Anything good to say?

The Anarchy makes the ‘Relentless Rise of the East India Company’ – from its small beginnings in an unremarkable London office to becoming the dominant power in India – move along like a thriller. And, while the EIC schemes and battles upwards, Dalrymple describes, with considerable sympathy, the disintegration of the Mughal Empire after the death of the last of the Great Mughals, Aurangzeb, in 1707. We follow the story of what was once the richest monarchy in the world by far as it shrinks down to the person of the Emperor-in-name-only, Shah Alam, living blind and destitute at the protection of the British.

This disintegration is the backdrop. The foreground is the anarchic India into which the Calcutta-based Company has planted its roots. This was an India of powerful regional states – Bengal, the Marathas, Mysore, Hyderabad, (not to mention the French) – with whom the EIC had to negotiate and whom it eventually came to defeat.

On those rare moments when I might have given the matter some thought, I would have assumed (as, I imagine, might others) that the dominance of the EIC was inevitable. The company had merely to set up shop, employ its superior western weaponry, and that would be that. Game over. However, this, as Dalrymple in his detailed accounts of many battles – Plassey, Pollilur, Buxar etc – makes clear, was far from the case.

The EIC was routinely outmanned and, by the 1760s, had no major advantage in weaponry. It had better military knowledge for the most part and better military discipline, but not always. The French were around to make sure of that. And you’d have to say that the game-changing battles of Plassey and Buxar, which put the EIC on the path of territorial and military dominance, could easily have gone the other way. Indeed, at Pollilur in 1780, the EIC was soundly defeated. Had the triple alliance of Mysore, the Marathas and Hyderabad pressed home its victory, the EIC would have been kicked out of India.

It was not to be. What the EIC could fall back on, then as before, was the support of Indian bankers. More than anything, this was what gave the Company its edge. The Company was good for business. It paid its debts. It operated within the framework of English commercial law. Most of the time it was able to provide a safe haven against the ravages happening round about. If you’re a banker, that’s the sort of thing you go for. And not just bankers; by 1756, Calcutta was teeming with Bengalis, Marwaris, Portuguese, Armenians, Persians, Germans, Swedes and Dutch, all anxious to dip into the honeypot. In the end, it was money that made the difference. ‘The colonial conquest of India was as much bought as fought’.

Alas, alack … better, perhaps, if the Indian States had removed the Company when it had the chance, since it’s hard, indeed impossible, to argue that the rise of the East India Company did India much good. Power, once acquired, went to its head. As Dalrymple makes clear, the rot started with the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765 in which the Emperor Shah Alam, in return for not much, handed the Company financial control of all north-eastern India. A trading corporation thereby became legally entitled to do all the things that governments do: control the law, administer justice, assess taxes, mint coins, provide protection, impose punishments, make peace and wage war.

And how did the EIC use its power? Well, it was a private company; its employees and shareholders came first, and the people of Bengal nowhere. Its officials ‘shook the pagoda tree’ with all their might. Peasants were plundered, merchants and weavers ground down, and the result of this spoliation was the appalling Bengal famine of 1770. Dalrymple calls the company’s failure to provide famine relief while, at the same time, rigorously collecting taxes, ‘one of the greatest failures of corporate responsibility in history.’

The only good that came out of this was that Britain became aware of what was happening in its name. India became ‘part of the daily newspaper diet’ of London, and public opinion swung increasingly against the Company. Parliament began taking steps to rein in the company’s excesses; but it was a slow process. It was not until after the Indian Uprising of 1857, that Parliament finally removed the company from power and the Crown took over its assets.

William Dalrymple manages to combine the detailed telling of this important episode in Indian and British history with the lightest of touches. The result is that The Anarchy is history at its best, and unputdownable.