The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company

Image of The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire
Release Date: 
September 10, 2019
Publisher/Imprint: 
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing
Pages: 
528
Reviewed by: 

"Dalrymple knows the scholarship well but he writes in a way that the reader goes on an enlightening and entertaining tour of the history of the British East India Company."

William Dalrymple, acclaimed author of several works on British India, now offers The Anarchy, "an attempt to answer the question of how a single business operation, based in one London office complex, managed to replace the mighty Mughal Empire as masters of the vast [and vastly wealthy] subcontinent."

This story proves, contradictory, more than (such as Robert Clive) but also no more than (also such as Robert Clive) popular understanding of the British East India Company [EIC]. Titling the book The Anarchy comes from "the endless bloodshed and chaos of the period" brought on by "the Company's many wars and its looting of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa."

The author begins with one of the first Indian words to enter the English language "loot," a credible one-word summary of British rule in India. "More Mughal artifacts," for example, exists in the Powis Castle in Wales, "room after room of imperial plunder," than anywhere on Earth, including India.

"It is always a mistake to read history backwards," Dalrymple writes. India had wealth only rivaled by China for thousands of years while Britain hardly existed as more than an island of barbarians. Rome's factories (trading outposts) in India represented the ultimate limits of its empire and its knowledge of the world.

The British East India Company started as one of many European trading houses in at Moorgate Fields, London in 1599; even its first meeting was written down. When the EIC began, Dalrymple writes, "England was a relatively impoverished, largely agricultural country." In 1608, the Mughal rulers of India controlled one-fifth of the world's population and had "a staggering 4 million men under arms."

London's entrepreneurs did have trading ventures but often unsuccessful ones, its merchants wanted to repeat "the recent astonishing success of the Dutch." For many years, however, they could hardly "prevail against better armed, better financed and more skillfully sailed fleets of Dutch East Indiamen."

The Company started as a venture in Caribbean piracy; inspired Sir Francis Drake's highly profitable circumnavigation of the world and plundering of the Spanish Empire. In 1603, the Company committed piracy against a Portuguese ship in its first venture.

The Dutch forced the EIC to abandon the spice islands of the Far East for elsewhere in Asia. By the 1630s, it "controlled small areas around its Indian settlements," agreeable to its founding charter instead. Control came down to the English and French, the Dutch and Portuguese falling by the wayside. At Versailles, the French equivalent of the EIC plotted "the overthrow of the British East India Company and [for France to become] its replacement." The world's first true world war became the consequence.

The rise of the EIC began as the Mughal Empire fell apart in civil war and religious strife that brought on bankruptcy. "Post-Mughal states offered large blocks of territory or land revenue, to different European Companies in return for military support." Europeans arrived to take advantage of the situation only to more often find death by disease. Armies for hire even included African slaves.

The great change happened in 1765. Dalrymple wrote that the EIC "with only thirty-five permanent employees in its head office" in "one small office" in London directed Robert Clive to lead the company's native Indian army in defeating the hereditary Mughal/Mongol ruler. This tiny company became the contractor for tax collection and thereby the de facto ruler of India.

According to the author, The EIC would become the richest entity on Earth with the possible exception of the Ming Empire of China. It had grown from a humble trading company to a fully-fledged imperial power." The EIC "eventually grew to control almost half of the world's trade and became the most powerful corporation in history."

"Before long the EIC was straddling the globe." Aside from controlling the unimaginable wealth of India, the corruption of the East India Company led to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution/United States of America. The EIC broke China in the opium wars.

In 1803, "this dangerously unregulated private company," by then was controlling 200,000 men (twice the size of the British army), "had swiftly subdued or directly seized an entire subcontinent." By then, the Company "was no longer simply one of a number of European trading companies;" it controlled the capital Delhi and "had become a kingmaker and an autonomous power in its own right."

Victorian Britain justified "the shady, brutal and mercantile way" this occurred as "not corporate looting" but as "the real driver of transformation in human affairs." EIC rule created legendary popular uprisings, social change, and brutal economic control in India, even as the local Nabobs continued to war on each other and the EIC. The native rulers also perpetuated widespread cruelty, depravity, and violence on a gigantic scale.

Historians, however, argue that the success of the EIC came out of more than chance, greed, and opportunity. They credit "the fracturing of Mughal India into tiny, competing states," the advantage given the Europeans by "Frederick the Great's military innovations," and "particularly the innovations in European governance, taxation and banking that allowed the Company to raise vast sums of ready money at a moment's notice," the same reasons for the ultimate European conquest of America.

The author argues, "the British East India Company probably invented corporate lobbying." Buying Parliament as a partner guaranteed the EIC "the ships and soldiers that were needed when the French and British East India Companies trained their guns on each other." In 1693, an investigation revealed the company's involvement in "the world's first corporate lobbying scandal."

The Company's "total trading capital was permanently lent to the British state" but the British government protected the EIC from foreign competition and invasion on a global scale. Robbed by its employees, the Company became millions of pounds in debt by 1773. "But the East India Company was really too big to fail," Dalrymple argues, and "was saved by one of history's first mega bailouts."

"The Corporation," Dalrymple calls "a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonization," as shown in the history of the EIC's conquest of India "the supreme act of corporate violence in world history." Corporate "influence certainly outweighs that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy."

"This book does not aim to provide a complete history of the East India Company." Dalrymple knows the scholarship well, but he also writes in a way that the reader goes on an enlightening and entertaining tour of the dramatic history of the British East India Company.

Research for The Anarchy "is based mainly on the Company's own voluminous miles of records" but also the National Archives of India and other sources, people and texts, that require pages to list. The book has many illustrations---and in color! It also has useful dramatis personae.