At the beginning of William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, the award-winning Scottish historian states plainly the thesis of his latest work: that the Company’s “military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia… almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.”
It’s a big, bold, breathtaking statement, its simplicity belying the magnitude of the charge. But it is more than backed up by the more than 400 pages of evidence that follow.
“For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations,” Dalrymple writes as he draws the volume to a close, “they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarized East India Company.”
It is one of the ironies of a historian’s lot—at least when it comes time to publicize their work—that journalists like me tend to be more interested in discussing the present than the past. But it is difficult to read The Anarchy, published in the United States on Sept. 10, without being struck by how timely it feels, how surprisingly of the moment. An epic of 576 pages in all, it serves as a reminder that early capitalism was just as perverse, predatory, and single-minded in its pursuit of profit as its much-derided late-model equivalent.
“Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re always writing history from the point of view of your time,” Dalrymple tells me by phone from the Scottish Highlands, shortly before his upcoming transatlantic book tour kicks off. “The whole issue of the power of the corporation is something we’re reevaluating at the moment. The East India Company has actually become more topical even as I’ve been writing.”
He points to some of the more obvious ways in which this is the case: the East India Company’s invention of corporate lobbying and its role in the world’s first-ever lobbying scandal, its dubious status as the recipient of one of history’s first government bail-outs.
“The story of the East India Company is the story of this odd dance between the power of the corporation and the power of the state,” Dalrymple says. “Behind the story of the Company’s conquest of India is this tussle between the two. Sometimes it looks as though the Company is winning—bribing the state to alter the law, guarantee its monopolies, provide it with military assistance—and at other times it seems as though the state is winning, which it ultimately does in 1858, when the Company is nationalized.”
“The most obviously relevant moment is when the company goes bust in 1772 and has to borrow massive sums of money. It’s the largest loan ever given to a British company up to that point. But they have to do it. The Company’s responsible for half of all British trade by then. It really is too big to fail.”
“What is interesting, though,” Dalrymple says, “is that, if you read Victorian histories of the Company, this bailout barely warrants a footnote. The big crashes of 10 years ago make it much more interesting to a historian today.”
The aforementioned corporate violence seems troublingly familiar, too—think Halliburton, Blackwater, the application of the shock doctrine—though the book allows readers to make most of the connections themselves.
“I don’t go into the parallels much,” Dalrymple admits. “I just sketch them out at the beginning and the end. But as I’ve been writing puff pieces in the lead-up to the book’s release, editors have started asking for more contemporary stuff to float the history in.
“As a result, I’ve been reading more about ExxonMobil, for example, which does bring down governments and does have its own private army. Steve Coll [author of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power] makes the similarities between the Company and ExxonMobil very explicit. I might have to add a new chapter to the paperback edition.”
The Anarchy took Dalrymple six years to complete, longer than any of his previous books. On the one hand, this was because there were so many primary sources—“the Company’s own voluminous miles of records”—to pore over. “There’s a very nice passage at the beginning of John Keay’s history [The Honourable Company], where he imagines all these elderly professors attempting to write histories of the Company and dying at their desks in the library,” Dalrymple says. “The Company kept everything in triplicate and all the archives survived.”
But he also admits that the book simply “took forever to get right.” Indeed, The Anarchy represents a kind of departure for Dalrymple, who describes his earlier books—White Mughals, The Last Mughal, and Return of a King among them—as “micro-histories.” Each focuses on a small cast of characters over a tightly delineated, two- to five-year period.
“What I hadn’t ever written before was kind of a big, sweeping macro-history, and I didn’t know how to do it at all,” he says. “The difficulty was working out what the narrative would be.”
For all the colorful, conniving Company men who came to the sub-continent in the period Dalrymple covers—namely, the years of Mughal decline, when “the once peaceful realm of India,” as one scholar put it, “became the abode of Anarchy”—it was ultimately an Indian who provided him with the through-line he needed.
“It took forever to work out that the main character was actually [Moghul emperor] Shah Alam,” he says. “He’s there at the age of 16 when [Persian Emperor] Nader Shah rides into Delhi, when Delhi’s still at its peak, and he’s there as this broken, blind old man in his nineties at the end, when General [Gerard] Lake rides in [at the end of the Battle of Delhi].”
Shah Alam is also there in 1765, in the wake of the Battle of Buxar, dismissing his revenue officials in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa and replacing them with Company men in an act of what Dalrymple describes as “involuntarily privatization.” “Before long,” he writes, thanks to Indian loot, “the EIC was straddling the globe.”
There was nothing preordained or inevitable about this outcome. Indeed, when the idea of the EIC was first floated at a 1599 meeting in London—“while William Shakespeare was pondering a draft of Hamlet in his house downriver from the Globe in Southwark,” Dalrymple writes—its success was far from guaranteed. Indeed, reading The Anarchy, one is constantly struck by how much had to go right for the Company (and wrong for the French, Marathas, Moghuls, and everyone else) for it to become the “empire within an empire” that it ultimately was.
“It was almost accidental,” Dalrymple tells me. “There was a very brief window of about 30 years between the 1750s and the 1780s when the Company found itself, uniquely in its history, with a massive military superiority. There was nothing in India, nothing in the Moghul armory, that could take on the new techniques of warfare developed by Frederick the Great on the fields of Flanders and Prussia and in wars like the War of Austrian Succession.”
“But that only lasts until 1780. After that, it’s much more a story about how Indian financiers see a greater advantage in keeping the Company in power than they do in supporting their own,” he says. “Yes, the Company loots and plunders, it’s dishonourable in a million different ways, it’s underhanded and predatory and everything else. But it’s also a commercial organization that understands the importance of repaying a loan, in full, with interest, on time. By 1803, these Indian bankers are actually competing with one another to back the Company’s army.”
While this may seem a relatively uncontroversial point to readers in the West, it is the sort of thing—with its suggestion of anti-national collaborationism—that might prove otherwise in India’s current political climate. Dalrymple is warmly known in India, where he keeps a home outside Delhi, as the “White Moghul,” and the country is by far the largest market for his work. But under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party considers the rewriting of Indian history along communal and ideological lines a priority—that may one day cease to be the case.
“I’m obviously very lucky in that people do read and like my stuff in India,” Dalrymple says. “But there’s also no question that there’s a whole segment of society there that’s deeply Islamophobic.
“My books are obviously fairly sympathetic to the Moghuls and embrace the old Nehruvian idea of India as a diverse, rather than specifically Hindu, country. It’s impossible to say whether, in the longer term, given my positive views on Indo-Islamic culture, whether a new generation will grow up not wanting to read my books or listen to their message. India is certainly changing. You can see it just by going on Twitter.”
Dalrymple has an impressive 1.2 million followers on the social media platform. But he’s quick to disabuse me of the notion that anywhere near that number of them are real.
“About two years ago, something very weird began to happen,” he says. “I went from about 100,000 followers to more than a million in a matter of months. I went about preening myself and thinking what I fine fellow I was before my sister-in-law pointed out to me that most of my new followers were BJP bots. I’d somehow wound up on a list of influencers and been followed by hundreds of thousands of government bots and trolls.”
“They sleep until you use words like ‘Modi’ or ‘BJP’ or ‘RSS’—or ‘Kashmir,’ obviously, more recently—and the abuse they tweet at people can be shocking.”
That Dalrymple’s Twitter feed should inspire the ire of India’s nationalists is ultimately pretty mind-boggling. His tweets are mostly dedicated to his love of the sub-continent’s art and architecture. The Anarchy is littered with passages about painting, music, and other cultural production. “One by one, my children identified those passages as self-indulgent and excessive,” he laughs, “which is saying something given that they’ve all been cut down from much longer versions.” He has also written the catalogue for a new exhibition, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company 1770-1857, which opens at London’s Wallace Collection in December. He says India’s relationship to its heritage also troubles him greatly.
“One of the big problems in India is that there’s no heritage listings for vernacular buildings,” he says. “In London, I’m not even allowed to alter the interior of my 18th Century house. In India, I can’t bulldoze the Red Fort or any heritage-listed monument, but I could destroy my 18th Century haveli [townhouse] tomorrow and build a concrete car park without breaking the law.
“India is changing in that way, too. There’s a lot more destruction of history than you see elsewhere, especially in cities like Hyderabad, where there’s been a mad embrace of modernity and a correspondingly massive destruction of the past.”
But Dalrymple doesn’t believe that India has reached the point of no return, or that the changes to Indian politics and society that Modi represents, or has enabled, are necessarily permanent. “The world is certainly on a rightward-swing, but it will—it must—swing back,” he says. As far as the country’s contested, increasingly politicised history is concerned, he points to a number of younger historians who are ignoring the dictates of the nationalist moment and continuing to approach the past with the rigour it deserves. He singles out Manu Pillai (Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji) and Parvati Sharma (Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal) for special praise.
“You do get a dichotomy in India between popular historians who don’t do any research and academic historians whose research is impeccable but who remain bogged down in a kind of post-colonial, PoMoPoCo language, which is hard to read and hard to understand,” he says. “Pillai and Sharma are the kind of historians who have the ability to absorb huge amounts of material as well as write beautiful prose.”
It’s a standard to which Dalrymple has always tried to hold himself.
“My favourite historian has always been the medievalist and Byzantinist Steven Runciman,” he says. “He wrote what is still my favorite history book of all time, The Fall of Constantinople 1453. He did all the research. He read the primary sources. He also wrote like a dream. He was a beautiful prose stylist.”
“When I was writing my first book, White Mughals, I very much had Runciman on my bedside as a model for how to do these things,” he says. “What he taught me was that you can research as thoroughly as any academic historian and write as beautifully as any literary novelist at the same time. It can be done. It has been done. All I did was take that style—that mixture—and apply it to India.”