Screening and Discussion; The East India Company and the Origins of the Modern Corporation


Title of Event:

Screening and Discussion: The East India Company and the Origins of the Modern Corporation


Bullet points of Event:

  • This event will be a screening of a short talk ‘The View From Here On The East India Company’ (23 minutes) with Nick Robins
  • It will be followed by a conversation about the talk
  • The conversation will be punctuated by very short excerpts from his book ‘The Corporation that Changed the World; How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational’ to stimulate conversation
  • Refreshment break
  • The second part of the event will be a screening of ‘Full Circle & Nicholas Shaxson: Treasure Islands, tax havens and more’ (30 minutes)
  • It will be followed by a conversation about the talk
  • The conversation will be punctuated by very short excerpts from his book ‘The Finance Curse; How Global Finance is Making Us All Poorer’ to stimulate conversation
  • The conversation will be recorded so people who cannot be in the room can listen by podcast


A few paragraphs on your subject:

The East India Company is a company which held unprecedented power throughout history. In this screening of a talk by Nick Robins, he reveals that the East India Company not only dominated the world, but also laid the foundation for modern multinational corporations with its characteristics of shareholder ownership and ‘organisational DNA’.


The origins of this notorious company are that back in 1600, a group of London merchants gained a royal charter to establish the company. This group of privateers acting under the title of the ‘East India Company’ acquired territories and governed them as businesses, monopolizing both foreign and internal trade in places like Bengal. As a result, Indian traders and merchants from other nations like the Dutch and French were effectively eliminated.


A key moment for the company was in 1765 when the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II was forced to sign the Treaty of Allahabad by Robert Clive of the East India Company in the aftermath of the Battle of Buxar in 1764. This ‘granted’ the East India Company Diwani rights, or the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Emperor from the eastern province of Bengal-Bihar-Orissa. These rights allowed the company to collect revenue directly from the people of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa.


This sent the stock prices of the East India Company skyrocketing. The interest of the common people of Britain went beyond mere shareholding. Robins highlights that in one way or another, whether through direct employment, family connections, or the consumption of its products, almost everyone in 18th and 19th century England had some connection to the East India Company. Throughout its existence, the East India Company always prioritized its shareholders and its ultimate purpose was to make profits which is the legacy of this company and its profound impact on world history.


The policies and the illegitimate activities it enacted had a significant impact on the Indian economy. Robins explains that the Indian economy relied heavily on textile exports, which made up 33% of their exports in the early 1800s. Other popular exports included opium (at 24%), indigo (19%), raw silk (8%), and raw cotton (5%). By 1850, textiles had completely disappeared from India’s exports, while opium had surged to 30%. Cotton now made up 19% of their exports, followed by indigo (11%) and sugar (10%).


Robins examines the Company’s management of information and its role as one of the pioneers of the knowledge-based ‘corporation.’ Through their numerous writers and clerks, the Company was able to match supply and demand along lengthy supply chains, which contributed to its enduring commercial success. The company developed a sophisticated and focused approach to sourcing, marketing, and finance, which provided consumers with goods and earned investors regular dividends and generated substantial tax revenues for Britain.


Similar to multinational corporations today, the Company faced criticism throughout its existence. A cartoon from Punch illustrates this, depicting the Company blasting captured rebels from canons – a reference to the 1857 Indian Rebellion against the rule of the British East India Company that functioned as a sovereign power on behalf of the British Crown.


Robins suggests that it would have been more fitting for East India House at Leadenhall Street, the Company’s headquarters, to be blown up due to the avarice, blundering, nepotism, misgovernment, and supine attitude for which the Company was not held responsible but was recognised for. The 1857 Mutiny marked the beginning of the end for the Company’s rule in India, although it managed to survive for a few more years. The Company was officially dissolved on June 1st, 1874, marking the end of an era.


Whilst the name of East India Company was to subside its legacy continued in the form of the organisational structures of the multinational company. It is notable that the London Stock Exchange originated in 1571 and the Lloyd’s Act was passed in 1871. This roughly mirrors the formation and dissolving of the East India Company as well as the rise of acts of parliament to oversee a partially-mutualised marketplace within which multiple financial backers, grouped in syndicates, come together to pool and spread risk.


Nick Robins book proposes an interesting analysis of the modern multinational corporation which may offer accounts of why we commonly see pathological behaviours coming out of corporate structures. It also might offer a tantilising note of interest when reading the third chapter of Nicholas Shaxson’s latest book ‘The Finance Curse; How Global Finance is Making Us All Poorer’ where he refers to the City of London as “Britain’s Second Empire”.


Here is the information blurb on the back of Nick Robins’ book:

“This book offers a fascinating account of the forerunner of the modern multinational: the British East India Company (1600-1874). Nick Robins shows how the East India Company pioneered the model of the corporation that we see today. Its innovations included the shareholder model of ownership, and the administrative framework of the modern firm. Global in reach, it achieved market dominance in Asia, trailblazing the British Empire in the East. In the process, the company shocked its age with the scale of its executive malpractice, stock market excess and human rights abuse. Offering a popular history of one of the world’s most famous companies, Nick Robins shows what it teaches us about corporations today. Ultimately, the East India Company succumbed to popular protest and outright rebellion, first in the Boston Tea Party and then in the Indian Mutiny.“


Here is the information blurb on the back of Nicholas Shaxson’s book:

“A searing indictment of global finance, exploring how the banking sector grew from a supporter of business to the biggest business in the world, and showing how societies might fight against financial hegemony


Financial journalist Nicholas Shaxson first made his reputation studying the “resource curse,” seeing first-hand the disastrous economic and societal effects of the discovery of oil in Angola. He then gained prominence as an expert on tax havens, revealing the dark corners of that world long before the scandals of the Panama and Paradise Papers. Now, in The Finance Curse, revised with chapters exclusive to this American edition, he takes us on a terrifying journey through the world economy, exposing tax havens, monopolists, megabanks, private equity firms, Eurobond traders, lobbyists, and a menagerie of scoundrels quietly financializing our entire society, hurting both business and individuals.


Shaxson shows we got here, telling the story of how finance re-engineered the global economic order in the last half-century, with the aim not of creating wealth but extracting it from the underlying economy. Under the twin gospels of “national competitiveness” and “shareholder value,” megabanks and financialized corporations have provoked a race to the bottom between states to provide the most subsidized environment for big business, have encouraged a brain drain into finance, and have fostered instability, inequality, and turned a blind eye to the spoils of organized crime. From Ireland to Iowa, Shaxson shows the insidious effects of financialization on our politics and on communities who were promised paradise but got poverty wages instead.


We need a strong financial system―but when it grows too big it becomes a monster. The Finance Curse is the explosive story of how finance got a stranglehold on society, and reveals how we might release ourselves from its grasp.”

A few paragraphs about you:

I am someone who has been introduced to economics by a number of friends, from individuals who work as independent financial advisors in the City of London to educators who teach the history of economics, economics and systems theory. Economics far from being dull to me is now a very interesting study of human beings in the ordinary business of life, an enquiry which belongs to its origin – as a part of the department of geography.


I have become interested to understand Britain’s colonial past to understand its cultural present taking particular interest in tax havens – aka secrecy jurisdictions where people go to avoid the law. I first became aware of the magnitude and relevance of understanding tax havens when Professor Simon Szreter suggested Nicholas Shaxson’s book (Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens) as the most important book to read.


When I read it a door opened to understanding more about why the world is the way it is. Illuminated by the knowledge that the City of London is a tax haven itself, I became more interested in learning about the organisational bureaucracies which govern the opportunities which people experience in their lives and communities. I have a running interest in the anthropology of bureaucratic structures which I document and investigate.


What free internet knowledge resources would you recommend to others if they wish to explore your chosen theme further?


The East India Company: commodities, conquest and corruption – by Nick Robins (poor sound):

YouTube player


Ahimsa Conversation # 50 Nick Robins:

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Nicholas Shaxon’s Treasure Islands; Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens

YouTube player


Nicholas Shaxson on his book ‘The Finance Curse’

YouTube player


This event took place on the 10th September 2023 at The Outhouse (12A Broughton Street Lane, Edinburgh)