Book Review: The Anarchy- The Relentless Rise Of The East India Company

Author: William Dalrymple

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Another Dalrymple book right on time when the world is debating the dangers of unchecked corporations straddling nations, influencing public policies far and wide. The Anarchy is Dalrymple’s attempt at reminding the world about the perils of an unregulated joint-stock company that goes on to unleash humanity’s worst corporate plunder, deindustrialization, and systematic subjugation of the subcontinent in its entirety. Dalrymple has a knack for turning insipid historical events into a nail-biting page-turner. Both The White Mughals and the Return of a King testify to his art of immersive story-telling, making him the only commercial non-fiction writer based in India.

The Anarchy set up in the backdrop of the demise of the last Great Mughal; Aurangzeb Alamgir, who stretched the Mughal realm to its maximum and, in doing so, bequeaths a bankrupt empire rife with rebellion to his successors. 

East India Company, set up in 1600 and headquartered in a small office in London, was tasked with securing the lucrative spice trade with Indonesia. The Dutch had long monopolized the spice trade, and EIC, having failed to make inroads, quickly turned to Mughal India, hoping to trade cotton, silk, and indigo.

Dalrymple draws from a treasure trove of local writings from the post-Mughal era, making this book teem with details authors otherwise ignore. The author transports you to the dilapidated imperial capital of Shahjahanabad, Delhi. Once the gold standard of the Persianate culture, Delhi and its ill-fated Emperor Shah Alam II witnessed armies of Nader Shah, Ahmed Shah Durrani, Marathas, and Rohilla Afghans of Doab sack the city while truculent raiding parties of Sikhs and Jats prey on its periphery. His riveting narrative keeps you on the hook as you witness the tragic tale of successive Indian states of Bengal, Avadh, Mysore, and the Maratha confederacy crumble like a house of cards before the might of the Company war machine. Parallelly, the Company in Calcutta and Madras oversees rapid militarization.

By the late 18th century, the Company could mobilize over 200,000 men (twice the size of the contemporary British Army) with an endless supply of muskets and artillery, all thanks to its impeccable relations with the local credit lending families Jagat Seths and Oswals. Perpetual supply of credit, disciplined and the best-paid legions of Sepoys, ruthless taxation of India’s most prosperous province of Bengal, and Machiavellian dealings with local powers, transforms it into an absurdly powerful corporate-military entity. The Company and its callous undertakings were driven by the only motive of maximizing returns for investors and its policies influenced by its fluctuating share price at the London Stock Exchange.

At any given time, as many as a quarter of British MPs were investors in the Company. Bailouts from the British Crown would often rescue the Company from the brink of collapse as it vigorously participated in a series of unnecessary wars, probably the first recorded instance of an extensive military-industrial complex in action.

Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II reduced to Company’s vassal.

If you were to forget the names of the principal powers in the book, you would probably see an eerie similarity with the modern-day Middle East, where foreign powers now have been meddling for nearly a century. Dalrymple gives you a peek into the bitter rivalry of Britain and France being played in the war-theatres across the plains of Hindustan, the swamps of Bengal, and the rugged hills of Deccan. Scattered and disjointed, the French are defeated and finally dislodged by the Company.

Mysore’s Tipu Sultan was the only Indian sovereign to have defeated the Company in multiple campaigns until he was subdued and killed in the 4thAnglo-Mysore War (1799). A series of letters between the Company officials details how a blitzkrieg of propaganda was unleashed to smear Tipu as a ruthless Islamist on the warpath of Jihad against his neighbours; uncannily similar to how the American media depicts Muslim powers not beholden to the neo-colonial American Empire today. The Company’s Chinese tea was being sent to the American colonies, the patriots afraid that the Parliament would soon unleash the Company on them, dumped the Company tea in the waters of the Boston harbour ( Boston Tea Party, 1773), triggering the American Revolution. Determined to make up for the losses in North America, the British Crown incentivized the Company’s wars to subdue the Indian states.

In many ways, the book lends you a picture of the world not far removed from the times we live. Dalrymple shows how intertwined the world was in the 18th century, where the Company’s meteoric rise let loose domino effect, permanently altering the future of the subcontinent and North America.

Final thoughts; The Anarchy is a must-read for those who want to see the modern world from the lens of the past. The years of the Great Anarchy in India are even more relevant today, where an unbridled state-corporate nexus is engendering an Orwellian future.

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