The Grandest Society of Merchants in the Universe

Book Review — The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple[1]

The Mughal emperor Shah Alam hands a scroll to Robert Clive, the governor of Bengal, which transferred tax collecting rights in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the East India Company. Illustration: Benjamin West (1738–1820)/British Library, The Guardian (Accessed, 16th August 2020)

“A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred million people”, wrote Tolstoy in a letter to the Hindu in 1908.[2] The Anarchy, by William Dalrymple, is a riveting historical account about how the East India Company (EIC) used the chaotic instability of the 18th century to take control of the Indian subcontinent.

The EIC was one of the world’s first successful privately owned joint stock corporation, founded in the year 1600 by a group of Londoners wanting to improve their fortunes by exploring new markets in the East. Unlike most modern corporations, it ended up building its own army filled with British, local Indians, and mercenaries to fight battles for it. It was the first corporate that could be tagged as ‘too big to fail’ and was bailed out by the British government at several points to ensure survival. Furthermore, the Company was granted monopoly charter by the British crown to do business in the subcontinent for more than two centuries.[3] At its peak, EIC ascended to engage in almost half of the British trade volume and referred to itself as “the grandest society of merchants in the Universe.”[4]

When it first arrived in India in 1608, it took EIC several years to convince the powerful Jahangir to allow them to build a factory in Surat. Originally intended for the sole purpose of trade, the EIC gained a stronger foothold in the subcontinent over the course of two centuries, and as a result, its purpose transformed from trade to looting. Its rise to power was so great that, in words of Edmund Burke, EIC eventually became “a state in the guise of a merchant.”[5]

The change in EIC’s fortune started owing to a continuous series of events leading to a power vacuum in the subcontinent after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707. Aurangzeb was a talented, ruthless general but lacked the charm of his predecessors. He alienated his regional alliances, which were formed on the principle of tolerance by his predecessors. His death left a vast Mughal empire, deprived of an able successor who could manage it. Aurangzeb was followed by a succession of weak rulers, three of whom were murdered. Accompanied by frequent raids on the peripheries by the Marathas, and other regional rulers who resumed independence i.e. Rohilla Afghans, the Sikhs of Punjab, Jats of Deeg and Rajputs etc. In wake of this instability, some of the best generals left to fend for themselves, further weakening the Mughal rule.

It was the Persian ruler, Nadir Shah’s invasion of Delhi in 1739, which sparked dreams of conquest in the Europeans. “EIC, writer William Bolts wrote, seeing a handful of Persians take Delhi with ease spurred the Europeans’ dreams of conquests and Empire in India. Nader-Shah had shown the way.”[6] Sensing the Mughal weakness and now divided authority, European trading companies (both British and French) began recruiting their own private security forces including well paid local Indian infantry troops.

One of the ways EIC was clearly different than the local rulers at the time, which is quite evident in the book, was that their Governors and officers in India were selected more on competence for the for-profit Company. This was in contrast, to ascension of Indian rulers who were favoured by their birth as is tradition of Kingdoms. Though there were exceptions and the Indian were also susceptible to weakness in the royal rulers, which led to a lot of in-fighting amongst them to usurp power. Focus on merit along with the military changes gave the British a big edge over most of its adversaries. Dalrymple notes that “the Europeans [at the time] suspected they were superior to the Mughals in tactical prowess, but they had not appreciated how great this advantage had become due to the military developments [in the 18th century]…”[7]

Another side that isn’t very well known or not emphasised enough in deliberations amongst Indian circles is the role of the princely Indian rulers and Bankers in bringing the EIC into power out of their own greed. EIC received support of various Indian bankers, like the powerful Jagat Seths, known as Rothschild’s of the east, who played a major role in funding its campaigns. It was Indian money as much as military strength that led to the success of EIC and then the ascent of British in India.

The book is filled with rich details about the lead of events and several leading personalities of the time — Indian, British, and French — who spearheaded these changes. One of them was the EIC Governor Robert Clive. He was a hot-headed, troublesome kid who grew up to be a ruthless, aggressive and capable leader. He seized the opportunities given to him and took some great risks, which worked out in his favour to establish EIC control in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa and laid the foundations for British rule in India.

There was a major stroke of luck for Robert Clive in the Battle of Plassey, which helped change the fortunes for the British in India. Clive was fighting at a disadvantage at Plassey and was planning to retreat his army back to Calcutta. Suddenly, it started raining on the battlefield and his army covered their gun powder and fuses to prevent from getting wet, which his opponent, Siraj-ud Daula, failed to do. This costly mistake irrevocably changed the outcome of the battle, and helped the British assert themselves as a strong military force in India for the first time.[8]

As a result of his successful conquests in India Clive retired with a massive fortune and became one of the wealthiest men in Europe. However, despite his outwardly poise, he suffered from depression. He travelled across Europe on his return, but never recovered his peace of mind. In addition to that, he started to have stomach pains and gout. Clive committed suicide in 1774, at the age of 49.

Another important character who witnessed the entire spectrum of Mughal decline and rise of British was the Mughal ruler, Shah Alam. Shah Alam struggled his entire life against different foes and became the last Mughal emperor to briefly take control back of the Mughal Empire only to then again witness its fall.

Shah Alam’s story reads as if taken directly from some adventure novel, which ends tragically for the protagonist. He saw the plunder of Delhi by Nadir shah as a child, escaped an assassination plan by his Vizier (Imad ul-Malik), then travelled without any resources to the east and created an army to fight the EIC multiple times, then gained favours with the former Mughal foes, the Marathas, and came back to power in Delhi. He almost succeeded in regaining actual power, but lost his strongest general to a stroke of bad luck, and saw himself reduced to a puppet king in the hands of the Marathas first, then the British.

At his lowest, Alam was humiliated by his former protégé, Ghulam Qadir, who Alam had rescued as a boy after killing his father in battle. Ghulam Qadir blinded Alam and raped the women in his family to take revenge of the killing of his father or possibly being used as a catamite while growing up. Shah Alam was a poet and a man of generosity and determination, but sadly not enough to turn the tide of history which ended the Mughal rule.

Over the course of two hundred years, the East India Company took control of most of India. The final act of the ascent took place in the seven years from 1798 under Governor Richard Marquess Wellesley who went on to also defeat Napoleon Bonaparte. Though Wellesley later wrote that his conquests in India were far more difficult than defeating Napoleon.

The key reason for the failure of the princely states was their constant in-fighting and failure to form alliances with each other. Instead, it was the EIC that made deals with the local rulers and defeated all its adversaries who stood up to it, including the then corrupted Maratha factions and the valiant Tipu Sultan — who chose to die in battle as a last stand instead of surrendering. The EIC also made a deal with Shah Alam in 1803, who they kept on the Mughal throne as a puppet king to get a stamp of legitimacy to their rule.

The Company remained in power till the mutiny of 1857, post which, it’s power was transferred to the British Government under the Monarch and along with it was initiated the official British Raj.

The fighting armies incurred heavy losses in this long power struggle. But as the wealth started to move from India to England, it was the ordinary people who paid the heaviest price. First, at the hands of their local princely rulers, then the British. The sufferings resulted from the chaos generated by the instability through plundering, loot, murder, rape, exorbitant taxation and the mass starvations resulting from the many famines produced by unpredictable monsoons and a sheer lack of interest of the many despotic Indian and foreign rulers to manage the wellbeing of their people.

Bengal transformed from being one of the most magnificent places in the world to a famine stricken province with starvation in the late 1700s. Dalrymple reports that though the exact numbers are disputed, but, approximately 1.2 million, i.e. one in five Bengalis, starved to death in the famine of 1770. Such change in fortunes was true for most of India.

Perhaps the loot has continued, in a different form, with the ever scheming powerful elite of post-independence India. However, at least, the role of the corporation has changed in the past 420 years and they have also been part of considerable innovation driving progress of the modern world. Though it could be argued that, along with progress, they have created their share of new problems — both social and environmental.

The book ends with Dalrymple comparing problems of the time with some of the present day chaos, with India again facing threat of special interests in politics and many crony capitalists. It’s hard to evaluate the extent of truth in the modern day analogy offered by Dalrymple. Maybe, it is a topic to be left for posterity to find out. Though he is right that none of the present day corporates compare to the scale of power and malice achieved by the East India Company.

[1] Note — All the facts in the review are taken from the book itself. I have selectively reported some of the references where a more direct use has been made. [2] Epigraph, The Anarchy, [3] Page 390, [4] Page 388 and Introduction, Page xxx, [5] Page 3, [6] Page 48, [7] Page 52, [8] Page 127

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