Chennai: “‘What honour is left to us?’ asked a Mughal official, ‘when we have to take orders from a handful of traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms?’” Those handful of traders the subject of the Mughal officials jibe, worked for the East India Company, the ruthless and most successful start-up in world history. In the words of Edmund Burke, it was ‘a state in the guise of a merchant’.
William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company is a well-written history giving a detailed account on the factors that led to the relentless rise of the company from 1599-1803. As Dalrymple points out, “India’s transition to colonialism took place under a for-profit organisation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors.”
Dalrymple’s perspective of the company’s rule and inevitable takeover by the British Empire is evident from the first line: “One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot.”
The English East India company, he writes, “executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.”
As Dalrymple himself points out that the book does not attempt to provide complete history of East India Company or economic analysis of its business operation, “Headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London. “The life of Shah Alam forms the heart of the narrative, “a man whose fate it was to witness the entire story of the Company’s fifty-year-long assault on India.”
The arrival of British in 1600’s looked very different at that time. European merchants and traders coming to India to trade were a usual sight to behold. In 1614, the Mughal emperor Jahangir received the ambassador of King James 1 who landed in the docks of Surat with the sole purpose of promoting trade with the newly chartered East India Company. The celebrated Mughal miniaturist Bichitr in one of his contemporary paintings shows how the Sultan prefers the company of Sufis over the Ottoman Sultan. James 1 on the other hand is placed at the bottom corner of the frame, below Jahangir’s feet. “The King shown in a three-quarter profile - an angle reserved in Mughal miniatures for the minor characters - with a look of vinegary sullenness on his face at his lowly place in the Mughal hierarchy.”
From the lowly place of Mughal hierarchy to becoming the benefactor of a blind king, Shah Alam, in his 70s, who sat on the wooden replica of peacock throne amidst the majestic but, ruined Redfort, “the sightless ruler of a largely illusory palace.”
From Babur to Aurangazeb the Mughal Empire flourished in Hindustan. But the internal faction, disorder and corruption and external threat was too big to hide from the eyes of the company. The anarchy which followed was roughly between 1739-1803 during which the British comfortably installed themselves in Indian politics as well as socio-economic and cultural history of India. It is during this time that they realised that the Indian merchants, bankers were their natural friends. Especially the Jagat Seths the rich Jain Marwari bankers aided the British, their credit line which the British used to their great advantage. And it is this which changed the entire course of the history. The death of Aurangazeb, the invasion of Nader Shah, the Marathas, the Rohillas and Ahmad Shah Durrani caused anarchy in the great Mughal Empire and slowly but steadily it fell apart and tumbled down like the Orwellian elephant.
The decisive victory for the British came in the form of Battle of Plassey and Battle of Buxar fought in the year 1757 and 1765 respectively. But even then they had no intention of ruling. They wanted to trade and make profit. The Carnatic wars with the French and seizure of Seringapatam sealed the deal that India can be colonised and that the British can form their government and rule over its people.
It was anarchy which threw open the gates for the British but it was the biggest firms of the period - the houses of Lala Kashmiri Mal, Ramchand-Gopalchand Shahu and Gopaldas-Manohardas - many of them based in Patna and Benares. All of them with their effective Hundi system helped the company mobilise and transfer huge sums of money and also helped them maintain a disciplined and well-trained army. Army which managed to defeat its arch enemies - the nawabs of Bengal and Avadh, Tipu Sultan’s Mysore Sultanate and the great Maratha Confederacy. Caught between anarchy and the world of greed was Emperor Shah Alam, who was tossed back and forth between the Marathas and the British. He was a king only in name and more of a puppet and a prisoner. As if he came into this world to witness the great fall Timurid dynasty from which he belonged. Even then the British were shrewd enough to realise his sovereign suzerainty. Indians still considered him to be the emperor of India. Coins were still minted in his name and trade was conducted on his name. Shah Alam legalised their existence. Hence the company brought him under their fold as their pensioner.
The penultimate assault scene in Shah Alam’s life is when Ghulam Qadir who once used to be emperor’s favourite eunuch sat on his chest and gouged his eyes out with his knife, raped and humiliated his entire family. As if in a morbid way nature was trying to tell him that you’ve seen enough beyond this it’s too unbearable to see anything else. The assault on the emperor and his family became symbolic assault of India which by now was nothing but a corpse. As the writer points out it started with Taimur the lame and ended with Shah Alam the blind.
What makes this book colourful, interesting and disturbingly entertaining read is that it is a history rendered by its characters more than the historian. He animates each of his characters, especially the Indian and European historians who have much to tell, write and show about their period. Ghulam Hussain Khan was the most famous and perceptive historian of 18th century India. Dalrymple having spent much of his time in Delhi himself gives interesting and humorous anecdotes of Delhi. East India Company remains one of the most ominous
warnings of how a corporation has “the potential to abuse power and the
interest of the shareholder can become that of the state.” Today it needs to be read because the imperialist nostalgia is taking hold in western countries. In India the Hindu nationalist are distorting history. Today, all over the world, constitutional norms are under threat. And the government is so in debt that it’s selling its public sectors to private entity just to raise some money. The defences of the country seem more fragile than ever. This book warns us against corporate excess, if we don’t rein it now we will be repeating the saga of East India Company. William Dalrymple was recently in Chennai at Starmark for the book