When an aggressive and troubled James Delaney played by Tom Hardy approached his father’s lawyer regarding a piece of land left behind by his dead father, he is sternly advised about the strength of the organisation he was fighting against.“When you left London the East India (Company) was a trading company, now it is God Almighty. No government in the world dares stand up to it. It owns the land, the ocean, the f***ing sky above our heads. It has more men, more weapons and more ships than all the Christian nations compiled.”
Set in the early nineteenth century when the power of the East India Company was at its peak, Taboo, the ongoing eight part series aired on BBC 1 directed by Sir Ridley Scott, narrates the tale of one of the mightiest organisations in the history of mankind. The setting of the series is the military conflict between Britain and America in 1812. Against this background is the might of the East India Company in deciding the fate of the empire. Sir Scott’s depiction of the EIC is far from being an exaggeration. By the early nineteenth century, the EIC was almost an arm of the British government, aiding in its efforts to extend its reach over the world map.
The origins of the EIC lay in certain developments in seventeenth century England that acted as a catalyst for increasing curiosity in the East. By the late sixteenth century, writers, translators and travellers put in all their efforts to disseminate information about the East, thereby instigating the desire for products, especially luxury goods from the region. Developments in navigation techniques aided in the process. However, the biggest factor behind the glory attained by the EIC has to be attributed to the political changes of the Elizabethan age. As written by historian Phillip Lawson in his history of the East India Company, “the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 seemed to later generations of writers and scholars the very point when the most debilitating constraints on English overseas expansion receded.”
When the Queen desired to expand her powers eastwards, she simply chartered a trading company and ensured its success in every way possible. The British monarchy’s efforts in gaining economic recognition worldwide need also be located in the growing tide of imperialism among most other European powers.
However, talking about the depiction of the EIC in Taboo, historian Andrea Major says that power of the organisation as shown by Sir Scott is not only inflated but also, the series overlooks aspects and episodes in which the EIC was actually influential. In particular the opium trade, rural poverty and famine and unjust extraction of revenue from the poor are aspects about which the British series is completely silent.
The most striking absence, however, is that of the EIC’s connection with India. Popularly referred to as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, India was undoubtedly the pride of the British Empire. It was also the region from which it drew maximum amount of wealth and power. Strangely though, while the Americans, Chinese and Africans are alluded to on several occasions, the Indian subcontinent is referred to minutely on some extremely insignificant instances.
The real significance of the British series is the depiction of dirty internal politics of the EIC. While historians very often allude to the vastness of material available for the study of the company regime, Sir Scott’s depiction of the secrecy within which it worked is a reminder of the limitation of scholars in their reach to sources. As written by Major, the nasty, ruthless politics shown in the series is really a reminder to the world of the immoral roots of present day globalisation.