William Dalrymple discusses his new book on the rise of the East India Company ♦
Originally published in Mumbai Mirror.
“At the dawn of the nineteenth century all seemed dark; the stars were paling, and it was not by any means plain what the day was likely to be,” wrote orientalist historian HG Keene in The Great Anarchy; or, Darkness before Dawn. Published at the dawn of the twentieth century and the twilight of the Victorian era, the book—along with the work of Keene’s English contemporaries and Indian counterparts—helped crystallise an image of a fractured subcontinent, imploding in the vacuum created by weak successors to Aurangzeb’s overextended empire.
Afghans invaded from the north, Marathas rose to power from the west, and European traders and mercenaries edged in with their own disruptions. As the preface to Keene’s book noted, “owing to the European officers in the Native States the rising floods and streams of anarchy were diverted in directions where they would not otherwise have flowed.”
Into this scenario, the British eventually brought light and order, establishing a “golden calm” in the glow of eternal sunrise, following the second Anglo-Maratha War. It was only much later that historians such as CA Bayly and Satish Chandra complicated the idea of an unspeakably dark time of troubles—showing that as power drained from the Mughal court through the eighteenth century, other areas flourished, including competing regional forces, and rising social classes, particularly merchant communities, setting many of the foundations for a more politically interconnected subcontinent.
The most recent traveller to this century of churn is Scottish historian, writer and photographer William Dalrymple. “The idea of this period of upheaval, it’s gone heavily out of fashion,” Dalrymple told me over the phone, on the morning of his “big party” for the London release of his fifteenth book, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire (the UK edition is subtitled more bluntly, “The Relentless Rise of the East India Company”).
“The proposition of this book,” he continued, “is that the excellent work that has been done has slightly overruled the fact that there was an anarchy too.” He puts it more forcefully in his book: “Given the reality of the Anarchy is something recorded not just by a few disconsolate Mughal gentlemen… but by every single traveler in the period, I believe that the process of revisionism may have gone a little too far.” The phrase anarchy, Dalrymple said, “comes up not only in English and French, but in Persian, too”; the word fitan or fitnon implying a time of civil war, sedition and frequent calamities.
“I like to be able to be very firmly in control of my little castle. But I’ve broken all my own rules with this book.”
“The Anarchy has traditionally been used [to describe] the mess left by the twin onslaughts of the Durrani Afghans and the Marathas,” Dalrymple said, adding that he extended the idea to include “the anarchy created by the Company,” a link suggested in the book’s title. Dalrymple realised that “after writing three books that concern the East India Company and this crucial period between the decline of the Mughals and the establishment of the Raj, I hadn’t actually written history about the East India Company as an institution.” This meant dealing with a much longer period than in his White Mughals or The Last Mughal—“micro-histories” in which events take place in narrower windows, framed by a great deal of context.
“I don’t ever want to open myself up to the situation where there’s someone who knows something better than me,” Dalrymple said. “I like to be able to be very firmly in control of my little castle. But I’ve broken all my own rules with this book.” And indeed, The Anarchy thoroughly explores the various ways in which East India Company agents stoked disorder—for example while competing with the French for military influence in the Carnatic; or conspiring to enthrone, depose, then restore Mir Jafar as the Nawab of Bengal over the course of less than a decade.
“Today when we have Trump sitting in the White House and we have Tillerson only recently departed from his position as Secretary of State, that story [of the EIC] seems to be more relevant than ever.”
Dalrymple also describes how, in its early days, the East India Company was a fairly anarchic institution, shaped by plundering fortune-hunters like Robert Clive who had to be alternately deployed and reined in. “The East India Company was the first great global multinational,” Dalrymple said, “and the corporate shenanigans that it got up to, from bribery of legislators to using its shareholders inside Parliament to maintain its monopoly, and the way that it took on states has its echoes in the way that say Mossadegh was brought down by a coup engineered at the behest of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1953, or the Socialist government in Guatemala was toppled by the CIA following intervention by United Fruit… Or the way ExxonMobil guided the policies of the Bush government in Iraq. Today when we have Trump sitting in the White House and we have Tillerson only recently departed from his position as Secretary of State, that story seems to be more relevant than ever.”
The Anarchy isn’t however a straight-on portrait of the Company Bahadur, nor even an investigative audit. (For a dryer but more data-rich picture of the EIC’s corporate pillaging, see Nick Robins’ The Corporation, which Dalrymple says had a “huge influence” on him. Robins also took Dalrymple out to see the site of the EIC headquarters in London.) Instead, The Anarchy features an ensemble cast, its action alternating between the Company’s Presidencies, the Mughal court-in-exile of Shah Alam II, and various regional kingdoms caught up in a giddy game of thrones.
The life of Shah Alam—spanning Nadir Shah’s 1739 sacking of still-prosperous Delhi to the Company’s final conquest of the city in 1803—does form, as Dalrymple stressed, “a spine” for the book. But it’s a weak spine, with the wandering emperor often watching the action from the sidelines, waiting to see which way the wind is blowing. (Among its new or rare primary sources, The Anarchy notably contains material from a previously unused life of Shah Alam, translated by Dalrymple’s long-time collaborator for Persian documents, Bruce Wannell. There are also several less commonly used French accounts, including the distinctive voice of the Comte de Modave, once a neighbor of Voltaire.)
“It’s always been my aim to research as thoroughly or more thoroughly than any of my historian rivals…”
Leading up to the Battle of Plassey in 1757, The Anarchy then takes in the granting of the Diwani (when the EIC won tax rights over Bengal); the 1770 Bengal famine; shifting dynamics between Mughals, Marathas, Rohillas, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Nawab of Awadh; successive Governor-Generals; the rise and fall of Tipu Sultan; and the Anglo-Maratha Wars. If at times the narrative struggles to contain it all, zooming from intimate anecdotes to analyses of global economic flows, this perhaps only serves to heighten the sense of upheaval. Speaking volumes about the nature of the Company’s unprecedented corporate power, The Anarchy often reads more like a military history than an economic one, crescendoing in pacey, detailed battlefield scenes written with Dalrymple’s signature flair. (It’s surprising that none of Dalrymple’s books have been cinematized yet; they are constantly being optioned, he told me, but nothing’s stuck.)
“It’s always been my aim to research as thoroughly or more thoroughly than any of my historian rivals, but then be able to write a book that reads… as fluently and beautifully as the prose of a fine novelist,” Dalrymple told me. While The Anarchy doesn’t necessarily contain major revelations about the East India Company or the circumstances of its rise, it does bring together challengingly diverse sources—it’s peppered with quotes from primary texts—and viewpoints, in the writer’s engaging style, which has won Dalrymple many admirers and a few critics.
“We do eat the boys, and we make cheese from the milk of the girls.”
In India, Dalrymple has been subject to both adulation and caricature, and it can be difficult to separate his work from his—some would say outsize—reputation. Not only is he the most visible ringmaster of the “greatest literary show on earth” at Jaipur, but he’s also been a central figure in a number of literary disagreements over the years, which range from scathingly polite letters of rebuttal in the New York Review of Books, to dick-swinging spats and drinking contest challenges in the pages of Open.
Dalrymple seems to takes it all in his stride, telling me that his writing is informed, among other things, by his Scottish heritage, which encompasses the experience of both coloniser and colonised, and his commitment to living in Delhi (famously, on a farm with goats—“we do eat the boys, and we make cheese from the milk of the girls”). This makes him “sensitive to the debates” but confident in his position of insider-outsider. “I don’t think I’ve ever been told to my face that I have no right to write Indian history,” he said.
“I’m not suggesting that India is an anarchy now.”
In some ways, the next project he is contemplating—and the last of his five-book contract with Bloomsbury—may have even higher stakes. “There will be some sort of big sweeping cultural or artistic history of India—art history rather than political history,” Dalrymple said, citing Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance as an inspiration. What constitutes Indian culture, past and present, is possibly as tense a battleground today as any described in The Anarchy. And Dalrymple often extracts lessons of contemporary relevance from the past—in The Anarchy, for example, he hammers home the perils of corporate power in an epilogue. I asked him if there were also lessons to be taken from the 18th century about governance and stability in India today.
“Not so much actually, no,” he laughed. “I’m not suggesting that India is an anarchy now. Although we are in a period of, shall we say, fast political change?” We leave it to the historians of the next century to gauge the darkness of our times.