The kind of thing that keeps liberals awake at night – a private company with its own army – was a thriving part of England’s economy for 250 years and no one seemed at all bothered by it. In fact, it started with three ships and a Royal Charter under Elizabeth I and kept getting the royal imprimatur until Victoria. Even Cromwell gave it his blessing.
It was of course the British East India Company and the trade it created in India and China made the aristocracy that were on the board of directors so very, very rich that what was not to like? And the fact that the Company was willing to train and fund its own military – an absolute necessity for imposing your will on another country - was a great savings for the Crown.
Until it all went pear-shaped in May of 1857.
At first, the Company’s army had been formed to fight the Dutch and French and any other European power that threatened its hegemony in trade, but once established in India, it became the basis for large contingents of native soldiers – known as sepoys, a Persian word meaning soldier – that kept order in each of the Company’s three largest trading zones: Bombay, Madras and Bengal.
What has been called variously the Great Rebellion, the Indian Mutiny or the Sepoy Rebellion is often said to have been triggered by the new greased cartridges the sepoys were issued for their Enfield rifles and it was certainlly the reason that all but five of 90 soldiers in Meerput refused to load their rifles when a lieutenant ordered them to.
The cartridge papers were greased with animal tallow, probably pork or beef. The end of the paper had to be bitten off, which meant that Muslim soldiers might be touching pork, while Hindus were afraid it was beef.
The sepoys’ refusal was a small, limited protest, but they were promptly thrown into prison and that sparked a revolt in Meerput. Sepoys turned on their commanders, civilians attacked Europeans everywhere – and any Indian that tried to protect them – and by the end of the rioting on May 10, more than fifty people had died, civilian and military alike.
It wasn’t just about the cartridges, of course – it was about increasing resentment of the Company’s presence and high-handed behavior. The rajahs and nawabs the Company supported found their incomes gradually dwindling and so were less inclined to repress their own people, the sepoys themselves were becoming an increasingly professional military and demanded promotions which were not forthcoming. The cartridges were the last straw.
The Indian Mutiny lasted until July of the following year. A highly detailed account can be found at Wikipedia. The British reaction was harsh and relentless. It put the lid on nationalist movements until the next century.
It was also the end of the British East India Company. One month following the peace in July, the company was dissolved by Parliament and ruling India was taken over by the Crown.
Of the 75 Bengali infantry units that had existed before the mutiny, only 12 were allowed to remain after. The many Brahmins who had been recruited previously were dismissed, thought to be instigators of the rebellions. Ranks were filled with Gurkhas and Sikhs and the ratio of British to Indians was increased, although more Indian soldiers were promoted to positions of authority.
The Raj staggered on, but the newly formed East India Club on St. James’ Square in London, founded by “The East India Company’s servants – Clerical, Civil, Military, Naval and Medical,” began losing members almost immediately. By 1874 it joined the Sports and Public School Clubs to keep dues coming in.
But it’s still there and you can rent the Clive Room for a banquet if you like.