'Taboo' Uses A Real Company As Its Antagonist

by Caroline Gerdes

Tom Hardy's new FX series may be fictional, the corporation his character takes on in Taboo, the East India Company, is very real. The dark FX series set in 1814 seems inspired by real events surrounding the trading company, which has an interesting history. And though it doesn't exist anymore, it has actually garnered controversy very recently.

The East India Company was founded in 1588 after England defeated the Spanish Armada and merchants sought permission from Queen Elizabeth I to sail the Indian Ocean toward the East Indies, according to the Radio Times. The company then began steady trade with the Indian subcontinent and China and gained more and more power. The Radio Times also explained that the East India Company had its own armies, which it used to rule over the territories it used from 1757 to 1857, and was responsible for the mid-18th century Opium Wars. Despite the company's obvious power, Taboo is getting some flack for the way the East India Company is portrayed.

Taboo takes place in 1814 London, on the heels of the East India Company's heyday. The tortured protagonist, James Delaney, has a history with the company and is thrown into conflict with it as the series' central drama.

Robert Viglasky/FX

Some historians believe that Taboo misrepresents the company, since it was not capable of behaving like a multinational corporation or intelligence agency, as the series suggests. London School of Economics historian Dr. Tirthankar Roy told the Telegraph, "The company did not have the means to enforce any kind of conspiracy. The biggest battles it had were with itself." He also highlighted the positive impact it had on the economies of the countries it dealt with, especially India, China, and nations in southeast Asia.

While the company may not have been able to commit modern conspiracy, it did participate in the slave trade and the slaughter of indigenous people, so while Taboo may embellish and fictionalize its portrayal, it wasn't all positive.

In the same Radio Times article, series creator Steven Knight discussed his thoughts on the East India Company's 19th century dealings, and how different they look through a modern lens:

“I believe institutions, and even individual need to be judged according to what was valid to their contemporaries ... It is very difficult to judge the East India Company according to our values. They did stop dealing in slaves but they had dealt in slaves. They did have some ethical constraints but they didn’t always have those ethical constraints. And they did do some pretty terrible things in the colonial countries, things that wouldn’t be acceptable now."

With Taboo premiering Tuesday, Jan. 10, it's too early to tell just how much of an antagonist the East India Company will be. But with such an interesting history, there is certainly plenty of material to work with.