To the East India Club: reconsider the legacy
Some private school students join sports and social societies at university. Others join more exclusive London clubs, like the East India Club. This is an institution that represents “the legacy of the servants of the East India Company.” It promotes a nostalgic image of the British Empire, and it hosts many a dinner for students looking for a place to impress their friends from home.
To the East India Club,
Your original purpose was to “house the servants of the East India Company and Commissioned Officers of Her Majesty’s Army and Navy,” and as an institution you believe that “the legacy of those early members, home on furlough from far-flung lands, continues today.” There is little to be proud of in this legacy.
The legacy of your members past is that of the British Empire. This “legacy” represents the killing and enslavement of people across the globe.
Your history is whitewashed, which allows us to look back fondly on “the legacy” of the British Empire with a sense of happy nostalgia. But while the artwork on your walls is well painted, no matter how delicate the brush strokes were, they will never erase the crimes that were committed by the people they celebrate. Your name itself carries the weight of the crimes that were committed by the East India Company: the raping, pillaging, thieving, murdering, the list goes on.
I was invited to the EIC by a friend last year. I looked forward to seeing the club which I nearly joined when I was at school. Everyone around me was talking about it. The atmosphere was quite comfortable until I walked into the dining room. There they were, plastered all over the walls: the servants of the East India Company, the pictures of those who had ruled over the British Empire and her war machine.
couldn’t help but glance at these pictures, wondering why anyone would want to
stare at these over dinner. Every time I looked away from the pictures, I saw that
I was the only brown person in the room that was not a waiter. In fact, it also
seemed as though every single waiter in the room was brown. It felt like I was
living in the time of the Empire: the Indians were the servants of white people
once again; I simply happened to be a token minority sitting at the white
table, sticking out like a sore thumb in this environment.
Throughout this experience, I attempted to feign ignorance and laugh it off. “This was me being uncomfortable towards nothing,” I thought.
Then, I spoke to some friends, and they asked me why I even went in the first place. The only positive thing I could come up with about my experience at the EIC was the fact that phones were not allowed at the dinner table. That one point doesn’t outweigh how uncomfortable and nervous I felt in that environment. Looking back on it I feel sick to my core that I went through it. The “legacy” onto which you hold affects the present, perpetuating ideas around the Western “first world” against exotic and “uncivilised” thirds; perpetuating the racist image of the white civilised versus unruly “other”.
The legacy of the East India Company’s servants is not one which we should continue. By holding onto this legacy, you further the notion that we live in a society where structures carry the tenets of the Empire and use them to oppress BAME people. You need to detach yourself from this nostalgic, rose-tinted, and glorified version of the British Empire. An institution which represents the legacy of this Empire does not deserve a place in modern Westminster.
It is time for you to change your name, redress your overwhelming whiteness, take down the pictures of colonisers on your walls, and encourage your members to realise that East India Company was not a good thing for so many people worldwide. The EIC and its members are living in a bubble, looking back fondly on “the good old days” when people like me were servants to the British. In the wake of one of the biggest civil rights movements in history – Black Lives Matter – it is time to uncover the whitewashed image of the “glorious” British Empire and see it for what it really was: a figure of oppression and brutality, its shadow still bearing down on us today.
Would you you would like to write a reply? If so, please contact the opinion editor at david.dahborn.13 [at] ucl.ac.uk.
Feature image: James Lancaster, who became the director of the East India Company in 1600, oil on panel (1596).