Book Review: “The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company” by John Keay

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This book was recommended to me by a history friend who specializes in eighteenth century English history.  I was looking for an all-encompassing history of the East India Company and this book fits the bill.  Keay gives a very detailed history of the earliest incarnation of the East India Company starting in the Tudor era and continuing into the Stuart reign of kings down to its liquidation in the nineteenth century.  Each ship that sets out in the early years is followed around Africa into the Indian Ocean and into Asia.

The stories told are fascinating.  Keay tells us of the brave men who went on these trips, explored the coastlines, set up factories, and bargained with native chieftains and nabobs from Japan to India to China.  Some of these outposts worked well and survived and some of the men were scandalously murdered.  Many succumbed to fever and disease.  There were pirates and private traders.  Cargoes were stolen or sunk or arrived in port in England with no problems.

The inner workings of the company are covered here with the raising of subscriptions initially and then stock being issued later.  Sometimes the profits were outstanding but many times money was lost.  The East India Company at one point was abolished and then reincarnated, causing conflict in the outlying trade posts around the world.  Eventually the company raised its own army to protect the factories.  The Company became a government unto itself, creating its own trading agreements and fighting wars.

The East India Company has a vast and varied history and this book covers it all.  Some of the writing is a little dry but there are plenty of exciting stories to make up for it.  The personalities of the men involved were quite interesting.  I would recommend this book if you are seeking an overall history of this global corporation.

Book Review: “Tea for the British” by Denys Forrest

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The subtitle of this book is “The Social and Economic History of a Famous Trade”.  I had no idea the history of the tea trade in Britain was so fascinating.  The author, Denys Forrest was a writer and journalist before changing careers and working in the tea industry.  Consequently he was uniquely qualified to write this book.

Forrest has researched the papers of the English East India Company and those of various tea companies in Britain.  He begins with recounting how tea first started to arrive in the country.  Early traders found tea in China where it was grown on bushes and then the leaves were harvested and brought to Europe in chests on ships.

At first tea was believed to have had medicinal purposes so it was found in chemist shops.  When Catherine of Braganza came to England to marry King Charles II, she introduced the drinking of tea for non-medicinal purposes at the Stuart court.  The trade grew and the EEC set up a building in Mincing Lane to receive and auction tea shipments.  The tea was sold in coffee shops and then grocers.  Demand became astronomical.  China limited how much trade could be done in their country so enterprising merchants brought the seeds of tea bushes to India and later Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and began growing it there to meet the demand.  Later tea was grown in Africa and even South America.  The EEC lost its monopoly in the nineteenth century and the trade in tea was opened up afterwards.

Forrest explains the different grades of tea leaves and how the tea came to be sold and consumed and innovations in the industry.  The story of how tea came to be put in teabags is really interesting.  There are lots of statistics in this book like how much tea was auctioned for and how much housewives paid for it in shops and stores, and how much tea was consumed per person in Britain.  There are stories about shops in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Norwich and histories of different vendors.

Forrest really knows his tea!  And he tells us about it with a really light touch and a keen sense of humor.  This book was published in 1973 and sadly that’s where the story ends.  He laments the invention of iced tea and wonders what will happen to the drinking of tea as the consumption in Britain had declined as the book ended.  I enjoyed this book very much.

Book Review: “The Portuguese Seaborne Empire: 1415-1825” by Charles R. Boxer

In the late 1960’s, a succession of books were published for a series called “The History of Human Society”. The books were edited by J.H. Plumb and covered a range of topics including Prehistoric Societies, the Spanish Seaborne Empire, Pioneer America and the Greeks. Charles R. Boxer wrote the other two volumes for the series including this one and one on the Dutch Seaborne Empire.

Charles R. Boxer was born on the Isle of Wight in 1904. After getting his education, he served in the British Army from 1923 until 1946 and was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese from December 1942 until August 1945. He worked as a professor at King’s College, London teaching Portuguese and the history of the Far East. Beginning in 1969, when this book was written, he was the Professor of History of the Expansion of Europe Overseas at Yale. He is widely known as an expert on the topic of Portuguese history.

The story begins in the Middle Ages. The Portuguese have always been a maritime people but during this era, they began their exploration down the western coast of Africa and across the Atlantic. The explorers were interested in science but they were also looking for routes to the “Indies” for trading purposes, primarily seeking gold and to spread Christianity to the un-initiated.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were engaged in shipping of spices in the Asian seas and trading slaves and sugar in the South Atlantic. One hundred years later, they were in conflict with the Dutch and the English causing the Portuguese empire in the East to decline. Boxer explains the decline and the revival of the trading empire as well as the efforts of the missionaries in all the occupied lands. The dictatorship of Pombal and its aftermath are also discussed.

The second part of the book recounts the characteristics of the empire such as the type of ships that were built for the fleets to Brazil and to India. Other topics include crown patronage, the Catholic missions, and the formation of town councils and the brothers of charity, soldiers, settlers, vagabonds, pirates, merchants, monopolists and smugglers. Some aspects of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Sebastianism, Messianism and nationalism are also covered. Boxer is forthright and honest in his assessment of the Portuguese and their methods during this great era. He pulls no punches which is very refreshing. The book includes photos, maps, a glossary and several appendices.

I was looking for books on this topic for research purposes and this volume received five-star reviews and it is certainly obvious why Boxer was chosen to write this book. Boxer’s scholarship is immaculate and he has the added bonus of being an engaging writer. This book is eminently readable and the topic is fascinating. Anyone would enjoy it.