And why was it used to describe the British Empire’s “soldiers” around the world? Actually, I’m not sure it was really the term for the soldiers but rather the businesses that the Empire conducted throughout the world…or is that an incorrect perception?
Maybe this is just a nuance of British terminolgy that I don’t get! What brought this question to mind is a fictional book I’m reading in which John Company is mentioned–this is back as early as the late 17th century. I know it’s a factual mention, though.
“John Company” did not refer to the soldiers. It was the nickname for the British East India Company. The soldiers went along for the ride.
The EIC was what got Britain involved in India bigtime (also Aden, which was under the same administration as India). Once the Company, whose shareholders included the top dogs in the British aristocracy, got deeply involved, the British military had to go along to fight for the Company’s interests. After the so-called Black Hole of Calcutta (I have heard that it was a trumped-up incident, used as a pretext for a military operation, the 18th century’s Gulf of Tonkin), the actual military colonization of Bengal began in earnest. The Brits then had an extra motivation to build up colonization in India after losing the American colonies.
1757-1857, John Company was in the weird position of being a business enterprise that functioned as a government.
After the events of 1857 (which the British called the Sepoy Mutiny, but the Indians themselves know as the First Struggle for Independence), the Crown stepped in, did away with John Company, and ruled India directly.
Why did they nickname it “John”? You mean, why not “Melvin”? How did “John Bull” get his name? John being a very common name, it’s the sort of name people used to nickname personifications, I guess. What about John Doe, Johnny-come-lately, Johnny-jump-up, Johnny-on-th-spot? Jack is another name like that, much more widely used. Jack Tar, Jack in the Box, Jack in the Pulpit, Jack Sprat, Jack Frost.
From Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (centenary edition, 1981):
Note that the John Company had its own army up until the days of the Mutiny. In the colonial reorganisation which followed, the British government established the Indian Army from the John Co. army. The Indian Army was separate from the British Army, and was not under the direct control of Parliament, being under the control of the colonial Government of India.