Review: The Anarchy; the relentless rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple (2020) Assessment 9 out of 10

This is a wonderful book showing both deep research and deep knowledge of India. It concentrates on the last fifty years of the 18th Century in which the East India Company seized territories, which were parts of the Moghul Empire and around which the British Raj was formed. A work of detailed narrative history, Dalrymple is also a Travel Writer in the British tradition. He is knowledgeable about Indian, specifically Mughal, art and architecture, as shown in the book by the wealth of colour plates. 

This is very much based history based on the documents, art and architecture, telling a detailed story, for which regular reference has to be made to the maps, glossary and structured list of dramatis personae.

 If there is a criticism it is that Dalrymple relies on the texts and events to speak for themselves. He does not explore historical models, which the story allows you to do. For me it threw light on three big questions, first the nature of continental empire, second the peculiarities of the wide-stretched British Empire and third whether the Company as creator of power was so unusual

 Continental Empires

The Moslem Mughal Empire was itself established in the 16th and 17th Centuries by invaders from Central Asia who replaced the Delhi Sultanate. The Mughal Empire continued in the 18th Century, but by then had been hollowed out by subsequent invaders and pillagers, also Moslems, from Iran and Afghanistan, who seized much of the conspicuous wealth, brutalised the Mughal rulers and sacked the palaces.  Central power was reduced, which was left increasingly in the hands of Nawabs, regional viceroys, who kept revenues for themselves.  Clive created English power in Bengal fighting in a civil war between rival claimants to be Nawabs of Bengal. To a large extent the East Indian Company slipped into the shoes of Mughal power holders.

The East India Company, with its own military forces, was one of a number of warring parties, including the French, the Nawabs of Bengal and Avadh, the Sultans of Mysore and the Marathas, fighting over the spoils of Mughal Empire. The various parties at various times allied and then changed sides.

Traditionally Mughal armies fought in Central Asian style on horseback. European power was extended relying on more modern military techniques, in particular infantry and guns developed in the 18th century’s European continental wars. Dalrymple makes it clear that it was Hindu locals who advanced themselves in Bengal replacing existing Moslem landowners providing taxation based on land holdings, whilst local financiers gave the Company a financial edge over its rivals. The thesis that the Raj was created by finance as much as military technology is intriguing.

The theme of continental empires, successive regimes in which the arts flourished, but which became decadent, and were replaced by the military violence of later outsiders from the nomadic continental centre, who took over the territory, institutions and culture from their predecessors, so the pattern is a repeating one, is seen not only in South Asia, but in China and the Middle East. There are elements of it in the causes of the Fall of the ( western) Roman Empire and much later Byzantium. Arguably the East India Company copied and adopted this pattern.

The British Empire

The British in India and the British establishment were divided by distance, and the time it took for news and instructions to pass between them. After defeating the Mughal Emperor the Company was awarded the income yielding potential of Bengal, the Mughals’ richest province. This transformed its fortunes. Previously bullion had been exchanged for textiles, silks and woven muslins. Now Bengal’s own wealth could be used to buy them.

Clive and others enriched themselves, contributing to the impoverishment of Bengal.  Clive was able to acquire an Irish peerage and an English parliamentary seat. On his second retirement from India, opponents in Parliament used an enquiry into the Company’s affairs to attack Clive’s enrichment, but he was exonerated. He later died aged only 49 by his own hand.  

It is clear that he had no love for India or Indians, unlike his ascetic successor, Warren Hastings, the “wrong man” who was unsuccessfully impeached by enemies of the Company before the House of Commons.

In considering the British in India you are reminded of “The Interest” which describes the long struggle before slavery was abolished in the British Empire. In both there were interest groups, those with shares respectively in the East India Company and in sugar estates, whilst British “Nawabs” and those enriched from sugar estates purchased parliamentary seats and peerages. In both, their interests both comprised part of, and faced opposition from within, the British Establishment. In both the actual situation in the slave colonies and in India may have been very different from what was known about in England.

Those succeeding Hastings in India as officers of the Company were Cornwallis and the Anglo-Irish Richard Wellesley and his younger brother Arthur. The latter is better known as the Duke of Wellington, victor in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo and later Prime Minister. Similarly Cornwallis is better known for surrendering to Washington at Yorktown than for his role in creation of the Raj.

Many of the British in 18th century India cohabited with Indian women, their children known as Anglo-Indians. Cornwallis, possibly influenced by his experience in America, where the British were defeated by locals themselves descended from European migrants, forbad Anglo-Indians from being employed by the Company and the British and Anglo-Indians from owning Indian land.

Cornwallis and the two Wellesleys were professionals, involved not only in India for the Company but, at different stages in their careers, directly in the British army and government. They defeated the Sultan of Mysore and the Marathas. Despite being appointed by the Company, their involvement was closer to the British state than their predecessors, reflecting a shift along the path from Company to Raj. They were very different from Clive a self-made man and self-trained general, whose selfishness and self-interest remind you of Zuckerberg. Jobs and Bezos, whose performance before Congress enquiries looks terribly like the Parliamentary investigations of Clive and Hastings.

The Company

In his Epilogue Dalrymple writes that the Company’s conquest of India “almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.” I am not so sure. After all the Dutch East Indies Company created the Dutch Seaborn Empire. There have also been so many forms of government, dictatorships, oligarchies, empires by conquest, city states, elected monarchies etc, all acting in the interest of a minority. So how different is government by a self-perpetuating company?

Dalrymple highlights the differences between corporations and government, seeing regulation as the way to control corporations and their power and funds often out of scale with underfunded governments, but haven’t the worst excesses been carried out by governments not companies and isn’t it better that the two cancel each other out?

The book is closely written. I am sure I will re-read it, picking up detail and themes missed on a first and second read.

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