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East India Company ships on the Thames. Photo/Alamy

The ugly business of the East India Company

William Dalrymple’s latest book traces the rise and fall of the rapacious East India Company.

Scottish historian, travel writer and goat farmer William Dalrymple has invested the greater part of his life in trying to make sense of the enigma that is India. His eloquent meetings with the holy in Nine Lives, travel books, and his many works on 19-century India – White Mughals, The Last Mughal, Return of a King – have given us sublime snapshots of the subcontinent as it is and as it once appeared to be. In The Anarchy, Dalrymple’s scope is much grander. He tackles the rise and fall of the East India Company and the decline of the Mughal Empire, covering over 200 years of bloody and fickle ambition.

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.

In such environments, first Clive and then Warren Hastings and finally Richard Wellesley played off the Mughal and Hindu factions, benefited from Afghani raids from the north and began to compete with French interests in the region. By the start of the 19th century, the company’s standing army was twice the size of the British Army and had been reined in several times by the British Government for being too big and influential, as well as too big to fail.

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.