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This review is taken from PN Review 274, Volume 50 Number 2, November - December 2023.

Cover of John Company, An Epic
Paul IngramDavid Ashford, John Company, An Epic (Pamenar Press), £16
Monstrous Epic

From experimental publisher Pamenar Press, John Company, An Epic by David Ashford is at once an exuberantly ambitious book-length epic poem, a sustained exercise in textual collage and an immanent critique of the consciousness of empire. The protagonist of the work is the East India Company, personified with the familiar sobriquet ‘John Company’. This personhood, however, is principally legal rather than literary. The EIC is not, by means of a rhetorical device, magically made relatable or given a human face. It remains fundamentally inhuman, a persona ficta that stands in on paper for an evolving complex of commercial, administrative and military operations. Over twelve sections totalling some two hundred pages, Ashford’s ‘John Company’ is figured less as an epic hero, more as a kind of monster – hybrid in form, many-headed, fire-breathing.

Definitionally, the EIC is difficult to pin down – mercantile in orientation, but fulfilling functions of a state; part-capitalist enterprise, part-territorial power. Technically it was an English joint-stock company established by Royal Charter in 1600, with a monopoly on trade in the Indian Ocean region. In its heyday, the EIC was the most powerful corporation in the world, dominating a vast area encompassing much of the Indian subcontinent as well as parts of Southeast Asia and East Asia. It commanded armies, levied taxes and minted coins, increasingly acting as a de facto colonial administration, prior to the direct rule of the British Raj in India. Disempowered by an Act of Parliament in 1858, the EIC was eventually dissolved as a legal entity in 1874. ...

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