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Humshehri: Thinking Pakistan's History

Thinking Pakistan's History

East India Company

Urdu Version

The East India Company’s ships first arrived in the subcontinent in 1608 and led the way for the establishment of the British Empire in India.

Last Updated: 31 Jul. 2014

Establishing trade

In 1600 the British East India Company was granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth I allowing it monopoly over all trade with the East Indies and Africa. Its first ships arrived in the subcontinent in 1608 at Surat, during the rule of Emperor Jahangir. The British lived for several years at court but Jahangir refused to grant them trading rights for fear of offending the Portuguese. Two important incidents, the defeat of Portuguese ships by the British near Surat and the Portuguese plundering of a ship belonging to Jahangir’s mother, shifted the balance in favor of the British. Thus the British were granted rights to establish trading posts in 1615 and in return they agreed to protect Mughal ships from the Portuguese.

Gradually the East India Company expanded its trading operation in the subcontinent. It created trading posts in Surat (1615) and then in Madras (1639). It established headquarters in Bombay in 1674 and founded the town of Calcutta in 1690. When suspected of avoiding taxes by Aurangzeb in 1691, it was forced to pay a heavy fine in order to continue trading. By 1740 about 10% of the British revenue originated from the subcontinent.


Company trade consisted mainly of the export of cotton, silk and spices. Indian cotton was particularly popular as it had bright colors and was considered superior in quality to anything produced in Britain at the time. The designs on the printed cotton were even customized to meet British tastes. Very quickly textiles came to dominate the trade between the two countries.

A ruling enterprise

British East India coin
(Archeology online)

As the East India Company gained wealth it slowly transformed from a trading to a ruling enterprise. The Company gained the right to rule indirectly in 1757, at the Battle of Plassey, when it was able to defeat the forces of the Nawab of Bengal. And in 1764 it fought the decisive Battle of Buxar. These victories forced the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II, to appoint it revenue collector of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Over the years, the Company gained power over even more regions in the subcontinent. The British Government began play a role in the affairs of the Company, exercising greater control over administration and eventually taking over formally in 1858.

Find out more

Books & Articles

Bajwa, Farooq N. “The Rise of Muslim Nationalism.” Pakistan: A Historical and Contemporary Look. Revised ed. Karachi: Oxford UP, 2002.

Lal, Vinay. “East India Company.” Manas: History and Politics. UCLA, 2008.

Marshall, Peter. “The British Presence in India in the 18th Century.” BBC History. BBC, 2011.

Meyer, William S., et al. Imperial Gazetteer of India. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon, 1908-1931. Digital South Asia Library. University of Chicago.

“The British in South Asia.” Victoria & Albert Museum.


BBC Radio: This Sceptred Isle (A 90 part history of the British Empire) – Episode 12: The Spice Trade & Episode 24: Trading with India