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The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company Hardcover – May 1, 1994

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

For 213 years, beginning around 1700, the "incorrigible pioneering" of merchant traders of the East India Company furthered the "peculiarly diffuse character" of the British Empire. British author Keay tells an ambitious story with sweep and brio, encompassing the company's origins as a "bane of bedraggled pioneers" in search of spices in the remote Indonesian archipelago; its role in the 1690 founding of Calcutta (an episode of "commercial greed and political mayhem"); and the opening up of China in 1700, which was to become the company's most profitable trade. Keay not only portays some of the adventurers and potentates who encountered one another but also grasps the details of trade, some more momentous than others: one missive from London to India mixed declarations of war with Spain and complaints about a bar bill. The company's monopoly charter was eventually broken not by rival traders but by British manufacturers wanting more overseas outlets for their products. If, as Keay notes, there are "enough incomplete histories of the Company to justify a health warning," then this book is a salubrious contribution. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Conventional wisdom has it that the commercial imperialism of the early English trading companies was intertwined with the political imperialism of the expanding British empire. In this reexamination of the English East India Company, Keay, an author and broadcaster specializing in Asian history, acknowledges that "but for the Company there would have been not only no British India but also no global British Empire." But he also shows that the triumph of imperialism helped bring about the downfall of the company by eliminating its monopolies and creating conditions for the 1857 Indian mutiny. Keay's title is intentionally ironic; he reports, "venal and disreputable, [the company's] servants were believed to have betrayed their race by begetting a half caste tribe of Anglo-Indians, and their nation by corrupt government and extortionate trade." Published two years ago in Britain and cited as one of that year's three best books by the Financial Times (London), The Honourable Company fascinatingly illuminates one of the lesser-known chapters of Asian history. David Rouse
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 474 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (May 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0025611690
  • ISBN-13: 978-0025611696
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #287,835 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Leslie Reissner on March 30, 2003
Format: Paperback
The East India Company, which described itself as "the Grandest Society of Merchants in the Universe," controlled half the world's trade at its height. This grand book, obviously the subject of many years of research, often reads more like an adventure yarn than a book about a business, even the grandest in the universe. The Company, which received its Royal Charter on the last day of 1600, moved through a series of fits and starts, disasters and triumphs, as it moved through a turbulent 220 years of history. From its initial fumbling start on the obscure nutmeg island of Run, it eventually turned into a quasi-government ruling vast parts of India and the most important enterprise in the China trade. It outlasted absolute monarchy in Britain, and saw the rise of the modern corporation.
John Keay has done a masterful job of telling this story, but look at the material he has had to work with! The Honourable Company often seems to have been pretty dishonourable, characterized by ferocious infighting, both in the headquarters in London and overseas. The characters who set up trading operations in far-flung corners of the world appear to have been either indolent drunks or superhumans burning with ambition. There are enough pirates and battles and exotic names to please any reader. And the leitmotiv of British salesmen anxiously trying to unload tweed cloth to unidentifiable buyers in the tropics.
The East India Company, although a monopoly, had competition. It came from many sources, including the Dutch, the French and particularly from "interlopers," traders working on their own account. The Company also had to compete with its own employees who, paid a pittance, conducted business on their own accounts as well.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By N. Clarke on March 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
From the author of the impressive _India: A History_ comes this compact but consistently informative study of the English East India Company, from its origins in the last days of the sixteenth century to the first decades of the nineteenth. This is narrative history at its best, packed with detail, incident and striking characters. Keay fills his pages with entertaining curios and arresting anecdotes, ensuring that the human elements are never lost amid the sweep of history. The geographical and historical sweep is broad, and the focus does not remain unwaveringly upon the Company's servants, but takes in details of societies ranging from London to Japan.
For the student of the period, there is enough sharp analysis here to provide a useful overview/introduction to the issues of the period. For the general reader, there's a wonderful tale encompassing everything from early modern finance to a harem in Sumatra. Wonderful.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By nto62 on February 21, 2006
Format: Paperback
Recording 200+ years of East India Company history is no small feat for, in such a work, this far-flung commercial enterprise produces a litany of ships, ports, merchandise, employees, currencies, costs, indigenous rulers, company directors, parliamentarians, military men, privateers, and scalawags. That John Keay kept it straight is admirable. That the reader can is even more so.

The Honourable Company is a witty, insightful and, at times, painstakingly detailed account of the East India Company's cyclical expansion, retraction, retrenchment, and re-expansion over the course of three centuries. From the island of St. Helena to Canton, China, Keay patiently plots the monopoly's course. Ever eager to highlight the irony, inanity, and ignominy characteristic of such an enterprise, Keay provides several humorous asides in addition to those moments when the reader can't but shake his head at these haughty, ill-informed, greedy and grasping monopolists.

Well-researched, well-written, and a delight to consume, The Honourable Company suffers only when the blander details of global trade begin to inhibit it's otherwise excellent pace. The sheer volume of material required to catalog an endeavor of this magnitude makes it difficult to entice the reader page after page. Yet, John Keay pulls it off smartly and for this The Honourable Company merits a rating of 4+ stars.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By chasgray@compuserve.com on September 18, 1998
Format: Hardcover
This book beautifully reveals the nucleus of all that is present day England, and illustrates the basis of the English Empire and the export of that philosophy to the USA. In short, this book exposes the foundations of modern day Anglo-Saxon economic imperialism. This is where it ALL started. From here you can go on to the books by Peter C Newman about the Hudson Bay Company, and more close to home, and equally fascinating, a whole series of books about the Great Game and Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk. From there..."Empires of the Monsoon" is great reading as is Younghusband and Rice's Burton. From here you have a great series of books to read - but start with Keay's masterpiece. You'll say - why havent I heard of this before. . . . .
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Michael Jaffarian on January 4, 2008
Format: Paperback
At times I loved the writing. Plenty of great, amazing, 17th century adventure stories. It got hard to keep track of the characters. He fails to step back often enough and remind the reader of the broader patterns. In fact, I'm not sure he sees them himself. Plenty of material on British insensitive arrogance. Page 308 f is a hilarious story. I was unaware of how the French and British jostled for power in India in the 1700s. It would have been better with more maps and illustrations inserted at appropriate places. See page 424 for unfair cynicism. Much mockery of the company and its leaders. The title of the book is itself a mockery. This book is a reaction against the older, hero-oriented British imperial histories.
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