Peaceful, Bloodless and Anti-Slavery Commerce? The British India Society and the Ethics of East India Trade, 1833-1857


This research project explores the relationship between Britain and India in the early nineteenth century, by focusing on the British India Society, which was formed in 1839 by British and American abolitionists, East India Company (EIC) men, private traders and members of the Bengali elite. This relatively short-lived organisation argued that, if properly managed, India’s ‘fertile soil and willing sons’ could provide an ethical source of sugar, cotton and other tropical goods that would undercut slavery in the American South. This anti-slavery agenda was combined with an attack on EIC misrule and the promotion of private enterprise in India. This project, which has been funded by the British Academy, will explore this little-studied society, tracing the interests and affiliations of its members to reveal the overlapping and intricate networks of colonial philanthropy and commercial enterprise that linked the BIS to transatlantic abolitionists, 'free traders', Indian reformers and private commerce. In so doing it will enhance our understanding of the complex and sometimes problematic interactions between humanitarianism and capitalism, as India's role in a post-emancipation empire was re-imagined in narratives on 'free' production, ethical consumption and globalisation.