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Charter Acts


Charter Acts enabled the English east india company to come to the 'East Indies' for trade and commerce as a company endowed with exclusive rights and subsequently to rule India until' 1858. A charter for overseas trade had to be obtained by a commercial company for several reasons, the most important of which was the marine support of the Kingdom against all pirates and invaders in foreign lands and seas. Besides, it was a source of income for the Crown.

The sovereign required all British companies sailing out overseas to register themselves as bona fide companies on payment of recurring tributes that provided a substantial source of income for the kingdom. To make the overseas business attractive to investors, the Crown granted monopoly rights to the British overseas maritime companies. The monopoly charter to a company meant that trading rights in its chartered territories were denied to other British private traders.

On the last day of the year 1600 the East India Company was chartered as a company by the name of 'the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies'. The number of founding stock subscribers was 217. The first governor, Thomas Smythe, and twenty-four committeemen were specifically mentioned in the charter. The charter provided that the committee must be elected annually. The exclusive trade with India was granted tentatively for fifteen years. The great journey towards establishing an empire in the east by a private chartered company was thus inaugurated.

In 1609, the company sought from the king a perpetual trading right in the East Indies. In view of the progressive growth of the company and profitable business transacted in the eastern waters, the king granted a charter endowing the company with a monopoly right tenable in perpetuity, unless it should prove unprofitable to the kingdom. The right, however, could be revoked on serving three years' notice.

During Cromwell's regime the company had been facing considerable difficulties. Cromwell was thinking to revoke the Company's charter and declare 'East Indies Trade' open to all. But finally the company could manage a new charter from the Long Parliament. Under this charter the company was turned into a permanent joint stock company. The company, however, enjoyed a prosperous time after the Restoration. The Stewart kings often borrowed money from the company without paying it back. The charters granted between the years 1661 and 1683 strengthened the position of the company in many ways, giving it the right to coin money, erect fortifications, exercise jurisdiction over English subjects residing in the east, make war or peace, and form alliances with non-Christian peoples. It is on the basis of this charter that the company had waged war against Mughal Bengal in the 1680s, made settlements and fortifications in calcutta in the 1690s and became a territorial power in the 1760s and '70s.

The first Charter Act after the establishment of dominion in Bengal was the Townshend's Act of 1767. This Act recognised the acquisition of the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa in lieu of an annual tribute to His Majesty's exchequer. The company was now both a commercial as well as territorial power. Henceforth all the Charter Acts, also known as India Acts, were aimed at curbing progressively its political powers and commercial privileges. By enacting the regulating act of 1773, parliament had started the process of bringing the company's state under its own control. Under this Act, the governor of fort william was given primacy over other presidencies. He was designated as 'Governor General and Council of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal'. A four member Council was appointed by parliament to assist the Governor General and also to ensure check and balance in the working of the Council.

The parliamentary control that was established under the Regulating Act increased progressively under the Charter Acts of 1781, 1784 and 1793. Under the Charter Act of 1784 (pitt's india act) the Governor General was armed with extraordinary powers. Under this Act the Governor General's designation was changed to 'Governor General in Council' and the commander-in-chief of the King's army in India was inducted as an ex-officio member of the Council.

The Calcutta government was further directed to establish a permanent system of government without indulging in exterminations any more. lord cornwallis was appointed Governor General under this Act. The system of appointing the Governor General directly by parliament had indeed very materially curbed the privileges of the court of directors. The company lost the monopoly right under the Charter Act of 1813, which made India open to free trade. However, the company still retained the monopoly of China trade. But this residue privilege was also abolished under the Charter Act of 1833. Henceforth, the East India Company as a business concern had to compete with others on equal footing. The Charter Act of 1853 had abolished the company's trading right and privilege of patronage.

From now on, the civilians of the company's civil service were to be recruited by competitive examinations. From 1853, the company was to rule India on behalf of the Crown and parliament according to rules set by parliament. Finally, the company had a painless death when parliament abolished the company altogether under the india act, 1858 and undertook the responsibility of ruling British India directly. The Governor General of India was redesignated under this Act as the 'Governor General and Viceroy of India'. A cabinet minister with the designation of Secretary of State for India in Council was henceforth to rule India through the office of the Governor General and Viceroy. [Sirajul Islam]