History Reviews

‘The Anarchy – The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire’ review: What Britain did to India

In this encyclopaedic volume, possibly the crowning glory of William Dalrymple’s oeuvre, his trademark raconteur style has been toned down in favour of viewing history from a somewhat subaltern perspective.

Here, his typical raciness is offset by scathing pronouncements on Britain’s colonial project which he deconstructs with élan. “We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality,” he observes and points out how this was done not by competent authorities, “but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by a violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator — Clive.”

Advanced capitalism

This book then is a prequel to Dalrymple’s earlier masterpiece The Last Mughal: The End of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, which dealt with the twilight years of the Mughal Empire. He has produced a wide-ranging study of how the East India Company — a small stock joint venture fuelled by petty greed and from the outset managed less professionally than the competing Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French overseas trading companies — turned itself into a humongous world power, dethroning rulers with its armies and running puppet governments, “the most advanced capitalist organisation in the world”.

At the core of the story we meet Robert Clive, an emblematic character who from being a juvenile delinquent and suicidal lunatic rose to rule India, eventually killing himself in the aftermath of a corruption scandal.

Other significant colonials too come alive — Warren Hastings, Charles Cornwallis and the Wellesley brothers to name a few — as well as many of their primary Indian counterparts like Siraj ud-Daula and Tipu Sultan.

We also learn how Clive’s ascension was backed not so much by London but by bankers from Bengal to engineer a coup. Dalrymple describes in great detail how the Battle of Plassey was bankrolled in an attempt to improve the Indian business climate of the day, only to result in the eventual colonisation of the entire country.

Mere decades later, under Cornwallis, an increasingly racist regime was put into place, followed by Wellesley’s policy of divide and rule — bringing India to its knees.

It is here that the true genius of this book lies: in its setting events in context by opening out fresh perspectives via meticulous sifting through auxiliary data and presenting the findings in a well-argued narrative to show how business companies transformed “from trading concerns to increasingly belligerent and militarised entities, part-textile exporters, part-pepper traders, part-revenue-collecting land-holding businesses, and now, most profitably of all, state-of-the-art mercenary outfits.” This then was what ended the Islamic rule, but while other colonials such as the Dutch “degenerated into base, avaricious toads squatting on their heaps of gold and spices” and the French acted “as if drunk”, squandering money in “mad undertakings”, the Britons grabbed their chance and made India the jewel in their crown.

Brimming with anecdotes

These pages are also brimming with anecdotes retold with Dalrymple’s distinctive delight in the piquant, equivoque and gory: we have historical moments when “it seemed as if it were raining blood, for the drains were streaming with it” (quoted from a report c1740 regarding events that preceded Nadir Shah’s infamous looting of the peacock throne) as well as duels between Company officials so busy with their in-fighting that it’s a miracle they could perform their work at all; there’s also homosexuality, homophobia, sexual torture, castrations, cannibalism, brothels and gonorrhoea.

The principal protagonists of the “Black Hole of Calcutta” incident are both, naturally, certified pervs: Siraj ud-Daula is a “serial bisexual rapist” while his opponent Governor Drake is having an “affair with his sister”.

And one particular Mughal governor liked to throw tax defaulters in pits of rotting shit (“the stench was so offensive, that it almost suffocated anyone who came near it”). All this gives one a rough idea of what historically important people were up to according to Dalrymple.

But all things considered, Dalrymple’s research is solid and heavily annotated (footnotes etc. add some 35% surplus weight and size to the book).

Given his long engagement with Indian culture and history, combined with the Briton’s eye for seeing the East India Company in a just light (which brings out both the troubling aspects of it without being unfair to its contributions or lack thereof to civilisation), the partially Anglo-Indian Dalrymple is possibly best placed to write the ultimate report on the birth of British colonialism. Readers may disagree with the more radical views presented, but it is about time that a Briton completely took apart the imperialist project and showed it for what it was — not about civilising savages, but about brutally exploiting civilised humans by treating them as savages.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire; William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury, ₹699.

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 8:54:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-anarchy-the-east-india-company-corporate-violence-and-the-pillage-of-an-empire-review-what-britain-did-to-india/article29409431.ece

Next Story