The Anarchy
By William Dalrymple 
Published by Bloomsbury at £30

Review by Kent Barker

Embarking on The Anarchy is not for the faint-hearted. To start with the tome runs to more than 500 pages, weighs in at a couple of kilos, spans 250 years of history and costs £30. It must also contain the highest body count of any story set before the 20th century’s world wars. Ostensibly, as its subtitle proclaims, it’s the story of “The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.” In reality it’s a detailed history of the end of India’s Murghal (aka Mogul) Empire – destroyed ultimately by the private armies of a vastly wealthy joint stock company run from a small building in the City of London: “The Company’s conquest of India,” writes Dalrymple, “almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.”

If you are worried you’ll be subjected to long transcripts of EIC board meetings or letters from Leadenhall Street to governors general in Bengal, don’t be. This is an extremely readable fast moving story of subjugation, battles and rampant capitalism set almost entirely on the sub-continent. Little, apart from the failed impeachment of Warren Hastings, takes place in Britain.

There are familiar names to help us along, Hastings himself, Robert Clive, Charles Cornwallis, and the Wellesley brothers – Richard as Governor General and Arthur (later Duke of Wellington) as military strategist who defeated the vast armies of Tipu and the Marathas. And there is a less familiar cast of assorted Shahs, Nawabs, Rohillas, Sultans and Marathas who battled among themselves for control of the huge wealth of 18th and 19th Century India.

It would be an unedifying tale even without the interference of the English. Vast armies had moved down from Turkey and Persia through Afghanistan to slaughter and subjugate the mixed peoples and religions of India. Of these the Murghals were, by the end of the 17th Century, the most successful and by far and away the most wealthy, with a GDP greater than the whole of Europe’s and equivalent to 25% of the world’s wealth at the time.

Little surprise then that Dutch, French and English traders should want a piece of the action. It’s just that the way the British in particular went about it was so utterly venal as to defy belief. There is not space here to distill the full horrific tale – but take just one instance, the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 (actually from 1769-1773). An estimated 10 million people died – a third of the population – in a region under EIC control. But did company officials attempt to ease the suffering? Not a bit of it, they continued to tax the population with extreme aggression. Dalrymple notes: “As Bengal lay racked by famine … in London Company shareholders relieved to see tax revenues maintained at normal levels, and aware that the share price was now higher than it had ever been … celebrated by voting themselves an unprecedented 12.5 per cent dividend.”

The blinded Shah Alam on his throne: ‘the sightless ruler of a largely illusory empire’

The Anarchy comprehensively details the dangers of a Private Stock Company, accountable only to shareholders, becoming a colonial power in its own right – allowed or even encouraged by successive British governments in the 17th and 18th centuries. But Dalrymple’s fire is also aimed at the huge army that the East India Company recruited – at times double the size of Britain’s – with up to 260,000 troops under arms. For military historians it may be a fascinating story of how Murghal and other invading forces quickly adopted the methods and expertise of the European military and, for a while, beat them at their own game. For humanitarians it’s a ghastly tale of hundreds of thousands slaughtered on the battlefields or butchered in the aftermath. The fate of the ‘last’ Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam, horrendously blinded while his family was raped and tortured by the vanquishing Rohillas, is not for the fainthearted.

Through the gore, Dalrymple’s purpose is to warn us of the modern dangers of unfettered capitalism. And of the perils of private military companies being bought or hired by corporations like Monsanto or the economic power of others like ExxonMobil or Wallmart even though: “they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company. Yet if history shows anything, it is that the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, the corporation will use all the resources in its power to resist.”

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