Thursday, April 26, 2007

Book Review:William Foster, The English Factories in India, 1661-1669 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923).

The English Factories in India is published by Oxford’s Clarendon Press as a summation of the archival sources of the East India Company’s (EIC) factories in India beginning in 1618. The volumes that were edited before the advent of Sir William Foster are a collection of documents that print verbatim the original archival sources and lack an introductory essay to the material. Sir Foster’s work began with the year 1655 where he skillfully interweaves excerpts from the documents into his narrative in such a way that the account comes across more as a story, than that of dry bureaucratic documents. The volumes that are examined for the purpose of this précis are the years 1661 to 1669, which were pivotal years for the further development and growth of the EIC in India. During these years the English were able to obtain Bombay from the Portuguese as part of the marriage treaty between Charles II of England and Catharine of Braganza on 23 June 1661.

Each of the volumes deals with the individual factories at Surat, Bombay, the Malabar coast, Madras, Bengal, the Coromandel coast and others. Foster begins the 1661-1664 volume with the first English expedition to Bombay in order to carry out the transfer or Bombay from Portuguese to English hands in accord with the marriage treaty between these two nations. However, it was not until 1665 when the actual transfer of the city took place. Charles II instructed his representatives in the region in 1661 to allow the indigenous population of Bombay “to enjoy the exercise of their own religion without the least interruption or discountenance.”[1] However, the Portuguese in India “were very lukewarm in their patriotism, and were disposed to question the right of the Lisbon authorities to make over any part of their territory without their consent.”[2] The members of the expedition also criticized the “tyranny of the Jesuites” against the Hindu population, when the Hindu orphans were prohibited from being raised by members of their own family and instead “brought up in the Jesuites colledges, never suffering them to returne againe to their relations; which is a bondage very grievous to them.”[3]

Foster then turns his attention to the taking over of Bombay from the Crown to the EIC, the death of the great Sir George Oxenden, who served as the first governor in Bombay and the successes under Gerald’s Aungier’s tenure of Bombay. Besides looking at the political establishment in Bombay, the author also draws upon economics, culture and rivalries that existed within the company and the indigenous population. Finally, he concludes his examination with a review of the events at the factory on the Malabar coast.
Overall, this is an excellent synthesis of archival sources from the forty-eight factories that the EIC had in India over the course of the company’s history. Foster gives scholars an excellent starting point on what the actual records reveal, so that when the historian goes to the India Public Record Office in London, they will be able to better utilize their time in the archives more resourcefully. These editions of the records would also serve as an excellent way to introduce undergraduate majors to primary sources in the classroom, when such sources from the earlier eras are often lacking on the internet.
[1] Pg 128.
[2] 131.
[3] 144.