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How did a group of Europeans transform themselves from a trading Company to a mighty Imperial Power and rule India for nearly two centuries? The British Government sitting some 7,500 kms away undeniably played an important role in carving out a position for them. The Charter of 1683, was one of those important interventions by the British monarchy. Here's how...
Happened on 9th August 1683
The 1683 Charter granted by Charles II, was the fifth Charter given by the Crown to the English East India Company (EIC). It gave full powers to the Company to make peace and war with any of the nations of Asia, Africa, and America within the charter limits. In that context, it empowered the Company to raise military forces as seemed necessary and the power to execute martial law for the defence of their forts, places, and plantations against foreign invasion or domestic insurrection or rebellion. The Charter also gave the Company the power to set up Courts of Admiralty in India. These courts were to consist of a person learned in civil law and two merchants who were to try cases according to “the rules of equity and good conscience.”
But what did that mean for the Indians and the English EIC? Let’s break it down for you.
What began as a trading company focusing on garnering profits transformed into an imperial power that ruled India and other colonies for centuries at end. How did that happen? What role did the nation nearly 7,500 kilometers away play in the assertion of British power over India?
The English East India Company like all other European colonial powers when they first came to India were economically motivated and had predominant interests in trading. Their primary intentions were to amass huge amounts of wealth and profit from the colonies.
In the age of upsurging mercantilism in Europe, a group of twenty-four ‘Merchant Adventurers’ in Great Britain formed the English East India Company in 1599. It received its first Charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 granting them the right to trade in the East Indies. It was a joint stock Company and the profits were divided according to the proportion of the sums subscribed by individual shareholders.
The English weren’t alone in their ventures and were challenged by Dutch and Portuguese might at every step. The English had arrived late to the scene while the other European powers had made some ground until then. In an attempt to bring the English EIC at par with the other European powers, the Queen of England granted a charter that would break the monopoly of Dutch over the spice trade from the East Indies.
East Indies refers to the area from the Cape of Good Hope in Africa to the Magellan Strait in South America.
Other European powers were not the only challenge to their assertion of economic monopoly. They had to also bear the brunt of the notorious activities of other Englishmen who breached the Charter held by the English EIC over trade between England and East Indies. Several charters received by the Company between 1609 and 1657, granted it the right to ship gold and silver bullion out of the country in exchange of the much sought after Indian goods like cotton, silk, and spices. But, some interlopers, who were not covered under this contract, used it to make personal profits. The charter was only applicable to those English merchants or vessels who held a license from the EIC that allowed them to trade between the Cape of Good Hope(South Africa) to Cape Horn (Chile, South America). Britain was losing its bullion at a rapid speed but was not getting as much of the ‘luxurious’ goods from India in return.
This caused an uproar in the British Parliament as it was seen as drainage of wealth from their country. The illegal means for making personal profit cost the EIC and British treasury alike.
In 1683, on this day, a Charter was therefore issued by King Charles II, which enabled the Company to set up Courts of Admiralty in India. This Court was approved to attempt all merchants who carried out different violations on the high oceans. It was also to hear and decide all cases concerning oceanic and trade exchanges. The court was additionally approved to manage all instances of relinquishment of Ships, Piracy, Trespass, Injuries and Wrongs.
This was an attempt to check on the activities of the interlopers who were causing loss to the EIC by using unfair means of trade.
The arrangement of the Charter of 1683 was rehashed by James II in a sanction issued in 1686. A Court of Chief Naval Operations’ Office was set up at Madras in 1686 and John Gray was appointed as its judge.
This Admiralty Court gradually turned into a general Court of Settlement for the English people in India and was in operation until 1704. However, post that, its effect gradually decreased and was consequently displaced by the Governor and Council.
The charters granted between the years 1661 and 1683 were instrumental in strengthening the position of the company in many ways. It enabled them to coin money, erect fortifications, exercise jurisdiction over English subjects residing in the east, make war or peace, and form alliances with non-Christian people. The support from their native Government is often stated as the reason for the rise for English power in comparison to other European Colonizers.
It is on the basis of this charter that the company had waged war against Bengal, and challenged the Grand Mughal Empire. The British made settlements and fortifications in Calcutta in the 1690s and became a territorial power in the late 18th Century after decisively winning the Battle of Plassey. And the rest is history!
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