Please Note: The  house flag and word mark 'P&O' are Trade Marks of the DP World Company


The East India Company, also known as the Honourable East India Company, East India Trading Company, the English East India Company or the British East India Company, and informally known as 'John Company', Company Bahadur, or simply The Company was an English, and later British, joint-stock company founded in 1600.

This work is my very personal meander through the myths and legends that have accreted around the history of 'John Company',

like barnacles on the hulls of its East Indiamen......

Contrary to popular belief, however, the East India Company did not actually own its ships, which were called East Indiamen,

preferring to charter them instead.

East Indiamen were the largest merchant ships regularly built during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, generally measuring between 1100 and 1400 tons burthen - where 'burthen' or BOM - Builders Old Measurements - used in England from approximately 1650 to 1849 for calculating the cargo capacity of a ship.

Length - 3/5 Beam x Beam x Half Beam all divided by 94

And, curiously, why did the newly formed P&O Company name their fine new ship, the 'Bentinck'

Here she is passing Aden, January 3rd 1844, on her first voyage in the Indian Seas. National Maritime Museum Greenwich

John Company dominated immigration, exchange and trade between Britain and the East Indies.

The Company was formed during India's Mughal Empire of the 1500s and 1600s. Bengal was the richest province, described by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb as ‘the paradise of nations’. The availability of good raw materials from Bengal and a highly productive agricultural sector, along with a sophisticated division of labour in cloth-production, meant that the region soon attracted European merchants. The Portuguese were pioneers, establishing a presence in 1535. A century later, the Dutch took their place, along with the English.

The East India Company itself was established by Royal Charter in 1600, and soon, its operations stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to India and South East Asia.  Its ultimate purpose was a profit-making business venture, which eventually led to direct British rule in India. The Company’s first trading factory opened in India in 1615.  Its ships brought back precious cargoes of much sought after goods to London and, by the 1720s, Bengal was contributing over half of the Company’s imports from Asia. The East India Company’s governors boasted of ‘conducting commerce with a sword’.  However, its initial attempt to enter the Indian market was prevented by the Mughals.

The Battle of Plassy by Richard Simkin

The keystone battle for the British in India, fought on 23rd June 1757, was won with treachery and tarpaulins, which were used to keep their powder dry.

In 1707, after the death of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, seen above, the Company used bribery to gain trading rights in Bengal, Hyderabad and Gujarat – only to be eventually expelled from Bengal!  Half a century later, the Company – by now dominant in the region, regained its power over Bengal on 23rd June 1757, at the Battle of Plassey – and its trade between Bengal and Britain quickly began to expand.

The first East India Company dock had been built as long ago as 1614 near the present day Tower Hamlets Council Town Hall at Mulberry Place, in Blackwall. Over the following centuries, dockyards, warehouses, foundries, saw-mills and cordage works grew to meet the needs of the new international shipping industry. This led to a demand for the migration of cheap labour from India. A parallel growth of factories along the coast of India also created a need for employees to administer this operation – hence the number of British people moving - often temporarily - to India. The virtual monopoly over Indian trade that the East India Company held meant that the majority of Indians arriving in Britain in the early 18th century were employed by the Company. Most were low-paid and badly treated Lascar sailors, who manned the ships, but house-servants such as ayahs and man-servants working for families returning from India, added to their number. Like the Lascars, many of the servants would have been Bengali, as Calcutta was one of the East India Company’s most important bases.

The East India Company’s vital importance to the development of London's East End, and its links to Bengal cannot be overemphasised.

In the absence of government controls, the Company effectively acted as a ruler of East Asia and India, setting the foundations for Crown rule through the trade of goods and people, the intervention in Indian affairs and ultimately, the establishment of the British Raj in India. British direct rule over India was established in 1857, and the subcontinent was opened to wider commerce. Lascar sailors, who had already been coming to Britain on board East India Company ships, arrived in increasing numbers - many as soldiers maintaining the British Raj in its various overseas colonies.

The East India Company was not the only employer – the establishment of the Indian Terminus of the P&O shipping company in Calcutta in 1842 led to the employment of large numbers of Bengali Lascars. Sadly, they tended to be at the bottom of British Merchant Navy hierarchies and were often denied employment rights.

The Navigation Act of 1660, repealed in 1849, stipulated that crews on ships importing goods and returning to Asia had to be three-quarters English. As a result, if a  ship arrived in Britain with a crew made up of more than 25 per cent of Asians, some would inevitably be forced out of employment, to become stranded in London.

In 1782, East India Company records describe Lascars arriving at their Leadenhall Street offices, ‘reduced to great distress and applying to us for relief’.

Warren Hastings, the Governor General of British India from 1773-1784, opened the posts to the public in March 1774. Prior to this the main purpose of the postal system had been to serve the commercial interests of the East India Company.

Serving economic and political needs of the ruling authority remained a driving force in the development of the postal service.

India in 1837 and 1857 showing the East India Company's territories in pink.......

The Post Office Act of 1837 gave the British government, through their Lords of The Admiralty, the exclusive right to convey letters in the territories of the East India Company.

The East India Company Ship of War Berenice, flying the company flag from her gaff. 

In 1852, one of the East India Company's ships was forced to put into Aden for engine repairs.

Her Captain, undoubtedly a loyal company servant, considered it expedient to send the mail on in a native dhow, which, as luck would have it - was lost with all hands..........

As far as the British Admiralty was concerned, this was the final straw, and the government offered the lucrative route to P&O.

In 1854 the East India Company was forced to abandon the highly profitable service, which had been steadily earning them £50,000 pounds a year -

£5,800,000 a year in today's money!

'The East India Company remains today history's most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power - and the insidious

means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state.' William Dalrymple, The Anarchy

The takeover of Mughal India, was an exercise in opportunism, violence, shamelessness and greed on the grandest scale.

We like to talk of Britain conquering India, but that pompous boast hides a far more sinister reality: the British Government did not in fact seize large parts of the sub-continent in the mid eighteenth century - it left that task to a dangerously unregulated private company, housed in impressive offices, not a stone's throw from the soon to be incorporated Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company of Leadenhall Street, London. 

East India House, Leadenhall Street, London

Incorporated by royal charter on 31st December 1600, the company was formed to share in the lucrative East Indian spice trade, as a monopolistic trading body. The company soon became involved in politics and acted as an agent of British imperialism in India from the early 18th century to the mid-19th century.

Its commercial monopoly was broken in 1813, and from 1834 it was merely a managing agency for the British government of India. Deprived of that role after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 - by 1874, it had ceased to exist as a legal entity.

The East India Company Stock Redemption Act of 1873 effectively dissolved the East India Company. Under the Act, The Crown assumed all governmental responsibilities held by The Company 'for the Better Government of India'. The Company’s 24,000-man military force was incorporated into the British Army, leaving it with only a shadow of the power it had wielded years earlier. Its legacy however, was to last forever, as quoted by The Times in 1874,

“The East India Company accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other company ever attempted and as such is likely to attempt in the years to come.”

Today, its brand name is owned by two brothers from Kerela, who sell condiments and fine foods from their premises in London's Conduit Street, just off Regent Street.

Recommended Reading......

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the East India Company relied on slave labour, trafficking slaves from West and East Africa - especially Mozambique and Madagascar - transporting them to its holdings in India. Although small in comparison with transatlantic slave-trading enterprises such as the Royal African Company, the East India Company crucially relied on transfers of slaves with specialized skills and experience to manage many of its India interests.

The East India Company controlled its own army, which by 1800 comprised some 200,000 soldiers, more than twice the strength of the British Army. Unregulated, driven by a heady mix of greed and hubris, it used its armed force to subdue Indian states and principalities with which it had initially entered into trading agreements. It enforced ruinous taxation, carried out officially sanctioned looting, and indulged in the economic exploitation of both skilled and unskilled Indian labour.

From 1780 - 1784, the East India Company was engaged in conflict with the Kingdom of Mysore, a key French ally in India.

No one in the 18th century made the hearts of the English ‘lions’ quake with fear as much as the infamous Tipu Sultan.

Known as the Tiger of Mysore, so safe and just was his reign, his court poets tell us: “the deer of the forest make their pillow of the lion and tiger, and their mattress of the leopard and panther.”

Tipu Sultan was the son of Haider Ali Khan, a talented soldier, who wrested control of Mysore from the Dalwais, or Commanders-in-Chief, who had usurped all effective power from the previous king. Haider Ali subjugated the petty local chieftains and grew Mysore into a powerhouse within the Indian sub continent. During the First and Second Anglo-Mysore Wars, Haider Ali had brought the British to their knees. 

In September 1780, Tipu and his 10,000 cavalry and infantry surrounded a combined East India Company and Indian force and inflicted on them the worst defeat the British had suffered in India. 

Tipu assumed the title of Sultan and took his father's throne on 29th December 1782.

He was the last ruler in India strong enough to dictate terms to the East India Company, and fought long and hard, although ultimately unsuccessfully, to preserve his country's independence.

Tipu Sultan’s soldiers struck terror in the British, both in India and at home.

He was defeated and killed in the Siege of Seringapatam on 4th May 1799.

The Last Effort and Fall of Tipu Sultan, Henry Singleton (1766-1839)

“Tipu Sultan is far from the character he has been represented to us; instead of being a friend to peace, he had proved himself a restless, treacherous, inhuman tyrant. He is entirely influenced by French politics, and has four battalions of Dutch, Portuguese, and French in his service… his army is well appointed, and more formidable than that of his father Haider Ali."

An anonymous officer in the East India Company’s service writing in the English press.......

With their most formidable foe vanquished, the British under General Lord Cornwallis had regained their honour, and in the days following Tipu’s defeat, British soldiers looted a bounty of coins, jewels, richly worked cloth, furniture, weapons and carpets, which were distributed to the rank and file and officers alike.

General Lord Cornwallis receiving Tipu Sultan’s sons as hostages - National Army Museum

"I have lighted a different fire in the heart.

 I have brought a tale from the Deccan…

There I heard from his holy grave;

If one cannot live a manly life in this world

Then to sacrifice life, like a man, is life! "

Tipu Sultan Mohammad Iqbal, the noted Urdu poet, who meditated at Tipu Sultan’s tomb in 1929, 

Tipu Sultan's Tiger, was arguably the most infamous automaton of the eighteenth century - made for Tipu Sultan in the image of a tiger mauling a British soldier.

From his rise to power in 1783, and even after his death beneath the walls of his citadel in 1799, Tipu Sultan was an iconic figure.

Victoria and Albert Museum

“Aussitôt que le jour

Illuminait les cieux de sa lueur divine

Un de ses serviteurs agitait la machine

Et le maitre eveillé repassait des ses deux yeux

De l’infernal jouet, et le bruit odieux

Rallumait sa fureur et remontait sa haine

Contre les conquerants de la terre indienne”

In 1843, P&O's Bentinck was one of the first ships to service the Company's Eastern mail route, between Suez and Calcutta.

But who was Bentinck? And why name a ship after him?

Lord William Henry Cavendish Bentinck GCB, GCH, PC

By 1835, the finances of the East India Company, had reached a parlous state, and in 1837 the late Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, asked Brodie Willcox and Arthur Anderson of Peninsular, if they could build up a mail service through to Calcutta. However, the Peninsular was not firmly established and Willcox and Anderson were understandably preoccupied. Notwithstanding, they continued to work with Bentinck, and Charles Wood of the Admiralty - and by the end of 1839 they had reached a decision, and on 17th January 1840, the Treasury forwarded a plan to the Admiralty for the 'accelerated transmission' of the Indian and Mediterranean mails by Messrs Willcox and Anderson....

The Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company was born.

The second Son of William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, William was educated at Westminster School, purchasing an Ensign's commission in the Coldstream Guards in 1791 at the age of 16. In 1803, much to his surprise, he was appointed Governor of Madras, and promoted Major-General on 1st January 1805. Although his tenure was moderately successful, it was brought to an end by the Vellore Mutiny in 1806, prompted by Bentinck's order that the native troops be forbidden to wear their traditional attire. Only after serious violence was order restored and the offending policy rescinded. Bentinck was recalled to London in 1807. Following service in the Peninsular War, he was appointed commander of all British troops in Sicily, where he had a tendency to interfere in local affairs, determining to see the establishment of a Sicilian Constitution, earning him the nickname 'La Bestia Feroce - the ferocious beast......

according to Queen Maria Carolina of Austria, Queen of Naples and Sicily.

In 1828, he was appointed Governor General of Bengal, where his principal concern was to breathe new life into the loss-making East India Company.

He had his work cut out, ensuring that its charter would be renewed by the British Government.

He started by introducing a great many necessary cost-cutting measures, including reducing the pay of military officers, which made him few friends but did enable him to establish the Calcutta Medical College - and reform the Indian court system,


before going on to put an immediate ban on Sati - and female infanticide - the custom of killing newly born girls - together with all forms of human sacrifice.  To say he 'hit the ground running' would have been an understatement!

He was also personally responsible for eradicating the 'Thugs', a well organised confederacy of professional assassins, devotees of the god Karli.

Their modus operandi was to befriend unsuspecting travellers, before strangling them with a 'pugree' scarf, under the pretext of an ancient rite.

By dint of sheer hard work and attention to detail, by 1833, Bentinck, the Governor-General of Bengal, had rightly become the first Governor-General of all India.  With his reputation greatly and significantly enhanced, he left India in 1835, regarded as the one man who bought the greatest honour to Europe in Asia. His rule having been widely considered wise, humane, judicious and pragmatic.

During the latter part of his government Bentinck's health became seriously impaired, and he was spending the hot season on the Nilgiris, the mountain sanatorium of the Madras presidency, when the change in the constitution of the supreme government took effect in India.

He resigned the government and embarked for England on 20th March 1835, his departure being much regretted both by Europeans and natives, with the former of whom his early unpopularity had yielded to a sense of his singleness of purpose, and of his earnestness and capacity as an administrator. After his departure a statue in his honour was erected at Calcutta bearing this inscription from the pen of Macaulay: ‘To William Cavendish Bentinck, who during seven years ruled India with eminent prudence, integrity, and benevolence; who, placed at the head of a great empire, never laid aside the simplicity and moderation of a private citizen; who infused into oriental despotism the spirit of British freedom; who never forgot that the end of government is the happiness of the governed; who abolished cruel rites; who effaced humiliating distinctions; who gave liberty to the expression of public opinion; whose constant study it was to elevate the intellectual and moral character of the nations committed to his charge, this monument was erected by men who, differing in race, in manners, in language, and in religion, cherish, with equal veneration and gratitude, the memory of his wise, upright, and paternal administration.’

Statue of Lord William Cavendish Bentinck at Calcutta, with the domed roof of Government House just visible.

James Mill , the utilitarian philosopher, writing shortly after Bentinck's return from India, described him as ‘a man worth making much of, I assure you. When I consider what he is, and what he has done in a most important and difficult situation, I know not where to look for his like.’

 John Clark Marshman, the English journalist and  editor of the Calcutta based 'Friend of India' writes of Bentinck's administration that ‘it marks the most memorable period of improvement between the days of Lord Cornwallis and Lord Dalhousie, and forms a salient point in the history of Indian reform.’

Back at Westminster, Bentinck refused a peerage, partly because he had no children and partly because he wanted to stand for Parliament, entering the House of Commons as a Whig Member for Glasgow.

Bentinck survived his retirement from the government of India little more than four years, dying at Paris on 17 June 1839. He was elected member for Glasgow in the liberal interest in Feb. 1836 and was re-elected at the general election of 1837, retaining the seat until a few days before his death. He had previously declined a peerage. He was married in 1803 to Lady Mary Acheson, second daughter of Arthur, first earl of Gosford, who survived him. He had no issue.

The Indian Mutiny was a series of generally unconnected military revolts of native Indian soldiers, frequently accompanied by bloody atrocities and suppressed by the British with equal savagery, against the rule and authority of the East India Company.

It was also perhaps the inevitable clash of British ‘civilization’ with Indian customs, traditions, and religion.

The savage conflict shocked the British establishment, and was a pivotal event in British and Indian history.

Mangal Pandey was a soldier in the Bengal Native Infantry and a key figure behind the Sepoy Mutiny - India's First War of Independence.


Since the middle of the 18th Century, the demand for Chinese tea in Britain and America grew at such a pace that it became the principal source of profit for the East India Company. The import taxes alone accounted for a full ten percent of Britain's revenues. If one added to this the other imports from China: silk, porcelain and lacquer-ware, then it becomes evident that Britain's demand for Chinese imports was well nigh insatiable. By contrast however, China showed little or no interest in importing British made goods. Three centuries later, little has changed: Chinese goods now represent an overwhelming amount of UK imports! In the 18th Century, as today, there was an immense outpouring of coin from Britain. But by the early 18th Century, the Portuguese had discovered that they could import opium from India and sell it in China at a considerable profit. By 1773 the British had discovered the trade, and that year they became the leading suppliers to the Chinese market.

The extracted juice of a species of poppy - Papaver somniferum, obtained from the unripe capsules by incision and spontaneous evaporation, worked into cakes, balls, or sticks, of a reddish-brown colour, heavy smell, and bitter taste; valuable as a sedative and narcotic drug, and much used as a stimulant and intoxicant, esp. in the East...

Source: Oxford English Dictionary

Le Pavoit Blanc - Opium Poppy

Source: Porte-feuille des enfans, vol. !, no. 99, by Charles Frederic, 1795.
The East India Company established a monopoly on opium cultivation in the Indian province of Bengal, where they developed a method of growing opium poppies cheaply and abundantly. Other Western countries soon joined in the trade, including the United States.

The Stacking Room, opium factory at Patna, drawings by Lieut.-Colonel Walter S. Sherwill, The Graphic, 24 June 1882

Photo:Fernand Honore, "L'Opium en Indo-Chine," in L'illiustration, 1896

The amount of opium imported into China increased from about 200 chests annually in 1729 to roughly 1,000 chests in 1767 and then to about 10,000 per year between 1820 and 1830. The weight of each chest averaged approximately 140 pounds. By 1838 the amount had grown to some 40,000 chests imported into China annually.

For the first time, the balance of payments began to run against China and in favour of Britain, with the East India Company the major beneficiary.

The Opium ships at Lintin, China, 1824 from a painting in the possession of John Gover Esq

In the early 19th century, fleets of Opium Ships unloaded their cargoes into local craft, known as Scrambling Dragons’ (p’a-lung) or Fast Crabs’( k’uai-hsieh) at Lintin, outside the Bocca Tigris, a narrow strait in the Pearl River Delta.

The boats were fast and typically armed to the teeth, and crewed by fierce Tanka river men.


In 1847, shortly after the Opium War, P&O entered the opium trade - shipping 642,000 chests of Bengal and Malwa opium in the next eleven years. They faced stiff competition from the incumbent shippers, Jardines and the Apcar Line.


Recommended Reading......

Recommended Reading......

On the grand scale of an historical epic, River of Smoke follows its storm-tossed characters to the crowded harbours of China. There, despite efforts of the emperor to stop them, ships from Europe and India exchange their cargoes of opium for boxes of tea, silk, porcelain and silver. Among them are Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant out of Bombay, his estranged half-Chinese son Ah Fatt, the orphaned Paulette and a motley collection of others whose pursuit of romance, riches and a legendary rare flower have thrown together. All struggle to cope with their losses - and for some, unimaginable freedoms - in the alleys and crowded waterways of 19th century Canton.

British naval officers shaking hands with Chinese officials as Hong Kong is proclaimed a British territory, on 20th January 1841.

The transfer was made official a year later by the Treaty of Nanking. Picture published in the Illustrated London News. 

An 1846 view of Jardine's original building from Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

In the 1830s, Scotsmen William Jardine and James Matheson smuggled large quantities of opium into China, which eventually led to the Opium Wars with Britain, and kicking off a long period of foreign interference in China - referred to today by the Chinese Communist party as its “Century of Shame”.

Trafficking opium in Asia, while also trading cotton, tea, silk and a variety of other goods, from its early beginnings in Canton (modern day Guangzhou) in 1844 the firm established its head office in the new British colony of Hong Kong, then proceeded to expand all along the China Coast. By the end of the  nineteenth century, Jardine, Matheson & Co. had become the largest of the foreign trading companies in the Far East and had expanded its activities into sectors including shipping, cotton mills and railway construction.

Jardines has had a fraught relationship for most of its history with the rulers of China, from the Qing dynasty’s Daoguang Emperor, to the Communist party.

Along with the Swire Group, Jardines is one of the original foreign trading houses, known as Hongs.

By 1841, Jardines had 19 intercontinental clipper ships , complemented by hundreds of smaller lorchas and other craft used for coastal and upriver smuggling. As well as smuggling opium into China, Jardines traded sugar and spices from the Philippines, exported Chinese tea and silk to England, acted as cargo factors and insurance agents, rented out dockyard facilities and warehouse space as well as financed trade.

In 1840, Britain went to war with China over questions of trade, diplomacy, national dignity and, most importantly, drug trafficking.

While British officials tried to play down the illicit origins of the conflict, opponents gave it a name that made the link quite clear: the Opium War.

The war’s settlement forced Chinese ports open and gave Hong Kong to Britain.

It began what China still, today, calls the “Century of Humiliation,” when foreign powers forced weak Chinese governments to cede territory and sign unequal treaties.

Britain and France waged a second Opium War against China from 1856 to 1860.