Friday July 01, 2022

The anarchy

November 21, 2019

William Dalrymple writes in his latest book, ‘The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company’, about the rise of the most successful transnational corporate predator – the East India Company (EIC).

To emphasise this point he begins with the simple fact that the English word ‘loot’ was borrowed from Indian languages. Something held up by the simple fact that between 1700 and 1950, India's share of the global economy dropped from 24.4 percent to 4.2 percent.

As a reader of history I’ve often thought about how I hard it was to make sense of the 18th century. How did one understand what was happening from the multitude of characters that existed in that era? Our history books often portray the conquest of India by the British as something inevitable. One where the locals were technologically outmatched by the British and where Indian rulers were lost in indulgences.

These commonly-held beliefs are all addressed by Dalrymple as he connects together all the stories of that era into one single story. In this retelling of the story, the key moments are slightly different. The scale of the loot taken in the sacking of Delhi by Nader Shah Zafar gets special mention over the traditional focus on the death toll.

The famous battle of Plassey does not decide the EIC’s rise as much as the later Battle of Buxar. The military superiority of the EIC would last just over a decade as regional powers adapted as their defeat in the first Battle of Mysore would show.

All of these fascinating insights are overshadowed by the series of personal stories Dalrymple breathes life into with new research. He writes about tragic characters, whose highs and lows put any work of fiction to shame, of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam, the brilliant Tipu Sultan whose lack of tact would cost him his life and the mighty Marathas whose inability to unite would cost them everything.

What you are left with is an entertaining book that covers both the history of the 18th century and also reminds us that the fall of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the British Raj were by no means a sure thing.

And the EIC: possibly the greatest invention of the British Empire and one responsible for the largest acts of corporate violence in history.

The question the author leaves us with is this: how do we protect ourselves from the unbridled power of corporations?

The writer is the founder of the website:

Twitter: @qissakhwani