Thought-Provoking Lockdown Reads: ‘The Anarchy’
Each day I’ll be looking at one of the five books featured above. Today: ‘The Anarchy’ by William Dalrymple.
I’ve enjoyed the Mr William Dalrymple’s insightful books on India since I read ‘City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi’, and once used it as a practical guide. ‘The Anarchy’ feels like a subject he was destined to confront and one uniquely suited his skills. It’s a history we have waited a long time to be told, and lays bare the background to the UK’s extraordinary relationship to India. It is, from the outset, a revisionist corrective that scours away any remaining misplaced admiration for British adventures in India. I was not taught respect for the East India Company in history lessons; quite the reverse. There had for two centuries been a profound sense of shame about the world’s first international corporation among all but the most patriotic and blinkered.
How a joint stock company in Leadenhall Street with just 35 employees managed to enslave two hundred million people is an astonishing tale, and a convoluted one. The British, with minor European trading clout but the world’s most powerful navy, were casting around for fast revenue that did not involve simply stealing it from others. They arrived in the Mughal empire bearing such paltry gifts compared to those offered by other European envoys that the rulers were shocked and wondered if they had anything worth bartering at all. The Company stepped into a nation waging war on itself to drain it of riches in return for a kind of working peace, albeit one eventually bought at the barrel of a musket.
The fascination lies in the EIC’s transformation from a conventional trading corporation dealing in spices and silks to an aggressive colonial power collecting punitive taxes through the employment of a violent, uncontrollable private army. It began with a remit to honour local territorial laws, but a gleam in the eye of those who granted them such power grew bright with gold. And inevitably, more explored in Jan Morris’s empire trilogy, Christianity weighed in as a moral armament against the godless.
There comes a point in the history when the EIC uses blackmail, threatening to withdraw itself from India if it is not allowed to continue its rapine of the subcontinent, and the parallel to Amazon or any other giant modern corporation is made explicit. But at a time when the British navy was commended for stealing from Spanish trading ships in acts of brazen piracy, the machinations of ‘John Company’ were first commended in parliament, then overtaken by it.
Dalrymple’s anger is rightly aimed at the way in which government can corrupt commercial enterprise – one could argue that the company did not set out to become what it did, but the seeds of corruption were sown when Elizabeth I granted it a perpetual monopoly on Indian trade.
When a giant enterprise secures an unstoppable, unearned revenue stream, it seems ultimately bound to exploit it mercilessly in the self-deluding guise of doing good, as we can see in the present day (even though some reviewers have sought to deny the comparison). If the British East India Company had not made the Mughal emperor dance to its tune, the French Compagnie des Indes Orientales was poised to step in and would have exploited his wealth instead. The only alternative to conquest by European troops was a hostile takeover by European bankers. They did it because they could, and they did it out of openly celebrated greed.
In return, the sultans took British and Dutch offers with held noses, hiding their disdain in coded paintings, yet there were odd moments of mutual respect and understanding. However, when revenges and recriminations came they brought about the laying waste of towns, week-long tortures involving heated needles (and in one case baggy trousers filled with wild cats) and the recognition that corporations can get away with murder. One is left with the terrible sense that if the hubristic English had recognised the complexity and sophistication of the mighty subcontinent instead of deluding themselves into thinking they were superior, the two nations might have formed a formidable partnership.