The story of the East India Company, nominally of London, is a huge, sprawling, fascinating and gripping collection of great stories. The stories are of wars, battles, heroes, cowards, lovers, fools, incompetents, rape, plunder, torture and death. Lots of death. William Dalrymple has linked the stories into the history of the Company, that unregulated, arrogant and racist firm that took over the Indian subcontinent, piece by piece from the early 1700s, and held it and milked it until 1859 (when the British government took over the milking and abuse itself).
The Anarchy of the title refers to what Indians call the Great Anarchy, a period as the British showed up when constant wars and invasions redistributed (concentrated) the wealth continuously, and when no one was ever quite sure whose empire they were living in from one year to the next. The various Emperors, nabobs, nawabs, viziers and shahs were constantly making alliances, ignoring them, going to war, combining, separating, and killing. Always killing. Piles of bodies and rivers of blood. And betraying. Almost as much betraying as killing it often seems. It makes for a riveting read, which becomes more amazing the farther you get into it. Dalrymple keeps up the pace and entrances with remarkable stories.
India was a dependable engine of wealth. From its fabrics to its jewels, its gold to its spices, it was forever creating wealth. Every so often, an intruder would swoop in from the next province or from Afghanistan, clean out the treasury and take every last thing of value from everyone. Plus future reparations. And yet, a few years later, there was prosperity once again. There was always wealth for bribes, and everyone was on the take, from Company employees up to royalty. And the figures were huge. Prosperity and chaos in one huge package. This was the cycle the Company stumbled into.
It began as a combination of small firms of English traders and pirates to better exploit Indian trade. It had a public share basis, and soon nearly half the members of parliament and the House of Lords were shareholders, and therefore compromised in their dealings with it. The dividends were gigantic, as a ship bringing Indian goods home would regularly net four times their cost. The ship would then return to India, loaded with gold and silver for the next shipment.
This was not good enough.
The Company wormed its way into Indian politics, allying with one potentate or another as needed to maintain its presence and expand it. It would pay taxes or not as it positioned itself more and more firmly as a power on its own. Its employees were on the take, doing side deals and making fortunes for themselves, which they shipped back to England on Company boats, draining more wealth from India.
The tipping point seems to have come in 1761, Dalrymple says. The Company now had as many as 500 factories running throughout eastern India (Bengal, Orissa and Bihar). It had actually founded Calcutta for a factory and it attracted traders and workers, becoming a major city and port, as well as the Company’s head office in India. Even then, Indians recognized it as the threat it could clearly become.
After endless complaints about the arrogance and extortion by the Company Men (as they entered a village all the shops would close and pedestrians fled), the Nawab Mir Qasim in whose territory the Company was located got creative. He decided not to fight. The Company not only trained local sepoys in English style warfare, but hired mercenaries and press-ganged French soldiers into serving. So rather than fight, Qasim decided to end all duties, leveling the playing field. Until this point, the Company simply refused to pay, giving it an unfair advantage over Indian traders, who had to. The Nawab calculated that increasing business for native traders would compensate for the loss of duties. This cost his treasury, and infuriated the Company. Qasim had to go.
By 1763 the Company had transformed into an “autonomous imperial power” Dalrymple says, with its own army, navy, and designs on the whole subcontinent. As it took on Qasim’s territory, it taxed like any other potentate – hugely and harshly, so that ships from home didn’t have to bring gold any longer. The company became self-financing. This didn’t stop greedy and incompetent mangers from nearly bankrupting it several times. Between the shareholders in power and being too big to fail, bailout loans always appeared when needed.
By the 1770s, even Parliament had to take notice. In 1774, the first parliamentary oversight committee landed in Calcutta and was immediately offended that they only received a 17 gun salute instead of 21, thus establishing their priorities. They were further horrified that the governor general received them for luncheon in informal attire – not even a ruffled shirt. Real governance issues and political priorities could clearly wait.
By far the most revolting section concerns Ghulam Qadir’s sacking of Delhi. The personal horrors he inflicted are as brutal as anything ever printed, and indeed, British readers were originally denied the sight by censors. He blinded people with hot needles, gouged out their eyes, took everything they had including their clothes, and those he didn’t kill he threw in prison without food or water. As he left with everything his army could carry, he blew up what remained. When he was finally caught, he was treated the same way. He was chained up and paraded in a cage for three days. Day one his eyes were scooped out, day two his ears cut off and hung around his neck, followed cutting off his hands, feet and genitals. When he was eventually killed, his headless body was hung in public and a dog licked up the blood until a few days later, when both disappeared.
This gory horror was followed by an absurd and fraudulent show trial back in London, the social hit of the season, in which the Company’s head man in India faced impeachment. Ironically, of course, Governor General Warren Hastings had been the most effective, efficient and compassionate of the Company’s leaders, tasked with cleaning up the mess of his predecessors. Edmund Burke, the prosecutor, took four days just to make his opening remarks, all but entirely false accusations. It was a litany of lies perpetrated by one man on that original parliamentary committee visit, Philip Francis. Francis simply hated Hastings and would stoop to absolutely anything to undermine him, right up to phony impeachment charges. In this story, Francis, with no knowledge of weapons whatsoever, challenged Hastings to a duel. Hastings let him shoot first, then shot him. Sadly, Francis survived, now even more determined than ever to take Hastings down. He returned to London and worked Parliament to denounce him.
The man they should have prosecuted, Robert Clive, was instead a national hero and one of the richest men in Europe as a result of his machinations in India. Clive was uncontrollably violent (which is why he was sent away to India), ruthless, corrupt and smarmy, and that’s why the Company had him back for three tours of duty. Despite his fortune(s), Clive ended up committing suicide.
A highly intelligent and hardworking lifelong Company man, Hastings had to stand by and witness it all, noting down everything along the way. Back in England, after seven years of idiotic hearings, Hastings was finally cleared. Completely. But rather than learn from this, the men the Company sent as a series of his successors, each proved far worse than anything Hastings was ever charged with.
His immediate successor, Lord Cornwallis, had recently managed to lose the 13 colonies that became the USA. He set out to avenge himself. He went to war of course, greatly expanding the Company’s territory, implemented racist laws such as keeping the children of mixed marriages out of the Company, and as Dalrymple explains it, prevented a middle class that could rise up against him as in the USA. His approach to India was ancient Roman: 1) divide and conquer, lying to allies keep them out of battles as needed, and then attack them when convenient, and 2) Buy the local potentates, give them salaries, and let the citizenry think they still had independence and integrity – personal, political and territorial. Much like the USA replacing foreign governments as needed to keep its trade unhindered, so the Company used everyone to expand on the ground.
Cornwallis was followed by the arrogant Lord Wellesley, and his younger brother Arthur, who later became the Duke of Wellington. When the last Indian leader’s troops were defeated, its people raped, tortured and killed, its wealth pillaged and plundered, Governor General Lord Wellesley proposed a toast “to the corpse of India.” Wellesley went his own way, communicating little with head office, eventually bagging almost all of India before he was recalled.
By the early 1800s the Company’s private army stood at 195,000, twice the size of the British army. Its spending in Britain alone amounted to a quarter as much as government expenditure. The entire London headquarters staff of the Company numbered all of 35, in a building “just five windows wide.” And this was the largest company in the world. From there, they directed the conquest and acquisition of the entire Indian subcontinent and hundreds of millions of people. It was not just too big to fail, it was an actual threat. As Jeff Mulgan said elsewhere: “It used to be that the banks feared the sovereign. Now the sovereign fears the banks.” So with the East India Company, the poster child for rampant unregulated corporate greed.
By 1859, after just 150 years, even the government had had enough and took control of India itself, merging the Company’s army into the British army and disbanding its navy. Things did not get better.
Dalrymple ends by showing how gigantic multinationals have mutated into not needing expensive armies and navies to effect their conquests. They use big data, surveillance, lobbying and influence instead. He says the history of the East India Company has never been more relevant than it is today. So it’s not just great storytelling, it’s a look in the mirror.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.
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