In 1600, the East India Company acquired a charter from the ruler of England, Queen Elizabeth I.
The company was granted the sole right to trade with the East.
This meant that no other trading group in England could compete with the East India Company.
With this charter the Company could venture across the oceans, looking for new lands from which it could buy goods at a cheap price, and carry them back to Europe to sell at higher prices.
The royal charter, however, could not prevent other European powers from entering the Eastern markets.
By the time the first English ships sailed down the west coast of Africa, round the Cape of Good Hope, and crossed the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese had already established their presence on the western coast of India and had their base in Goa.
In fact, it was Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, who had discovered this sea route to India in 1498.
By the early seventeenth century, the Dutch too were exploring the possibilities of trade in the Indian Ocean.
Soon the French traders arrived.
The problem was that all the companies were interested in buying the same things.
The fine qualities of cotton and silk produced in India had a big market in Europe.
Pepper, cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon too were in great demand.
Competition amongst the European companies inevitably pushed up the prices at which these goods could be purchased, and this reduced the profits that could be earned.
The only way trading companies could flourish was by eliminating rival competitors.
The urge to secure markets led to battles between the trading companies.
Trade was carried on with arms and trading posts were protected through fortification.
This effort to fortify settlements and carry on profitable trade also led to intense conflict with local rulers.
The company, therefore, found it difficult to separate trade from politics.
Trade in Bengal:
The first English factory was set up on the banks of the river Hugli in 1651.
As trade expanded, the Company persuaded merchants and traders to come and settle near the factory.
By 1696 it began building a fort around the settlement.
Two years later it bribed Mughal officials into giving the Company zamindari rights over three villages.
One of these was Kalikat, which later grew into the city of Kolkata as it is known today.
It also persuaded the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to issue a farman granting the Company the right to trade duty-free.
Aurangzeb’s farman, for instance, had granted only the Company the right to trade duty-free.
But officials of the Company, who were carrying on private trade on the side, were expected to pay duty.
This they refused to pay, causing an enormous loss of revenue for Bengal.
Trade led to battles:
After the death of Aurangzeb, the Bengal nawabs asserted their power and autonomy, as other regional powers were doing at that time.
Murshid Quli Khan was followed by Alivardi Khan and then Sirajuddaulah as the Nawab of Bengal.
Each one of them was a strong ruler.
They refused to grant the Company concessions, demanded large tributes for the Company’s right to trade, denied it any right to mint coins, and stopped it from extending its fortifications.
The Company on its part declared that the unjust demands of the local officials were ruining the trade of the Company, and trade could flourish only if the duties were removed.
The conflicts led to confrontations and finally culminated in the famous Battle of Plassey.