The Anarchy: Tracing the march of greed

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on November 01, 2019

Beginnings of Empire: A painting by Francis Hayman shows Robert Clive meeting Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey in 1757   -  WIKIMEDIA

William Dalrymple’s latest book The Anarchy is a detailed account of the rise of the East India Company and the dangers of unbridled corporate growth

It is the dawn of the 19th century, and in a desolate fort, on a frayed throne, sits Emperor Shah Alam. “Now seventy-five, the old, blind king still sat on the gilt replica of the Peacock Throne amid his ruined palace, the sightless ruler of a largely illusory kingdom.” Blinded, humiliated, used as a pawn, the Mughal king with no kingdom is one of the many compelling cast of characters who come to life in the pages of William Dalrymple’s latest book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire.

In clearly his most ambitious book to date, Dalrymple traces the story of the East India Company from its birth to the height of its glory. He shows how India, which was once among the greatest economic powers in the world, became a colonised State exploited for its natural resources, her people reduced to penury and degradation. And how, amazingly, this was done by a privately held conglomerate over a period of just 50-odd years.

“It was not the British government that began seizing large chunks of India in the mid-eighteenth century, but a dangerously unregulated private company... India’s transition to colonialism took place under a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors,” says Dalrymple in the introduction to the book.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire; William Dalrymple; Bloomsbury; Non-fiction; ₹699


The Anarchy starts off with the birth of the Company in 1599, when a group of investors came together to trade with the East. By the 1750s, this entity accounted for one million pounds out of Britain’s eight million pounds import trade. By 1802, it had captured most of the subcontinent’s richest areas and set itself up as a regent to the Mughal emperor, effectively gaining administrative and revenue control of most of the subcontinent. For a corporate entity to wield such power would be unthinkable ever again.

Dalrymple tells this story adroitly, delving into a huge number of sources, both British and Indian, and describing in detail the people who played key roles in the rise of the Company, as well as the many battles and invasions across the subcontinent during this tumultuous time. In his previous books such asThe Last Mughal and The White Mughals, the author had shown the ebb and flow of history and the men and women who are caught as flotsam in it. The Anarchy employs a bigger canvas, showing at close quarters the British, Mughal, Maratha, Afghan, Rohilla, Nawab personalities.

Take Robert Clive, for whom Dalrymple appears to reserve the greatest disdain. Clive had only contempt and near-hatred for Indians, describing them as “indolent, luxurious, ignorant and cowardly”. He was ambitious, power-hungry and incredibly avaricious. After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, he was one of the richest men in Europe and his machinations set the Company on the path to what it came to be.

As intriguing is the figure of Shah Alam, the Mughal emperor who was king only in name. Over the years, the British realised that no amount of administrative control guaranteed them the prestige that came with being allied with the Mughal dynasty. Even when no kingdom remained, the people still recognised the Mughal king as their ruler. Shah Alam was to become beholden to the British, the Marathas, the Nawabs of Awadh and Bengal, and is described as a “chessboard king”. The account of how Ghulam Qadir, the son of a defeated Rohilla ruler, turned on his benefactor, Alam, and blinded the king, ruthlessly decimated his family and raped its women, is perhaps the most harrowing in the book.

Dalrymple navigates the twists and turns of events, describing the battles in great detail. Seminal events such as the Battle of Plassey, the Battle of Buxar and the siege of Srirangapatna come alive as he talks of the generals and their strategies, the sepoys, the massive casualties, and the vicissitudes of fate that sometimes decided the final outcome.

Dalrymple quotes extensively from Mughal and British historians, their voices forming a fascinating second layer of narrative. One of these is Ghulam Hussain Khan, whom Dalrymple describes as the most perceptive historian of 18th-century India. He left a detailed and near-eyewitness account of events related to the Mughals and the Nawabs of Bengal in Seir Mutaqherin. Dalrymple mentions how much of the book is based on the Company’s own voluminous records that he accessed in London and New Delhi.

The Anarchy is a riveting read for those interested in the story of colonialism. It is not just about one corporate entity but also how globalisation began and events in distant Europe and America directly impacted the lives of ordinary Indians. For today’s world, it serves as a warning as to how unbridled corporate growth with the connivance of corrupt governments can bring a country to ruin.

Despite its physical heft and breadth of material, the book — sometimes exhausting in its details — is a surprisingly easy read. The detailed end notes and photographs give voice and face to the procession of people who march through its pages. Where Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness showed the gradual economic ruin of a wealthy nation, The Anarchy takes one of the key protagonists in this story and lays out a banquet of events and people that will captivate the lay but enthusiastic reader of Indian and British history.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

Published on October 31, 2019

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