One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was LOOT, the Hindu word for plunder. To understand how this word became a common term across the British Empire in the 18th Century, take a look at the holdings of Powys Castle in Wales.
Stored in great heaps in what could pass as treasure vaults, Powys is awash with loot from India, room after room of imperial plunder, extracted by the East India Company during the 18th century. There are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display at any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi.
In August 1765, Mughal emperor Shah Alam, was defeated by East India Company troops, was forced to dismiss his own Mughal revenue officials in Bengal and replace them with a set of English traders appointed the directors of the East India Company. The collecting of Mughal taxes was henceforth subcontracted to a powerful multinational corporation – whose revenue-collecting operations were protected by its own private army. From this point forward, the East India Company (EIC) ceased to be a conventional corporation, trading and silks and spices, and became something much more powerful and dangerous. Within a few years, 250 company clerks backed by a mercenary military of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers became the de facto rulers of Bengal. This single corporation had more colonial assets that the rest of the British Empire and unlike the Monarchy, it had zero responsibility for the welfare of its holdings. Motivated solely by profit, the EIC swiftly subdued and seized an entire subcontinent and extracted wealth from the countries of India at such an aggressive rate that not only did it bankrupt the subcontinent but also caused a global banking collapse that nearly toppled the British Empire.
There is a common misconception that the British conquered India. In fact, many believe the propaganda of the British Raj (who eventually supplanted the EIC) that the British were there to build railroads and elevate the Indian people. The reality is far more sinister. It was not the British government that seized India, but a private company, run by an unstable sociopath – Robert Clive. In 1765, the EIC was a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London. It had only 35 permanent employees in its head office.
The EIC exploited its legal separation from the government. It argued that the document signed by Shah Alam – known as the Diwani – was the legal property of the company, not the Crown. It demanded that the government spend massive sums on naval and military operations to protect its subjects (the EIC). Many of its key stockholders held seats in Parliament and not only voted to uphold this legal distinction but fought efforts by the Crown to take over government in India and demanded that the Crown protect the company from foreign competition (particularly the French and Dutch).
Meanwhile EIC tax collectors tortured people, ransacked and plundered cities, towns and villages and rapidly drained the vast wealth of Bengal into their coffers. The loot on display at Pawys filled over 100 boats and was estimated at the time to be worth no less than £2.5m (£250m in today’s currency) and all this loot went into the pockets of one man… Robert Clive.