The book is a plain vanilla story of the coming of East India Company to India as traders and becoming its rulers by stealth, deceit and loot. The only difference between a textbook and Dalrymple’s work is, of course, the masterly narrative that he employs.
Leave aside students of history, even a layperson with no distinguished degrees in the subject is well aware of the story of the East India Company, its formation in London, its arrival in India as traders and subsequently becoming its rulers and the passing of reins of the Indian administration to the British crown from the hands of the Company post-1857. The Battle of Plassey, the Battle of Buxar, Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Lord Cornwallis, Lord Wellesely, Mir Jafar, Mir Qasim, etc, are kind of iconic by now, and even schoolchildren know of their stories, be it conquests or loots.
So when you pick up William Dalrymple’s latest work, one hopes to gain some fresh perspective with some new archival material, only to be disappointed. The book is a plain vanilla story of the coming of East India Company to India as traders and becoming its rulers by stealth, deceit and loot. The only difference between a textbook and Dalrymple’s work is, of course, the masterly narrative that he employs.
The obvious questions that spring to mind while reading the book are why the book, which apart from narrative and detailing doesn’t provide any fresh perspective, should be written at this time? Two, why is the title Anarchy, corporate violence and the pillage of an empire? As mentioned earlier, the story of East India Company and its coming to India is well known and there are myriad books on the subject. And what is new in the idea of narrating the violence and loot perpetrated by EIC officials? India has faced a similar fate at the hands of its other rulers in the 18th century. Tales of cruelty and violence are attached to names like Siraj ud Daula, Mir Qasim, Mir Jafar, Tipu Sultan, the Marathas, or any dynasty of the period, which Dalrymple writes about in great detail. Then why try to project a perception that the Company alone brought in a culture of violence and loot?
It is instructive here to refer to the work of historian Tirthankar Roy’s, The East India Company, the world’s most powerful corporation. Roy writes: “The default view, which was engraved in the collective consciousness of the Indians by the nationalist writers, started from the assumption that India had been a prosperous place to begin with. The kings and the nawabs had set up a haven of welfare and enterprise in their domains. The Company defeated these good kings by treachery, and then set out to extract Indian wealth in order to enrich Britain. The money looted and sent home or the tax revenue used for the purpose of trade in the last quarter of the 18th century was a politically engineered ‘drain’ of Indian resources. Indians were made poor by these exploitative but powerful foreign merchants, according to the drain theory of Indian poverty.”
It seems Dalrymple is also captive of this erroneous assumption. It is true that the Company officials indulged in corrupt practices and loot, but they looted from whom? Not the common Indian people, but the rich Indian nawabs. In short, the money from the closets of Indian nawabs moved to Company officials like Clive.
The Indian princes — “walking jewellers’ shops” — as an American merchant called them, spent more money on pearls and diamonds than on infrastructure development or welfare measures for the poor, Roy has mentioned in his work. Sadly, while describing the riches of the Indian princes, Dalrymple does not come to any such conclusion in his book.
The basic aspect that Dalrymple’s book fails to bring out is an analytical framework of the clash of two different economic cultures with the coming of the Company and whether the new economic culture spawned by the Company ended up being beneficial for India in the long run. No doubt the Company did not plan for the development of India, but it is equally true that by default it did create some sort of enabling conditions for industrialisation to unfold in the second half of the 19th century.
To quote Roy, once again, “The fact that 80% of factory employment in 1900 was located in or near Bombay, Calcutta and Madras was evidence enough of the enduring legacy of the Company in creating a truly cosmopolitan business culture in India.” For the uninitiated, these three cities were built by the Company.
Dalrymple notes the enduring legacy of the Company in the epilogue: “When historians debate the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much as any other European Idea. Its influence certainly outweighs that of communism and protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.” However, sadly, he has not built upon this theme in his otherwise voluminous book.
Much should not be made of the havoc the EIC created in India, as during different periods of history, India was invaded, plundered, disrupted and ruled by powers coming from overseas. The theory that prior to the British, other powers like the Sultanate rulers or Mughals settled here and spent wealth here, whereas the British did not, is as fallacious as comparing a modern multinational company today to an EIC of yesteryear.
True, Shah Jahan built Taj Mahal, but was it with his personal wealth or the wealth raised through taxation of his subjects? Was the Taj Mahal built for public purposes or for a personal objective? It is fashionable to criticise the British for building the railways for its imperial purposes, but at least it continues to serve post-Independent India.
Two different periods of history are not comparable. Can one compare the British imperialism of yesteryear to American imperialism of today? Despite a plethora of shortcomings, Dalrymple’s book is a pleasant read as a novel with lots of details on the courses of war, the movement of troops and description of cities.
He’s a master of detailing and narrative, but unlike the Last Mughal, one doubts whether a lay reader (not a history buff) will really be interested in so many minute details about the East India Company and its conquest of India as Dalrymple has packed.