Empire of Liberty: Company Men


Excerpt from Dr. Sadar Mohinder Singh’s “The Making of Modern India: 1499 to 1932”, University of Lahore Press, 2013.

The transition from the 18th to the 19th century is filled with prominent historical figures. Schoolchildren around the world learn about men like George Washington and Napoléon Bonaparte, and for good reason. Yet, this critical transition in history is filled with key figures who typically do not receive the recognition they are due. The Indian subcontinent is filled with such figures such as William Hastings, Baji Rao II, or Yaskhwantrao Holkar. It can be argued however that the key historical player in India’s long-term story was none of than the Ranjit Singh, the leader of the newly ascendant Sikh Empire located in the Punjab of northwest India.

The origins of the empire lie in the vacuum left behind as the Mughal Empire began to decline across the 18th century. As Mughal power eroded, the northwest became a domain of imperial “frontiers”. On one extreme, the Punjab was contested by the Durrani Afghans while on the southern extreme the Maratha Empire made inroads into Rajasthan and eventually came to possess Delhi itself. In the middle, many small Sikh statelets, or “misls” arose which formed a loose confederacy. These misls varied in size and strength, and occasionally they attempted to expand their individual territory at the expense of other misls. Yet, the misls acted in unison in relation to other states and even convened a confederation legislature at Amritsar. A dynamic system of misl warlordism and confederate strength led to numerous clashes with the Durrani in the second half of the 18th century. The culminating moment in this long saga occurred on July 12, 1799 when Ranjit Singh captured the city of Lahore, arguably the most important step on the road to unifying the Sikh statelets. On April 21, 1801, Ranjit Singh was invested as Maharaja of the Punjab by the Sikh aristocracy thus forming a unified Sikh Empire (at least on paper).

Singh was quick to modernize the army and his rule reflected an egalitarian streak in that the empire allowed for a certain amount of religious toleration and allowed men from all background to rise through the ranks. Singh became a great patron of religious arts and during his rule. He rebuilt the Harmandir Sahib in marble and copper and eventually overlaid it with gold. Singh’s first great geopolitical decision came late in the Second Anglo-Maratha War when he opted to conclude a peace treaty with Britain instead of allying with the Holkar clan of the Maratha Empire. To many historians, that decision marks the zenith of British power on the subcontinent while also creating a tenuous peace in the Indian northwest between remaining Maratha interests, British interests, flagging Durrani possessions and ascendant Sikh possessions. Of course, that tenuous peace would be exploited in the War of Indian Independence.

This simplistic interpretation overlooks the reality on the ground in the Punjab. Even if Singh had desired to ally with the Holkars, there was little he could actually do to assist. History remembers the 1801 coronation as the “unification of the Sikhs” when in reality there was nearly another decade of Sikh unification wars. At the age of 22, many misls considered Singh to be a young upstart and not worthy of their allegiance. He forcibly took Amritsar in 1802, and was fighting Muslim misls well into the first decade of the 19th century. If the Sikhs did participate in warfare beyond their internal issues, it came against the Durranis who were considered the more immediate threat than the distant British.

Ultimately, Singh reevaluated his enemies when Britain signed an alliance with the Durrani during the War of the Three Sultans thanks in part to the diplomatic efforts of Alexander Hamilton during his adventures on the subcontinent.


Excerpt from Jeremy Carver’s “The Making of the Commonwealth”, University of Oxford Press, 1987

As the British took and eventually “purchased” the whole of the Dutch East Indies they learned how complex and profitable the islands truly were. They also realized how little the Dutch actually owned. Similar to the BEIC set up on the subcontinent, the VOC operated through a complex arrangement of directly administered territory, allied statelets, protectorates, outpost ports and forts, and neutral trading states. Of course, the British were no strangers to these waters. Trade with China had been growing for years necessitating safe passage and harbors through the various straits of the Indies. Bencoolen, the principal British outpost in the region located on western coast of Sumatra, had long been a thorn in the side of the Dutch. The British capture of Malacca and then Penang and the creation of Georgetown assisted British merchants making the long trek into East Asia. Various British military operations occurred in the region over the centuries ranging from attacks on the Spanish Philippines to anti-piracy operations in the in the Moluccas and Sundas. Economically, London was familiar with the trade in spices and peppers that once drew Spaniards and Portuguese explorers halfway around the world in the pursuit of wealth. Through contact, experiences in India and their own small outposts in the region, the British were acquainted with colonial agricultural systems that made the islands so profitable. Forced labor and indentured servitude existed, as peasants in a particular region would often be left to their own devices until planting or harvest. In this way, the Dutch has avoided American-style slavery of plantations and tightly controlled slaves but found a strange mixture of Asian serfdom and Atlantic slavery. And the British were more than prepared to pick up where the Dutch left off.

Yet, while the British were not hurting for knowledge on the region, they still faced a monumental task in picking up the pieces of the old VOC.

The French Revolutionary Wars had not helped in the matter but the decline of the Dutch Empire had left dilapidated infrastructure and underpaid soldiers and administrators isolated in the back of beyond for years. The brief power vacuum created by Napoleon’s sale of the Dutch Empire to London had created a series of secessional crises on Java that further eroded the old Dutch power base. The long-time VOC vassal sultanates of Yogyarta, Surakarta and Mangkunegaram in central Java had all reestablished their independence and were clashing with a resurgent Mataram Confederacy. On the far eastern end of the island, the old Hindu Kingdom of Blambangan reemerged to protect its Hindu citizenry from Muslim attack. Even the tiny island of Madura hosted three sultanates. Closer to Batavia, the three houses of the Sultanate of Cirebon were becoming obstinate and Banten, the ancient vassal of the Dutch, was looking to get in on the action.

And that was just Java.

Elsewhere the British just inherited dozens of sultanates on Sumatra, Malaya, Celebes and Borneo ranging from minor local players to regional empires like Johor and Brunei. The Portuguese were becoming active in Timor and the Sundas thanks to the exit of the Dutch. In the distant Moluccas, the trading sultanates of Tidore and Ternatte were clashing as usual. Shortly after the Treaty of London, the Treaty of Zaragoza became known which meant the nearby Spanish Philippines had just become the French Philippines. Technically, at peace, the British now needed a plan to take Manila when the fighting eventually resumed. In all of this, the British had to balance their interests in India, new exploration in the Pacific and New Guinea, settlement in Australia, and fostering trade and diplomacy with Viet Nam, China, and the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

Into this mess stepped Sir Arthur Wellesley.

Initially charged with bringing Java under control he ended up as the sort of “man in charge” as colonial and Londoner administrators cycled between England, the Cape, Calcutta, Madras and Batavia. Wellesley came to rely on “island governors” such as George Brown on Sumatra or the young Stamford Raffles on Celebes for much of the hands-on administration and pacification work.

This worked varied in its difficulty. Some of these initial pacification efforts were short, such as the brief independence of the central Javanese sultanates. These long-time clients of the VOC with special privileges, their sultans conceded to similar deals with the British after testing Wellesley’s mettle in a one off battle in February 1803. And, of course, in exchange for assistance in putting down the resurgent Mataram on their borders.

Other efforts were more intense.

The Anglo-Palembang War lasted from 1804 to 1807 and eventually took Wellesley’s personal intervention to land the decisive battle. The February 23, 1807 Battle of the Musi River finally saw the capture of Sultan Mahmoud Badaruddin II. The war netted the British a valuable treaty that turned southern Sumatra into a client state but prevented Wellesley from being in India during the Second Anglo-Maratha War. It also highlights the complexity of the region. Even if the Anglo-Maratha War lasted longer, Wellesley would have been forced to remain in Sumatra. Victory in Palembang resulted in calls for assistance from the nobility of northern Sumatran sultanates like Aceh, Siak, Jambi and Johor whose territories were being razed by zealous jihadis. As Wellesley would find out in 1808, back in 1803 (while he was first becoming accustomed to Java) a group of Mingangkakau Muslims undertook the Hajj and were exposed to Wahhabist teachings while in (newly Saudi) Mecca. They brought their religious fervor back with them and launched a religious crusade across northern Sumatra. In their efforts to secure trading friends and vassals, the British found themselves locked in a regional religious war for the next 15 years [1].

Slowly the administrative centers of the new empire emerged. Batavia retained its importance though in 1805 it would be renamed Jayakarta, its pre-Dutch name, to differentiate between the colonial city and the French client state. The long time, and lone, British outpost in the Indies, Bencoolen, became the center of operations on Sumatra. Georgetown, on the recently acquired island of Penang, became the center on the Malay Peninsula, though development there lagged for many years with so much focus and warfare elsewhere. Sambas on the western coast of Borneo became the center of that island. Fort Hull, formerly Fort Rotterdam, was captured in 1808 in a daring amphibious assault by the Raffles cutting the knees from a nascent attempt to restart the old Gowa Kingdom the Dutch has destroyed years before. Of course, this was just the earliest attempts at imposing control. The East Indies have had hundreds of years of European contact but it would take nearly another century to fully explore and map the isolated islands. In that time, Britain’s role in the Indies would only expand but, of course, Britain would not be alone in its efforts.


Excerpt from Dr. Sadar Mohinder Singh’s “The Making of Modern India: 1499 to 1932”, University of Lahore Press, 2013.

The aftermath of the Franco-American War, and the acquisition of the Mascarene Islands and American India, left many Americans scratching their heads. No one condemned the victories, indeed Commodore Truxton had emerged as a national hero for his success at the Battle of Mahé, but there were significant questions of what the U.S. was supposed to do halfway around the world. That the new American citizens were Frenchmen was largely irrelevant, the U.S. after all contained several French-dominant states, including powerful Quebec. The real question for the average American were these: “Do these territories truly want to be American?” and “Is the U.S. now operating as an imperial power?”

These were tough questions and, initially, there was reason to doubt the intentions of the powerbrokers in Port Louis and Pondicherry. Escaping the chaotic control of the Directorie was one thing but quiet whispers of pro-Napoléonic secession would hover across the cafes, salons and taverns of the United States for the duration of the Napoléonic Wars. As for that other question of imperialism, ironically many Americans pointed towards Haiti. After all, if the U.S. had just engaged in a blatant war of imperialism and conquest and stooped to the levels of its European rivals, would not the Americans have taken Haiti as conquerors and placed the slaves back into chains? Not a few prominent anti-imperial slave owners performed mental pole vaults condemning the Haitian experiment out of one side of their mouth while praising America’s progressive defense of democracy in that very location out of the other side. The French Marshal Jean-Victor Moreau quipped:

“The American planter wakes in the morning and drinks coffee, picked and boiled by slaves, and says ‘this is very good’. He then reads his paper and sees how Haiti is rebuilding its plantations, churches and schools and also says ‘that is very good’. He then converses with his houseguests about how rights and democracy for those very Haitians is ‘very bad’. He then observes his grounds like a tyrant and whips a slave saying ‘you have been bad and I do this for your own good’. He ends the day writing a letter to his representative on the Main encouraging him to oppose all matter of legislation from Haiti for all things Haitian are ‘very bad’. That representative will then read that letter while sitting at a desk next to a representative from Haiti and say its ideas are very good. It is a wonder the Americans can even put their shoes on the correct feet, though of course a slave probably handles that herculean effort for them. [2]”

Truth be told, the United States would not finish sorting out the psychological consequences of the Franco-American War for decades. Response to the economic sorting, though, was far more rapid. Socialists and those often referred to “economic justice warriors” in today’s mainstream often lambast Haitian Governor Toussaint L’Ouverture’s reconstruction efforts as “slavery without the slavery”. Confusion aside, L’Ouverture’s long desired goals had always been the freedom of the slaves, the destruction of the colonial caste system, and the maintenance of Haitian prosperity. His first goal complete and the second well underway, the peace allowed L’Ouverture to begin repairing the “jewel of the Caribbean”. L’Ouverture would not allow a return to slavery but he had little qualms with a return to a plantation economy [3]. In many ways, his long-term plans for Haiti was to turn it into a multi-ethnic “southern” state with a powerful agricultural economy, a well-educated and quasi-aristocratic elite, and a widespread adherence to Jeffersonian ideals of dignified, educated, agrarian republicanism.

Vision and implementation though are two very different things. L’Ouverture’s government would be mired for years in the political and judicial fallout of the destruction rendered during the war. White Haitian emigres either demanded their land back, or demanded compensation. Ignoring demands from emigres who had fled to Cuba or France was one thing, but what of those emigres who fled to the Carolinas or Jamaica? The very status of whom exactly had become an American citizen was in the air until Congress passed the 1803 Caribbean Emigres Act which cut the baby in two: those Frenchmen who fled to foreign soil would be considered French, those who remained in annexed territories, were at sea during the ratification of the peace treaty or had fled to U.S. territories would be allowed to petition for citizenship. The legal battles over lost property played out for years. White and mullato Haitians tended to be sympathetic while black Haitians had little patience for families of (ex) slavers whom they also considered traitors. Just to keep the internal peace, L’Ouverture had to beg the state legislature in Port-Au-Prince to sponsor several land redistribution bills. Several of these bills awarded virgin land in the interior hills, mountains and jungles to ex-slaves while other bills split up vacated plantation land and awarded parcels to the families of former soldiers as a reward for their service during the revolution. In lieu of a slave economy, a wage labor economy grew as the revised plantations hired field hands (usually former slaves) to do the work. Interestingly, L’Ouverture’s hopes of reestablishing a plantation style economy never took off because of the economics. While wage labor ended up being cheaper than the constant purchase of new slaves, the improved working conditions (because legally the landowners could not work their employees to death as the old masters did to their slaves) meant that plantations were simply less productive. The growth of the nascent sugar beet industry in Europe began undercutting the price of sugarcane by the late 1810’s [4]. By the 1830’s the sugar economy of the American Caribbean was thrown into turmoil due to increased competition in sugar beets and new sugarcane sources in Africa and Asia as Europe’s empires reconstituted themselves for the post-Napoléonic Era.

The reconstruction of Haiti was a slow, grinding, but ultimately successful and peaceful process; a testament to the Haitian leadership and the power of the American legal tradition. The real fireworks of reconstruction took place in American India.

The reality of the situation for the U.S. was that acquisition of those distant lands was a surprise. Records show that Adams, Washington, Hamilton and Truxton genuinely only added the distant Indian campaign out of desperation to bring the French to the negotiating table, not for imperial ambition. Therefore, integrating the new territories to the U.S. economy was an unexpected task but a necessary one less the new state and territories feel neglected and opt for secession.

The question led to an impromptu conference between Alexander Hamilton, DeWitt Clinton, James Hillhouse, John Jacob Astor, and Pierre de Sales Laterrière in New York City on October 2, 1804.  The meeting at Fraunces Tavern began as little more than a brainstorming session by some of the wealthiest and most prominent men in America. Clinton and Hillhouse were senators from New York and Connecticut respectively, Astor was arguably the richest man in America having thoroughly exploited the vastness of Rupert’s Land for his fur empire, Laterrière was a Congressman from Quebec, an ore merchant and (amateur) doctor, and Hamilton was the head of the Federalist Party and leading challenger to Jefferson in the coming 1805 election. Meeting in an upstairs room of the historic tavern the men discussed the recent war, events in Europe and opportunities in India. We do not know the specifics of their discussions but legend holds that their conference lasted several hours, came to include Gaspard Louis Ducray (a merchant with ties to Mahé and Chandernagore who, luck would have it, happened to be at the tavern that night) and resulted in the destruction of 27 bottles of wine between the six men [5]. While we do not know the specifics, we do know the result. Somewhere on the night of the 2nd (or very early morning of the 3rd) the six men created the American East India Company.

The AEIC was never intended to be like its European counterparts. Contrary to urban legend, the men never used their political influence to argue for a monopoly like the European companies had, nor did they actively lobby for a semi-state relationship and use of military power. Shares were allocated based on investment alone and its initial set up was little different from a typical merchant house. The difference did lie in the men’s social influence and contacts. The idea of an “east india company” swept through New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Montreal like wildfire. For some investors the project was philosophical, a republican foil to the tyrannical British and Portuguese companies. For others, it was a strictly profit-minded affair. Indeed, the New York-based bank of Smithson and Barnes (the forerunner to the modern SB&M Bank) would become a dominant player on the world financial market due to its role as the AEIC’s chief bank and a key investor. The Company officially began selling shares in the winter of 1804/1805 and a business plan began to unfold complete with a registry of company owned ships, the purchase of land in Pondicherry for a Indian headquarters, an office in New York City, and plans to establish lodges and factors in India, with an emphasis on the Maratha remnants and the still independent northwestern frontier.

Initial expeditions in 1805 were a rushed and haphazard affair but real progress came in the spring of 1806 when Director Hamilton completed the voyage from New York to Pondicherry. Still stinging from his loss to Jefferson in the 1805 U.S. presidential race, Hamilton sought an escape and a way to channel his enormous energies.

That escape was India and the energy he put into the endeavor became legend.

Hamilton oversaw the actual construction of the company’s India headquarters “America House” on St. Louis Street in addition to various docks, warehouses and other infrastructure in the newly acquired American ports. Many of these much needed upgrades were officially owned investments from the AEIC but, over time, Hamilton came to play a similar role to that of Sir Arthur Wellesley in the British East Indies; that of an “unofficial” governor. With the official American governor stationed in distant Port Louis, as part of the deal that landed the Mascarene Islands statehood, decision-making was slow and there was little room for on the ground evaluation and action. Hamilton, as a respected founding father and representative of tremendous financial interests, filled that vacuum. Initial company investment quickly evolved into general public spending as Hamilton commandeered local tax systems and even (less than legally) redirected expenditures of monies shipped halfway around the world. Soon, docks and warehouses became fortresses, roads and foundries. More and more American sepoys came into the company’s employ either through direct payments from the AEIC or, increasingly, vaguely worded contracts where the Federal government paid for their services to the Company. Naturally, Congress’ awareness of this setup was murky at best.

Interestingly it would be none other than John Quincy Adams who shed public light (in North America at least) on Hamilton’s “creative finances” just before the 1817 election but that is putting the cart before the horse.

Arguably, Hamilton’s greatest success came not from governance but diplomacy. Just as the British considered their position predominant on the subcontinent, the Americans arrived and scored numerous diplomatic coups that can only be described as stunning.

In 1808, Hamilton passed through the port city of Surat and made contact with the disgruntled Maratha chiefs, namely Yashwantrao Holkar. A treaty of friendship was signed shortly thereafter, along with a tacit understanding that the loyal Maratha chiefs and the Americans would support each other when the next major war with Britain broke out. On May 8, 1809, Hamilton topped that success when he signed the Treaty of Amritsar creating a similar pact of friendship and quasi-alliance with the Sikhs. By this point, Ranjit Singh had become increasingly annoyed with British incursions from Delhi and their friendship with the hated Durrani Afghans due to the ongoing War of the Three Sultans. These treaties are remarkable for two reasons. First, it appears by as early as 1807 Hamilton came to understand that a war with Britain would occur in the near future with the fate of India in the balance. Second, Hamilton filled the void that the Holkars and the Sikhs could not arrive at on their own by creating a powerful coalition designed to unite the native powers against Britain.

We must also note the diplomatic successes of Hamilton’s subordinates. Charles Manès, a longtime local leader from French Mahé turned Company colonel, established (in some ways reestablished) diplomatic connections with the Kingdom of Mysore. By 1810 it became clear the British residents in Mysore City that, while the Wodeyar Dynasty was tentatively compliant with British control, there were still many elements of the old courts of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan left in Mysorean society who wanted to knock the British down a peg. Percy Johnson, a former scholar from Yale and friend of the Astor Family sent with Hamilton to protect their substantial investment, performed his own diplomatic miracle during a mission to the Sindh. At the time, the Sindh was a recently unified confederacy located along the lower Indus River in opposition to the remnants of Mughal power. The troublesome Maratha Peshwa pushed a brief war with the new Nawab of Sindh, Mir Ghulam Ali Khan Talpur Baloch, just before the Second Anglo-Maratha War. The brief inconclusive affair did little except create suspicion between the powerbrokers in Sindh against the Maratha. Johnson succeeded in directing the ire of the Sindhis against the Peshwa and his British-backers while endearing the Sidhi emirs in favor of the more rebellious Maratha chiefs. These efforts combined with non-American influences to create a unified, formidable, challenger to British hegemony in India.

Nor should we forget a key development in 1809. Having returned to Mahé after signing the Treaty of Amritsar, Hamilton encountered an Omani merchant ship making port after a spice run to Borneo. Always on the lookout for intelligence about the British situation in the East Indies, Hamilton spoke with the Omani captain when he noticed a peculiar sight. Tending to the rigging on the Omani dhow was a sailor of Chinese descent working amongst the decidedly Arab-looking crew. Curious, Hamilton asked about the sailor and how he came to be in such a particular situation. The captain replied that he was a recent convert to Islam that the ship picked up as a guide and translator at the Lanfang Republic. To his amusement, Hamilton learned that the sultanates of western Borneo shared their land with a democratic federation of Chinese traders and miners owed their allegiance to the Qing Emperor [6].

In that moment, one of his great ideas sparked and Hamilton hatched a plan.

————— Author’s Notes ——————-

[1]: Amazingly, this religious war happened in our timeline as well for the same reason, a Hajj to Mecca when it was occupied by Saudi Wahhabists. We know it in our timeline as the Pindari War.

[2]: Obviously a fake quote.

[3]: Amazingly, this appears to be L’Ouverture’s long term economic plan for rebuilding Haiti. He never got the chance to implement because of the bloodier revolution, invasion of Spanish Santo Domingo, his eventual execution and the various infighting and Haitian imperial periods that followed.

[4]: In our timeline the British control of pretty much all of the world’s colonies during the Napoleonic Wars necessitated Napoleon’s funding of a startup sugar beet industry in France that eventually expanded to the rest of the Europe. The French loss of colonies to the U.S. and the American monopoly on Caribbean sugar basically causes the same thing to happen in this timeline.

[5]: Laterrière was a key player in the brief American invasion of Quebec during our timeline’s version of the Revolutionary War. It makes sense that he becomes a lead politician in this timeline’s version. Ducray was actually a brief French colonial governor in India.

[6]: This is one of the best things I’ve ever stumbled on. The Lanfang Republic and the Kongsi Federation is absolutely true in our timeline as well. Chinese traders and miners in the East Indies would set up democratic councils, that often included large swathes of territory, to administer themselves and their interests and these councils swore allegiance to the Emperor. The Dutch actually fought three wars in the 19th century against this particular republic before finally taking it over. Even then they waited until the Qing were seriously weakened before undertaking the effort out of fear of Chinese retaliation.

Source Materials

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Padri War.” Encyclopædia Britannica. January 18, 2018. Accessed April 06, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/event/Padri-War.

Cahoon, Ben. Indonesian Traditional States. Accessed April 06, 2018. http://www.worldstatesmen.org/Indonesia_princely_states1.html.

Heidhues, Mary F. Somers. “Golddiggers, Farmers, and Traders in the “Chinese Districts” of West Kalimantan, Indonesia”. Volume 34 of Southeast Asia publications series (illustrated ed.). SEAP Publications. 2003: 55.

“Traditional Polities.” Indonesian Traditional Polities. November 19, 2010. Accessed April 06, 2018. http://rulers.org/indotrad.html.

One thought on “Empire of Liberty: Company Men

  1. well written as always. you seem to change many things from your previous template. I think in previous version Jefferson who cultivated relations in India and there was no American Company. Will we see rise of Hindutva or will see more subtle efforts to make sure native rulers join the United States? I think you can look for native intellectuals like Ram Mohan Roy and others to built up a infrastructure to support and propagate Ideals and goals of Order.

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