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The Honourable Company: a History of the English East India Company

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  533 ratings  ·  62 reviews
During 200 years the East India Company grew from a loose association of Elizabethan tradesmen into "the grandest society of merchants in the universe". As a commercial enterprise it came to control half the world's trade and as a political entity it administered an embryonic empire. Without it there would have been no British India and no British Empire. In a tapestry ran ...more
Paperback, 476 pages
Published October 11th 1993 by HarperCollins (first published January 1st 1991)
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Patricia Only remember two short passages about diamonds -- (1) how they were a convenient means of 'repatriating' profits made abroad for these early traders …moreOnly remember two short passages about diamonds -- (1) how they were a convenient means of 'repatriating' profits made abroad for these early traders (small and lightweight)--for members of the English East India Company as well as independent or 'country' traders. No specific mention of the Koh-i-noor unless it was the one-sentence reference to a very large diamond the size of a pigeon egg supposedly owned by one Indian ruler. 'Diamond' doesn't appear in the Index and I'm afraid I don't have page references in the 456-page text.(less)

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A relaxed narrative history of the English East India Company from the beginnings until between 1800 and 1830ish, reading it I thought I was going to write that it takes a while to get going, but by the time I finished I realised that it never did, rather like a stately Eastindiaman at anchor at Greenhithe it just bobbed up and down in the Thames a little in the swells of the current.

Non-British people may be surprised, even indignant, that the British Empire doesn't really feature in UK educati
Mansoor Azam
Jan 19, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: just-bought
The book is about East India Company it's origins and the story of it's transaction into one of the most powerful business empires of it's times.
The initial history is lucidly explained in detail and is made interesting. The author has researched well and takes us step by step logically, historically explaining the rational behind every step and quoting historical documents n memoirs.
There were many things which I found new. Which are not part of our folklore and history here in the subcontine
Melissa McShane
Dec 29, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own, politics, history, india
This long and surprisingly readable book about the English East India Company took me several months to work my way through, mainly because I was reading it for research and kept stopping to take notes. Keay's research is thorough, and he manages to make this history about the personalities instead of just dates and major exports--remarkable in a book that's arguably all about dates and major exports. There's maybe too much glossing over of names, in fact; I found myself having to go back to rem ...more
Sep 02, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed, india, history
I would disagree with some of the other reviewers on the matter of dryness, I have read much drier history books. I found it mostly a very good read thanks to the use of entertaining anecdotes but because it does try to encompass so much into a tiny space there are a lot of facts and background information introduced to cover a each chapter.

The author tries to mitigate this by breaking the chapters into different different time periods and regions. This can confuse as the times will necessarily
A dense book that will require slow and careful reading of those chapters that have the most relevance to you, but this is only because author Keay is not a glib author but one who chooses his phrasing carefully. One of my favorite paragraphs referring to the wealth of material available on the subject is an example: "But it seems that for every researcher who with light and expectant tread enters London's India Office Library and Records, another doyen of scholarship ends his days slumped behin ...more
Sajith Kumar
The English East India Company arrived in India as a trading concern and set up shop here to control its trade between India and Europe and to China and the Spice Islands. The Mughals kept them under a tight leash. However, the empire tottered after the death of Aurangzeb and a state of anarchy set in. As the provincial governors assumed sovereignty, the British saw their chance when the empire was tearing itself apart. They took sides with the contestants and extracted privileges when their pro ...more
Julie Bozza
Oct 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Julie by: Don Jansen
Necessarily epic, this is not a book to be started lightly! However, the lovely writing style makes this history feel more like a story, and the occasional chuckle over an absurdity would do Elizabeth Bennet proud.

Awesome Christmas present from Mr B.
Lauren Albert
Jun 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
How did a profit-making company become in essence a huge government bureaucracy? That's the story that Keay tells, and tells engagingly with a sense of humor. The one flaw, for me, was his chronological jumps when he moved to a new place of trade or settlement. It could get confusing--he would start the chapter and then later talk about something that showed he was narrating something earlier in time than events he'd already covered in other chapters. Then I wasn't sure what time period he was d ...more
Oct 29, 2011 rated it it was ok
What starts off as an exciting early history of British trade in Asia quickly peters into an overdrawn blow-by-blow account of the history of the company's many struggles. Every small character is given pages of description while major characters like Clive, Hastings and Tipu are given short shrift. Finally, the author seems to have just run out of patience. What else could explain the opium wars of china being consigned to the epilogue. There is somewhere a wonderful book to be written and read ...more
Christine Barth
Jan 16, 2015 rated it liked it
I am so proud I finished this book. It was much longer and smarter and more detailed than what I normally read. Started it a loooong time ago.
Anyway, although there are a lot of names and dates in it, there are also many intriguing tales of personalities and powers and intrigue.
Basically, I was amazed at how bungling the company was and how it lasted so long and is credited with conquering India. Seems like all of the events very much could have gone the other way.
Fascinating subject!
Jason Hough
Feb 06, 2008 rated it really liked it
Fascinating history of the British East India Company. Almost every page is a novel waiting to be written!
Nathan Albright
Feb 09, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: challenge-2021
This book is an interesting case of an author seeking to be fair and just to a company that has received a great deal of blame. If one reads anything about Indian history, especially told from the point of view of an Indian, the East India Company is viewed with undisguised horror, as a group of pushy Europeans who came from a country that was despised and looked down by the cultured Mogul elites and then ultimately made itself indispensable to them, and then usurped their authority and ended up ...more
Greg Schroeder
Feb 07, 2021 rated it really liked it
In The Honourable Company, John Keay takes a long hard look at the "Company of Adventurers Trading in the East Indies". His account is frank and direct, taking to task many of his predecessors and many of the myths of the mighty East India Company. He pulls into his narrative both the personalities of the Company in the "field", i.e. outside of London, from scattered attempts at settlement in South Africa, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, to the much better known adventures on the Indian subco ...more
Subramaniam Avinash
May 19, 2018 rated it liked it
I love history and I found the subject matter extremely fascinating. The writing, though, is a little dense. Fortunately, every time things started to get a little too dry for my liking, the book came up with something thrilling to renew my interest in it. Read this book only if you are deeply, and I mean really deeply, interested in the history of the world's first multinational corporation. Stick with it, and it'll take you on a voyage from England to America to Netherlands to Belgium to Austr ...more
Gokul Gr
Oct 01, 2017 rated it liked it
I think 3 stars will be a bit too low, 3.5 will be the right rating. The book does not follow correct chronological order but relies on anecdotes to tell the story. The story of the transition of a mercantile company to one of the largest empire in the world should have focussed more on the political and administrative factors that underpinned the change, which is sorely missing. The author instead focussed on individual stories. Besides, I found the prose to be very boring. Really struggled to ...more
Jun 14, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book tries to cover a lot of ground, not entirely successfully. In the interest of detail, we sacrifice narrative flow; apparently in the interests of accessibility we sacrifice much depth of financial analysis. A bit rambling and discursive for me. I think it might have benefited hugely from a lot of the material being relegated to footnotes or endnotes; keeping track of every player from major to minor, along with a dozen or more locations (frequently changing hands and/or names) is very ...more
Jun 27, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting read but a lot of detail (places, people,alliances etc) which made for a difficult read! Probably better suited to a book rather than on a kindle.
Christine Kenney
Aug 21, 2017 rated it it was ok
I could see this being a riveting documentary documentary and the Keay does manage to sneak in some amusing quips.

This felt like skiing down a black diamond when I was looking for more of a green circle run. My comprehension was around 30% and found this worked better than Tylenol PM for bedtime reading. The main issues for me were a lack of foundation of European/Mughal history and a command for regional geography so it was difficult to keep track of all of the actors and military-mercantile v
Jul 23, 2014 rated it liked it
I guess I only have myself to blame for feeling disappointed at the end of it. While this was a thoroughly researched and well written book, it was not the book I thought it would be.
This is basically an account of what the East India Company did in order to gain a foothold in India and a few more places. What this account sadly lacks is the other side of the story: what the Company's trade meant to the Western world, and England in particular. Cotton, spices, tea, coffee, opium, there are all t
Bill Tress
Jan 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
After finishing, “A history of the World’s Most Liberal City” and “Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600 – 1900”, this book was the obvious addition to the trilogy. The theme in all these books is rich merchants of so-called civilized Countries sending out ships and men to exploit the wealth and natural resources of the so-called uncivilized Countries therefore “The honorable Company” was the perfect extension of this study. It is the story of the English East India Company, a com ...more
David Hill
Dec 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The book covers the period of roughly 1600 to 1813, or the start of British involvement in India to the founding of Singapore and the end of the company's monopoly status. I found the book interesting on two fronts: it gives me some Indian history (from the particular viewpoint of the British) and a view of unbridled capitalism.

I had already learned that India before the Raj wasn't a single nation under a single government, but a collection of sometimes related, sometimes not related, often warr
Jul 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: india
Four stars for the author's style: he's witty and knows how to tell a good story. For example, because it could take up to a year for letters to go back and forth between the Company in London and the employees in India, Burma, and beyond, wars continued until well after peace was declared back home (once the news was received, everyone just laid down their arms as far as I can tell). Similarly, letters with strict instructions arrived long after the situation had changed, many of the principals ...more
Nate Rabe
Jul 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, india, pakistan, asia
An excellent book. I came to it because I'm doing some research for a book on modern South Asia and wanted information on the East India Company's involvement in the opium/tea trade. I didn't get much about that but that doesn't mean this isn't good history. Keay is an excellent popular historian (his book on Mughal India is recommended) and I did come away with a deep and new appreciation for just how long and difficult the Company's history was. And that it was not only about India but rather ...more
Mar 23, 2019 rated it liked it
The charm of this history is that so much of it is told in the words of its protagonists, capturing a real flavour of their time. It's extensively researched and, I think, fair - there's no presumption of English superiority, which was a relief, and Keay is quick to skewer the legends of his Great Men. For all that, though, it is mostly a history of Great (and lesser) Men - women barely feature in the narrative, and never in their own words; nor, although they are treated with respect by the aut ...more
Terry Quirke
Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Keay tells the story of how a merchants company seeking trade ending up 2 centuries later to be the birth of the British Raj in India. Keay only touches upon the start of the Raj, as this story is all about the East India Company and how it grew from several trading enclaves into a governing administration. Keay tells the early story in great detail but seems to rush the last few chapters as the tale draws to its end; this is also the time when all the politicking, double dealing, wars and finan ...more
A.C. Cobble
Oct 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Well-researched, well-told, interesting history of one of the most influential companies on the planet. I'm reading this as research on a fiction novel, and the truth is stranger... I'm not sure the hefty profits would be worth the inevitable death ;) Keay does an excellent job teasing out the most interesting bits of the company's record and shares it with a flourish. If you want to know about the East India Company, early European sea trade, England's involvement in India / China, then this is ...more
Feb 10, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book on a complicated company history. Started from the beginnings and went right up to the company being dissolved with all the battles and internal disputes that surrounded it. I read this book twice just to really understand it all, but I found it just as interesting the 2nd time round. Worth buying for anyone interested in this famous old company.
John Kaye
Jun 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
A good read, but sometimes the chronology gets a bit difficult to follow. And the book is heavily weighted to the earlier years. Some more coverage of the issues of the later eighteenth century would have been welcome.
Austen Mance
Aug 12, 2020 rated it liked it
Good book, but perhaps too much detail - 200 pages would cover everything (instead of 450). The description of the process by which the East India Company went from a commercial to an imperial venture was fascinating though.
Yishen Kuik
Jun 05, 2017 rated it liked it
Somewhat tedious in its detail
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John Stanley Melville Keay FRGS is an English journalist and author specialising in writing popular histories about India and the Far East, often with a particular focus on their colonisation and exploration by Europeans.

John Keay is the author of about 20 books, all factual, mostly historical, and largely to do with Asia, exploration or Scotland. His first book stayed in print for thirty years; m

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