Corporation with a licence to kill

Trevor Grundy on a compelling new book that shines an unflattering light on the sinister purpose and practices of the East India Company

So many words of Indian origin have entered the English language and the Hindustani word for plunder, loot, is one of the best known.Indeed, perhaps a more appropriate title for William Dalrymple’s latest book, The Anarchy –subtitled The Relentless Rise of the East India Company –would have been Loot, since explaining how and why that word became commonplace is one of the author’s objectives.

And he does the job well in this follow-up to The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006). The Anarchy is a book that should be read by students looking for a new hate figure now that Cecil Rhodes, or at least his statue, has been brought to his knees; for the activities of Rhodes and his royal-sponsored British South Africa Company fade into insignificance compared with those of the regally backed East India Company.

Goodbye, Cecil Rhodes of Africa. Hello, Robert Clive of India.

What a piece of work is here – a systematic, beautifully written, well-researched and sourced volume, encyclopaedic in scope and rich in anecdotes, which rips to pieces centuries-old lies hammered into schoolchildren: that millions of impoverished Indian ‘natives’ were given a chance to raise themselves from the dust by fair-minded British soldiers and their aristocratic overlords, who were on a civilising mission.

But the truth lies elsewhere and, thanks to Dalrymple, we have the full story about how a sub-continent was wrecked by a motley group of pirates and adventurers, an empire within an empire with a license to kill.

We meet them first in 1601, when a ship named The Red Dragon slipped anchor at Woolwich at the start of a two-month voyage, ostensibly to Indonesia, to exploit the new royal charter granted it by Queen Elizabeth I. However, The Red Dragon’s compass was set not for Indonesia but for India.

Isolated from mainland Europe, partly because of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and aware that Britain could not match the naval might of Holland, Portugal and Spain, the directors of the East India Company – founded in 1600 to trade in the Indian Ocean region – were forced to scour the globe for markets.And from the outset, the EIC pirates were stunned by the wealth and splendour of the mighty Mughal Empire.

Authorised by its founding charter to ‘wage war’, by the 1630s the East India Company controlled small areas around its Indian settlements.But 1765 was the moment it ceased to be anything even distantly resembling a conventional trading corporation dealing in silks and spices which so delighted the rich back home in England.

Having acquired the right to tax 20 million people, the company was able to generate annual revenues in excess of £3 million (around £315 million today).

Writes Dalrymple: ‘Within a few months, 250 company clerks backed by the military force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers had become the effective rulers of the richest Mughal provinces. An international corporation was in the process of transforming itself into an aggressive colonial power.’

By 1803, when its private army had grown to 200,000 men,‘it had swiftly subdued or directly seized an entire sub-continent. Astonishingly, this took less than half a century. The first serious territorial conquests began in Bengal in 1756; forty-seven years later, the Company’s reach extended as far north as the Mughal capital of Delhi and almost all of India south of that city was then effectively ruled from a boardroom in the city of London.’

Dalrymple goes on: ‘We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that began seizing great chunks of India in the mid-18th century but a dangerously un-regulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by a violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator – Clive.’

The reason for the EIC’s stunning success will be hotly debated for years to come, though Dalrymple suggests the most crucial factor of all was the support the company enjoyed from British Parliamentarians.

‘The relationship between them grew steadily more symbiotic throughout the eighteenth century until eventually it turned into something we might today call a public-private partnership. Returned nabobs like Clive used their wealth to buy both MPs and parliamentary seats – the famous Rotten Boroughs. In turn, Parliament backed the Company with state power.’

A good proportion of the loot of Bengal went directly into Clive’s pocket and he returned to Britain with a personal fortune then valued at £234,000, making him the richest self-made man in Europe.

The author reminds us that after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which led to the eventual colonisation of the entire country, the contents of the Bengal treasury were loaded into one hundred boats and floated down the Ganges from the Nawab of Bengal’s palace in Murshidabad to Fort William, the Company’s Calcutta headquarters.It was, as Dalrymple explains, a victory that owed as much to treachery, forged contracts, bankers and bribes as it did to military prowess.

This is an utterly absorbing book, though not one to take with you on a weekend break.Rather, it is a most disturbing work of scholarship,lavishly illustrated with full colour plates depicting the way Indians saw the British intruders over the ages,as well as clear and useful maps, over 100 pages of notes and a full index.

Its publication could not be more timely,with nostalgia for Empire a resurgent factor in British life. Perhaps this book will serve as a word of caution about unbridled colonial power through corporate means.

It is interesting to note that Adolf Hitler wasa great admirer of the 18th and 19th century British imperialists, as he was fascinated by the way so few had ruled so many.  In a book of his monologues, Hitler’s Table Talk (Ostara Publications), he asks how they did it and wonders if the Germans could do the same in Eastern Europe and a defeated Russia.

He would surely have loved this book.

Trevor Grundy is an English journalist, author and researcher who lived and worked in several Commonwealth countries between 1966 and 1996. He is an active member of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA)

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