William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company

Bloomsbury, 2019, 522 pp., ISBN: 9781408864388, p/bk, AUS$26.99

Highly-regarded historian William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company is a fabulous achievement.

There are two epigraphs upfront. ‘A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred million people’ (a letter written by Leo Tolstoy in 1908) and ‘Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned, they therefore do as they like’ (a statement made by Edward, First Baron Thurlow during the impeachment of Warren Hastings). These well-chosen lines invite the reader into an extraordinarily complex history that is brought vividly to life by Dalrymple.

Dalrymple’s knowledge of his subject and his engaging writing style realise this volume as something much more than a well-told history with historical figures moving about and doing what they did to force the next historical event. Dalrymple understands this history. He knows these people. This is obvious when he introduces readers to some of the men who are central to this story of corporate ambition and gobsmacking greed. There are the English: Robert Clive is ‘violent and ruthless but extremely capable’, Warren Hastings is ‘plain-living, scholarly, diligent’ (p.xiii), Philip Francis is ‘scheming’ (p.xiv) while Robert Clive’s son, Edward Clive, is just ‘notably unintelligent’ (p.xv). There are the French. The Mughals, including the ‘handsome and talented’ Shah Alam (p.xvii), the Nawabs, the Rohillas, the Sultans of Mysore and the Marathas. There are the brave, the brutal, the resigned, the visionary and the incompetent.

Dalrymple’s writing is confident and at times mesmerising. He has, too, a knack for selecting just the right piece of information to set the scene. For example, the first line of his introduction notes that one of ‘the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot‘ (p.xxiii). His ability to summarise and to easily convey the magnitude of key points makes this work a gripping read. This is, after all, a story unlike any other, for:

In many ways the East India Company was a model of commercial efficiency: one hundred years into its history, it had only thirty-five permanent employees in its head office. Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. (pp.xxvi-xxvii)

The tale begins in 1599 and covers the main events of the rise, and fall, of the East India Company. Driving this history is a thirst for wealth that must be quenched, regardless of the human cost. Processes of colonialism are inevitably traumatic for the peoples being colonised. In India, the terror did not come specifically from another country but from a brand name: as the ‘transition to colonialism took place through the mechanism of a [militarised] for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors’ (p.394). Eventually, ‘enough was enough’ and the Company was brought to heel by the Parliament and the Crown that had facilitated its establishment and expansion. In the end, the organisation that had wrought so much damage and death would dissolve in a whimper. Its powers curbed, it ‘limped on in its amputated form for another fifteen years when its charter expired, finally quietly shutting down in 1874, ‘with less fanfare,’ noted one commentator, ‘than a regional railway bankruptcy’’ (p.391).

There is a chilling point made in the epilogue:

The East India Company, has, thankfully, no exact modern equivalent. Walmart, which is the world’s largest corporation in revenue does not number among its assets a fleet of nuclear submarines; neither Facebook nor Shell possesses regiments of infantry. Yet the East India Company — the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok — was the ultimate model and prototype for many of today’s joint stock corporations. The most powerful among them do not need their own armies: they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out. (p.396)

The end of the East India Company is not the end of the story of the corporation.

There are maps upfront and a list of the key players with a short biographical note for each. There is also a very useful glossary, beautiful images with credits and a detailed index. The scholarship behind this work is revealed through the notes and bibliography which consumes 89 of the 522 pages of text. Skimming the references it is difficult not to be drawn in, almost hypnotised, by the scale and scope of materials utilised to inform Dalrymple’s work. So many different authors, formats, languages and repositories and, of course, so many documents created by the East India Company. This listing is an invaluable resource for students of history and anyone wanting to do further reading on the organisation that ‘probably invented corporate lobbying’ (p.xxvii) and at its peak controlled ‘almost half the world’s trade’ (p.3).

The Anarchy is important reading and a timely tale of the raw violence that corporations were once capable of and the levels of power that such enterprises continue to seek.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, October 2019

Visit the publisher’s website here.

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