William Dalrymple’s latest book traces the rise and fall of the rapacious East India Company.
Founded in 1600, the East India Company was one of the world’s first publicly listed corporations. Its goal was to exploit the resources of India for the profit of its shareholders, without any concern for the people and resources of that place. It was authorised piracy at a time when the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese were the experts in that field. East India Company governors – the CEOs of their day – were incentivised to catch up, in particular the brutal and rapacious Robert Clive.
They set their own monstrous performance bonuses using the technologies of European warfare on a nation in disarray. Their troops, European mercenaries and Indian sepoys, were mostly paid through looting. It was a disaster for the formerly stable Indian states: internecine battles within its multifarious cultural groups combined with the tumult of a century of Franco–Anglo conflict.
Dalrymple suggests that today’s mega-companies have the East India Company’s DNA. Many will see the model for modern corporate governance – the balance between a private, rampant greed and the idea of public good – in Dalrymple’s study. But there’s also a great deal of personal tragedy and epic storytelling: a dawn duel between the Governor of Bengal and his rival; and examples of the cruelty of war and revenge that not even George RR Martin could invent. All the while, anonymous London shareholders banked their handsome dividends from what was, in fact, a wholly ugly business.
THE ANARCHY: The Relentless Rise Of The East India Company, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, $32.99)
This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.