Making the Metropole: The East India Company in London
University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California, USA
In Britain, the 17th Century saw the beginnings of a type of institution that we take for granted: the, privately owned, profit-oriented, joint-stock company. The British East India Company, chartered in 1599 by Elizabeth I as the Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies, was the first, and by far largest private corporate undertaking in Britain before the industrial revolution. We often think of the East India Company as a branch of the British global colonial enterprise, and its often-negative impact upon India and other colonies must be emphasized. However, if we consider the works that the Company undertook in London over more than 250 years, it becomes clear that a development parallel to the overseas colonial encounter was happening at home: London was being remade into a Colonial metropole. This homeward-oriented “colonization” of the city, the workforce of London, and the national ideology, by the East India Company (along with other companies organized with similar mercantile goals) created the modern, world-city of London from the rather unimportant and unimposing medieval city in which the Company began.
In London during the 17th century, the East India Company undertook construction of a shipyard, and the renovation of domestic quarters for office space. More unusually for a private company, it also built a chapel, almshouse, and school. It organized its activities across space – sometimes across vast distances indeed – with a set of rules for corporate and spatial practices governing the operation of offices, shipyard, warehouses, and charitable institutions. The company undertook these activities within an evolving political and legal framework, and the decisions that the company made as it constructed these works reflected its position as it negotiated its way across the turbulent waters of civil war, religious ferment, international competition, and the high seas.