The East India Company was a joint-stock company formed for pursuing trade with the East Indies but which ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent. The Company was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, making it the oldest among several similarly formed companies. Shares in the company were owned by wealthy merchants and aristocrats,with the government owning no shares and so having only indirect control. The Company traded mainly in cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea and opium, and also came to rule large areas of India, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions.
In 1757 Robert Clive led Company forces to victory against Siraj Ud Daulah – the last independent Nawab of Bengal, Bihar, and Midnapore – at the Battle of Plassey resulting in the conquest of Bengal. More wars against Indian rulers followed, culminating in the defeat of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, the rulers of the Kingdom of Mysore, in 1799. Among its military commanders at the time was one Arthur Wellesley (later the 1st Duke of Wellington).
Yet the Company was not always profitable. In putting down resisting states, it was clear that the Company was incapable of governing the vast expanse of the captured territories without great expense. With the Bengal famine of 1770, in which one-third of the local population died, military and administrative costs mounted due to the ensuing drop in labour productivity. This led to the passing of the Tea Act in 1773, which gave the Company greater autonomy in running its trade in the American colonies, and allowed it an exemption from tea import duties which its colonial competitors were required to pay. When the American colonists were told of the Act they tried to boycott it, triggering the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. And Americans have had a distrust of tea ever since!
Still, by 1810 the Company was at it zenith, with a vast shipping fleet controlling much of the trade between Europe and the Orient, and the Company's rule extended to India, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, and British Hong Kong, with a fifth of the world's population under its trading influence from the Company headquaters (above) in Leadenhall Street. The Company flag, after 1801, is below.