1As is true of studies of other long-lived institutions, most investigations of the English East India Company, 1600-1858, are simultaneously expansive and specific. The Company’s primary records provide rich, local detail, while its temporal breadth and geographic reach allow global generalizations. This behemoth of the early modern world was a trading firm that devolved into an imperial state. The East India Company gave the world innovations in accounting, finance, and risk management. Its state-of-the-art ships brought the treasures of the tropics—pepper, cotton and silk textiles, spices, coffee, and tea—to the tables and wardrobes of European households. It brought European military discipline to generations of soldiers and seamen. Through its court system, it spread tenets of European jurisprudence that date back to the Magna Carta. By the mid eighteenth century, the Company’s capacity to generate tax revenue made it the object of Parliament’s attention and continuous intervention. Across five continents and two and a half centuries, this transnational trader marked multiple literatures, including business history, the history of capitalism, monetary history, history of economic and political thought, plus textile, transportation, imperial, and military history.
2In historiographical terms, the two books under review—the late Philip Lawson’s The East India Company (1993) and Emily Erikson’s Between Monopoly and Free Trade (2014)—are like old and new aerial roots of a great banyan tree. Each serves its own readers, establishing distinct domains of relevance. At the same time, each text is densely intertwined with diverse literatures crossing wide intellectual surfaces. Let us begin with a summary of the two texts before exploring their similarities and differences.
3A historian of Hanoverian London and empire, Lawson provided in The East India Company: A History, an accessible summary of the vast secondary literature through the early the 1990s. He aimed for an introduction to the Company. Organized chronologically, each chapter synthesizes distinct episodes in the Company’s political and institutional evolution. In its first half century, the Company began tentatively as a series of terminal joint stocks. From the Restoration of the British monarchy (1660) to the unification of the two rival East India Companies (1709), the Company’s overseas settlements multiplied rapidly as its cargoes shifted away from spices and increasingly centered on hand-woven textiles from South Asia. The first half of the eighteenth century marked a period of continuous commercial expansion including the development of the tea trade via supercargoes to China.
4The mid-eighteenth century turmoil, beginning in the Carnatic and Bengal and then back to and from London, consumes two chapters and leverages the author’s expertise. Especially from 1763, Lawson firmly situates the East India Company and the emerging Indian Empire in the center of contemporary British politics. Far beyond the Plains of Abraham, the imperial dimension in British politics, for Lawson, emerged most clearly in Parliament’s East India Inquiry of 1767. Attempts by government to regulate the surplus from foreign commerce, including remarkable forms of material surplus such as the diwani of Bengal, were viewed as impingements on the sacred property rights of private citizens and public companies. Regulation of the Company met with vigorous opposition for decades, Lawson carefully describes.
- 1 Other titles that might be considered for course syllabi include Roy (2012), Bowen (2011), Robbins (...)
5The chapter covering the period from 1784-1813 is aptly titled “The Company Set Adrift.” By this period, Chairman Lawrence Sulivan and the old defenders of the Company had retired. The Company had lost its commercial ethos, even while order lists were filled, warehouses were stocked and auctions conducted. Lawson clearly describes how the Company’s commerce succumbed to the sword. The assumption of the diwani of Bengal undermined the Company’s financial viability by a massive expansion in military expenditures and the failure to generate revenues realizable in London. The last chapter covers the closing decades of the Company which by this stage became a vehicle of imperial administration. At once concise and nuanced, Lawson’s account remains the standard scholarly introduction to the Company.1
6Writing twenty years later, Erikson, a quantitative sociologist, explores the East India Company in terms of ports visited by Company ships. Her research monograph argues that from 1600-1757 the Company’s “success” owed primarily to the decentralized decision-making authority accorded to ships’ captains. The authority granted to captains altered the Company’s transportation network, the set of ports (nodes) and ships passing between the ports (edges), over time. Erikson’s ability to construct such a network owes completely to the monumental efforts of the late Anthony Farrington, a legendary scholar and archivist of the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collections. Her research depends on his published records of Company shipping logs. For Erikson, the physical transportation network serves as a synecdoche for the Company as a whole. Thus a captain’s contingent, real-time choice to visit an Asian port represents the Company’s central dynamism.
7Erikson finds balancing on the captains’ mighty shoulders more than the fate of the Company: the course of global economies. The early chapters introduce the Company and position the investigation as a case study in analytical sociology. She then links the Company to a numerous literatures on global history of the early modern period. After contrasting the English company favorably, albeit incompletely, to the Dutch, French, other European East India companies, chapters 4 and 5 turn to the heart of the argument: flexible decision rights explain the organization’s structure and resilience.
8The decision to visit a specific port in a specific period of time, she argues in chapter 4, depended on whether or not a) the London office ordered the captain to visit that site, b) the captain visited the port in the past and, c) whether another Company ship had visited that port in the recent past. The prior visitation of another East Indiaman suggested that information travelled across captains through social engagements facilitated by coffee houses, punch houses, the factories, and the forts’ common tables. After controlling for several exogenous variables, her results suggest that deference to formal orders (a) had the biggest impact on the choice of whether or not a port was visited. She carefully reveals how the role of orders from London declined with the experience level of the captain. She shows that the role of information transfer from other captains (c), which she calls “social networks,” as having a statistically significant impact on captain’s individual choice. This is the heart of her story: “Social networks expanded the portfolio of active ports and reduced the concentration of trade on any one port.” (103). Put simply, from a physical transportation network, a social network variable is defined. She then shows how the “social network” variable affects the transportation network, a proxy for the whole organization, over time.
9In the next chapter, she teases an additional insight from the transportation network data: nearly a third of all voyages had the hallmarks of opportunism and these voyages were essential to the network’s overall connectedness and information flow. A voyage was deemed as opportunistic if it was delayed in returning to London and if a cyclic pattern of port visits appeared in the logs. Removing these voyages from the whole shipping network breaks the network into separate components, increasing the cost of information transfer among captains.
10The next two chapters synthesize the vast Indian Ocean trading world in terms of its impact upon the East India Company. Chapter 6 creates a taxonomy of ports across the Indian Ocean to prepare for the structural analysis that unfolds in chapter 7. Her Polanyi-inspired grouping of Asian ports into seven abstract socio-economic categories will surprise scholars of Indian Ocean studies or experts in any of the distinct geographic or cultural areas. Her singular focus on categorizing types of societies centered on ports primes the analysis of chapter 7. Here she examines the arrival of English company ships by type of port visited in order to examine variations in the amount of time the English spent in different types of Asian societies. She finds that the English ships spent most of their time in “open cities” and “market societies.” This reveals for her that the Company’s “success” depended as much upon ship captains’ flexible decision rights as upon preexisting commercial environments.
11While it may seem that the similarities between the primer and research monograph under review begin and end with their shared subject matter, one parallel is worth observing. Neither is an economic history in the sense of using methods of economic analysis. Both employ techniques familiar to business or management history broadly, however. Lawson’s rich biographical detail, particularly of Robert Clive, infuses historical agents with complex moral character and, like much of traditional business history, reminds readers of the importance of “the vital few” in making transformational change. Erikson’s connection with management theory resonates with the network approach to multinational firms of Ghosal and Bartlett (1990). She also draws heavily on social science history literatures linking social networks with social change in the early modern period (Adams, 2005). The books’ partial overlap with economic history underscores the significant inter-disciplinary fluency required for progress in economic history itself.
- 2 See for example Nechtman (2010), MacKillop (2008) and publications related to the research project (...)
12While Lawson and Erikson affirm the Company’s organizational integrity, distinct from any nationalist history, the authors differ fundamentally in how to characterize the firm. Lawson situates the Company as a business institution at the center of British politics in the mid-eighteenth century. Erikson regards the organization as a dynamic transportation network arising from decentralized choice. Such differences in the way the Company is characterized has led to diverging turns in the literature. Writing in the early 1990s, Lawson brought the Company’s evolution to wider audiences especially in the West. He anticipated subsequent research on how the East India Company impacted Britain well beyond the arena of foreign trade policy.2 Similarly, Erikson’s emphasis on decentralized authority has brought to the fore a collection of articles on the dual public and private nature of other European chartered companies (see Erikson, 2015). The initial characterization of the Company, like the initial placement of a banyan tree’s roots, alters the topography of the literature.
13Beyond the initial framing, both volumes differ methodologically and would benefit by borrowing methods used by the other. Consider how the newer monograph can employ techniques from the older. Erikson’s central figure, the ship’s captain, remains strangely out of focus. The reader does not know his age, home county, pathways into the service, earnings levels from private trade, etc. The characters at the heart of her social network story are celebrated in chapter 4 for their independence and collaborative information sharing. Yet in chapter 5 the captains are vilified for the very same reasons. The variance in moral assessments reflects the insufficient attention to and theorizing about the social contexts in which captains, ship owners, and Company directors operated. Indeed, Erikson’s work is filled with unevenness in attention. For example, the reader is not made aware of the range of decisions a captain makes over a typical day, yet is microscopically informed as to the many variables determining the choice of port. A narrative, institutional history would, as behavioral economics would, emphasize the context of choice as much as the consequences of choice.
14Consider too the advantage of the newer research contribution over the older narrative. Erikson’s methodology mines published archival research to tie the integrity of the firm with the connectedness of the shipping network. Quite creatively, she locates the captain’s peer influence and also locates when captains strayed from formal orders in a transportation network data set. That capacity to conceive, operationalize, and measure what is not literally evident in the sources, in this case decentralized decision-rights, is the hallmark of excellence in social science history. It can distill institutional stories, such as Lawson’s, of great men and high politics into distinguishable parts.
15Lawson and Erikson reveal that East India Company history resists easy reduction. Lawson is not inclined toward definitive explanations of the Company’s “success”; Erikson is, so long as “success” remains ill-defined. Each rendition of John Company will leave readers wanting more.