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The Richest East India Merchant

The Richest East India Merchant: The Life and Business of John Palmer of Calcutta, 1767-1836

Anthony Webster
Volume: 1
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 216
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt81r8r
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  • Book Info
    The Richest East India Merchant
    Book Description:

    John Palmer was the most influential and wealthiest British merchant in British India for the first three decades of the nineteenth century. He ran an `agency house', a global commercial firm involved in banking, the opium trade, shipping, plantation agriculture and trade with Britain, Europe, China, south east Asia and the USA. When his firm went bankrupt in 1830, thousands of people, European and Indian, were ruined, triggering the worst commercial crisis in British India up to that time. This book, the first major study of a British agency house in India, presents an account of both of Palmer's business and personal life, showing how his personal relations and circumstances shaped his commercial strategies, with ultimately disastrous consequences for Anglo-Indian relations as well as his clients. ANTHONY WEBSTER is Head of Humanities at the University of Central Lancashire.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-589-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xi)
    Tony Webster
  5. Maps
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  6. One THE WORLD OF JOHN PALMER
    (pp. 1-22)

    ON FRIDAY 1 January 1830, most people in Calcutta must have anticipated an unmemorable weekend. Poorer Indians in domestic service would have expected the daily grind to intensify as their wealthy masters and mistresses put on lavish dinners and entertainments for friends. The endless round of hard physical work would continue for the Indian labourer, while his family, housed in huts in the shadows of the lofty mansions of the city’s European elite in the streets around Tank Square and along Chowringhee, or in the northern ‘native’ quarter, would continue the round of domestic drudgery in poverty and squalor. In...

  7. Two THE PRINCE OF MERCHANTS
    (pp. 23-43)

    IN AN ERA when personal reputation formed the bedrock of British commercial and social life, John Palmer came to enjoy a unique, global celebrity. Throughout the British empire his name became associated with wealth, trustworthiness and compassion. In India, Palmer’s reputation crossed social and racial boundaries. Known in Britain, Canton, and throughout south-east Asia, Palmer numbered among his friends American merchants, Dutch and British colonial officials and even the Sultan of Pontianak, a prominent Borneo chieftain. Francis Rawdon, the Marquis of Hastings, and Governor-General from 1814 to 1823, nicknamed Palmer ‘the prince of merchants’ an unofficial title which gained popular...

  8. Three THE MANAGEMENT OF JOHN PALMER & COMPANY: STRATEGIES, STRUCTURES AND PROBLEMS
    (pp. 44-64)

    JOHN PALMER & COMPANY were the leading agency house in India during the early nineteenth century, so the organisation and management strategies of the company are of great significance for the imperial and business historian. Their importance lies not only in explaining the central role the agency houses played in the early British colonial economy in the east, but also in the development of social relations between Europeans and Indians during the first half of the nineteenth century. In exploring how Palmer & Co. operated, it is also important to remember that it, like the other houses, was a global business, with...

  9. Four PARENTHOOD AND PATRONAGE: RACE, KINSHIP, SOCIETY AND ANGLO-INDIAN BUSINESS CULTURE
    (pp. 65-86)

    A VISITOR to Kolkata in the early twenty-first century would find it difficult to visualise the intimate European and Indian worlds within which John Palmer moved. Two centuries of urban development, population growth and political change have engulfed most of the merchant palaces, theatres and landmarks of his day. The site of Palmer’s celebrated mansion in the Lal Bazaar is now occupied by the Kolkata police headquarters. While the Victoria Memorial, the cathedral and Government House all remain as symbols of the might and majesty of British rule, the personal world in which the colonists moved in the city has...

  10. Plates
    (pp. None)
  11. Five JOHN PALMER AND THE POLITICS OF THE EAST INDIA COMPANY
    (pp. 87-109)

    AS THE richest East India merchant, John Palmer inevitably became embroiled in political questions about the East India Company, commercial policy and the expansion of Britain’s eastern empire. His informal title of ‘prince of merchants’ implied political influence as well as wealth. Certainly historians of British imperialism in the east have readily accepted that Palmer was a major player in determining policy. Both Tarling and Gibson Hill note his personal sway over leading men in high office in India, and his consequent ability to influence the direction of British diplomacy in south-east Asia.¹ Yazdani stresses Palmer’s ability to shape policy...

  12. Six RUIN AND FAILURE 1820–1830
    (pp. 110-131)

    BY THE 1820s the fortunes of Palmer & Co., together with those of several other British firms, had taken a marked turn for the worse. Various factors contributed to this looming crisis. War with the Burmese between 1824 and 1826, a slump in both the British economy and European demand for indigo all contributed to these difficulties. Several small British merchant firms went bankrupt in the last years of the decade, but in January 1830 came the fatal blow for the system of mercantile capitalism which had operated since the 1780s: the failure of Palmer & Co. Within four years, all of...

  13. Seven JOHN PALMER’S LIFE AND LEGACY
    (pp. 132-144)

    THE DECISION by Cockerell & Trail to demand repayment of Palmer & Co.’s debts was, as has been shown, the decisive factor which brought the Indian house down in January 1830. The other firms were consulted, but were ultimately not prepared to bail out Palmer & Co., prompting suspicions among Palmer and his colleagues that they hoped to profit from Palmer & Co.’s fall. While this ultimately marked the end of Palmer’s status as a merchant prince, it was some months before this became fully certain. Moreover, it was not the end of Palmer’s career, and how he conducted himself at the end of...

  14. APPENDICES: THE STATE OF JOHN PALMER & CO’S AFFAIRS FOLLOWING FAILURE IN JANUARY 1830
    (pp. 145-150)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 151-178)
  16. BIBILIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 179-184)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 185-194)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 195-195)