Premium

The Anarchy by William Dalrymple review: this history of the East India Company is a tour-de-force

5
An English grandee of the East India Company riding in an Indian procession, 1825-1830
An English grandee of the East India Company riding in an Indian procession, 1825-1830 Credit: Getty Images

William Dalrymple is probably best known for White Mughals (2002), a social history of East India Company grandees, with its emphasis on the warm relationships, often sexual (one in three British men was married to an Indian woman and many more had concubines), between those early merchants and the people they traded with. Since then, Dalrymple has written more Mughal-related books, but only now has he returned to the story of the East India Company. This time, he tackles it from a far less sympathetic standpoint.

White Mughals told of the EIC employees’ adoption – sometimes complete – of Indian customs; at its heart was the love story between the British Resident at Hyderabad and a beautiful young Mughal princess. The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, on the other hand, concentrates on how the Company became a colonial power through force of arms. As Dalrymple points out, “India’s transition to colonialism took place under a for-profit organisation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors.” The whole process took less than 50 years, with not only the English but the French, Mughals, Marathas and others as combatants, often simultaneously. Dalrymple traces these shifting allegiances across an epic canvas.

Although the company had been authorised to “wage war” since its beginnings (its charter had been signed by Elizabeth I on Dec 31 1600), during its first 100 years the focus was not on holding territory but on trade. Then, in the late 17th century, came the rise of the Marathas, a warrior group from the western Deccan Plateau. The Mughal Empire was a rich target: Delhi in 1737 had around two million inhabitants (it was larger than London and Paris combined). These fearsome fighters attacked the Mughal sultans, not so much to annex their territories but to extract loot from them, subjecting those whom they conquered to a scorched earth policy.

Calcutta, the company’s major entrepôt, was protected from the Marathas by a wide ditch that neutralised their fearsome cavalry; trade and a polyglot population flourished. The English, thought one Persian traveller of the 1750s, were good employers and often intermarried with local girls. He also noted their appearance. “The Englishmen shave their beards and moustaches and twist their hair into pigtails. They scatter a white powder to make their hair look white, both men and women do this, to lessen the difference between old and young. Neither men nor women remove pubic hair, accounting comely to leave it in its natural state…”

By the mid-1700s the Mughal Empire was crumbling, while almost simultaneously the English and the French were battling over the lucrative trading possibilities. In 1756 the Governor of Calcutta, who had been repairing its defences without consulting the elderly Nawab of Bengal, rudely rejected the envoy sent to discuss this. This episode was soon followed by the Nawab’s death. When his hot-headed young grandson, Siraj, the new Nawab, heard this, he had had enough. “What honour is left to us,” asked one Mughal official, “when we have to take orders from a handful of traders who have not yet learnt to wash their bottoms?”

'The Spirit of Delusion': detail of an 1825 cartoon satirising the East India Company Credit: Getty Images

Siraj, with 500 elephants and thousands of men, marched on the EIC factory in Calcutta which, outnumbered, surrendered. After one drunken company soldier shot his captor, many were put in what became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Dalrymple says that the “most painstaking recent survey” gives the numbers of imprisoned as 64, of whom 21 survived.

The fall of Calcutta was a blow for both the company and England in terms of trade and prestige. Here England’s unexpected military genius Robert Clive came to the rescue. He had first gone out to India as an accountant; his military ability was soon spotted and confirmed when, in 1751 and aged 25, he successfully defended Arcot, an exploit that made him famous throughout Europe.

Normally, the Calcutta affair would have been settled by negotiation, but Clive and his three regiments of artillery had just arrived on the Coromandel coast, intending to take on the French. After careful planning and joint action with the Navy, a devastated Calcutta – the beautiful objects from the houses of its rich merchants looted, abandoned or destroyed – was back in the company’s hands on January 2 1757.

From then on, battles became part of company strategy. A month after his Calcutta success, Clive, hugely outnumbered, took on Siraj’s armies, his speedy, unexpected and brave assaults terrifying the Nawab’s forces. The decisive victory in the Battle of Plassey, in June 1757, won by Clive through a mixture of military brilliance and shrewd bribery, gave the company an unbreakable hold over Bengal and initiated a period of looting and asset-stripping that, as Dalrymple points out, even the British called “the shaking of the pagoda tree”. Clive himself was enriched to such an extent that, as one newspaper put it, “even Lady Clive’s pet ferret had a diamond necklace worth over £2,500 [more than £250,000 in today’s money]”.

Bengal was bled almost dry by extortion. The Great Bengal Famine of 1770, caused by a combination of failed monsoon and the company’s exploitative taxation, is estimated to have caused the deaths of about 10 million people. With some notable exceptions, “the effects of the company’s policies were now so horrific that they could not be avoided by even the richest and most obtuse company official,” writes Dalrymple. At home, the EIC’s shareholders voted themselves a huge dividend. This outright censure is not typical of The Anarchy, which otherwise leaves readers to form their own (obvious) conclusions.

The company’s story over the next 100 years is a swashbuckling tale of constant conflict, shifting allegiance with both native rulers and the French, and steady expansion. There were battles galore, not all successful. Some fighters “were trampled under the feet of elephants, camels and horses, and those who were stripped of their clothing lay exposed to the scorching sun, without water, and died a miserable and lingering death, becoming the prey to ravenous wild animals,” wrote a survivor of the defeat by Tipu Sahib, Sultan of Mysore, in the 1780 Battle of Pollidur.

The company recovered but a much more serious threat lay over the horizon – Napoleon. He planned to invade India through Egypt, declaring that “the touch of a French sword is all that is needed for the framework of mercantile grandeur to collapse”. Once again, it was the Navy to the rescue with the Battle of the Nile in 1798, while in India there was much campaigning by Napoleon’s future nemesis, Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington). Leading his troops personally, he inflicted the final defeat on the remains of the Maratha Empire, and the French. By 1803 the EIC had a private army of nearly 200,000 and the subcontinent had been subdued, with the EIC having seized control of almost all of what had been Mughal India.

It was too much. Rumblings began in Parliament against the company’s inflated status. In 1833 the East India Company Charter Bill was passed, removing its right to trade. In May 1857 its own private army rose up against it in what became known as the Indian Mutiny, and India’s governance passed to the Crown (through the Government of India Act in 1858). What remained of the company was finally shut down quietly in 1874 “with less fanfare”, noted one commentator, “than a regional railway bankruptcy”. More than just a history, this book carries, as Dalrymple puts it, a stark warning “about the potential for abuse of corporate power”, as relevant now as then. A tour de force indeed.

The Anarchy is published by Bloomsbury at £30. To order your copy for £25 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop