AceHistoryDesk – Whenever in recent years a Conservative leader has run into trouble, Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, has had the task of detecting at what point the situation has become irretrievable, and informing him or her that the moment to admit defeat has arrived.
Sir Graham performs this trying duty with the grace, probity and discretion of a senior doctor informing a patient that there is no more that can be done and the end is nigh.
He is trusted to count the letters in which Conservative MPs demand a vote of confidence in their leader, to announce when the threshold of 15 per cent of the parliamentary party has been met, to conduct along with his colleagues the resulting vote, and to take whatever action may then be required.
If Rishi Sunak were to be forced out, the ’22 would play a crucial role in deciding who was to succeed him, and on past form this would probably not be whoever the press thought was the frontrunner.
Sir Graham’s probity, professionalism and discretion mean, however, he is unlikely ever to offer the world a full account of what he does. That would mean breaking confidences.
And this is a grave difficulty for anyone who sets out to write an account of the ’22. The sources are sparse, because those who know what happened are too reputable to spill the beans.
Which is one reason why there are only two histories of the ’22. One, by Sir Philip Goodhart, was published in 1973, to mark the 50th anniversary of its founding. The other is the book under review, marking the centenary.
Some of the best shafts of insight are provided by MPs who took an irreverent view. We owe to Julian Critchley, writing in 1994 in A Bag of Boiled Sweets, the preservation of Walder’s law, coined in the 1960s by David Walder, MP for High Peak, which stated that at any meeting of the ’22 “the first three people to speak from the floor on any matter whatsoever were invariably mad”.
Critchley also recognised the importance of the ’22 in magnifying what were otherwise the insignificant opinions of isolated backbenchers:
“The individual backbencher does not count for much…but the ’22 does matter; the anger of two hundred or so backbenchers when focussed upon a man or an issue can destroy the reputation of a minister…or force a resignation…; it can also gravely weaken the standing of the Prime Minister of the day.”
So Norton has hit on a subject of the first importance, albeit one which at the beginning was not very important at all. The ’22 was founded in 1923, by Conservative MPs first elected in November 1922, of whom there were 111. Gervais Rentoul, the new MP for Lowestoft, took the initiative:
“After consulting a few colleagues who were chafing, as I was, against the feeling of ineffectiveness and bewilderment, an invitation was issued to all the newcomers to meet in one of the committee rooms and discuss what could be done about it.”
These MPs needed to learn how the Commons worked: always a difficult question for the newcomer. There was a feeling, too, that the party leader, Stanley Baldwin, did not adequately consult MPs, and that party organisation should be placed “upon a democratic basis”.
But the ’22 was not, at first, of any real significance. In his memoirs, published in 1944, Rentoul devoted only two chapters out of 40 to this body which he himself had founded, and which had soon came to include all Conservative backbenchers.
The formation in 1940 of the wartime coalition marked an important change, for as Norton says, the ’22 now became “the only authentic Conservative voice”.
It was a forum in which members could raise issues they did not wish, given the need for wartime unity, to raise in the Chamber. Conservative MPs were worried that Labour was benefitting more than they were from the coalition, and that the war itself was being badly conducted.
One of the joint secretaries of the ’22, J.E. Crowder, told a meeting in Finchley that “Conservative members are getting very restive and are very tired of all the Left Wing propaganda, especially that generated by the BBC.”
But this was not the whole story. Labour ministers who attended meetings of the ’22 appeared generally to be well received, with Clement Attlee in 1941 making “a favourable impression”.
After the Labour victory in 1945, many Conservative MPs doubted whether Winston Churchill should stay on as party leader, and his performances in front of the ’22 were only sometimes good enough to dispel these reservations.
Churchill had anointed Sir Anthony Eden as his successor, but once the latter had led Britain into the Suez debacle, the ’22 became, in November 1956, the setting for a showdown between the candidates to succeed him.
Harold Macmillan managed, in a brilliant 35-minute speech to the ’22, to give the impression that some kind of a victory had occurred at Suez, and to offer hope that the Conservative Party could win the next election.
Rab Butler, who addressed the same meeting, was a flop. The press continued to believe Butler would succeed Eden, but as so often happens the press was wrong, for it was Macmillan who six weeks later became Prime Minister.
In 1963, when Macmillan stood down, John Morrison, the Chairman of the ’22, gave Butler, once more a contender for the leadership, the crushing news that “the chaps won’t have you”.
Alec Douglas-Home came through as the unexpected victor of that contest, and proceeded to change the rules: his successor would be elected by the party’s MPs, with the Chairman of the ’22 responsible for the conduct of the ballot and “all matters in relation thereto”.
So whenever the leader is weak, the ’22 becomes crucial, both in deciding when he or she has to go, and in electing a new leader.
All this is related by Norton. He has written an admirable textbook about this obscure body which plays a vital role in crowning and defenestrating Conservative leaders, and therefore in the British Constitution.
This is not, however, an account which can be read with any particular delight. For that, and for the flavour of parliamentary life, one should turn to the diaries of Chips Channon or Alan Clark.
AceHistoryDesk – Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, is usually credited with having introduced the Christmas tree into England in 1840. However, the honour of establishing this tradition in the United Kingdom rightfully belongs to ‘good Queen Charlotte’, the German wife of George III, who set up the first known English tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800.
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Legend has it that Queen Charlotte’s compatriot, Martin Luther, the religious reformer, invented the Christmas tree.
One winter’s night in 1536, so the story goes, Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he suddenly looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.
Certainly by 1605 decorated Christmas trees had made their appearance in Southern Germany.
For in that year an anonymous writer recorded how at Yuletide the inhabitants of Strasburg ‘set up fir trees in the parlours … and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.’
In other parts of Germany box trees or yews were brought indoors at Christmas instead of firs.
And in the duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, where Queen Charlotte grew up, it was the custom to deck out a single yew branch.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) visited Mecklenburg-Strelitz in December, 1798, and was much struck by the yew-branch ceremony that he witnessed there, the following account of which he wrote in a letter to his wife dated April 23rd, 1799:
‘On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlours is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough … and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces’.
When young Charlotte left Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761, and came over to England to marry King George, she brought with her many of the customs that she had practised as a child, including the setting up of a yew branch in the house at Christmas.
But at the English Court the Queen transformed the essentially private yew-branch ritual of her homeland into a more public celebration that could be enjoyed by her family, their friends and all the members of the Royal Household.
Queen Charlotte placed her yew bough not in some poky little parlour, but in one of the largest rooms at Kew Palace or Windsor Castle.
Assisted by her ladies-in-waiting, she herself dressed the bough. And when all the wax tapers had been lit, the whole Court gathered round and sang carols. The festivity ended with a distribution of gifts from the branch, which included such items as clothes, jewels, plate, toys and sweets.
These royal yew boughs caused quite a stir among the nobility, who had never seen anything like them before. But it was nothing to the sensation created in 1800, when the first real English Christmas tree appeared at court.
That year Queen Charlotte planned to hold a large Christmas party for the children of all the principal families in Windsor.
And casting about in her mind for a special treat to give the youngsters, she suddenly decided that instead of the customary yew bough, she would pot up an entire yew tree, cover it with baubles and fruit, load it with presents and stand it in the middle of the drawing-room floor at Queen’s Lodge. Such a tree, she considered, would make an enchanting spectacle for the little ones to gaze upon. It certainly did. When the children arrived at the house on the evening of Christmas Day and beheld that magical tree, all aglitter with tinsel and glass, they believed themselves transported straight to fairyland and their happiness knew no bounds.
Dr John Watkins, one of Queen Charlotte’s biographers, who attended the party, provides us with a vivid description of this captivating tree ‘from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles’.
He adds that ‘after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted’.
Christmas trees now became all the rage in English upper-class circles, where they formed the focal point at countless children’s gatherings. As in Germany, any handy evergreen tree might be uprooted for the purpose; yews, box trees, pines or firs.
But they were invariably candle-lit, adorned with trinkets and surrounded by piles of presents. Trees placed on table tops usually also had either a Noah’s Ark or a model farm and numerous gaily-painted wooden animals set out among the presents beneath the branches to add extra allurement to the scene. From family archives we learn, for example, that in December 1802, George, 2nd Lord Kenyon, was buying ‘candles for the tree’ that he placed in his drawing room at No. 35 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. That in 1804 Frederick, fifth Earl of Bristol, had ‘a Christmas tree’ for his children at Ickworth Lodge, Suffolk. And that in 1807 William Cavendish-Bentinck, Duke of Portland, the then prime minister, set up a Christmas tree at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, ‘for a juvenile party’.
By the time Queen Charlotte died in 1818, the Christmas-tree tradition was firmly established in society, and it continued to flourish throughout the 1820s and 30s.
The fullest description of these early English Yuletide trees is to be found in the diary of Charles Greville, the witty, cultured Clerk of the Privy Council, who in 1829 spent his Christmas holidays at Panshanger, Hertfordshire, home to Peter, 5th Earl Cowper, and his wife Lady Emily.
Greville’s fellow house guests were Princess Dorothea von Lieven, wife of the German Ambassador, Lord John Russell, Frederick Lamb, M. de la Rochefoucauld and M. de Montrond, all of whom were brilliant conversationalists.
Greville makes no mention of any of the bons motsthat he must have heard at every meal, however, or of the indoor games and the riding, skating and shooting that always took place at Panshanger at Christmas. No. The only things that really seem to have impressed him were the exquisite little spruce firs that Princess Lieven set up on Christmas Day to amuse the Cowpers’ youngest children William, Charles and Frances. ‘Three trees in great pots’, he tells us, ‘were put upon a long table covered with pink linen; each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles – blue, green, red and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, books and various other articles – presents made to the owner of the tree. It was very pretty’.
When in December, 1840, Prince Albert imported several spruce firs from his native Coburg, they were no novelty to the aristocracy, therefore.
But it was not until periodicals such as the Illustrated London News, Cassell’s Magazine and The Graphic began to depict and minutely to describe the royal Christmas trees every year from 1845 until the late 1850s, that the custom of setting up such trees in their own homes caught on with the masses in England.
By 1860, however, there was scarcely a well-off family in the land that did not sport a Christmas tree in parlour or hall.
And all the December parties held for pauper children at this date featured gift-laden Christmas trees as their main attraction. The spruce fir was now generally accepted as the festive tree par excellence, but the branches of these firs were no longer cut into artificial tiers or layers as in Germany, but were allowed to remain intact, with candles and ornaments arranged randomly over them, as at the present day.
Whatever their type or mode of decoration, Christmas trees have always delighted both children and adults alike.
But perhaps no tree ever gave greater pleasure than that first magnificent Yuletide tree set up so thoughtfully by Queen Charlotte for the enjoyment of the infants of Windsor.
The National Trust confirmed that the seeds from the 200-year-old tree are expected to be able to grow new trees.
The sycamore at Hadrian’s Wall was a popular destination for hikers and tourists before it was cut down in September.
The National Trust’s Andy Jasper said he hoped “the trunk of the original tree will regrow” and the seeds could be used to grow “new descendants”.
‘Strong, sturdy saplings’
Work is being carried out at the National Trust’s rare plant propagation nursery to grow saplings from the sycamore.
Mr Jasper said that despite it not being the right time of year to carry out the work, it is hoped more than 30% of the mature seeds and half of the cuttings are viable.
He said: “Over the next year, we’ll be doing all we can to nurture the seeds and cuttings, in the hope that some will grow into strong, sturdy saplings – providing a new future for this much-loved tree.”
While it is hoped that the original tree will regrow from its trunk, it will take up to three years before experts know if this is possible, the National Trust said.
The organisation is preparing to launch an appeal that will go towards plans for the site and the tree’s wood.
A spokesperson for the National Trust said the most popular suggestion from the public is to commemorate the tree through a sculpture or artwork.
Any artwork created would not be placed at the gap itself due to the protected nature of the site.
Instead, the trust is looking for “an appropriate public location” for the artwork.
National Trust Images – Bec Hughes
Work being carried out to move the Sycamore Gap tree in October
The public is being invited to share photos and memories of the tree.
The recollections will be added to a temporary exhibition at The Sill, Northumberland National Park Authority’s visitor hub.
Andrew Poad, general manager at the National Trust, said:
“ Any photos and memories we receive will be used to help create potential future exhibitions, inform our next steps for honouring the tree and aid the ambition of creating 3D imaging of the tree.”
A police investigation was launched following the tree’s felling and forensic officers were seen taking measurements and samples from its remains.
Two men in their 30s have been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage and have since been bailed.
AceHistoryDesk – Late on the evening of December 3, 1926, Agatha Christie walked up the stairs of her stately English mansion, kissed her seven-year-old daughter goodnight, got in her car and drove away in the dark.
It could have been the plot from one of her bestselling mystery novels.
She had spent the day quarrelling with her husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, who had recently announced that he was in love with a younger woman and would soon be leaving his family behind.
Instead, it was his wife who fled.
For the next 11 days, the most famous woman in the world was gone, sparking a nationwide manhunt that involved 1,000 police officers, 15,000 volunteers, bloodhounds and aeroplanes.
Fellow detective writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle engaged the services of a psychic to try to track down his missing colleague.
One newspaper offered a reward roughly equivalent to $A9,500.
But then Archibald dropped a bombshell: Perhaps his wife was hiding in plain sight.
“She may have disguised herself by altering the style of her hairdressing and by wearing glasses,” the Daily News tabloid wrote on December 11.
“Colonel Christie says his wife has stated that she could disappear at will if she liked, and, in view of the fact that she was a writer of detective stories, it would be very natural for her.”
At the time of her disappearance, Archibald had plenty to hide, and as suspicion began to fall on him, he panicked.
“It is absolutely untrue to suggest that there was anything in the nature of a row or a tiff,” he told reporters.
“I strongly deprecate introducing any tittle-tattle into this matter.”
Finally, after 11 days gone, Agatha was found nearly 300 kilometres from her home.
She had checked herself into a spa in Yorkshire under the name of her husband’s girlfriend and appeared to be confused about her identity.
“She does not know who she is,” Archibald told reporters.
“She has suffered from the most complete loss of memory.”
From this strange episode, two conflicting narratives emerged.
In one, Agatha was a woman in crisis, driven into a fugue state by the recent death of her mother, her collapsing marriage, and intense pressure from her publisher to deliver yet another bestseller.
In the other, she was a shrewd manipulator — the original Gone Girl — who orchestrated her own whodunnit to humiliate Archibald for his philandering.
For the rest of her life, she was reluctant to speak about her 11 missing days.
She may have been the master of the genre, but the only Agatha Christie mystery that can never be solved is her own disappearance.
A woman vanishes from the ‘unlucky house’
On the surface of things, Agatha’s life looked perfect.
Her sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was published in mid-1926 and it was an instant hit, transforming the 36-year-old from a successful novelist into a global celebrity.
She and Archibald, a dashing former military officer who was by then a successful businessman, had recently bought a 12-bedroom mansion in rural Berkshire.
Many locals warned them it was an “unlucky house”, and everyone who lived there was eventually beset with romantic and financial woes.
But they didn’t care.
They wanted to raise their daughter Rosalind there. It was the perfect place for Agatha to write, and the local golf course was in walking distance so that Archibald could practise his swing.
Perhaps they believed they could transform the house’s fortunes.
But as 1926 drew to a close, the family’s luck was running out.
Agatha’s mother died earlier in the year, and she had spent months at her childhood home sorting through her affairs.
While she was away, Archibald met Nancy Neele, a woman 10 years their junior.
By the time Agatha returned, her husband asked for a divorce so he could marry his new lover.
The mood in the unlucky house grew dark.
On the evening of December 3, Agatha called Archibald’s office to find out where he was, and learned that he was staying with friends for the weekend.
Among them? Ms Neele.
As she wandered the halls of the mansion that was meant to their forever home, something broke inside of Agatha.
She wrote three letters — one to her secretary, one to Archibald, and one to her brother-in-law.
Leaving Rosalind in the care of household staff, Agatha packed some of her things in her car and drove away.
The next morning, the car was found abandoned, crashed into a hedge with its front wheels dangling over a quarry.
Her licence and other belongings were on the front seat, but the author was nowhere to be found.
The police search riddled with red herrings
With tabloids constantly seeking scandal for their pages, news of Agatha’s disappearance spread around the world in a matter of days.
As with any good Agatha Christie mystery, the saga was riddled with missed clues and red herrings.
While Archibald burned the letter from his wife and refused to tell police what was in it, his brother, Campbell Christie said Agatha had written to let him know she was going to a Yorkshire spa for a few days.
But police were unconvinced by the letter and insisted the most important clue of all was the abandoned car.
Believing she may have died or taken her life, a team of bloodhounds, as well as Agatha’s “favourite terrier”, were sent to scour nearby fields, but came up with nothing.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a passionate believer in mysticism, fairies and ghosts.
He asked to borrow one of Agatha’s gloves, which he gave to a spirit medium so she could perform a seance.
The medium insisted Agatha was a victim of “foul play” and she could be found at the bottom of a local lake, known as the Silent Pool.
Police dragged the lake twice, but came up empty.
With his wife missing and the tabloids scrutinising their lives, Archibald made a decision that he perhaps hoped would divert attention from himself and Ms Neele.
He told reporters he believed his wife had staged her own disappearance to work out the mechanics of her next murder mystery.
His claim took the intense interest in the case and turned it into a global obsession.
With her face on the front page of newspapers and a substantial reward on the table, it seemed that every Briton was hunting for Agatha.
Among them were the guests at the Harrogate Hydro, a luxury spa in England’s north.
After days of drinking gin cocktails and dancing the charleston with a mystery woman, they realised Agatha Christie had been in their midst all along.
‘Mrs Christie is a very elusive person’
On December 4, 1926, a woman arrived at the Harrogate Hydro in a taxi.
She had no luggage with her, but staff reported that she seemed well and unharmed, and checked herself in under the name “Mrs Teresa Neele of Cape Town”.
Mrs Neele enjoyed the spa treatments offered by the hotel, went shopping, and played billiards with the other guests.
They too were abuzz with the mystery surrounding Agatha Christie, but Mrs Neele didn’t seem particularly interested when she saw the story in the newspapers.
“Mrs Christie is a very elusive person,” a guest later recalled her saying.
“I cannot be bothered with her.”
After more than a week in her presence, guests and staff started to suspect Mrs Neele was, in fact, the missing author.
A banjo player with the hotel’s band, the Happy Hydro Boys, reported his suspicions to police and claimed the $9,500 reward.
The next day, Archibald and several police officers came to the hotel and found Agatha there.
But she didn’t seem to recognise her husband, initially mistaking him for her brother.
Agatha eventually remembered who she really was.
But she remained dazed and distressed as Archibald drove her away from the hotel and took her to her sister’s house to recover — and elude the press.
“My wife’s memory is completely gone, and three years have dropped out of her life,” Archibald told reporters.
“She recognises me but does not recall our child Rosalind. It is a terrible tragedy.”
In 1926, there was little understanding of mental health, and almost no empathy for a woman who made her own money — particularly one who did so by spinning twisted tales about murder and intrigue.
For the rest of her life, Agatha was haunted by accusations that she concocted this little drama, perhaps for publicity, or perhaps in an attempt to ruin Archibald’s life.
‘Up until this moment I was Mrs Christie’
Agatha chose to speak only once about her missing 11 days.
In 1928, two years after her disappearance, she was finally divorcing Archibald and concerned he might attempt to gain sole custody of their daughter.
So she agreed to an interview with the Daily Mail in the hope of putting the saga behind her — and convincing the courts that she should be trusted with Rosalind’s care.
“I just wanted my life to end,” she told the paper of the day she disappeared in 1926.
“All that night I drove aimlessly about … In my mind there was the vague idea of ending everything.”
She said she crashed her car and hit her head, and as she staggered down the wintry country roads looking for help, something strange happened.
“Up to this moment I was Mrs Christie,” she said.
The queen of crime fiction, always praised for her complex, believable characters, created a new identity for herself.
“As Mrs Neele, I was very happy and contented,” she explained, insisting she truly believed herself to be a young woman who had just arrived in England from South Africa.
She had only vague recollections of how she ended up at the spa in Yorkshire, but remembered that once she was there, she failed to recognise her own face in the papers.
“At Harrogate, I read every day about Mrs Christie’s disappearance … I regarded her as having acted stupidly,” she said.
Many historians and biographers believe Agatha’s story, and say she had all the hallmarks of having slipped into a fugue state.
Those who have experienced these episodes of dissociative amnesia describe it as losing time.
They suddenly come back to themselves in an unfamiliar place with no memory of how they got there. They might not even remember their own name.
“It’s time to do something radical,” biographer Lucy Worsley wrote in Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman.
“To listen to what Christie says, to understand she had a range of experiences unhelpfully labelled as ‘loss of memory’, and, perhaps most importantly, when she says she was suffering, to believe her.”
A week after their divorce, Archibald married Nancy Neele, while Agatha got custody of Rosalind and was allowed to keep the name upon which she built her career.
With her marriage over, Agatha was adrift.
She decided to do what she loved most: She went on an adventure, travelling on the long-distance passenger service, the Orient Express, to the Middle East.
The journey would inspire one of her most beloved novels, Murder on the Orient Express.
And during her travels, she went to Iraq, where she met Max Mallowan, a handsome British archaeologist, who was 13 years her junior.
They married six months later, and stayed together for the rest of her life.
“I like living,” she wrote in her memoir.
“I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”Agatha Christie and her second husband, Max Mallowan stayed together for the rest of her life.
AceHistoryDesk – Today, Walmart is the biggest corporation in the world. Imagine, if you will, that in addition to making money from its global retail operation, Walmart was also the ruler of a country, collected taxes from millions of people and maintained a standing army of a quarter of a million men. The idea is absurd, and yet, that’s exactly the position the East India Company found itself in in the 18th and 19th centuries. But how?
The year was 1599 and a group of English businessmen and adventurers gathered together in London. They agreed to form a company to exploit the growing demand for goods such as textiles and spices coming from the East Indies, in particular India and parts of Southeast Asia. The aim was to get a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I that would grant them the exclusive rights to trade with the East. In 1600, the charter was granted and the East India Company came into being.
Eight years after gaining its charter, the East India Company founded its first permanent settlement in India – Fort St. George on the Bay of Bengal. At the time, England was just one of several European countries vying to dominate trade with the East Indies. England’s main competitors were the Netherlands and France, both of which established trading posts on the subcontinent. It remained to be seen who of the three would win the race to exploit the fabulous wealth of what was then the largest economy in the world.
Following the establishment of Fort St. George, the company was keen to expand operations as its coffers began to fill up from its Bengal operation. The turning point came in 1613 when the company obtained a permit from the Mughal Emperor Nur-ud-din Salim Jahangir to open a factory in the Mughal city of Surat. The establishment of this new trading post further cemented the company’s grip on trade in the region.
After Surat, the East India Company continued to expand its operations across India throughout the 17th century and into the 18th. Times were good and the profits were rolling in, but what turned a trading company into the biggest, most powerful corporation on the planet and a de facto sovereign state?
Firstly, the company became very adept at forming alliances and backing the right horse. The East India Company started to take sides with one local ruler over another when provinces it was interested in expanding into went to war. In return for their support, the company was rewarded with more contracts and more opportunities. The East India Company had gone into the diplomacy game, and it proved remarkably good at it.
Secondly, the company’s main rivals, France and the Netherlands, were eventually pushed out of the subcontinent except for a handful of mostly irrelevant trading settlements. The Netherlands pretty much bowed out of India following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the appointment of Dutchman William of Orange as the new King of England. Now allies, England focussed its efforts on protecting and exploiting its Indian interests, while the Dutch increasingly turned their attention to exploiting the spice trade of the Far East. England’s only other serious rival, France, was knocked out of the game when she and her ally Spain lost the Seven Years War of the 1750s and 1760s. With no rivals left on the board, the East India Company could now focus on the next phase of their corporate expansion – rule.
Rulers of India
By the 1750s, the East India Company had its own private army, and it was this army, under the command of Robert Clive, that defeated the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Following Clive’s victory, Bengal came under company control. It now had the power to raise taxes from millions of people and this marked the start of an expansion that would eventually see the company rule India.
One by one, the company’s armies – made up of enlisted men from Britain and native regiments known as ‘sepoys’ – scored victory after victory over the country’s network of regional rulers. The four Anglo-Mysore wars during the last three decades of the 18th century saw the company take control of most of the subcontinent, and the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s brought the Punjab and its fearsome warriors under the company’s wing. By the 1850s, the East India Company was the ruler of India. Any threat to the company’s dominance was kept at bay by Britain’s vast, nigh-on unbeatable Royal Navy. It seemed that the company was unstoppable. Trouble, however, was on the horizon.
The end of the East India Company came not from defeat on the battlefield, but from within the ranks of ‘John Company’, its native army of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. In 1857, a rumour began doing the rounds that a new type of rifle cartridge was about to be foisted on the troops that were greased with forbidden pork and cow fat. Before long, the company’s troops were in open rebellion, killing British officers and their families, burning their homes to the ground and rampaging across the countryside. The Indian Mutiny could have toppled the company had it not been brutally brought under control by the British.
After the rebellion was quashed, it was concluded in London that India must come under direct British rule. In 1858, Britain took over the government of the subcontinent, bringing an end to 100 years of company control, and marking the start of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire – the British Raj. The East India Company limped on for a few more years before finally being wound up on 1st June 1874.
‘It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other trading Company ever attempted,’ said The Times of London as the company was in its death throes, ‘and such as none, surely, is likely to attempt in the years to come.’
Facts about the East India Company
The British government granted the company the right to sell Chinese tea in America without paying the same taxes other exporters were forced to pay. The outrage this caused amongst colonists led to the Boston Tea Party, which in turn sparked the American War of Independence.
The company’s involvement in the Chinese opium trade led to the two Opium Wars of the 1830s and the 1850s. When China decided to ban opium and destroy the company’s stocks, the British government sent a naval expedition to force the Chinese to pay reparations and keep the trade open. The second war, waged against China by Britain and France, led to the legalisation of opium – something which China is still understandably angry about to this day.
The biggest blot in the company’s copybook is the Great Bengal Famine of 1770. The company, in charge of Bengal at the time following its victory at Plassey in 1757, bought up most of the region’s rice supplies for its troops and refused to lower taxes, both of which were major contributing factors in the deaths of between eight and ten million people.