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From Robbery to ‘Free Trade’: British Politics and the Intensification of the Colonial Exploitation

Some Unusual Concern for India

As the eighteenth century rolled into its penultimate decade, we observe some curious activity in the Palace of Westminster – home to the two houses of British parliament. The British political establishment at large, irrespective of party difference, was getting vocally critical of the East India Company (henceforth EIC), despite it having begun an empire in India for Britain (which soon more than compensated for the loss of another in North America). For example, on May 23 1781, Lord North, a Tory[1] and then Prime Minister of Great Britain, announced in the House of Commons the formation of a ‘Committee of the whole House’ to evaluate the affairs of the EIC, apparently because it was being too profligate with its expenses and getting into debts. This seemingly overpopulated and cumbersome Committee took a while to form its conclusions. When it finally tabled its report in the House of Commons on March 12 1783, a lively discussion ensued. None other than the philosopher Edmund Burke, then a Whig politician and MP, rose to contribute to it at a point. Though he was not against the EIC being provided financial relief, Burke was sure that it could not continue in the current vein. He emphatically told his fellow MPs that “The relief and reformation of the Company must go together.”[2] The Tory government in power, it appears, had come around to the same point of view, because we soon see it getting candid about the depredations of the EIC in India. On April 14 1783, thus, William Pitt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, confessed to the House of Commons that “enormous abuses” had been committed in the management of its Indian affairs by the EIC.[3] In about a year’s time, Mr. Pitt, by now the Prime Minister, came clean on how he thought these abuses must be remedied. It could be done, he thought, by depriving of political authority the men of commerce who had, by quirks of fortune, come to rule swathes of India. William Pitt declared in the House of Commons on January 14 1784 that

“the political concerns of this country in India, that is, the civil and military government of India, the political establishments, the political system, the collection of the revenues, and to give it one short and general definition, the imperial dominion of our territories in the East, ought to be placed under other control than that of the company of merchants in Leadenhall street…”[4]

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