Merchants and States: Private Trade and the Fall of Madras, 1746

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Søren Mentz


Michael Pearson has argued that “rights for revenue” was an important element in the European way of organizing long-distance trade in the early modern period. The state provided indigenous merchant groups with commercial privileges and allowed them to influence political affairs. In return, the state received a part of the economic surplus. The East India Company and the British state shared such a relationship. However, as this article demonstrates, the East India Company was not an impersonal entity. It consisted of many layers of private entrepreneurs, who pursued their own private interests sheltered by the Company’s privileged position. One such group was the Company servants in Asia. The French conquest of Madras in 1746 and the following period of British sub-imperialism in India demonstrate that the state had traded off too many rights. Through the business papers of Willian Monson, a senior Company servant in Madras, the historian can describe the fall of Madras as a consequence of deteriorating relationships between private interests within the Company structure. Directors, shareholders, Company servants and private merchants in India fell out with each other. In this situation, the British state found it difficult to intervene.

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