Tom Hardy plays James Keziah Delaney
Well, that was before Taboo came to the screen in the corner of the sitting room. Taboo is the gritty Georgian saga you’ve always wanted, complete with mystical tea traders and dogs which feed on the suicides who jump off Blackfriars Bridge into the Thames. Body-ripping, as it were, rather than bodice-ripping.
Mind you, the flesh-eating hounds are far from being the darkest thing in Taboo.
If you have unaccountably missed the series so far, Taboo tells of the return to London in 1814 of James Keziah Delaney, a hulking, swaggering adventurer, played by the hulking, swaggering actor Tom Hardy.
When not proposing incest to his half sister (and we are still not at the darkest thing in the show), the top-hatted Delaney fights for his inheritance, a piece of prime real estate in the Pacific Northwest. Nootka Sound is the gateway to China, and the East India Company covet it.
Cue the menacing music. Yes, the East India Company.
Delaney is a piece of work, but fictional. The East India Company is a piece of work, but real. And very dark.
One of Taboo’s creators, Stephen Knight, also the brains behind Brummie gangster hit Peaky Blinders, has said that the East India Company was “the equivalent of the CIA, the NSA, and the biggest, baddest multinational corporation on earth, all rolled into one self-righteous, religiously-motivated monolith.” Not a fan, then.
Stephen Knight is in crowded company. From novelist EM Forster in A Passage to India to the makers of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the East India Company is the arty squad’s favourite corporate villain. But, really, how just how big and bad was the East India Company?
Known to historians, who always like a lazy abbreviation, as the ‘EIC’, the East India Company is the ultimate rags to riches tale. Concerned that the English were falling behind the Dutch in international commerce, Queen Elizabeth I granted over 200 English merchants the monopoly on all trade in the East Indies. She could do that. She was the Queen.
The EIC’s first expedition left for Asia in 1601 with four ships commanded by James Lancaster. It returned two years later with a cargo of pepper weighing 500 tons. James Lancaster was duly knighted for his services. And the investors made money. Lots of money.
The East India Company was one self-righteous, religiously-motivated monolith
Spices were nice, yet sharp noses at East India sniffed even bigger profits in the trading of cotton and silk from India. Within a century, the Company dominated the entire global textile trade, and secured bases in India by flattery and beads. It had also amassed its own army.
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At Plassey in India in 1757 the EIC’s army, led by Robert Clive, put down a local insurgency against the Company’s rule. What happened in those twelve hours in an obscure corner of Bengal in 1757 altered the course of history. Thanks to Clive the EIC – a bunch of wideboy entrepreneurs with a private security force – grabbed control of almost the entire Indian subcontinent.
The British did not conquer India. The East India Company did.
In its pomp, the East India Company ruled over tens of millions in India, as well as peoples in less glorious outposts in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Ships with the EIC’s white and red stripes on their flagpoles outnumbered those flying the Union Jack.
The Company’s 260,000-strong army was bigger than Britain’s. The Company’s grandiose London office, East India House, outshone Buck House in its magnificence.
The Revenant London premiere
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Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy walk the red carpet at the UK premiere of The Revenant in London's Leicester Square.
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Leonardo DiCaprio, Willl Poulter and Tom Hardy arrive at The Revenant UK premiere
With justification, the EIC styled itself the ‘grandest society of merchants in the universe’.
If ‘biggest’ multinational is difficult to deny, what about ‘baddest’? The first years of Company rule in India were notorious for their profiteering, the so-called “shaking of the pagoda tree”. Company bosses amassed fortunes Croesus would have swooned at, often through outright villainy.
Taxes levied on Indians by the Company were often little more than the demanding of money with menaces. One Indian witness to the EIC’s ‘tax collection’ noted in his diary: “Indians were tortured to disclose their treasure; cities, towns and villages ransacked.”
Indian farmers were ordered to grow indigo and opium for the Company’s bottom line, rather than food for themselves. Result? The 1770 Bengal Famine, during which an estimated ten million Indians, a third of the population, died.
Then there was the Company’s illegal supply of opium to China, in return for its tea. Drug-running, in a word.
The mantra of Josiah Child, sometime boss of the EIC, was to engage “in commerce with a sword in your hand”. Company employees in India really did take him at his word. In 1857 ‘natives’ across the sub-continent mutinied against the EIC’s regime. To supress the Great Rebellion the Company hung tens of thousands of suspected rebels, others were strapped to the front of cannons and blown apart.
Taboo, BBC1, Saturday, 9.15pm
Pretty evil, huh? But let’s get real. India’s indigenous royalty was quite prepared to trade in blood if the occasion arose. When the Nawab of Bengal got into a dispute with the EIC, his troops incarcerated Company employees in conditions so terrible that 123 of 146 them died overnight – the infamous ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’.
No company on the make in the imperial era acted better than the EIC, and some acted worse. The Dutch East India Company’s murder of 10,000 ethnic Chinese in a fortnight at Batavia in 1740 can only be described as genocide. The Dutch EIC – now there really is a contender for ‘baddest’ multinational.
In Taboo, Stephen Knight has confused the EIC with the Illuminati, the shadowy cabal that conspiracy loons believe rules the world. The East India Company, grunts the show’s hero James Delaney, is “the beast with a million eyes, and million ears”.
By 1814, the year of Taboo, the EIC, far from being a centralized enterprise with a frightening CIA-like capacity for gathering intelligence, did not know what it was doing, let alone anyone else was up to.
Its bubble had burst. Falling revenues had forced the Company to go cap in hand to the Bank of England for a colossal bailout. (Yes, even in Georgian times we saved banks because they were “too big to fail”). A foul-mouthed chancer with some land off the coast of Canada would not have made it to the agenda of a EIC Board meeting, let alone be considered worthy of an assassination plot. Or several.
Even in India, the EIC was, to use a Delaney-ish phrase, ‘ballsing’ everything up, hence the locals’ Great Rebellion in 1857. Tired of the EIC’s endless incompetence, the British Government nationalised the company and took direct control of its Indian possessions, thus founding the ‘British Raj’.
The EIC was powerless to prevent the takeover. The tiger turned out to be made of paper.
Taboo, BBC1, Saturday, 9.15pm. John Lewis-Stempel’s latest book is Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War.