A well-armed corporation

‘William Dalrymple dismantles the inadequacies of prep school history: Britain was a relatively poor, agricultural nation in 1599, while much of India was populous and rich’

Books
“Portrait of an East India Company Official”, probably William Fullerton, c.1760, by Dip Chand

A measure of advancing years is the realisation that you were taught that “Clive of India” (as he is no longer called) was a star figure in our colonial history, a brilliant military strategist who brought trade, prosperity and democracy to a previously primitive continent. Not only is this nonsense, but even referring to the “British conquest of India” is only giving half the story. British rule in south Asia stems from a unique act of colonisation—one effected by a company rather than a country.

A writer of William Dalrymple’s skill easily dismantles the inadequacies and fantasies of prep school history. Britain was a relatively poor, agricultural nation when the East India Company was founded in 1599, while much of India was populous and rich.

In the 1730s the population of Delhi was more than double the combined figure for London and Paris, and it was the most prosperous and magnificent city between Ottoman Istanbul and imperial Tokyo. The British may ultimately have left behind notions of democracy and the rule of law, but the treasure always flowed westwards.

The Company was established by a group of City of London investors with the limited ambition to import spices from India. Its rapid rise came about largely by chance, when it was on hand to fill the power vacuum created by the catastrophically rapid decline of the Mughals during the 18th century.

In 1739, the ambitious Persian adventurer Nadir Shah successfully pitched his cavalry of 150,000 against the combined Mughal army, which was 10 times larger. Shah returned to Persia with the treasure the Mughals had accumulated in 200 years of conquest, and the rest of the empire, which had once stretched from Kabul to Madras,  quickly fell apart, creating the “Anarchy” referred to in Dalrymple’s title.

The man now most closely associated with this conquest was Robert Clive, a violent Shropshire-born chancer who was deemed too disreputable by his father to enter either the church or the law.

With his showy contempt for India and Indians, he was perfectly suited to leading privatised imperial plunder, which made him the richest self-made man in Europe. He also masterminded stunning military victories, culminating in the conquest of Bengal in 1757.

By the early 19th century, the Company was easily the most powerful corporation in history. It employed more than a quarter of a million men, mostly soldiers, ruled, directly or indirectly, over 200 million people, and controlled almost half of global trade. Edmund Burke called it “a state in the guise of a merchant”. Facebook and Google may seem to us alarmingly large and powerful, but they do not yet operate warships and standing armies. Like the Company at its height in the mid-18th century, they seem invincible, while resting on shaky foundations. Another modern parallel: famine in Bengal and resulting write-downs in land values left it with a crippling tax bill. But it was deemed too big to fail, so the government bailed it out in exchange for tight regulation.

Beautifully written and lavishly illustrated, the book draws on troves of new source material uncovered by Dalrymple. Putting the executions, torture, and general brutality of corporate misrule into context is tricky. As he  concedes, India was never a tranquil paradise. The book vividly depicts the brutality and excesses of the Mughal rulers, but skimps on the Company’s inner workings, and the machinations of figures such as Warren Hastings and Lord North. The reader is left wondering why the Company was so dazzlingly successful at subduing and plundering India, and how it functioned as a business.

The awful banality of Clive’s death in 1774, aged 49, highlights the contradiction. Humiliated by parliamentary investigations, abused as “Lord Vulture” by his many enemies, and weakened by crippling stomach pains and gout, Clive severed his jugular vein with a paper knife in his house in Berkeley Square. There was no suicide note, but Samuel Johnson was not shy of ascribing a motive. Clive, he wrote, “had acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat.” Strangely, that was one of the most generous things any contemporary ever had to say of him.

 

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company
By William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury, 576pp, £30