THE ANARCHY: THE EAST INDIA COMPANY, CORPORATE VIOLENCE, AND THE PILLAGE OF AN EMPIRE
By William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury, London, 2019, pp.xxxv+522, Rs.699.00
In September 1499 Vasco da Gama returned to Lisbon, having successfully travelled to Malabar via the Cape of Good Hope route. A century later, a group of London merchants launched the trading venture, which was to grow into a giant modern corporation, the East India Company (EIC). These London merchants petitioned Elizabeth for a royal charter that would give them the exclusive right to trade with the ‘East Indies’. The charter was granted in 1600, marking the beginning of the company’s monopoly. The EIC’s charter was renewed from time to time allowing it to monopolize the trade between England and Asia for over two centuries. William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy is the story of the rise of the EIC, from modest beginnings to its ascendancy in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
Vasco da Gama’s voyage had demonstrated the viability of the new all-sea route between Europe and the Indian Ocean. Already by the late 1480s Bartholomew Diaz had established that there was a sea passage between the Atlantic and the Indian oceans, along the southern coast of the African continent. For most of the sixteenth century the Portuguese controlled the all-sea Cape route, and thereby the long-distance trade between Europe and Asia along this route. Their monopoly prompted a search for alternative routes. In fact, the earliest scheme, proposed in 1527, for undertaking a trans-oceanic voyage from England to Asia was for a route that would not involve going round the Cape of Good Hope. This was for a north-western route, through the Arctic archipelago. Two English expeditions sent out to locate a possible north-western passage ended in failure. By the time the EIC became active, the Dutch had superseded the Portuguese. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) excluded other European traders from the Cape route even more aggressively than did the Portuguese. Finding their access to supplies of spices in south-east Asia blocked by the VOC, the EIC increasingly became dependent on commodities such as cotton textiles, procured from India, for its earnings. India had initially been of subsidiary interest to the plans of the EIC. Its main aim had been to purchase spices from south-east Asia for its European markets.
In 1613 the EIC set up a factory at Surat, the main port of the Mughal empire, and subsequently, in the second quarter of the seventeenth century, had begun expanding its commercial activities on the Coromandel coast. It soon had to contend with yet another rival, the French East India Company formed in 1664. The first half of the eighteenth century witnessed a fierce contest between the French and English companies in south India, a contest that spilled over into eastern India by the 1750s. The EIC’s conquest of Bengal and Bihar in 1757 put an end to the French colonial venture in India.
Dalrymple’s book focuses on three foundational moments in the early history of Britain’s Indian empire, between 1757 and 1805: the battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764); the campaigns of Cornwallis and Wellesley against Tipu Sultan, culminating in the final defeat of Tipu in 1799; and the second Anglo-Maratha war (1802-1805). His narrative by and large adheres to standard accounts of this phase of colonial expansion in India. Thus Siraj ud-Daula’s problems are depicted as being, to a large extent, the result of flaws in his character. Some of the recent writings on the conflict between Siraj and the EIC, most prominently Sushil Chaudhury’s The Prelude to Empire (2000), have forcefully argued that most of the sources on which historians have based their negative assessment of Siraj ud-Daula are hopelessly biased. Dalrymple seems unimpressed by Chaudhury’s ‘spirited’ attempt ‘to resuscitate his reputation’, and remarks that the evidence points to ‘Siraj behaving rather like Uday Hussain in pre-9/11 Baghdad’ (p. 82n56).
The loot and plunder, on a massive scale, by the EIC’s employees, in the wake of Plassey, was responsible for the great anarchy which contemporaries spoke of in lamenting the passing of the era of Siraj’s grandfather Aliverdi Khan (d.1756). Dalrymple describes vividly the political, social and economic chaos in eastern India during the initial years of company rule. Mir Jafar, a veteran military commander who had betrayed Siraj ud-Daula and paved the way for the EIC’s victory at Plassey, was acknowledged as the new subedar of the eastern provinces of the Mughal empire. However, the company soon dispensed with him, as he was unable to comply with their continuous demands for money. His son-in-law Mir Qasim, who turned out to be an exceptionally competent administrator, replaced him.
Within a very short time Mir Qasim fulfilled promises made to the company, promises forcibly extracted from him and his predecessor. Simultaneously he tried to salvage some of the vital components of the administrative and military apparatus of the nawabi regime with the objective of resisting the EIC. Dalrymple’s account indicates that at this stage influential sections of that regime had not entirely given up hope, and might have viewed Plassey as a temporary, albeit catastrophic, setback. Mir Qasim did not lack allies; without them he could not have achieved what he did. It was obvious that the British could not be ousted without a military confrontation. The confrontation eventually took place at Buxar in 1764.
In a desperate move, the EIC decided to once again acknowledge Mir Jafar as the subedar, notwithstanding (or because of) his addiction to opium. Dependence on the drug had rendered him useless for purposes of governance even in a limited way. What is significant is that the company had to maintain the fiction that it governed on behalf of the nawab who was the Mughal subedar of Bengal. Shah Alam’s farman of 1765 authorizing the EIC to act as diwan for the eastern provinces further confirmed that it had a formal status in the imperial hierarchy. The company sought legitimacy by observing Mughal protocol, and acknowledging the sovereignty of the emperor. The narrative about the company’s expansionist drive is interspersed with the story of the travails of Shah Alam, whose reign (1759-1806) coincided with the rise of British power in India.
Within five years, the EIC as diwan and de facto ruler of Bengal had destroyed the agrarian economy of the suba. In 1769 a large part of Bengal was engulfed in a terrible man-made famine, which lasted for a few years. The book devotes considerable space to the horrors of the famine, and the utterly callous and inhuman behaviour of the company’s servants in this grave crisis. As reports of conditions in the EIC’s Indian territories reached England, criticism of the company’s activities began to be articulated in the strongest terms. Condemning the EIC an angry Horace Walpole declared that ‘We have outdone the Spaniards in Peru!’ (p. 223). This was the context in which a permanent mechanism for parliamentary oversight of the company’s Indian empire was put in place in 1784.
The impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, which commenced in 1788 and dragged on for several years, became an occasion for investigating and exposing the EIC’s systematic plunder. Later, during the nineteenth century, Hastings came to be depicted as a great empire-builder. In his account of the impeachment proceedings, Dalrymple seems generally sympathetic to Hastings whom he considers to be relatively enlightened in his attitude towards India and Indians. On the other hand, Hastings’s leading political opponent, Philip Francis is introduced in the book as a ‘scheming polemicist’ (p. xiv), who was ultimately the source of the vicious propaganda in England against Hastings. It is pertinent that in his classic study A Rule of Property for Bengal Ranajit Guha, while discussing the intellectual contribution of Francis to the ideas that shaped the Permanent Settlement, had commented that, ‘To contemporaries Francis’s reputation was slightly higher than that of Warren Hastings: but later historians reversed the scales. … How could this happen? The answer is that Francis has been the victim of second thoughts about Warren Hastings. All the luminous adjectives applied to Hastings’s Indian record are in fact a nineteenth century invention.’
It has at times been remarked that the EIC established its empire surreptitiously, and that Indian elites were hoodwinked into regarding the company as a peaceful trading concern until it was too late to do anything. The Anarchy emphasizes that this was not so. Right since the time of Aliverdi Khan, and of Anwar ud-Din, Mughal subedar of Carnatic in the late 1740s, there was an awareness of the potential which the English and other European companies had for undermining Mughal authority. Throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, rulers of the various political entities in the subcontinent in which the EIC operated, tried to check the growing power of the company leading to bloody wars. The British, i.e., the Company, backed by the British state, encountered fierce resistance at every step in its endeavour to achieve complete dominance. Empire was won by unleashing violence on an unprecedented scale. Dalrymple pays close attention to some of the key battles through which the EIC achieved supremacy.
Whereas the company was not yet in a position to take on the Mughal war machine at the close of Aurangzeb’s reign, as was demonstrated in the 1680s when it tried to defy Mughal authority (‘Child’s War’), by the 1740s it had become clear that Indian rulers were starting to lag behind in methods of warfare. Nevertheless, within a few decades some of the States had updated their methods, making each battle a tough military contest. Tipu Sultan and Mahadji Sindia were the foremost innovators in this field. It is for this reason that the wars with Mysore, and the Second Maratha war, were among the bloodiest the EIC fought in India. The Sindia army along with the forces of the ruler of Berar came close to defeating the British in the Battle of Assaye (September 1803), one of the two decisive battles of the Maratha War. The British were led by Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington: ‘Arthur Wellesley would later remember [the battle] as one of the hardest he had ever fought, and altogether tougher than his later confrontation with Napoleon at Waterloo’ (p. 370).
In his slim volume, The Corporation that Changed the World, Nick Robins had highlighted the predatory character of the East India Company. The EIC has provided the model for present-day multinationals, which have much in common with their ancestor. Dalrymple echoes Robins’s understanding in the concluding sentences of his book: ‘The East India Company remains today history’s most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power—and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state. … Four hundred and twenty years after its founding, the story of the East India Company has never been more current’ (p. 397).
Amar Farooqui teaches in the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.