Book review: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise Of The East India Company, by William Dalrymple

One of the great advantages non-fiction has over fiction is that you cannot make it up, and in the case of the East India Company, you cannot make it up to an extent that beggars belief. William Dalrymple has been for some years one of the most eloquent and assiduous chroniclers of Indian history. With this new work, he sounds a minatory note. The East India Company may be history, but it has warnings for the future. It was “the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok”. Wryly, he writes that at least Walmart doesn’t own a fleet of nuclear submarines and Facebook doesn’t have regiments of infantry (yet, I would say, there is a reason for the phrase “keyboard warrior”).
William DalrympleWilliam Dalrymple
William Dalrymple

What a fiction it would make, and what a tragedy it unfolded in reality. A preface begins with the foundation of the Company by “Customer Smythe” in 1599, who already had experience trading with the Levant. Certain merchants were little better than pirates and the British lagged behind the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and even the Spanish in their global aspirations. It was with envious eyes that they saw how Spain had so effectively despoiled Central America. The book fast-forwards to 1756, with successive chapters, and a degree of flexibility in chronology, taking the reader up to 1799. What was supposed to be a few trading posts in India and an import/export agreement became, within a century, a geopolitical force in its own right with its own standing army larger than the British Army.

This is a story of Machiavels from both Britain and India, of pitched battles, vying factions, the use of technology in warfare, strange moments of mutual respect, parliamentary impeachment featuring two of the greatest orators of the day (Edmund Burke and Richard Sheridan), blindings, rapes, psychopaths on both sides, unimaginable wealth, avarice, plunder, famine and worse. It is, in particular – because of the feuding groups loyal to the Mughals, the Marathas, the Rohilla Afghans, the so-called “bankers of the world” the Jagat Seths, and local tribal warlords – a kind of Game Of Thrones with pepper, silk and saltpetre. And that is even before we get to the British, characters such as Clive “of India”, victor at the Battle of Plassey and subsequent suicide; the problematic figure of Warren Hastings, the whistle-blower who became a scapegoat for Company atrocities; and Richard Wellesley, older brother to the more famous Arthur who became the Duke of Wellington. Co-ordinating such a vast canvas requires a deft hand, and Dalrymple manages this (although the list of dramatis personae is useful). There is even a French mercenary who is described as a “pastry cook, pyrotechnic and poltroon”.

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The pillage and poverty the Company extorted and inflicted is truly staggering. After putting down one rebellion, Clive managed to send back £232 million, of which he personally received £22m. There was a rumour that, on his return to England, his wife’s pet ferret wore a necklace of jewels worth £2,500. Contrast that with the horrors of the 1769 famine: farmers selling their tools, rivers so full of corpses that the fish were inedible, one administrator seeing 40 dead bodies within 20 yards of his home, even cannibalism, all while the Company was stockpiling rice. Some Indian weavers even chopped off their own thumbs to avoid being forced to work and pay the exorbitant taxes that would be imposed on them.

The title is appositely chosen. There are in fact two anarchies here; the anarchy of the competing regimes in India, and the anarchy – literally, without leaders or rules – of the East India Company itself, a corporation that put itself above law. The dangers of power without governance are depicted in an exemplary fashion.

Perhaps the most intriguing figure is Emperor Shah Alam, a man attracted to mysticism and yet as prepared as his contemporaries to double-deal; someone who endures exile and torture and who outlives, albeit in a melancholy fashion, his enemies. Despite his lack of wealth, troops or political power, the very nature of his being emperor still, it seems, inspired affection. Part of Dalrymple’s excellence is in the use of Indian sources – he takes numerous quotes from Ghulam Hussain Khan, and to my shame I have never heard of his work. Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics or some other entrepreneurial publisher might do well to commission a selection of this writing, or indeed of the poetry of the unfortunate Shah Alam.

Sir Walter Scott wrote one novel – The Surgeon’s Daughter – set in India. Much of it is the kind of orientalism that Dalrymple writes against (it has “Tippoo Saib” and Hyder Ali in it, and a memorable scene where the honourable Hyder has the villain stamped to death by an elephant). Dalrymple has done a great service in not just writing an eminently readable history of 18th century India, but in reflecting on how so much of it serves as a warning for our own time.

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise Of The East India Company, by William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury, £25