Corporation with a licence to kill
The Anarchy - The relentless rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019) £30. 00 522 pp.
Reviewed by Trevor Grundy
SO MANY words of Indian origin have entered the English language and the Hindustan word for plunder, loot, is the best known.
Indeed, Loot –The Relentless Rise of the East Indian Company might have been a more appropriate title for this book by William Dalrymple.
Explaining how and why the word became commonplace is one of the author’s objectives. And he does the job well in his follow- up to The Last Mughal: The End of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006)
It’s a book that should be read by students looking for a new hate figure, now that Cecil Rhodes has been brought to his knees, as a statue, anyhow.
The activities of Rhodes and his royal-sponsored British South Africa Company (BSAP) fade into insignificance compared with the royal-backed East India Company.
Goodbye Cecil Rhodes of Africa.
Hello Robert Clive of India.
What a piece of work is here – a systematic, beautifully written, well-researched and sourced, anecdote- filled encyclopedic volume that rips to pieces centuries old lies hammered into school-children for so long.
They are the lies that millions of impoverished “natives” were given a chance to raise themselves from the dust by fair-minded British soldiers and their aristocratic over-lords who were on a civilizing mission.
The truth lies elsewhere and thanks to Dalrymple, we have the full story about how a sub-continent was wrecked by a motley group of pirates and adventurers, an empire within an empire with a license to kill.
We meet them first in 1601 when a ship called the “Red Dragon” slipped anchor at Woolwich at the start of a two- month voyage to Indonesia to exploit the new royal charter granted it by Queen Elizabeth 1.
Isolated from mainland Europe, partly because of Henry V111’s break with Rome and aware that Britain could not match the naval might of Holland, Portugal and Spain, the EIC directors were forced to scour the globe for markets.
The ship’s compass was set not for Indonesia but for India.
Soon, a trading-house acorn turned into a multi-national oak and the EIC’s looters moved into the opium trade which kept millions of people in China at death’s door for so long with such disastrous consequences.,
Like an octopus, EIC spread its tentacles towards anything worth grabbing and looting.
Fear that EIC could play a major role in the American colonies was one of the factors that encouraged English settlers to dump tea into the sea at Boston harbour, sparking off the American War for Independence.
At the start, the EIC pirates were stunned by the wealth and splendour of the mighty Mughal Empire.
The EIC had been authorized by its founding charter to ‘wage war” and it controlled small areas around its Indian settlements since the 1630s.
But 1765 was the moment that the EIC ceased to be anything even distantly resembling a conventional trading corporation dealing in silks and spices which so delighted the rich back home in England.
Having acquired the right to tax twenty million people, the company was able to generate annual revenues in excess of £3 million (£315 million today).
Writes Dalrymple: ”Within a few months, 250 company clerks backed by the military force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers had become the effective rulers of the richest Mughal provinces. An international corporation was in the process of transforming itself into an aggressive colonial power.”
By 1803, when its private army had grown to 200,000 men “it had swiftly subdued or directly seized an entire sub-continent. Astonishingly, this took less than half a century. The first serious territorial conquests began in Bengal in 1756; fort-seven years later, the Company’s reach extended as far north as the Mughal capital of Delhi and almost all of India south of that city was then effectively ruled from a boardroom in the city of London.”
Dalrymple goes on: “We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that began seizing great chunks of India in the mid-18th century but a dangerously un-regulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by a violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator – Clive.
The reason for EIC’s stunning success will be hotly debated for years to come.
Dalrymple suggests the most crucial factor of all was the support that the EIC enjoyed from British Parliamentarians.
“The relationship between them grew steadily more symbiotic throughout the eighteenth century until eventually it turned into something we might today call a public-private partnership. Returned nabobs like Clive used their wealth to buy both MPs and parliamentary seats – the famous Rotten Boroughs. In turn, Parliament backed the Company with state power.”
A good proportion of the loot of Bengal went directly into Clive’s pocket and he returned to Britain with a personal fortune then valued at £234,000 that made him the richest self-made man in Europe.
The author reminds us that after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 which led to the eventual colonization of the entire country, the contents of the Bengal treasury were loaded into one hundreds boats ad floated down the Ganges from the Nawab of Bengal’s palace in Murshidabad to Fort William, the Company’s Calcutta headquarters.
It was, as Dalrymple explains to us, a victory that owed as much to treachery, forged contracts, bankers and bribes as it did to military prowess.
This is not the right book to take with you on a weekend break.
It’s a most disturbing work of scholarship and concern.
It comes at a time of nostalgia for Empire is a factor in British life.
But the question is not whether the British want a new look Empire again (Empoire0.2). It’s whether the colonized want it again.
This is a book for the discerning reader – academic or layperson.
It is lavishly illustrated with full colour plates depicting the way Indians saw the British intruders over the ages, including Clive who killed himself and Warren Hastings who overcame stage-managed disgrace to save his name and reputation.
The publishers have included clear and useful maps and there are over 100 pages of notes and a full index at the end.
Adolf Hitler was a great admirer of the 18th and 19th century British imperialists.
The way so few ruled so many fascinated him. In the book Hitler’s Table Talk (Ostara Publications) he asked how they did it and wondered if the Germans could do the same in Eastern Europe and a defeated Russia.
He’d have loved this book.
(Reviewed in the November 2019 issue of assianaffairs magazine )