Murtaza 's Reviews > The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

The Anarchy by William Dalrymple
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
13716226
's review

really liked it

The question of how a relatively small group of Englishmen was able to subjugate the entire sprawling nation of India is a source of lasting disquiet. Like all of William Dalrymple's books, this history of the East India Company inspires both awe and melancholy. The EIC arrived in India at a moment in which the power of the Mughal Empire had already been shattered. Aurangzeb had mismanaged his realms, and Maratha and Afghan forces were rising on its peripheries. The death blow to Mughal power however had been dealt by the Safavid Persian invader Nader Shah, who had sacked the great city of Delhi and carried its riches back to Iran. "The Anarchy" of the title refers to the state of India at the time of the EIC's arrival and thereafter: one in which a mighty empire had fragmented into countless warring polities. A small group of energetic, ambitious and well-funded outsiders can wreak havoc in such a situation. And wreak havoc they did.

The EIC started off by asking for commercial rights. They soon graduated to hiring increasingly powerful mercenary armies and using them to impose their will on local Indian rulers amid The Anarchy. They played off rivals against one another and did not hesitate to pick and choose their preferred candidates and engineer their rise. The EIC followed Tacitus' dictum of picking the native rulers who would be most useful for enslaving the population rather than ruling directly. They won control of taxation rights and used them to press for the most devastatingly extractive terms possible, with no interest in long-term sustainability or the wellbeing of the land and people. Rival merchants were bullied and, if necessary, beaten into doing business on the EIC's gallingly unfair terms. They created a mechanism for the ruthless, methodical plunder of India, engineering a massive extraction of wealth such as the world has seldom seen. It was corporate brigandage of a type that still looks disturbingly familiar today, even without the mercenary armies.

It was interesting to note that the Indians actually figured out the British game quite quickly. Local rulers like the Maratha statesman Nana Phadnavis and Tipu Sultan of Mysore grasped that the British had designs to conquer and effectively enslave all of India by playing local rivals off against each other. Religious boundaries were more fluid than today and Hindu and Muslim rulers frequently allied with one another and kept diverse courts. With the help of the French, they also developed modern military commands that were able to match the British in time. There were several military campaigns that nearly succeeded in ejecting the EIC from the country. Agonizingly small turns of fate prevented them from reaching success, thus was India doomed to two centuries more of grinding immiseration.

An important lesson of the book is that sectarianism was less of a force in India's history than portrayed today. It was the Hindu Marathas who reinstalled the Mughal Shah Alam in Delhi (even though in the end his dynasty wound up a mere puppet of the British until the 1857 War of Independence). Tipu Sultan, though proudly Muslim, also seemed to have been deeply influenced by many Hindu beliefs and practices. This is totally normal given that Islam was practiced in a Hindu environment for over a millennia in India. Tipu patronized Brahmin institutions and worked actively to win the sympathy of his Hindu subjects. The undercurrent of the book is a rebuttal to the sectarian historiography of Hindu nationalists currently in vogue in India, as well as Islamists who idealize a supposedly purified subcontinental vision of religion.

The history of India as a whole is a heartbreaking one. Even granting that, the rule of the EIC is a particularly grim episode. The British conquered India, but, unlike the Persians, Turks and Arabs, they refused to dissolve themselves in the great ocean of Indian civilization. They just extracted and extracted. The EIC operated with the singleminded, sociopathic purpose that only an inhuman social technology like the corporation could muster. Dalrymple describes in great detail how the Bengal was totally despoiled and tell into famine not long after the British took power. I would have appreciated more analysis of the long-term financial cost of this enterprise to India, but quite a vivid picture is still painted here from contemporary reports of the period. The entire country of India was gradually stripped of its wealth, which was shipped back to a distant European island. Even coins themselves quickly became hard to find in India. Any ruler of nobility found themselves quickly at the risk of violence. A new class of financiers allied to the British began to rise during the EIC's rule, replacing the famous Jagat Seth bankers. This new class would end up appreciating the colonial period. Many new local rulers were simply criminals: predators and opportunists unleashed by the collapse of order.

British liberal opinion was quite harsh on the EIC's excesses and its rapacity was known as far away as America. Edmund Burke gave a famous speech denouncing the company and American revolutionaries used it as a bogeyman to goad their countrymen into revolt. The EIC hardly bothered to hide who they were. At one point the famous British General Arthur Wellesley literally held a toast to "the corpse of India", after which one of the chapters of this book is titled. Although a few EIC officials wound up being lovers of India, many of the rank-and-file were brutal and incurious men who felt nothing about humiliating, bludgeoning and robbing Indians of every class. Sadly the British yoke was not thrown off India sooner. We are still living with the painful results of their extractive and divisive rule.
44 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Anarchy.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

October 6, 2019 – Started Reading
October 6, 2019 – Shelved
October 6, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Muhammad (new) - added it

Muhammad Atif bro how do u read all of this stuff so fast ?


Murtaza Muhammad wrote: "bro how do u read all of this stuff so fast ?"

The more you read the faster you get I find.


back to top