In the eighteenth century a career with the East India Company was a throw of the dice for unattached young British men. Arriving in India wan and scurvy after a year at sea, many quickly succumbed to disease, madness, or one of the innumerable little wars that the company fought in order to embed itself on the subcontinent. The salary was hardly an incentive. In the 1720s junior clerks, or “writers,” received just £5 per year, not enough to live on in Bengal or Madras and a pittance when set against the handsome 8 percent annual dividend the company’s shareholders awarded themselves back in London. Such drawbacks tended to put off all but those whom circumstances had already disfavored: second sons, members of the down-at-heel Anglo-Irish gentry, dispossessed Scottish landowners who had backed the losing side in a rebellion against the crown.
Being on the company payroll was rather a means to an end; moonlighting was where the money lay in one of the richest places on earth. In 1700 India is estimated to have accounted for 27 percent of the world economy and a quarter of the global textile trade. A considerable number of company employees who survived the shock of arrival went on to make fortunes from off-books trading in textiles, saltpeter, indigo, opium, salt, tobacco, betel, rice, and sugar; sidelines also included selling Mughal-issued tax exemptions and lending money to distressed Indian grandees.
The wills of company officials in the early 1780s show that one in three left their wealth to Indian wives, or as one put it, “the excellent and respectable Mother of my two children for whom I feel unbounded love and affection and esteem.” Others went home. Newly enriched returnees elbowed their way into high society and were rewarded with a moniker, “nabob,” which derived from an Indian word for prince, nawab, and signified an Indian-made plutocrat of boundless amorality.
Neither the directors in Leadenhall Street, the company’s headquarters in the City of London, nor the Mughal authorities who had granted the company its trading privileges in return for “presents” and taxes, approved of the nabobs’ freelancing. But the directors didn’t particularly mind, provided that the thirty-odd ships that sailed east every year from England’s south coast returned laden with luxury imports, along with a share of the taxes collected from the Indian enclaves that the company controlled. All the while the authority of the emperor, the unwarlike Shah Alam, was crumbling under the pressure of repeated Maratha, Afghan, and Iranian incursions into the Mughal heartland of the Gangetic Plain. These and the foragings of another group of armed Europeans, the French Compagnie des Indes, turned what the Mughal chronicler…
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