British East India Company
Founded by the Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I on December 31, 1600, the East India Company (popularly known as John Company) comprised the most powerful commercial enterprise of its day.
Based in London, its influence reached out to all continents: it presided over the creation of British India, founded Hong Kong and Singapore, employed Captain Kidd to combat piracy, established tea in India, held Napoleon captive on St Helena, and made the fortune of Elihu Yale, and its products were the subject of the Boston Tea Party.
Its flag inspired the Stars and Stripes, its shipyards provided the model for St. Petersburg, elements of its administration survive in Indian bureaucracy, and its corporate structure was the most successful early example of a joint stock company. But the demands of Company officers on the treasury of Bengal contributed tragically to the province's incapacity in the face of a famine which killed millions (1770).
Initially, however, it made little impression on the Dutch control of the Spice trade and could not establish a lasting outpost in the East Indies in the early years. Yet it succeeded beyond measure in establishing military dominance and a political empire for Britain in the East, gaining strongholds in the 17th century in Surat, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. In 1757 Clive's victory at Plassey for the company during the Seven Years' War achieved British supremacy over the French on the Indian peninsula allowed the company to take effective control of Bengal, India's most populous and lucrative province.
By the middle of the 19th century, the Company's rule extended across most of India, Burma, Singapore and Hong Kong, and a fifth of the world's population was under its authority. The Company had at various stages defeated China, occupied the Philippines, and conquered Java. It had solved its cash crisis needed to buy tea, by exporting Indian-grown opium to China, whose efforts to end the trade led to two wars with Britain.
Deprived of its trade monopoly in 1813 and wound up as a trading enterprise twenty years later, the Company lost its administrative functions to the British government in 1858 following the Sepoy Mutiny of the previous year. When the Company finally reverted to the Crown in 1874, the Times reported, "it accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other company ever attempted and as such is ever likely to attempt in the years to come."