Monday, May 21, 2007

Book Review

Holden Furber’s John Company at work: a study of European expansion in the late eighteenth century was written in 1948 and examines the rise of the British East India Company during the eighteenth century. Furber begins the book with a description of British controlled India in 1783. His goal in writing the book is “to tell how European expansion took place in India and to describe the consequences of the growth of European power in India at the close of the eighteenth century.”[1] He focuses on the decade between the American and French revolutions, when the “consolidation of European power in India” took place.[2] Furber argues that “by thoroughly understanding what happened during one decade, we can gain a clearer conception of what occurred before and hat came after.”[3

Furber divides his work into nine chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of European expansion in India. After a look at British India during the years of 1783-1785, Furber discusses the rivalry between the English and the French in India. England’s goal according to Furber was to eliminate all competition from India ensuring that they would reign supreme. England’s competition in the form of the Dutch and the French were dependant on them for shipping their trade back to their home countries.

The second half of the book examines the activities of the East India Company at three centers in India: Bombay, Bengal, and Madras. Furber argues that the Company was “robbed and cheated right and left by officials and servants who profited at the expense of the old John Company.”[4] He concludes that “the Company in its corporate capacity was simply a tool used by groups of individuals who cared not a whit what the balance sheet looked like so long as their private ends were served.”[5] In the final chapter Furber discusses that additional studies of English economic activity in India are needed due to the fact that the drain of Indian wealth was offset “ by an increase in wealth among the Indian mercantile community, for which European activity was primarily, though indirectly, responsible.”[6]

Overall, Furber’s work is an excellent analysis of the East India Company during the latter eighteenth century. He used a variety of sources and used the archival records of the East India Company and British colonial administration extensively. Furber’s work just barely touches the history of East India Company, but he gave future historians plenty of unexplored territory to pursue.

[1] Holden Furber, John Company at work: a study of European expansion in the late eighteenth century, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), vii.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 269.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 312.