The Anarchy: the Relentless Rise of the East India Company

Read 08/02/2021-14/02/2021

Rating 3 stars

For my next read, I travelled from the 17th century and Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and England fighting to control trade across East Asia, as fictionalised in Shōgun, to the 18th century and the rise of a trading corporation with violence in its constitution. William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy is a boiled down history of the East India Company and its violent occupation and control of the Indian subcontinent that laid the foundations of the British Raj.

In the book’s introduction, Dalrymple tips a nod to the cleaning up of history by the Victorians. He calls it “a calculated and deliberate amnesia”. For the Victorians, the violent, mercantile truth about how Britain came by its Raj was grubby. They replaced that truth with a noble fiction about the transfer of knowledge and civilisation from Britain to her dependents.

Coincidentally, the week before I started this book, I was at an online seminar about silences in the archives, that discussed the ways in which the archival record only tells a particular story, and how you have to examine the gaps and seek out perspectives from the other side of events to get at the deeper truth. Professor Sir Godfrey Palmer ended the series of talks, speaking eloquently about Henry Dundas, President of the Board of Trade and Home Secretary towards the end of the 18th century. Dundas was a man who not only denuded William Wilberforce’s bill to abolish the slave trade in 1792, introducing a compromise that turned Wilberforce’s aim for immediate abolition into one of gradual abolition in order to protect Britain’s economic interests, but also supported the 1st Marquess Wellesley, Governor General of India and big brother of the Duke of Wellington, in destroying the existing Indian system of rule and taking the country for Britain. Professor Sir Geoff’s point was that we shouldn’t tear down statues to people who benefited financially from the enslavement of other humans, but instead should place plaques on those statues that state their involvement in the brutal subjugation of others, so that it can’t be forgotten. This is what he has successfully fought to happen with the statue of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh. As a descendant of slaves, Professor Sir Geoff is rightly furious about the silences in how Dundas has been remembered. Not just the silences about the African slave trade and its abolition, but also the silences around his role in India. Dundas doesn’t appear as a major character in the pages of Dalrymple’s book, but his protégé Wellesley does.

In The Anarchy, Dalrymple has delved into a range of source material, from court historians of successive Indian emperors and Persian observers to Jesuit accounts and news bulletins sent back by Dutch and English traders, to fill the silences deliberately inserted by the Victorians into India’s British history. His aim, he says, is not “to provide a complete history of the East India Company, still less an economic analysis of its business operations” but “to answer the question of how a single business operation, based in one London office complex, managed to replace the mighty Mughal Empire as masters of the vast subcontinent” of India. In doing this, he’s written a military history, so has succeeded in illuminating one strand of the how. I’d have preferred there to be more breadth of context. I should have read a different book, one that frustrated me less and gave me more of the ‘what else?’ I found myself asking for.

The Anarchy is written in a popular history style, clothed as a well-referenced academic book. Dalrymple’s interests are clear, and there were elements that interested me: reference to the Mughal Empire’s domination of the global textile trade, to the extent that it destroyed the textile industry in Mexico in much the same way that Britain would eventually destroy the industry in India; the ineptitude of early British attempts to enter the spice trade compared with the efficiency of the Dutch and Britain’s falling back on the tried and tested ways of privateering; the East India Company contributing to the establishment of the London Stock Exchange; the free for all among British traders that threatened to destroy the Indian economy until the East India Company consolidated its monopoly. Dalrymple’s main interest, though, is the military tactics of each side. I skim-read chunks of this, because that’s not where my interest lies.

True to his aim of not writing a straight examination of the East India Company’s operations in the subcontinent, Dalrymple provides an overview of the rulership of India in the early period of the Company’s presence in the country. The early chapters discuss the strengths and shortcomings of the Mughal emperors, and their rivals. Dalrymple also covers the fragmentation of the Mughal Empire following the victory by Nader Shah, ruler of Persia, over the Mughals and the factions that warred over territory across India in the early 18th century. Outsider factions, inspired by Nader Shah’s easy conquest, also fought for control of Indian territory, namely the English and French merchants seeking trading bases. The 57 pages in the opening chapter cover more than 150 years while the second chapter focuses in on a couple of years in the second half of the 18th century. Together, these chapters set the scene for Dalrymple’s tale of the East India Company’s rise to power in India. I knew little about pre-Raj Indian history, and I found myself wishing that Dalrymple had gone into more detail. That, though, is a different book to the one Dalrymple set out to write.

I found the proliferation of Nawabs, Shahs, Rohillas, Marathas and others confusing, even with Dalrymple’s ‘Dramatis Personae’ crib at the start of the book. The chronology of events felt a little off at times, which didn’t help in keeping track of who was who. Lineages ran in parallel and crossed over, and internal rivalries felt like individual states warring against each other. No wonder the period came to be known as The Great Anarchy. The collapse of the Mughal Empire was a factional one, akin to civil war. All empires crumble eventually, even those that don’t call themselves empires, but republics or federations or unions. Often there’s another system waiting in the wings to replace it. I came away with the sense that the East India Company arrived in India at an opportune moment to push against an already creaking system and take advantage of its demise.

Money was at the heart of things. The profit to be made by the East India Company overruled the desire not to interfere in the running of a country. A young man, Robert Clive, a former accountant with a natural thuggish prowess in military strategy, the man who became known as Clive of India, took the first step, against Company orders, in using force to regain the trading posts lost to the vicious Mughal leader Siraj ud-Daula (really vicious, regarded as such by his countrymen, not just the British). After that, the support of a dynasty of Indian bankers, the Jagat Seths, secured the East India Company’s foothold, and resulted in a complete takeover of India by a business corporation. Not much changes over time. The running of countries is all too often underpinned by the making of money. Had Dalrymple been an economic historian, he could have made more of the parallels between this period of early capitalism and what has been experienced in more recent memory. He saves his analysis for the five page epilogue.

Crisis for the Company and India came as a result of private British traders exploiting India’s riches without licence. Tensions between the increasingly impoverished Indian governors and the British resulted in Mir Qasim, one in a line of Nawabs of Bengal, starting to fight back against the Company.

Among the employees of the Company was a man who tried to follow a middle line of cooperation with the Indian rulers. Warren Hastings advised partnership rather than aggression in resolving the growing tensions, but was ignored by the Company’s directors, who simply wanted to make money. Dalrymple demonstrates how ignoring Hastings led to war and the subjugation of the Indian nation.

War was followed by famine and the East India Company’s mismanagement of the food shortage in favour of protecting its tax revenues led to public excoriation in Britain. Dalrymple shares distressing accounts of the impact of the famine on the Indian people and the callousness of the majority of British leaders. One passage in particular that demonstrated just how much the British viewed the Indians as animals filled me with rage.

Dalrymple then partially unpacks how a financial crisis across Europe resulted in near bankruptcy for the Company in 1772, encouraging the British government to seize the opportunity to take control. Deemed “too big to fail”, its revenues from India too important to the British economy, the government bailed the Company out. The price was government regulation, the first step on the road to the state taking complete control of both Company and India in 1858.

Dalrymple seems to have a soft spot for Warren Hastings. He writes about him with warmth and generosity, sympathetic towards the difficulties he experienced as Parliament’s first appointment as Governor General of India, monitored as he was by three government appointed councillors. His writing about Hastings was the most enjoyable aspect of the book. Dalrymple has less time for the man he presents as Hastings’s nemesis, Philip Francis. Francis, according to this account, had it in for Hastings, harrying him towards impeachment for corruption. Dalrymple presents evidence that Hastings was well regarded in India as a fair man and was publicly critical of the East India Company’s shortcomings, making it his aim to transform the Company into an organisation “more just, more effective and more responsible”. Even more interestingly, he immersed himself in Indian culture, learning Bengali, Urdu and Persian (the language of the court) and treating Indians with respect. Francis is portrayed as a racist, like his sponsor Robert Clive, and a man who, for vengeful reasons, opposed everything Hastings stood for, blocking his changes at every opportunity.

Dalrymple relates that the standoff between these two men opened a line of weakness in the Company that was exploited by forces in the south of India. An alliance of the resurgent Marathas, the emergent Sultans of Mysore and the Nizam of Hyderabad, backed by the French, served the Company’s private army its first defeat since it won control of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey under Clive. It was a combination of unwillingness to capitalise on the victory by the alliance and Hastings taking the opportunity for diplomacy that allowed the British to avoid being run out of the country.

The animosity between Francis and Hastings ended in court with Hastings’s impeachment on fabricated charges of corruption. He was cleared after seven years of legal wrangling, but the trial had cost him his job. His replacement, Lord Cornwallis, reaped the benefits of Hastings’s reforms of the Company. Those reforms made it easier for the Company to fight off the attacks from the newest Sultan of Mysore, Tipu Sultan. Cornwallis, fresh from defeat in the 13 colonies of America, was determined not to lose India for the British.

Reading about Tipu Sultan’s forays against the Company in its eastern strongholds made me think about other silences in history. Dalrymple describes Tipu’s cavalry force burning and destroying towns and villages along the coast between Madras and Pondicherry in a short sentence. Throughout the book, in fact, the wars and battles are interspersed with casual destruction of rivals’ landholdings as vengeance for some perceived slight. History rarely gives a voice to the people who lived in those places, whose lives were destroyed by the violence enacted by those who ruled them. They are buried in sentences that speak only of the military action.

The Company, backed by the Marathas and Hyderabadis, prevailed over Tipu Sultan, and Cornwallis built on his success by introducing laws that would prevent British settlers in India rising up against the Company’s corporate state. Taking a 1786 law banning the Anglo-Indian orphans of British soldiers from serving in the Company army as his starting point, Cornwallis introduced “a whole raft of unembarrasedly racist legislation” that disqualified anyone with an Indian parent from joining the Company in any branch of its operations and from owning land. Further land ownership reforms introduced new social hierarchies, with the white Company men at the top, the pro-British Hindu bankers and traders in the middle, the Anglo-Indians below them, and everyone else at the bottom.

In turn, Cornwallis’s reforms were built on by Richard Wellesley, whose twin aims on being appointed Governor General of India in 1798 were “to secure India for British rule and … to oust the French from their last footholds on the subcontinent”. In the second aim, he was backed by Henry Dundas, who instructed him to rid India of the Indian princes supported by the French in Mysore, Hyderabad and the Maratha lands. Wellesley prevails, and Dalrymple details the way he went about it.

Overall, I found the book disjointed, repetitive on the less interesting detail and scant on the things I would have found interesting. It’s not a bad book, and has been well received by many. It’s just not right for me.

Although it’s the most recent of Dalrymple’s books about India, The Anarchy is the first in his series The Company Quartet, which includes White Mughals, Return of a King, and The Last Mughal. Based on this outing, Dalrymple isn’t the historian of India for me, so I won’t be venturing any further with his works.

3 thoughts on “The Anarchy: the Relentless Rise of the East India Company

  1. As it happens, I heard Dalrymple across the summer talking about the East India Company. Was it the Hay Festival? I think so. As he only had 50 minutes at his disposal, he painted a broader brush picture, and yes, money, always money came to the fore. I enjoyed the session, but decided at that point that this book wasn’t one for me. Though I think this is a difficult period to present sympathetically, or indeed in a more rounded way, given the paucity of records outside the official sources. Still, I’ve just looked on Goodreads, and other books are available! Though none comes very obviously to the top of the pile.


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