This 1778 allegorical ceiling painting depicts the riches of the East being presented to Britannia.
The latter is represented as a young lady seated on a rocky throne, a symbol of the British Empire's firmness and stability. She's the guardian of the EIC, represented by the innocent putties behind her back. The white, blue-eyed, and blonde, angelic Britannia is characterized by her two usual emblems: the shield (near her right foot) and the spear, leaning against the rocks with the tip pointing forward. The lady is protected by the Britannic Lion (horrendously drawn; look at his face: it's ridiculous!), laying tamely by her side.
Below the lion, in the foreground and at the foot of the rock lays Old Father Thames, the bearded man serving as a romantic personification of the river of London, depicted while pouring out his whole stream on Britannia's footstool.
On the other side of the painting, there's Mercury, the god of financial gain and commerce, holding the caduceus (the staff with intertwined snakes) in his right hand and urging the nearby characters to obsequiously present their precious gifts to Britannia.
Calcutta, the capital settlement of the Company in Bengal, is depicted as a semi-naked, dark-skinned girl offering Britannia a basket full of pearls, rubies, and a crown. Below, there is China, represented as a pale woman on her knees and seen from behind, so poorly painted that she looks hunched, neckless, and with an arm as long as a gorilla's. She's offering a giant blue and white porcelain jar and a wooden chest full of tea (on the ground). The two naked black men holding a corded bale (on the far right) represent Madras and Bombay offering cotton and calico.
Behind Mercury, there are an elephant, a camel, and some palms, representing the tropical territories under British dominion. The white woman under a palm, at a distance, was identified by some Romas' contemporaries as Persia bringing silk and other stuff, but I'm not sure about it.
In the central background, an EIC Indiaman, with the characteristic flag showing the cross of St. George and red stripes, is painted under sail, laden with Eastern treasures.
«The East Offering Her Riches to Britannia provides us with a fascinating window into the ways in which the Company wished to see itself – and be seen – at the peak of its commercial powers. Its mix of classical imagery and oriental exoticism captures well the sense of unlimited opulence that the Company’s success in the East had made possible.» (Nick Robins, The Corporation that changed the world, cit.).
Britannia, seated on a rocky throne, is the highest figure of all, and Mercury is at her service. The spatial relationship of ‘high’ and ‘low’ «can connote ‘superiority’ and ‘inferiority’, ‘domination’ and ‘servitude’, (...). Britannia’s exalted place with respect to the subservience of the East is not arbitrary, nor interchangeable, nor neutral, nor devoid of metaphor.» (Peter Gonsalves, A Barthesian Demythologization of a Colonial Painting, in Public Journal of Semiotics 6 (2), 2015).
The painting looks like a sort of pagan glorification, and its classical imagery calls to mind the glorification that Imperial Rome made of herself as the dominant center of its empire. But there's more here.
First of all, let's consider nudity. Britannia is represented draped in white with her right breast exposed: this is the traditional iconography of England since early paintings. This image connotes a state rich in history and civilization. India, by contrast, shows another kind of nudity: wild, tribal, uncivilized, and unjustified. This juxtaposition is stark and dynamically draws an oblique line through the center of the painting.
Secondly, the Asian characters are all represented on their knees, in an attitude of deferential submission, rendered according to the traditional iconography of godly devotion; in other words, the Asian characters are depicted as if they were worshipping a god. In the painting, some iconographic features prompt the viewer to take a point of view outside of history. The superiority of the white European over the dark-skinned Asian is enshrined at the level of a supra-historical order, even if only in history this superiority is revealed and objectified. Thus, the painting conveys a sort of transcendent legitimation of the submission of dark-skinned, 'savage' people to white, highly civilized British. If I am superior to you by natural and divine right, you owe me your riches, and it is only a detail whether I snatch them from you or you spontaneously offer them to me. Then, all forms of exploitation, oppression, massacre, and slavery against non-white and non-Christian peoples are metamorphosed into a fully sanctioned and legitimate domination. In this painting, the hidden ideological premise turns the bloody colonial looting into a rightful offering and asks the observer to perceive it as such.
From an artistic point of view, this painting shows obvious ugliness and mediocrity, but from a communicative point of view, it's effective and goes straight to the point.
British imperialism gradually disintegrated Indian economic and structural foundations. In 1853, Karl Marx wrote in a column written for The New York Tribune: « [T]he misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan <= India> is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all of Hindostan had to suffer before». The drug traffic, organized illegally by the EIC, disintegrated the Chinese social fabric and brought the Celestial Empire to an end. The plundering and destruction of the Far East was carried out under the ideological banner of the superiority and just dominance of the West.
We are not here at the dawn of modern capitalism only: we are at the dawn of modern racial discrimination, inequality, exploitation, and slavery. Two dawns that look different, but are the one and only.
The EIC and China
The EIC turned its attention to China in the second half of the 17th century: the tea-silk-porcelain trade, the old workhorse of the Portuguese (who were constantly threatened by the Dutch), was a significant commercial opportunity as those were commodities with a booming demand in Europe. The EIC established a factory on the island of Taiwan in 1622 (it was one of the first English settlements in East Asia); however, this station was not a colony and the EIC did not have control over the island. In 1664, the EIC made the first purchase of Chinese tea (approx. 100 lbs.), and over the following 20 years, it gained additional permissions to trade in Chinese ports to expand its imports of silk, tea, and porcelain.
In 1684, the Qing Emperor Kangxi lifted the maritime trade prohibition and endorsed an Open Trade Policy, allowing foreign merchants to bring their goods to China and enter Chinese ports. The EIC established direct commercial relations with China after the voyage of the Macclesfield galley in 1699-1701. Macau was used by the British as their home until the founding of Hong Kong in 1842. «The temporary residence of the supercargoes became essential to the economy of Macau» (Rogério Miguel Puga, The British presence in Macau 1635-1793, The Focus, Summer 2013). By 1713, the EIC had secured access to Canton harbor, and in 1762, the company was given permission to establish there a permanent factory or trading station.
The EIC traded Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain for British goods such as silver, wool, textiles, and opium. This is a crucial issue, but we won’t deal with it now. We are about to discover both the Portuguese, Dutch and English trade of Chinese blue and white porcelain and the tremendous impact the latter made on Europe.