A saga of corporate greed and plunder

William Dalrymple’s expansive and enormously rewarding new book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of Empire (Bloomsbury; Rs 699) starts, oddly enough, with a word and a work of art. The Hindi word is “loot”, which long ago passed into the English lexicon for plunder. The artwork is more complex: It is a lavish painting of an enthroned Mughal passing a scroll to a bewigged Englishman. Hanging in Powis Castle in Wales, home to the Clive family and stuffed to this day with some of the EIC’s priceless loot, it portrays the momentous turning point in 1765, when the ill-fated emperor Shah Alam handed the revenues of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa — selling out the richest provinces of his empire to a trading company headed by plunderer-in-chief Robert Clive.

As Mr Dalrymple tells it, the picture is a figment of the painter’s imagination. In reality there was neither a gorgeously attired prince nor a public ceremony for signing the notorious Treaty of Allahabad: “The transfer took place, privately, inside Clive’s tent … As for Shah Alam’s silken throne, it was in fact Clive’s armchair, which for the occasion had been hoisted on to his dining-room table and covered with a chintz bedspread.”

This is the sort of detail, of bombastic imagery contrasting with tawdry reality, that this enthralling 500-page volume (including a hundred pages of source notes) abounds in. Mr Dalrymple sets down his proposition swiftly: “India’s transition to colonialism took place under a for-profit corporation … a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London … which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors.” The EIC’s transformation in 50 years — from an entity trading in tea, textiles, opium, indigo, and saltpeter — to an economic giant borrowing and lending millions of pounds to the British government was politically corrupt, violent, and territorially rapacious.

How a group of men who had “not yet learnt to wash their bottoms” (as one 18th century Indian observer remarked) brought the mighty Mughal empire to its knees is a stark throwback to the rise of contemporary corporations and their encroachments on modern nation-states. “Facebook and Uber usurp national authority but they do not seize physical territory; even an oil company with private guards in a war-torn country does not compare,” notes the Financial Times in a recent review.

The time span of EIC’s takeover — with blinded, brutalised Shah Alam and his line sequestered in the Red Fort as shadowy, impoverished kings of Delhi — may be short but this narrative’s terrain is intricate and vast. Piecing a mammoth jigsaw of the subcontinent in turmoil, Mr Dalrymple’s opus delves into the Maratha conquests, the rise of Shia dynasties in Avadh, Deccan, and Murshidabad, the Rohilla rebellions, and the Anglo-Mysore and Carnatic wars. We get well-rounded portraits of not just the infamous and famous, like Nadir Shah, Tipu Sultan, or British pro-consuls such as Hastings, Cornwallis, and the Wellesley brothers, but of significant figures that have faded from the pages of history. These include French commanders like Dupleix, Raymond, De Boigne, and Cuiller-Perron — indeed one of the merits of his research is to dig into the archives in Pondicherry. There is also a fascinating account of the Jagat Seths, powerful Marwari bankers to the nawabs of Bengal, and their sway over Murshidabad. 

The Anarchy derives its subaltern flavour from its liberal use of non-official sources — multi-lingual accounts by contemporary observers spiced with judicious dollops of bazaar gossip. How else would we know that Siraj-ud-Daula, nawab of Bengal, was a serial bisexual rapist and psychopath, or that Lady Clive, upon the couple’s return home in 1760, laden with Indian loot, was so rich that her “pet ferret had a diamond necklace worth over 2,500 pounds”.

Deftly woven into the many strands are sorties into military and art history. The advent of muskets and use of cannons, raised to a height, and deployment of small but generously paid battalions of sepoys, became the despair of large armies led by Indian rulers. Nevertheless, from 2,900 sepoys in 1757 after Plassey, the Bengal army grew to 50,000 in a few years. “The colonial conquest of India,” said one historian, “was as much bought as fought.” Nor does Mr Dalrymple drop the story of art that he began with. As things fell apart at the centre, painters migrated to small remote hill kingdoms. Places like Jasrota and Guler became the San Gimignano and Urbino of India, homes to “utterly exceptional artists”.

A social media criticism notes that the book’s subtitles and cover illustrations are different in its Indian and UK editions. The provocative sub-head and image of battle in India have been replaced by The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company and an image of placid soldiers Britain. 

That, surely, is a caprice of international marketing. It should in no way detract from the excellence of the material within.


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