William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire is a chronicle of greed, ambition, and the machinations that put a vast geographical territory under the East India Company (EIC). The book’s epigraph offers a succinct summary of the book’s central theme: “Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned, they therefore do as they like”.
Anarchy details the origins of one of the earliest multinational corporations in the world and the East India Company’s unfettered pillage and destruction in the Indian subcontinent. The book explores the close ties between these corporations and the colonial project that served to exploit vast markets for private profit. To quote: “The corporation—the idea of a single integrated business organisation stretching out across the seas—was a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonialism that upended the trading world of Asia and Europe…”. The “anarchy” in the book’s title also points to the dissolution of an era as an empire collapses and competing forces vie for power and survival.
Founded in 1599, the EIC’s founding charter authorised it to wage war to make profit. By 1765, its wildly successful governor, the mentally unstable Robert Clive, had managed to coerce the Mughal emperor Shah Alam into outsourcing revenue collection in Bengal to the Company. Dalrymple outlines the incentives: growing profits for the investors, mind-boggling spoils for the EIC clerks and governors, excellent terms for the Indian creditors, and modern arms and stable salaries for an army of over 200,000 (almost all Indian) men.
Dalrymple details the complex political fault-lines and lesser-known historical incentives in 16th century India that allowed a small joint-stock company to quickly acquire vast land and revenue holdings. A diverse cast of characters including British clerks, Indian moneylenders, infighting Mughal administrators and their vast families and European mercenaries come together to carve up the decrepit Mughal empire. What motivates them? Ancient emotions like security, ambition, and yes, profit. The Jagat Seths, Mughal India’s preeminent bankers/moneylenders, for example, provided credit lines to prompt and reliable Company officials who understood and respected a contract—unlike Zamindars who preferred to roll heads or stomp ineffectual feet. Dalrymple sets out the wide and complex mix of players, with dramatis personae including: the English and the French Companies vying for political patronage and market access; the flailing Mughal empire and its many powerful satrapies, especially Bengal, Awadh, Golkonda/Hyderabad and the Rohillas; the mighty but dissent-riven Maratha generals; and down South, the brilliant but ultimately unsuccessful Tipu Sultan.
Dalrymple discusses the “great men” (and a few remarkable women like Begum Sumru) and the interplay of chance and turmoil in detailing EIC’s success. There are few who are as skilled in leavening historical texts, assiduously chronicled with footnotes and sources. He propels us through the book’s 500-odd pages with a richly detailed account.
The book serves as a counter to the many narratives looking for silver linings (railways, cricket) in colonialism’s impact. In fact, Dalrymple notes that “…the idea of the joint stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or for worse changed South Asia as much as any other European idea”. Anarchy brings into focus some of the many motivations, including profit, that can undermine our individual and collective freedoms. As Dalrymple notes, the modern overseas corporation came into being with European colonialism—but has managed to survive colonialism’s demise. It has transmuted into what Indians would call “crony capitalism”, where the company works with the state for private profit.
Anarchy is a book of history, but there are many lessons for our present times as well. Dalrymple quotes Khairuddin Illahabadi in the book’s epilogue: “Az farâ-dîd-i sar-guzasht-i guzashtagân, bar khud ‘ibrat pazîrad’—By considering these past lives, take heed of your own future”.