William Dalrymple on 'The Anarchy' and the cunning of the East India Company

William Dalrymple’s new book, The Anarchy — of how a commercial company ended up controlling a vast empire — is a story of corporate power that we need to know

October 03, 2019 06:19 pm | Updated October 05, 2019 06:07 pm IST

One of the first words to enter the English language from India was ‘loot’, writes William Dalrymple, setting the stage for The Anarchy , a story of how a “dangerously unregulated” private joint stock company, housed in a nondescript London building, raised an enormous army and went on to ravage the Indian subcontinent. In what is easily his most ambitious and arguably his most engrossing work, the Scottish historian and writer makes a case that the empire was won not on the strength of military superiority, but as a result of the cunning of a corporate house that was helped along by amoral Indian bankers who financed its operations.

In his familiar passionate manner, Dalrymple cuts through the stodge that pervades a lot of writing on history to serve up a book that has it all — the compulsive pull of a thriller, the erudition of a significant piece of non-fiction, and the loveliness of a piece of literature. In his first interview to an Indian newspaper after the publication of the book, he declares that it is all too often forgotten that the conquest of India was an act of corporate violence. Excerpts:

One of the fictions many of us have come to believe is that the British ruled India for almost two centuries. But after the Battle of Plassey (1757), all they consolidated their hold over was a part of Bengal. Similarly, you suggest that when people talk of British rule, they forget that until the middle of the 19 century, it was run by the East India Company, a joint stock company.  Has the role of this private company, whose representatives often acted on their own, been downplayed or gotten too muddled up with that of the British government? 

There is no question this is the case. It is true of Britain as it is of India. It was extremely well known in the 18th century that it was a company that was running India, and this was a cause of some scandal. One of the biggest surprises in my research was the amount of resistance in the British press to what was going on. Some of it was because they didn’t like the new nabobs coming back to Britain with fortunes and buying up country houses and parliamentary seats. But a lot of it read very much like a modern [The] Guardian editorial. ‘That we had outdone the Spanish in brutality, for instance. That they at least had the excuse of faith, but that we had done it for profit.’

There were plays in London where [Robert] Clive was parodied as ‘Lord Vulture’ presiding over the Bengal Famine. There was continuous questioning in Parliament about how a commercial company run by merchants could control this vast empire and why it isn’t the Crown.

This was a very live issue at the time, but the Victorians spun it as story of national glory and imperialism. And Indian nationalists bought that line but reversed it into a story of national oppression followed by liberation. The corporate violence got forgotten in this mix somehow.

Even by historians?

Of course, 18th century historians knew about the Company. But again, often in the language, they talked about The British with a capital T and a capital B rather than the Company. I find myself doing this as well and have to keep checking myself.

You say in the introduction that the book doesn’t purport to provide a complete history of the Company. But even so, would it be fair to say, that you have wrapped this account in a slightly episodic manner around some personalities – Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Richard Wellesley – with Shah Alam running like a thread through it?

That’s a very good description of it. There are two stories I am telling really. The rise of the Company is the main one, but it is told against its mirror image, which is the fall of the Mughals. And the way they diminish from a trans-Indian power to Shah Alam stuck inside his little box that extends [from Delhi] to Palam.

But I wouldn’t describe it as episodic. The question that the book tries to answer is how one London corporation took over from the Mughal empire. And I tried to stick to that main question. For example, I jettisoned all talk about the East India Company’s movement on the China coast... the Opium Wars, all that sort of thing. I jettisoned a lot of detail of how the Company was run at home. If it was a full history of the East India Company, then you would probably spend a lot of time on boardroom affairs and of different factions within it.

I set my heart on telling a story of how one London office seized such huge amounts of territory and the answer is only partly technological. Yes, it trained Indian sepoys in cutting-edge military techniques, but it is also a story of Indian collaboration. The Company makes its first territorial seizure with the support of the Jagath Seths [the country’s wealthiest bankers]. It was they who asked the British to overthrow Siraj-ud-Daulah of Bengal and they offered Clive £2 million to do this. This was the moment the Company realised it could defeat the vast Mughal armies with a very small amount of its newly-trained sepoys. And particularly from the 1780s onwards, the Marwari and Jain bankers of Bengal, and later the Hindu bankers of Benares and Patna, consistently backed the Company against other Indian forces. Which is something I try to understand in the book.

When I am in Britain, I emphasise the loot and plunder which some of the people here simply don’t know. But when I am in India, I stress on how the Indian capital backed this, something not all Indians know.

As in your other histories, there is a considerable of amount of space and effort devoted to bringing characters to life. This makes it so much more interesting to read, but isn’t it a challenge given the partisan nature of sources, to sift between understatement and hyperbole, between even-handedness and prejudice?

This is a magnificently well-recorded period. The challenge is obviously in getting the Indian voices. And that is what I focussed on. The same was true in the other books I have written as well. I have used a lot of Persian language sources that have not been translated before, including the Shah Alam Nama , which even the indefatigable [historian] Jadunath Sarkar had not used. There was another source, which has been available for 200 years in English but rarely ever used because it is so weighty, Ghulam Hussain Khan’s Seir Mutaqherin .

In school, we were taught that Siraj-ud-Daulah was someone who stood up and fought the British and that Mir Jafar was a treacherous man who the British bought off to defeat the former. But you paint a very different picture of Siraj-ud-Daula.

With Siraj-ud-Daula, we have about 10 good sources, in English, French, Urdu and Bengali. But none of them, including Ghulam Hussain Khan, who was his first cousin, is that of a monster. If you look closely about how Indian nationalists portray him, they have to go against every source they can find. There is literally not a good word about him that anyone has to say.

The Dutch and the French had their own companies, which raises the question, why was the East India Company more successful than the others that also functioned under royal charters? You quote the French traveller, Comte de Modave, as saying while the British were focussed on trade, the Frenchcompany was corrupt and its leadership ignorant and boastful.

The Comte de Modave is one of my favourite sources, who is astonishingly largely unused, never translated into English before. He was a friend of Voltaire and a very urbane observer, and he is everywhere — Calcutta, Avadh, right through the centre of India. He has talked to the Marathas, he has worked with Mir Jafar, and finally with Shah Alam.

The French were a more royal concern. But the Company was a middle class affair, mining for profit, and had all the strength and ruthlessness of a corporation. The Portuguese were also a royal affair. The only commercial competitor was the Dutch and they beat the East India Company in the East Indies. But by the 18th century, the Dutch economy had gone into decline and this benefited the Company.

In two of your previous books (White MughalsandThe Last Mughal), you had highlighted the changing relationship between the British and Indiansa time when theformer inter-mixed, married Indian women, adopted the country’s ways. But, as you say in The Anarchy, the worst period of British ruleof loot, wars, conspiracies and impoverishmenthappened during the whiteMughal era. How do you square this up? And do you feel you need to reconsider the importance you attached tothewhiteMughal era, for its “hybridity” and its “unexpected collisions and mixings”.

Not at all. The two were very complementary. What you got in the East India Company period was maximum extraction — the period of greatest corruption, loot and plunder as well as human rights abuses. But it was also the period when Indians and the British were collaborating most closely. The country was not conquered by white British manpower. It was conquered by Indian troops, who were recruited. And these armies were being funded by Marwari bankers. There were never more than 2,000 British traders in India in this period, most of them in Bengal. The extraordinary audacity of the British was to borrow Indian money, train Indian soldiers, and take on other Indian states. But this is exactly what they did.

And it was in the middle of this that you got this inter-mixture of families, of ideas, of scholars. Then in the late 19th century you get a very different Raj, where the British are in their civil lines, and there are a large number of British soldiers, even entire white regiments. This is the more familiar world we know from Kipling and Curzon. You know, ‘East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.’ In a way, this is a relatively more palatable period in terms of governance. This is the period where the hospitals, communications, universities come up. The Company had made no pretence of being interested in anything but profit.

NEW DELHI, 06/11/2016: Writer and historian, William Dalrymple during an interview at Bikaner House in New Delhi on Tuesday afternoon. December 6, 2016. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar.

NEW DELHI, 06/11/2016: Writer and historian, William Dalrymple during an interview at Bikaner House in New Delhi on Tuesday afternoon. December 6, 2016. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar.

Counterfactuals are a tricky business, but you suggest that the Company could havebeen expelled for good with a simple push in 1780. That is, had Haidar [Ali] and Tipu [Sultan] advanced on Madras after winning the Battle of Pollilur and had the Marathas gone on the offensive in the North.

This was a moment that Indians might regret. In 1780, the entire British regiment had not just been defeated at Pollilur but had been wiped out. They had another major defeat at the hands of the Marathas a year before. At the same point, Bengal was paralysed by the conflict between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis. And the Company was bankrupt.

If only the Triple Alliance created by Nana Phadnavis between Hyderabad, the Marathas and Tipu Sultan had held together. Had these three pushed at the same time, there was absolutely no question that the Company would have been defeated. Hastings described himself then as being on a leaky vessel being blown towards rocks. And Francis advocated withdrawing troops across India to Calcutta. But the impression of British power was kept up and Hastings played a very clever game. The Triple Alliance broke down and the next [one] was with the British against Tipu. The Marathas collaborated with the Company, idiotically from an Indian perspective, to destroy Tipu.

In your book on Afghanistan (Return ofaKing), there were passages about the lessons we should learn today from the Anglo-Afghan wars. Similarly, there are passages in The Anarchy, which state that the East India Company is a reminder of the potential abuse of corporate power. How important is this kind of political messaging to your work?

In both books, the main body of the works have no reference to the present. I tell the story as I researched it. But in these books, as well as the White Mughals , where I make points about the clash of civilisations, I see myself as a historian writing at a period of time when I am facing issues. At the time [around White Mughals ] when western powers were back in Afghanistan, it seemed a good moment to consider the follies when the British were in that country. And this is a story about corporate power.

I think the main body of the works stand on their own, but these points I make in the introductions and conclusions give them a certain relevance to the reader. There are also nice outcomes of giving these histories a contemporary message, in that it becomes a part of the contemporary debate. When Return of the King came out, I was called by [former Afghanistan President] Hamid Karzai to brief him in Kabul. I was also called by [former US President] Barack Obama to brief the Afghan team in the White House. And last weekend, there was this thing about Imran Khan reading the book on his way back from the United Nations General Assembly. It went viral on Twitter. It is very nice when this happens, but what is more important to me is that the book stands up historically and that the main body of the text is accurate and comprehensive.

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