“The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company” by William Dalrymple

Lord Cornwallis receiving the Hostage Princes [sons of Tipu Sultan], Mather Brown 1793 Lord Cornwallis receiving the Hostage Princes [sons of Tipu Sultan], Mather Brown 1793

A new book by William Dalrymple is always something of an event. The Anarchy doesn’t disappoint: readable, informative, full of color. Dalrymple lets the protagonists speak for themselves as much as possible, protagonists which thankfully, but not surprisingly given the author, include Indians as much as Europeans.

The title and subtitle indicate two different, albeit interlocking, themes. This is both the story of the rise of the East India Company, but also a history of the period dubbed “The Anarchy”, roughly between the 1739 sack of Delhi to the British installing themselves in the Mughal capital in 1803. During this period, Delhi also suffered the predations of the Afghan Ahmad Shah Durrani, the loss of the Empire’s economic powerhouse of Bengal, the rise of competing power centers and innumerable political and personal humiliations.

The implication is that had India’s politics not been at sixes and sevens, the British might well have been seen off military; indeed, they almost were on more than one occasion. What was one of the world’s major empires at the beginning of this tale at the turn of the 17th century was, by the end of the narrative, a rump with a ruler in little more than name only.

Dalyrmple’s perspective is evident from his first line: “One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot“. The East India Company, he writes,

 

executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.

 

This is not however an anti-colonial polemic but rather a considered, and considerably well-written, history. The various Indian rulers and nobles are presented warts and all, while he gives such credit (mostly military and sometimes administrative) to individual British (and other foreign) interlopers as they are due. Ability, in Dalyrmple’s telling, is ability, while venality and arrogance are no respecters of national origin.

American and British history have the advantage of being largely linear: one polity for most of the time, leader following leader—the British even number them—which makes it relatively easy to keep things straight. Indian history is far more complicated: multiple states, fluid borders, with various outside parties stirring it all up. Dalrymple includes a dramatis personae to lead off the book, but he has structured the various interlocking narratives in such a way that it hardly needs referring to. By the end of the book, the wide sweep of 18th-century Indian history (mostly) makes sense, which is no mean accomplishment.

The book is populated with characters who range from fascinating to loathsome.

The Anarchy The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury 2019)
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019)

This is, as it must be, a story of battles and taxes, but it is also a story of people. The book is vividly populated with characters who range from fascinating to loathsome, but Dalrymple left a special place for Shah Alam, the Mughal Emperor whose life spans the main period of the book. He was a boy in 1739 when Nadir Shah looted Delhi; he was a sightless old man when British finally erased what shreds of actually sovereignty were left in 1803. Shah Alam comes across as an attractive, tragic figure:

 

a life marked by kindness, integrity, decency and learning at a time when all such qualities were in short supply.

 

For a few years in the 1770s, he made a stab at restoring his Empire under the generalship of the able Mirza Najaf Khan, who died before being to complete or stabilize the gains. Shah Alam was imprisoned and blinded, and his family raped, by an erstwhile protege; dealt a poor hand in life, he was neither cunning nor ruthless enough to play it.

Dalrymple draws lines from the East India Company to modern multinational corporations.

The East India Company ruined India, treating it as one might a mine or oil well, sucking wealth out and re-investing very little. The wars it engendered were ruinous. Yet because the East India Company was a corporation rather than a state, it was—and remains—difficult to hold it to account. It was much criticized in its day for just what the British presence in India has been criticized since. Attempts were made to regulate it, to little avail.

Dalrymple draws lines from the East India Company to modern multinational corporations: a reprise of the traditional liberal critique of the “fatal blend of money, power and unaccountability.” This line of argument is left somewhat underdeveloped, noting that modern corporations do not have the trappings of state power that the East India Company had.

Nevertheless, in light of Facebook’s recent announcement of its intent to launch its own currency, something heretofore the sole prerogative of states, one can look back to the East India Company for some indication as to how that kind of thing might not work out very well.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.