In The Honourable Company, John Keay takes a long hard look at the "Company of Adventurers Trading in the East Indies". His account is frank and direct, taking to task many of his predecessors and many of the myths of the mighty East India Company. He pulls into his narrative both the personalities of the Company in the "field", i.e. outside of London, from scattered attempts at settlement in South Africa, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, to the much better known adventures on the Indian subcontinent. He also ties in the various ventures in Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula, and China and Japan. Against these personalities, their complex motivations, many of them less than stalwart, Keay also arranges the personalities in London in government and in the Company whose interests were often in opposition to those in the field, though the could also be of tremendous assistance. Finally, Keay brings into the story the many native rulers and the push and pull they exerted, often in opposition to their long-term self-interest.
Somehow, Keay is able to keep the reader on track, making sure we understand who the players are, where events are unfolding, and the various factors affecting the result. There is a lot of detail; the book is not for the casual reader or the faint-hearted. However, for one interested in how Britain became an Imperial Power almost in spite of itself, or how the decay of the Moghul Empire and the factions within the other native rulers both assisted and thwarted the Company, or how the Europeans engaged for over 200 years in violent conflict with each other in this area, despite peace in Europe, this is a fantastic read.
Me as a critic (be careful! the harshness will be well concealed!)