The East India Company: Imperial Artefact18 minute read

Imagining a Great Britain without the flavours of tea, pepper, cinnamon and chutney or the touch of porcelain ware and silk, is a great challenge; these Asian goods have become fundamental characters in our culture today. This can be attributed to the huge role of the East India Company (EIC) in British imperial history (Robbins, 2012). This mercantile company operated as the monopolistic trading actor over English trade with Asia for over two centuries after it was granted its Royal Charter 1600. The joint-stock company originally set out to pursue trade in the East Indies, however as it was increasingly fostered by the British government, it became the harbinger of British colonial rule in India. The British government passed regulating acts to increase their participation in the EIC rule and thus, this form of mercantile colonialism laid the groundwork for state led colonialism in the 19th century. The EIC acted as trustees for the Indian people through overturning all the established relations and administering India on Britain’s behalf. This further exacerbated racial prejudices and the idea of cultural superiority of the Britons both in India and Europe.

The EIC’s trading name lives on today as a consumer brand commercialising luxury edibles from Asian origin with two outlets in focal points of London. Indeed, the EIC is a paragon of British imperialism and these shops are a significant imperial artefact in London which ought to be discussed due to what and whom they represent and whether the different actors involved in its history are represented evenly (Mitchell, 2000). More crucially today, with large Asian communities inhabiting spaces of London as Londoners, it is imperative that a much more honest and valuable representation of this institution is exposed through challenging its legacy to develop a sense of common culture which is not developed solely by a privileged limited group.

This essay seeks to present a broad critique on the contemporary politics in London as a result of the cultural implications related to imperial artefacts. It focuses on the East India Company and its effect on determining the identities of the colonisers and the colonised. This evaluation of categorisation is based on arguments maintained by Gilbert and Driver.

Firstly, an analysis on imperialism, culture and the hierarchies embedded in culture is presented as the opening cultural implication. This is followed by the second implication which demonstrates the uneven representation of different agents and the determination of less powerful group’s identities by dominating ones. In the following paragraph, the third implication is presented; London society’s acceptance and discriminative interpretation of the EIC as a result of the imperial notion deeply rooted in the city’s past. From then, I examine the consequence of the EIC’s imperial actions and how they persist today, in a post-imperial world. The first implication is then reinstated and the evolution occurring in London’s hierarchies produced, alongside the importance of this as a way of providing a more legitimate representation of the imperial artefact. Finally, I compare the EIC to similar corporations acting today which demonstrate the perseverance of the legacy of colonialism and why it is important to address this due to the painful consequences that they can bequeath. The essay will finally conclude by displaying the incompatible groups simultaneously present in London’s space today as a defining facet of the diverse city.

 

The concept of ‘imperialism’ today conveys the dominance of the weaker by the rich and powerful without the explicit action of authority (Stone, 1988). Thus, how the course of imperialism is consumed and reproduced in the urban landscape becomes a crucial question to explore (Driver and Gilbert, 1998). London was the centre of an empire and this generated distinct representation of cultures of the rulers and ruled; it is undoubtedly still being moulded by its imperial history. As Gilbert and Driver (2000) discuss, Britain’s imperial history have played a key role in shaping the Briton’s cultural lifestyles through what they eat, wear and where they live. Culture is a representation of something which certain people want to consume (Crang, 1998). Therefore, it has power and it is important to discuss what and whom is neglected from such representation over time and place and for what reasons. Through doing this it can be concluded that although perceptions are ever changing, it is difficult to disengage oneself and society from a notion so embedded and ingrained in the past. MacKenzie (1995, p. xi) argues that through the instalment and preservation of imperial artefacts, the imperial states were “reassuring themselves of their continuing power and influence”. The commodification of the empire through the EIC shops allow those in London to consume it and thus accept its notion. This interaction, participation and celebration of the British empire performed through consumption, produces the ideas of the global reach of the empire and endures the omission of those who are not being represented (Driver and Gilbert, 1999). Arguably this could be by consequence of some using culture intentionally in the pursuance of their own benefits. Mitchell (2000: 75) agrees with this discourse, whereby culture acts with a political agenda exerting power and generating inequality. He considers it as having no ontology but rather being a construct which can “control and define ‘others’ in the name of power and profit”. Henceforth, it is imperative to be concerned with who has the power to define culture, how it is expressed and what exactly it produces. Investigating the ethics and principles behind the reproduction of culture can reveal consequences of social conflict over the meanings of things in cultural politics as those in power define, misrepresent and omit the less powerful groups. The imperial experience, is encountered in completely different and opposing ways along a spectrum by the huge diversity of people that constitute London’s population (Gilbert and Driver, 2000). It is important in terms of how it constructs social identities and categorizes people through cultural references (Nead 2000:184). Moreover, material culture emphasises certain values and it is imperative to contemplate how artefacts can function as important ideological instruments which reproduce out social sphere (Crang, 2013:276). In cases, scholars such as Ferguson (2003) and Colley (1992) have rationalised the barbarity of Britain’s colonial phase and conveyed Britain as a victim of its own colonial history in their works. Therefore, allowing the empire to be revived through propagating the imperial spirit at home has had a huge effect on modern politics and so on the social world, as can be seen for instance in the Blair government’s notion (Gilroy, 2005). The EIC thus demonstrates great cultural implications in contemporary politics as the coloniser and the colonised subjects are not represented on even conditions.

Secondly, contemporary politics does not recognise or contest these unethical practices of the past. The EIC “spatializes imperial history” (Cherry, 2006: 664) and gives the heritage of imperialism an authenticity and existence in the physical tangible world of London. Moreover, the appropriation of Indian traditions such as tea drinking which is today perceived by the mainstream society as of British tradition, reinforces the capability of more powerful groups to define their own culture and redefine others’ through selective representation. Through Massey’s (1994: 149) contentions of the “power-geometry of time-space compression” it is possible to give an explanation to the imbalances of power distribution through which Asians today are still denied credence. Layers of the past persevere in the present with hierarchies of belonging created during imperial times persisting and accentuating the privilege of the formerly dominant ethnicities (Cherry, 2006). The existing power struggle of identity is imperial and contingent on the memories imperialism leaves behind (Silk, 2014). This becomes important in contemporary politics as “neo imperial hierarchies of belonging corrode the quality of social interactions and the possibility of humanity” (Back et al. 2012: 145). Although unlike the likes of Massey, Mitchell perceives culture as being something intangible, he reinforces that it matters due to the consequences it produces by having some determine and name it in the names of others, in the case of the EIC echoed by marking national self-determination.

Even though in the UK today it is generally forgotten, the EIC was responsible for the Opium Wars with China as it established a monopoly market despite Chinese law for opium. This became an imperial project which is consciously ignored by many, despite the rigorous discourses against slave trading companies. The concealment of these processes in the timeline of Britain demonstrates ‘mnemic neglect’ by some which obscures the representation of the less powerful groups (Cherry, 2006: 661). Moreover, the EIC is a principle factor of the severe famines in India and Bangladesh. In Bengal, 7 million people died as a result of the EIC’s conscious actions to raise food prices at a time of drought in order to generate profit to be accumulated in Europe. Likewise, extremely barbaric employee abuse in Bangladesh as well as other British colonies was not an unknown practice (Robing, 2012). Furthermore, the utter annihilation of local democratic governance of the Mysore, Maratha and Sikh empires through battles is wholly by virtue of the EIC. Indeed, the memory of the company’s oppressive actions still endures through India and the East where it is the epitome of repression and exploitation (Misra, 2003).

As of 2005, the trading name of the company is still alive and operating under Indian entrepreneur Sanjiv Mehta as a commercial company of imported luxury goods. EIC is a high culture, expensive and only accessible to certain individuals, which further glorifies it and promotes inequality (Wilkies, 2010). Mehta (2010) contends that it despite its colonial heritage it does not generate emotional sentiments across the Asian communities and in fact forces the witness to adopt a memory of it. Even though his Indian background puts him in a position of greater awareness of these communities, he is not representative of the entire East Indies and so his actions ought to be contested. This too is one of the flaws inherent in Cherry’s article (2006), as she assumes what the passer-by perceives in regards to imperial monuments. Instead, individual’s rebutting actions ought to be discussed. For instance, Indians’ large opposition to laws liberalising the retail sector and allowing for the influx of MNCs in 2012 were a response of society to the return of the EICs legacy. The EIC’s positioning in such a relevant space of the public sphere imposes on the passers-by a sense of power which influences their view on London and colonialism through the promotion of London as an imperial capital to be celebrated. Located in the centre of Covent Garden and Regent Street- both major focal points of tourism and shopping- allows for visitors to the city to absorb the specific ideals of power advocated by the privileged ones.

Conversely, the complete removal of the EIC does not undo any past equivocal actions and can be an endeavour to humanise the empire (Schneer, 1999). British colonial rule across the globe cannot be erased however its consequences must not be ignored. Through celebrating and encouraging the prosperity and longevity of the name of the EIC, colonial rule is glorified rather than contested. The ways in which the public and private spaces bleed into one another the moral contentions and extent of rights and power of the private space in the public space are controversial (Nead 2000). Accordingly, the representation of such values in our streets through the presence of the imperial artefact makes space contentious (Black, 1999).

Whether the British government’s approval for the revival of the EIC in 2005 is a way to redeem colonialism is contradictory as still in London today there is rising exploitation of migrants and minority races being particularly disadvantaged (Fisher, 2006). Indians disadvantaged by class and race were left without financial protection when the Crown withdrew the Company’s monopoly on trade with India and hence they lacked support to be repatriated and settled in London’s East End (Fisher, 2006). This area is now predominantly a Bangladeshi community due to the history tied to migration (Campikin, 2013). The East End of London is perceived as a stain on London and not being part of true British culture due to the communities of ethnic minorities that constitute it (Driver, 2001). This belief is acted on by ‘othering’ these people due to their ethnicity which allows for the reinstatement of some of the most severe proofs of popular imperialism. This “modern ghetto” demonstrates that the postcolonial predicament has not ceased to exist in London, in both its centre and periphery (Nijhar, 2007:21). Nijhar (2007:26) observes that the racist discourse of social control in London constructed a “criminogenic” population of the minorities which acted as a form of modern internal colonialism. Moreover, he emphasises that imperial trade hugely intensified xenophobic attitudes in London due to its embedded racist conceptions of superiority and the common practice of indentured labour by mercantile companies such as the EIC.

People from Tower Hamlets have very different political understandings of their current situation and the situation in Bangladesh through a thorough understanding of what happened in Bengal, an important nexus of the EIC. Moreover, the opium museum in China uncovers the EIC’s involvement in crimes and immoral practices in China, whereas in London, the British Museum failed to offer an honest exhibition of the EICs role in opium trade. This led to Chinese community protests demanding an unromanticised representation of the EIC associated to exotic foodstuffs depicting a feel of amicable relations between the regions which were in fact being exploited (Bragg, 2003). Thus, when discussing contemporary politics in London one must contemplate who is being deliberately disregarded. The EIC shops reinforce this representation that dominates London’s landscape which obliterates certain groups. This reiterates that the cultural implications of the EIC becomes a question of who we talk to about the company. If the world is translated to us by an advantaged narrow group, our interpretation of it lies on the authority of the interpreter. The EIC’s history has not changed, but what has evolved is the variety of ways through which various communities have faced it. Bangladeshi and Chinese communities of once immigrants and now Londoners are playing a greater role in moulding the public appearance of Britain and its intellectual landscape. With the instalment of community organisations such as the Brick Lane Circle engaged with researchers to explore and expose the EIC’s history and operations from an obscured outlook these communities are gaining power and can redefine themselves and represent their own histories. This allows for a much richer, more honest, representation of this institution.

The EIC is a referent of today’s multinational corporations, therefore it is important to address its legacy as some MNCs act with the same colonial agenda as the EIC did (Carlos and Nicholas, 1988). The similitude in the structures of both companies is a symptom of colonialism’s legacy which is still enduring in modern times (Achankeng, 2015). The EIC’s celebration by society and the corporate world today for its attainment of being the biggest corporation in world history echoes the empire by the unconscious promotion of neo-colonialism. Forms of oppression occurring during the time of the EIC’s rule are currently still being maintained by the elite (Black, 1999). Although the actors have changed- it used to be the crown and military forces principally involved in this; it is now those with money and power to create laws and restrictions who are prolonging the systems of pressure. It is essential to discuss this and the crucial lessons about the perils of the abusive power of large corporation as it is very evident in London’s imperial landscape as much as across the globe (Rooney, 2013).

The essay will finally conclude by displaying the incompatible groups simultaneously present in London’s space today as a defining facet of the diverse city. Finally, London today is also a city shaped by anti-imperialists (Schneer, 1999). As it has ceased to be an imperial capital it can be postulated as a space which simultaneously hosts imperialists and anti-imperialists (Gilbert and Driver, 1999). This coexistence demonstrates London’s uniqueness which allows for the consideration of the ongoing exchanges between culture, society, politics and space through time. A critique on the contemporary politics in London due to the cultural implications related to the East India Company has been presented. Several cultural implications of the EIC in contemporary politics have been offered: the influence of the ideals of power in the public scope, the uneven power relations and their power in defining identities and London’s discriminative interpretation of the EIC and imperialism. The power of this imperial artefact in the determination of identities has been contended and the implications of this delineated. Consequently, this exhibits the prevailing lack of cultural sensitivity demonstrated by those dominating London’s hierarchies and thus deduces that the ethos of imperialism lives on. Further, so to offer sufficient attention to the cultural implications and issues in contemporary politics in London, this essay has not provided with a solution to the matter as a result of the textual constraint. While this can be as a limitation, I hope that it has provided with a thorough analysis of implications and the reasons for these, from which further work can be produced to address these issues. 


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