British East India Company

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  • Established: 1600
  • Operated in Japan: 1613-1623
  • Abolished: 1857
  • Japanese: イギリス東インド会社 (Igirisu higashi indo kaisha)

The British, or English East India Company was a joint-stock company which was the chief agent of British mercantilist activity in South, Southeast, and East Asia in the early modern period. Unlike the Dutch East India Company, which remained active in Japan throughout much of the Edo period, the British presence in early modern Japan was limited to a period of only ten years, from 1613 to 1623.

The Company

Founded in 1600 by 101 English subscribers who pooled their funds into a joint-stock company (in which each owned equal shares of the capital), the EIC was soon afterwards granted a royal charter granting it a monopoly on importing goods from the East Indies. Like the Dutch East India Company which would be founded two years later, the EIC was granted a monopoly on all trade “East of the Cape of Good Hope but also in and beyond the straits of Magellan,” and (so far as English authorities had power to enforce it) access to all “Islands, Ports, Havens, Cities, Creeks, Towns, and Places” in that vast region; though they faced competition from the Dutch, Portuguese, and various groups of Asian merchants, the EIC were to have no competition from other English organizations. Also like the Dutch East India Company, the EIC was empowered to “make Peace or War with any Prince or People that are not Christians, in any Places of their Trade" - in other words, to engage in diplomatic and military actions as if they were a state unto themselves.[1]

Initially at least it claimed only one-tenth the capital of the Dutch East India Company, which was based at Amsterdam, a far more active center of banking and mercantile activity. The EIC moved into the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf and soon displaced Portuguese agents as the dominant European powers there. The Company traded chiefly in indigo, saltpeter, pepper, and cotton textiles. By the end of the 17th century, it had acquired control of ports on both coasts of India, including Fort St. George (Madras, 1639), Bombay (1661), and Calcutta (1690).[2]

The Company was headed at any given time by a board of 24 directors, elected annually from among those individuals who held at least £2000 in Company stock. All requests for employment, even for the lowest-ranking positions, went through this Board, and for most white-collar positions, one had to be nominated, and could not simply submit an application. Thus, gaining employment with the Company was largely a matter of personal networking. New employees had to pay a sizable bond, putting down £500 or £5000 (in the case of a factor), a means of ensuring one's good behavior; new employees, further, had to go through a three- or five-year probationary period of proving themselves before they would begin earning salary. Though salaries started quite low, they increased dramatically the longer one served the company, as did one's pension; after 10-20 years service, one could be earning a rather sizable annual pay. Further, employees were permitted to engage in their own personal, private, trade aboard Company ships, and otherwise using Company resources; this was an exceptionally significant aspect of the Company's operations, as it provided an incentive for people to seek employment with the Company, and to stay, and it provided an opportunity for an individual to become rather economically well-off, potentially from even just one successful deal.[3]

East India Company headquarters and warehouses in London, as well as the Company's factories overseas, were impressive structures, and some quite lavish. The short-lived EIC factory at Hirado, for example, included a garden with a koi pond, an orchard, and Japanese-style baths. The factories, as well as the London headquarters, all also incorporated extensive living spaces for the staff and their families. In the overseas factories, this was a matter of practicality, and of control, both providing the staff somewhere to live comfortably (according to English customs and desires), and limiting undesirable (e.g. violent) interactions with the locals.[3]

The Company gained official permission to trade at Canton in 1699, marking the beginning of its trade activities in mainland China. Though at first the Chinese insisted on silver and gold as payment, later on the EIC managed to substitute opium, grown in Bengal and other regions controlled by the Company. This (in)famously led to considerable addiction problems in China, tensions between the Chinese and British Courts, and the eventual outbreak of the so-called Opium War in 1840.

A special training institute, the East India College, was established in 1800 to train new clerks in history, law, classics, and South Asian languages.[3]

The Company was disbanded in 1857, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, after which India came under the direct control of the Crown. The East India College closed the following year, but later reopened and the site continues to operate as an educational institution today, under the name Haileybury and Imperial Services College.[3]

In Japan

Though the Englishman William Adams had come to Japan some years earlier, it was not until 1613 that the first official British East India Company vessel arrived in the islands. Captained by John Saris, the Clove arrived at Hirado on 1613/4/23 (June 11), and after meeting with Tokugawa Ieyasu, presenting to him their credentials and a gift of the first telescope believed to have ever left Europe, they established a headquarters, known as a factory, at Hirado sometime in the 9th or 10th month (November). Richard Cocks served as the first factor, overseeing a staff of roughly one dozen men, though branch offices were also established in Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo at that time.[4]

The following year, a ship captained by William Adams was denied supplies at Naha; the Company complained to Shimazu Iehisa and also requested permission from the shogunate to trade with Ryûkyû, but were not granted it.

Sold cannon to Tokugawa Ieyasu, as did the Dutch, which were then used in the Siege of Osaka.

In 1616, Europeans were restricted to Hirado.

By 1623, violence between the British and Dutch East India Companies in the region, vying for economic dominance and otherwise, reached a climax with the Amboyna massacre in the Dutch East Indies, in which twenty men in service to the EIC were killed by agents of the VOC. The English factory in Japan was closed in the 11th month that year, marking the end of any official British presence or involvement in Japan up until the Bakumatsu period over two hundred years later. One exception was the Phaeton Incident of 1808, in which a British ship, the HMS Phaeton, entered Nagasaki harbor in search of Dutch ships to attack; not finding any, it eventually was persuaded to leave.[5]


  1. Adam Clulow, “Like Lambs in Japan and Devils outside Their Land: Diplomacy, Violence, and Japanese Merchants in Southeast Asia,” Journal of World History 24:2 (2013), 352.
  2. Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 473, 495.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Amanda Ruggeri, "The world's most powerful corporation," BBC, 30 March 2016.
  4. "Historical Overview." Four Hundredth Anniversary of Japan-British Relations. Accessed 23 January 2013.
  5. Noell Wilson, "Tokugawa Defense Redux: Organizational Failure in the Phaeton Incident of 1808," Journal of Japanese Studies 36:1 (Winter 2010), 1-32.