William Dalrymple’s latest book charts the course of The East India Company

Author William Dalrymple’s new release is a result of six years of extensive research on East India Company and their ruthless pursuit of power.
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Updated on Sep 11, 2019 05:05 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Navneet Vyasan

Time and again, the infamous pursuits of the British Empire which cunningly drained Indian wealth under the mask of development and generosity, has been, for the lack of a better word, unmasked. But before the Empire became synonymous with tyranny, one fine English morning, on September 24, 1599, London’s wealthiest merchants assembled and came to the decision of pooling their money to form what would be world’s most first multi-national company — The East India Company. The exploits of this company form the core of William Dalrymple’s latest book.

Titled – The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, the book charts the initial pursuits of petty pirates along with explorers in search of India for spices, to the fall of a British joint-stock company that became an imperial power, in 50 years,with a private army twice the size of the British army.

The fall of Mughals

A certain painting, created after the Revolt of 1857, shows an old bearded man being escorted through the terrains before being exiled of Burma. He is surrounded by reverent soldiers in red uniform. This man, with pain and loss in his eyes, is Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor. Perhaps nothing explains the shift of power from the descendants of Genghis Khan to the much technologically advanced East India Company. But there was nothing he could do for the Empire was already in its final stages of disintegration. This painting would be definitive in the times to come.

No other facet helped the Company take over India, more than the collapse of the Mughals. This is what forms the background of Dalrymple’s book. “If you look at the breakdown of Mughal Empire between the last years of Aurangzeb and the following 20 years, 1700 to 1720, and read what’s written about those years, it says that the religious bigotry was a major contributor for the downfall. But the more modern view is that it was the overambitious expansion to the Deccan. When the Mughals tried to conquer both Bijapur and Golkonda in a single decade, it exhausted the Mughal Empire. Moreover, their mishandling of the Marathas was another reason. Many Marathas, initially, were fighting beside the Mughals,” he says.

Bahadur Shah Zafar after being captured by East India Company
Bahadur Shah Zafar after being captured by East India Company

Attempts to mask atrocities

An important aspect that the author tries to put forth is the distinction between the Company and the Empire. “It wasn’t really taught in your textbooks because it was a distinction which British nationalist history disguised in the 19th century. The Victorians were embarrassed about this history. They wanted to pretend and put out to the world that the British were in India on a civilising mission. That this was a help by the generous British government to the Indians. But the fact remains that the Company was founded by a bunch of ex-pirates,” says the author about the significance of being able to distinguish between the two.

‘A rogue multinational,’ as Dalrymple calls it, with its unambiguous intent, never stopped pursuing what it landed on the Indian shores for, and inadvertently called the Victorians’ bluff in the history books. “The Company never pretended like the Victorians. They made it very clear that they were here for personal profits and gains. These guys were very clear about their aims. The first East Indian Company ship that sailed for India was a pirate ship. It was called the Scourge of Malice which was then renamed to Red Dragon,” he laughs.

The Clive conundrum

How should history remember a masterful tactician, who was also a ruthless commander? In the early 1730s, a protection racket, comprising of British teenagers, terrorised some English neighbourhoods. This gang gave solace to a young boy who went by the name of Robert Clive. A regular troublemaker in his childhood, Clive would go on to lead the Company to roaring military success. “There’s no black and white here. There are a lot of grey areas. When it comes to Clive, he was a bad man but extremely skilled strategist,” says the author.

“I had great fun writing about Clive because he is such an unpleasant character,” he says, adding, “He had this extraordinary ability to, time and again, call it right in his life. And he’d take terrific risks which would pay off. He marches into Siraj ud-Daulah’s camp of 15,000 in the early morning mist with 500 men. Now, this is a crazy thing to do. It could have easily ended in a total disaster. And yet, he gauged it right. He’s one of those terrible villains who kept on succeeding. He was very effective. He’s impolite, unpleasant, mentally unstable, but still, a brilliant strategist who is capable of guessing a man’s weaknesses and strengths. Moreover, he had no formal military training, he was an accountant for God’s sake.”

Robert Clive, Commander-in-Chief of British India
Robert Clive, Commander-in-Chief of British India

For one thing, literature kept blossoming during the Mughal Empire. But the invaders would have none of the chivalry that the Mughals passed down for generations, which finally came back to haunt them in the form of Robert Clive. “I hadn’t realised how much, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s public persona of this poet was really invented by his grandfather. It was Shah Alam II, who really created the absence of real political power,” he adds.

Clive meeting Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey. The battle was fought on the banks of River Hooghly
Clive meeting Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey. The battle was fought on the banks of River Hooghly

Emperor Shah Alam II was, however, poles opposite. “Shah Alam was a really good man, an honourable man. He, one day, has a massive victory outside the gates of Patna but declines to cut up and destroy the retreating army of the Company. He thinks it is ungentlemanly to let these fleeing soldiers to be cut down by his army. And as a result of that, a month later, he’s defeated. Clive did not have any of that kindness or weakness,” says Dalrymple.

The Hastings surprise

Dalrymple admits that, while researching, Warren Hastings’ approach towards India surprised him. “Firstly, Hastings had an immaculate handwriting. That made me read more about what he’d written,” he says, adding, “He, surprisingly, was a likeable character. I hadn’t been prepared for that at all. He speaks really good Persian, Bengali and Hindustani. He was someone who genuinely liked India,” he says.

The Indian participation

What baffled the historian while researching for the book, was the involvement of Indian banking classes. The very fact that the Company was able to pay off the debts forced them to tilt towards the alien organisation than their Indian counterparts. “I had presumed that this was just going to be a military story about European military technology peaking old fashioned Mughal fighting techniques. But that was not the only reason why the company prevailed. The reason that the Company succeeded was because of the mixture of very astute diplomacy and the fact that some major Indian banking houses had an understanding with the Company. And at the end of the day, they preferred lending money to them and couldn’t care where the Company plundered, looted or pillaged as they were able to pay off the debts, with interest. That’s why many private banks preferred to loan them money than, say, the Marathas,” he says.

That said, the military prowess of the Company was ultimately matched by Indian kingdoms. They learnt from the invaders and developed themselves to commensurate their military capabilities to that of the Company. “Military upper hand was, of course, the reason for Robert Clive’s success in the 1750s. But then, the Indian princes caught up technologically by the 1780s. Tipu Sultan and the Marathas both had specialised armies which equalled the Company’s. But the Company had the support of the banking class,” he says.

A result of six years of research

It was a piece which Dalrymple wrote for a newspaper that had all the major ideas for the book. “I’ve never taken this long to write a book. I wrote in the end of that piece, that the book will be out in 2016. And actually, it has taken three years longer than that. The process has kind of bankrupted me but I am very pleased with the final outcome,” he says.

“The White Mughals took me five years to write but this one took six. It is my first sort of big sweep, because all those other books, (three books that involved East India Company- White Mughals, Return of a King and The Last Mughal) were disguised in some way. The first one was about Hyderabad, the second is set in Afghanistan and the last, in Delhi,” he adds.

The expertise he gained writing them proved useful here. “Sometimes, in instances of these books, it is much easier to keep control of your characters because you have got only a small number of participants. This book, however, is different. It covers the whole subcontinent. The action starts in 1599, but the main focus is the whole 60 years. 1750-1805 to be precise. And that’s why you can’t really get into a battle without knowing it really well. There were the Marathas, Tipu Sultan, Nadir Shah and then there was the declining Mughal Empire. Of course, I have covered all that in separate books before, but the fact is you need to know all that before you put pen to paper. It has taken forever, but I am very pleased with it,” concludes the author whose book has also been released under the title Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, worldwide.

There were several others. In the story of the Mughals, you always have two different poles. One tilts towards Sharia orthodoxy and the other, towards intolerance. There was definitely a need to appease the Hindu allies and neighbours so as to create a working state. Each Emperor takes a slightly different version of that. But you find before Zafar and after him, there were several others who have embraced Hindu customs and its pluralism as much as Zafar does. So was Mohammed Shah Rangila (Muhammad Shah), he was the first to celebrate the big Hindu festival in the fort. His Fort celebrated Dussehra and Diwali. So, it is something that comes and goes. Alamgir the second, who came after Mohammed Shah Rangila, was very orthodox.

Britain today

The author says that today, there are still some who feel the Empire’s atrocities do not count for much apologies. “I think there are different attitudes. There are some people in UK who are part of the right wing revival groups. They think that Britain, probably has gone too far when it comes to apologising for the Empire. That is not the view I take,” he says, adding, “As any historian, I think, you should try and understand everything and bring out the greys. What surprised me was the degree which Indian collaboration helped the Company. Particularly the financial and the Bengali middle classes.”

Dalrymple’s contemporaries

Dalrymple says that his success is a result of “researching with the diligence and the accuracy of a scholar, and writing it up with the flair and language of a good novelist”.

“I’m not doing anything different than what my contemporaries are. There is an unusual happening in India that all serious historians in India pretended to be academics. There’s been this divide between serious history and populist history. I have never believed in this divide. It is possible to incorporate both. It is important to stick to the facts. Today, there are these new generations of scholars coming up, like Manu Pillai, which I am very pleased to see. His work is a delight. There’s also Parvati Sharma who did the biography of Jahangir,” he says.

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