From a commercial company to the rulers of India
Scottish historian William Dalrymple in The Anarchy narrates the story of how a “dangerously unregulated” private trading corporation headquartered in London went on to ravage the Indian subcontinent with the help of an enormous army. In what may be arguably his most engrossing work, the writer talks about how the empire was won not on the strength of military might but the subjugation was brought about by shrewd and cunning officials of a corporate house, assisted by amoral Indian bankers who financed its operations
Following up on the global successes of The White Mughals, The Last Mughal and the jointly authored Kohinoor, William Dalrymple has produced yet another hard hitting, deeply researched reality check on Indian history in The Anarchy.
The book tells the story of collapse of the Mughal Empire and parallel rise of the East India Company, with the latter taking control of two-thirds of India in two centuries, equipped with an army larger than that of the United Kingdom in an act of corporate rapacity not seen before or since. It is this particular point that Dalrymple drives home with clarity and facts – that it was not, as popular history tells us the 'British' who ruled India for 300 years, but something far more worrying, a private company. It was a corporation with shareholders and financiers, just like any corporate today, which managed through a policy of cunning, guile and sheer luck played multiple games of chess across India with the Marathas, Scindias, Sikhs, Mughals and Tipu only to finally defeat them all. More than once, the defeat was aided by former enemies – the EIC had fought against the Marathas, but then allied with them to defeat Tipu Sultan. They fought the Mughals, but not only brought them to heel but pulled from them the Diwani, or tax collection rights for Bengal, and sucked the very life blood of Bengal to the point where it was hit by two devastating famines.
In perhaps the most shocking of all revelations in The Anarchy, Dalrymple gives numerous examples of how Indians themselves not only financed the EIC, but profited from the loot, plunder and pillage of their own country by an indomitable corporation. The largest of these financiers were the Marwaris in the form of Jagat Seths. The investors also included Dwarkanath Tagore.
Delivering a talk on the book, Dalrymple narrated the rise of the company from almost a pirate operation to a governing force. Bringing the narrative home to Bengal, he told the story of the Battle of Plassey wherein the forces of Siraj ud-Daulah had their gunpowder drenched with heavy rain and so chose to launch a full attack on the EIC forces commanded by Robert Clive. The Mughal forces were certain that since their gunpowder was wet and so cannon unusable, Clive must be in the same position. The Mughal attack, led by Mir Madan and 5000 elite Afghan cavalry, was met by "…an incessant rain of balls and bullets, and endless firing, that the spectators themselves were amazed and confounded," said Ghulam Hussain Khan. Bengal was lost due to tarpaulin; Clive had covered his gunpowder, Siraj had not.
After Plassey and Buxar, the EIC had brought the Mughals to their knees and had negotiated, or rather bribed and threatened, the terms of the Diwani handed to the EIC, as Ghulam Khan puts it succinctly "…in less time than would usually have been taken up for the sale of a jackass". Wellesley would follow up on Clive's successes, conquering more in India than Napoleon did in Europe. Having reached their peak, the fall was inevitable. The Bengal Famine, the judicial murder of Nand Kumar, the infighting between Hastings and Francis, culminating in a duel on the streets of Calcutta, heralded the end of the EIC in India.
The final tipping point was the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, which is covered in great detail in The Last Mughal.
Dalrymple ends with a note on corporate power, the ability to influence politicians and governments, to leverage greed in exchange for power, in what sounds all too familiar across the world even today.