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East India Company

The East India Company were first granted a Royal Charter to trade in the East Indies in 1600 but didn’t make their first voyage to India until 1608. The motivation to trade in India came from the fact that at that time India was producing a quarter of the world’s manufacture in cotton, silk, tea and spice, and London merchants had witnessed Dutch success trading in the area.

The Royal Charter, granted by Elizabeth I, effectively granted the company a trade monopoly in the East Indies and semi- sovereign powers to raise armies, rule territories, build fortifications, mint money, create laws and so on.

Two coins of EIC (1649)
Flag of the East India Company (1801)

Initially, and amidst fierce competition from the particularly the French, the EIC conducted their trade through negotiation and deal brokering and gained increasing commercial success. However, after the Persian attack of 1732 power in India became increasingly fractured with a number of regional rulers, and many of these rulers became resentful of British power and launched attacks. In response The East India Company begins to recruit local infantry troops to defend its interests. By the same token post Mughal states begin to offer land revenue to European countries in exchange for military support. Over the course of the following decades EIC defeated multiple attempts to seize back power, and by doing so strengthened their own position of power by taking control of vast swathes of India.

Meanwhile in Scotland, 1707 Act of Union meant that the privileged elite in Scotland now had access the opportunities available in what were now British colonies. By the 1720s a considerable number of Scots were engaged by the East India Company as surgeons and civil servants. After the failed Jacobite rebellion in 1745 a great many sons of Scotland’s landed gentry were sent to revive their family fortunes by joining the military branches of the Company. To those who had lost estates and fortunes, the East India Company was an attractive way to make money quickly. Politically, creating opportunity for the privileged in Scotland was also a way to quell Jacobite sympathies and maintain the strength of the Union. This exchange of opportunity to ensure political support from Scottish elites continued for decades and was used as a tool to further the agenda of integrating Northern Scotland with the rest of Britain.

Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville
David Scott MP
Joseph Hume MP
Joseph Hume

Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, was such a powerful politician he was known as ‘King of Scotland’ for a time. He was the most trusted aid of William Pitt, Prime Minister. He was also notably responsible for an amendment to a motion for abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade, which called for gradual abolition and effectively delayed the abolition of the slave trade for another 20 years.

He was also President of the Board of Control over the East India Company from 1793 until 1801 and his influence in India has been described as ‘the brightest jewel in his crown’ (History of Parliament). However, during his time exerting control over India he was also known to have provided opportunities to others where it was politically advantageous to do so with a view to continued commercial monopoly in the region.

David Scott MP of Dunninald, near Montrose was a merchant and trader in India who was mentored by Henry Dundas and become a Director of the East India Company in 1814.

Scott is turn acted as a patron for Montrose born Joseph Hume, who also served with the East India Company. Hume possibly played quite a significant role as it is said he came up with a method to recover damp gunpowder during the second Anglo- Maratha War. He entered parliament in 1818 after his return to the UK and commenced a long political career notable for his drive toward parliamentary reform, his fastidious approach to public spending and many other causes. His son, Allan Octavian Hume, also had a career within the Civil Service in India during which time he became a supporter of self- governance in India.

Two notable Montrose brothers who name is attached with interesting objects in our collection, are James Burnes, surgeon with the East India Company, and Alexander Burnes, Officer of the East India Company. It may come as no surprise to learn that their father was Provost in Montrose and friends with the influential MP, Joseph Hume. It is said that it was through this friendship, their positions in the East India Company were secured.

Alexander Burnes was only 16 when he travelled to India, but he soon developed a keen interest in the culture and language of India and the countries around it. In 1831 he travelled in disguise to Afghanistan on a fact-finding mission to learn what Russia’s interests in the region were. He did not travel with military envoy instead preferring to employ local guides and as a result developed close contacts on his travels. His immense skills in diplomacy and knowledge of local customs and rites of flattery enabled him to travel through areas of the Indus previously closed to Europeans. Alexander Burnes published a narrative of his journey in 1834, the book became a best- selling and vastly improved European knowledge of this area of the world.

Dr. James Burnes also wrote narratives of his time in India, one recounting a successful diplomatic assignment in Scinde. He also contributed to the expansion of Freemasonry in the country, establishing two new lodges and becoming Grand Master of all Scottish Freemasonry in India. He also penned ‘A Sketch of the History of the Knights Templar’ which put forward the view that the secrets and traditions of the Knights Templar have survived through the Scottish Freemasonry. In 1834 he received the knighthood of the Royal Guelphic Order from William IV.

James Burnes Medallion
Alexander Burnes
Knights Templars
East India Company uniform
East India Company uniform

The East India Company uniform and coins are objects with a direct link to colonial forces of the time. The fact that we have portraits of many of these figures associated with the Company indicates that these were individuals who were influential and highly regarded at this time. However, the impact on our collections is much broader. These individuals were also in a position through travel, wealth, and influence to donate objects to museums… and they did. In Angus, the museums in Montrose and Arbroath contain vast collections of ethnography, natural history and other curiosities which were collected during this period of colonial expansion of the British Empire.

This statue of Meramuniotes, which takes pride of place in Montrose Museum, along with this plaque, were donated by Dr James Burnes in 1837. It was one of the earliest donations to the museum. Burnes, who is a relative of our national bard Robert Burns, travelled widely as a surgeon with the East India Company. Following a bout of Malaria in 1833, he was granted sick leave to travel back from India to Scotland. He did so via Egypt, where he enjoyed an audience with the ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha. It is during this period that he acquired the plaque which is said to have come from a temple in Thebes (modern day Luxor).

Statue of Meramuniotes
High relief sculpture of the goddess Durga
James McLaggan portrait

This high relief sculpture of the goddess Durga slaying Mahisha was donated by Captain James McLaggan. McLaggan was captain of an armed East India Company Ship called ‘Clyde’.  And the historic label attached to the object speaks of the exploitative relationship that existed at the time in reference to colonial collecting, as the text reads: ‘This Indian Idol was taken from a temple in Calcutta and brought to Montrose in 1824 by Captain James McLaggan of the Honourable East India Company commanding the company’s armed ship the ‘Clyde’.’

These are just two examples of objects collected by donors who were employed by the East India Company. There are many other examples, sometimes in relation to other colonial forces. And of course, there may be other examples where this information has not been recorded. More research is required in this area.

This work furthers our efforts to decolonise our collections and museum spaces.

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