‘The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company’ by William Dalrymple

2019, 397 p plus notes

In 1608, who would have thought that India – with a population of 150 million and the source of one quarter of the world’s manufacturing – would be devastated by a small joint-stock company from England, a country that had just 5% of India’s population and contributed only 3% of the world’s manufacturing? But over the next 250 years, that is just what happened, as the East India Company steadily drained India’s wealth in goods and precious stones and cash, pouring it into the Company’s coffers for its shareholders. This is the story that William Dalrymple tells in his The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.

When the East India Company was established in 1599 in Tudor England, there was no indication that it was to become the behemoth that it did. Other joint-stock companies had been founded, and it was competing with similar companies from other European nations, all jostling to establish trade routes with the East Indies. Its ports in India were founded almost as a consolation prize when the better-financed Dutch dominated the Moluccas. However, through ingratiating themselves with the enormously wealthy Mughals in India, only to later exploit their rivalries, the East India Company had found a source of wealth even more lucrative than the East Indies. The wealth flowed one way only: straight to London. The precious stones, the golden thrones, the eye-watering amounts of money: this is the pillage that Shashi Tharoor describes in his Inglorious Empire (my review here).

But England was not the only nation involved in India, and the amount of European activity and interference in what England saw as its own market surprised me. Technological changes in warfare technology added to the European-based rivalry between Britain and France throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This rivalry played out in the Carnatic Wars between the French and British armies stationed in India, using Indian troops, paid for with Indian money and lives. European technology also weighted the scales when the British extended their ‘assistance’ (at a price, of course) to different rulers vying for supremacy in India. I was surprised, too, by the involvement of European soldiers who adopted Indian names and headed various armies of Indian soldiers, on both the French and English sides.

Dalrymple tells his history through individuals, most particularly the East India Company merchants, the governors from England, and the Mughals, Nawabs, Rohillas, Sultans and Marathas whose assets were steadily stripped by the EIC. In telling his story, Dalrymple has his goodies and baddies. Robert Clive (yes, he of the Curry Powder) was a baddie, who had three stints in India, amassing huge personal wealth, facing (and staring down) a Parliamentary enquiry, and finally committing suicide. Warren Hastings, the first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal) in Dalrymple’s eyes was a qualified goodie – and now I understand the nuances of Barry Jones’ response to the question ‘Who was the the first Governor General of India?’ Hastings, who was not beyond enriching himself either, was undermined by Sir Philip Francis -certainly a baddie in Dalrymple’s eyes (and incidently thought to be the author of the ‘Junius’ letters, much discussed in 19th British legal history). Francis was appointed to the supreme council of Bengal during Hastings’ Governor-Generalship. On his return to England, Francis began agitating for the impeachment of Warren Hastings which, after seven years, led to Hastings’ acquittal. Then there are the historic figures who are better known in other arenas. There’s Wellington (just plain old Arthur Wellesley at this stage) who led a number of battles, under the governor-generalship of his brother Richard. There’s General Cornwallis, who arrived in Calcutta in 1786 to replace Warren Hastings, after his surrender of the 13 Colonies to George Washington. He was determined to ensure that a settled colonial class would never emerge to challenge British rule in India as it had in America, and so he introduced a “whole raft of unembarrassedly racist legislation” (p.327) ensuring that the children of British men with Indian women would never be employed by the Company.

Dalrymple’s emphasis on individuals extends to the Indian protagonists in the story too. I’m ashamed to admit that as a European reader, I struggle to distinguish Indian and Muslim names. Dalrymple has gone to some lengths to support the reader in this. The narrative is prefaced by a lengthy list of Dramatis Personae, helpfully arranged more or less chronologically into categories: the British, the French, the Mughals, the Nawabs, the Rohillas, the Sultans of Mysore, the Marathas. Maps in the preface show the main cities, with the areas of influence by various chieftains, peshwahs and emperors identified. A paragraph after each name summarizes the main points of their story, and gives each one a distinct personality. The beautiful illustrations, inserted in three places in the book, also have an identifying paragraph. Most clearly defined of all is the Mughal Prince, Shah Alam, handsome, intelligent, and culture, who was tortured and blinded by the Rohillas. In fact, the violence in this book – who knows how accurate it was, depending on the chronicler – is really chilling.

The subtitle of Dalrymple’s book is “The Relentless Rise of the East India Company”. While it was certainly relentless, the rise was not without its setbacks. East India Company troops were defeated by the French-led troops on several occasions, and the company needed to be bailed out of bankruptcy in 1772 in exchange for greater British government oversight. This was always likely to be light-touch regulation, and many Parliamentarians had East India Company shares. And still the Company kept churning on, stripping Indian assets in order to distribute them for its British shareholders.

It’s interesting that Dalrymple chooses to end his book with the Battle of Delhi, with the defeat of the Marathas, in 1803. This left the Company the dominant military force and “the sinews of British supremacy” now established (p.382). He finishes at the high point of East India Company power, rather than with its removal from power after the Indian Mutiny as it is known in Britain, or the First War of Independence as it is known in India, and the final expiry of its charter in 1874.

Dalrymple’s purpose is not a ‘Rise and Fall’ story. Instead, it is a cautionary tale about corporations and power, as he makes clear in his epilogue. When corporations become too big to fail, as the East India Company was; or when they have Parliaments in their thrall through lobbyists and parliamentary shareholders; or when they can just buy military might and other people’s bodies – then much is at stake. As he says in his closing sentence: “Four hundred and twenty years after its founding, the story of the East India Company has never been more current.” (p.397)

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

3 responses to “‘The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company’ by William Dalrymple

  1. Interesting review, thanks for this!

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