Sport & Culture

Revisiting the East India Co.

A new exhibition takes another look at the East India Company. It’s a flawed but useful primer on this bit of history.

London-based writer Amy Foulds joins the Sport and Culture blog today, where she will be exploring how the Asia-Pacific is being presented and interpreted through the arts.


Mention the East India Company and the chances are everyone in the room will have a different opinion. For some it represents the epitome of British trade success and a symbol of a powerful empire.

For others, far from being something to be proud of, the company conjures images of exploited peoples ruined by an influx of opium and a loss of their treasures and heritage.

In light of the undeniable controversy, it seems a brave subject to tackle for an exhibition, let alone a new permanent gallery. But this is what London’s National Maritime Museum has done, and they’ve done it justice.

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The gallery attempts to chart the history of British maritime trade with Asia by focusing on the 250 years in which the original multinational, the East India Company, operated and dominated.

The exhibition begins with the formation of the company with the Royal Charter from Elizabeth I in the 17th Century and winds its way through the development of trade, from spices to cloth and tea in India and China. It continues to the company’s abolition under Queen Victoria by examining the conflicts and rebellions that shaped its business and Britain as a whole, even touching on the reformed company of today. 

The exhibition fills a bright, welcoming space with a pleasant balance of traditional glass case displays and interactive videos, though the space isn’t all that big for such a dauntingly large subject. The ample seating, mimicking Chinese-style red and black lacquer work, offers the chance to stop and get lost in the vast seascapes, giving a real sense of the crashing of waves which, as a city dweller, I haven’t seen for years.

Yet while the chosen objects themselves offer something to cater to everyone’s taste – from Japanese swords, military medals and detailed model ships, to fine art, porcelain and textiles – if you wander from the narrative route they soon turn into a confusing, seemingly random array of items jumping through time, from China to India and back again. Even though it was a pleasant experience following the story chronologically, my companion felt lost in space and time and came out with a jumbled sense of when and where the East India Company really operated.

Still, for all its flaws – highlighted in some calls on the comment cards to look in more detail at the violence associated with the Company – “Traders” is still the kind of brighter, more engaging new permanent space this museum needed. Indeed, the success of the comments wall itself in inviting critique and opinion would appear to underscore this.

The gallery also makes admirable use of one of London’s best resources, namely its diverse local communities, through the use of videos featuring people from a local day center using the very spices the East India Company first brought to Britain.

Local students from Tower Hamlets College were involved, showcasing the modern trade relationship between Britain and Asia by having their designs manufactured in India. Aside from adding to the interpretation of historical matter, they produced some beautiful textiles.

To accompany the gallery’s first few months of opening, there’s an impressive array of events in the “Traders: Unpacked” series, including storytelling, tea parties as well as lectures and films. There’s also a huge celebration planned for the upcoming Chinese New Year.

It’s refreshing to see so much excitement around a museum exhibition and a genuine attempt to involve absolutely everybody – tourists and locals alike – in engaging with their maritime history. 

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The East India Company and Asia is showing at the National Maritime Museum, London.