The Birth of Empire: The East India Company, TV review


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The Independent Culture

It was," says TV historihunk Dan Snow, "a salutary lesson on the dangers of unchecked corporate power." You can say that again.

Snow was talking about the Bengal famine of 1770 where between two and 10 million people died, a human disaster on a par with some of the most deadly events in history. For comparison, the death toll of the Great Famine in Ireland is estimated at between 750,000 and 1.5 million.

Both of those events, for any of you out there nostalgic for the glorious days of Empire, were – at the very least – overseen by rich and powerful Britons. In the former case, the venal nabobs of the East India Company, the subject of Snow's two-part BBC2 series The Birth of Empire: The East India Company.

In terms of power and influence, the East India Company in its pomp made Apple Inc look like village fruiterers. Its legacy is woven into the existence of everything from major Indian cities like Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai to the British fashion industry (pajamas, dungarees...). Oh, and also the Empire itself which was birthed, as it were, by the EIC's leaders having to hand over the power they'd accrued in India to the British Parliament. (That was for minor diplomatic slip-ups like profiteering during the famine and, er, removing agricultural crops so they could plant opium instead.)

Snow weaves a merry tale with these stories, tracing the Company from its humble arrival on India's shores to its dominance as a colonial corporo-state. He explained the murky history of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and how EIC traders abused their power, their hosts and their livers while shipping boatloads of valuable bounty out of India.

There was a twinkle in Snow's eyes as he told us about their licentiousness, too. We learnt not only about the invention of the G&T (a means of making health-giving quinine drinkable) but also of the ship of British women sent to Bengal to calm down the randy sailors and stop them sleeping with locals... only for the women to join in the bacchanalia as soon as they arrived.

Snow tells these histories well. He may spend much of his time on-screen dashing between Indian beaches and London streets, but he's also happy to cede airtime to academic specialists. As a result we got an expertly told story of how British traders seized control of most of a continent. It ought to be required viewing for Union Jack waistcoat-wearing recidivists.