Marilyn Mason walks the streets
Most of us live and work in suburbs and cities. If we enjoy walking, we tend to escape to beautiful, tranquil places. But walking in towns and cities offers pleasures too, though of a rather different kind and usually requiring a knowledgeable guide to help discover them. Even in the most unremarkable suburbs, above and behind the standard modern shop fascias and plate glass windows, hide relics of the past: medieval street plans, ancient wells and watercourses, Tudor lath and plaster walls, 18th century firemarks, elaborate Victorian windows and pediments. Sometimes, as in the case of firemarks the signs, usually at first floor level, which enabled private fire companies to put out fires only at buildings that were insured with them a walk can provide reassurance that some things have improved, as well as a fresh view of familiar surroundings.
But until recently I had not particularly associated city walks with ethics or politics or social responsibility, so I was intrigued to join the 'Loot' walk around the City of London, searching out the remains of one of the biggest and least scrupulous multi-nationals ever, the East India Company, guided by Nick Robins and Jane Trowell of the charity Platform. In truth, what remains is very little, and this is essentially a walk of the imagination. The prosperous and dynamic City has rarely been reluctant to tear down obsolete buildings (though its pretty churches survive) and replace them with bigger, better, brasher constructions. But the almost total disappearance of the East India Company is astonishing when one considers its long history and potent influence on our way of life (spices, tea, cottons and silks) and politics (capitalism, Empire, and towards the end of its life, Government attempts to control and regulate corporations).
Some City streets are called after the imports of the Company, and one pub bears its name, but there is little else visible to remind the passer-by of its former vast wealth and power. The Company's headquarters for more than two centuries have been completely obliterated by the steel and glass of the Lloyds building a symbol perhaps of the changing basis of the City's wealth. Even the one solid relic of the Company acres of warehouses in Cutler's Gardens where once over 4,000 workers sorted and guarded huge stocks of Indian textiles has been converted into smart offices with no tangible acknowledgment of its former owner. Decorative plaques commemorate the goods that were once stored and traded there, though not the opium that was also part of the Company's trade with the East, and not the name of the company. Nick Robins calls this "corporate amnesia".
|Platform is a charity which promotes processes of democratic engagement to advance social and ecological justice. |
'Loot' is part of its 'Freedom in the City' programme, which aims to investigate the wider impact of London's financial centre through a series of public walks.
Details from [email]email@example.com[/email] or 020 7403 3738.
The 'Loot' walk, then, is short on visuals, but revealing about the history of this precursor of globalisation, and our current attitudes to it. Nick Robins writes: "Like a snake, the City seems embarrassed of an earlier skin The absence of any memorial to the East India Company at any of these sites is peculiar. For this was not just any corporation. Not only was it the first major shareholder-owned company, but it was also a pivot that changed the course of economic history. During its lifetime, the Company first reversed the ancient flow of wealth from West to East, and then put in place new systems of exchange and exploitation."
Although it began as an enterprise benefiting both East and West, long before its demise the Company had become notorious for its corruption, arrogance and rapacity. Interestingly, the philosopher John Stuart Mill (a hero to many liberals and humanists) spent over thirty years working for the East India Company and defended its rule in its dying days as "the most beneficent ever known among mankind". But the Company did not survive the disaster of the Indian Mutiny, and was abolished in 1858. Some relics of its existence can still be found in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (well worth a visit on one of its open days) in statues of Company officials and a mural, The East Offering its Riches to Britannia. Also in Whitehall stands an imposing statue of that infamous Company employee, Clive of India.
So a walk around London taught me something about the antecedents of our economic system, and to wonder about their near invisibility today. Other cities seem less coy about their unsavoury histories: in Bristol you can visit a Georgian slave trader's house, and in Liverpool be guided along its 'slavery trail'.