Revisiting East India Company’s history to flag perils of corporate power abuse (IANSlife Exclusive)
By IANSlife Features
New Delhi, Sep 9 (IANSlife) Historian and award-winning author William Dalrymple is all set to release his most ambitious and remarkable history book to date, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of The East India Company. It is believed that this book carries the weight of his entire body of work, a lifetime of research and nights spent reading on days gone by.
It took the Scottish writer six years to complete the magnum opus, which not only recounts the most horrific story of corporate violence, but also gives a chilling augury of our future. The most discerning of readers will sense the hints as they read between the lines.
Dalrymple, a recipient of the Wolfson Prize for History, Britain’s most prestigious prize for non-fiction, spoke to IANSlife about the book, while also giving a peak into the corporate origins of the British Empire.
“My last book, Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, in collaboration with Anita Anand, took little more than six months’ work. While I’m tempted to say that The Anarchy took only six years; the truth is it has taken a lifetime. It is everything I’ve read, everything I know and everything that a reader ought to know about this extraordinary company that somehow seized an entire subcontinent.
I’ve been on the job ever since I released the Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan in 2012 With this book, I will have completed four books on the East India Company:
The White Mughals’ in 2002 is about the years 1795 to 1805, a micro history of a true Hyderabad love story between an East India Company Resident and Nizami Princess; The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, looks at the years between 1856 and 1858 and is a micro history of the Great Uprising in Delhi; Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 2012 is a perspective of the years between 1839 and 1842, a micro history of the first British invasion of Afghanistan.
But this book looks at the sweeping story of the onset of colonialism across the entire region over 200 years. It is the history of the whole monstrous institution in one volume, so yes it is much more ambitious than I ever expected it to be.
It takes a concentrated look at the years between 1599 to 1803; two hundred years of a Machiavellian-style offensive, aided and enabled by Indian sepoys and paid for very largely by loans given by Indian bankers.
The East India Company had a Royal Charter to “wage war” and use violence to secure its trade. But it was only in 1757, with the Battle of Plassey, that the company moved from being a trading organisation to a nascent colonial power, something that accelerated in 1765 after the Battle of Buxar.
It can be said that it was one of the first Corporations in the world, because the Joint Stock Company was a crucial and ground-breaking Tudor invention. It soon became what we would refer to today as a “multinational company,” shipping Indian opium to China and Chinese tea to the Americas: it was East India Company tea that was dumped in Boston Harbour, triggering the American War of Independence.
In the Middle Ages, people were accustomed to family businesses like the Medicis in Italy or merchants who formed guilds, pooled their resources and traded with a joint capital. But what the East India Company did was introduce the concept of large scale corporations. It pooled in the finances of people who had little say in the executive workings of the company, but just invested what they could in shares. In this way, through a joint stock, the directors were able to raise vast sums in capital.
The East India Company was the fifth such corporation, and the Dutch weren’t far behind; with huge investments from everywhere, they slowly became a vast economic power. Much like we have Microsoft, Google, Amazon or Walmart today. So when we talk about the company, we are not referring to a dead history or an outdated concept. What it is, is in fact history continuing; it represents the beginning of the modern world as we know it.
If we look around, there are these conglomerates and commercial giants who not only lobby to influence governments and policies, but also influence the general populace thereby wielding an enormous power and that’s exactly what the East India Company did. It wasn’t the British government that conquered India, it was a corporation based in one office building, just five windows wide. The story has been muddied by Victorian and Indian nationalists, but if you look at it anew, it is a simple story of corporate violence.
Bribing legislatures, influencing and manipulating governments, all began with the East India companye but it’s the story of the present.
The history of the company is not a simple story of conquest; it contains a dark secret that people prefer to overlook. There’s no way a bunch of foreign merchants with no military might, could take over India. It was a collaboration. The degree to which it was facilitated by the Indian financial class, especially the Marwari bankers of Calcutta and Benares is what enabled it to take over. The book talks about the degree to which the company was helped by the Marwari community of traders and bankers, especially the Jagat Seths, who were Oswal Jain bankers from Jodhpur state.
These communities of traders and bankers helped the Mughal dynasty, when it was on its last legs, by organising the finances of its governors. They used the hundi system to facilitate the movement of money and revenue. It was their money that later financed the conquest of British India, through the loans they granted to the East India Company.
The Anarchy narrates not only the story of the plunder of India by the British, but also that of the funding that facilitated it. It recounts the story of Indian merchants and bankers, who realised that the Company understood the relevance and importance of contracts and the repayments of loans with interest, and therefore deliberately and calculatedly backed it against the Marathas. No matter the loot and pillage, in the long run they wanted to be allied with an institution run by financiers who spoke the same language as them. Both the Marathas and the Sultans of Mysore could have easily have won the military side of the battles, there was no magic wand to make the Company win, and by the 1780s Indian states had a military and tactical parity with the Company armies. The crucial factor was the constant stream of finances that facilitated the victories of the EIC. The sad truth is that in the end the bankers of India backed a corporate entity, the Company, over their own co-religionists.
This of course, continues to be the story today, when conglomerates try to dictate policy, influence government and enable one party to win elections. One has to read it not just as history, or even the story of the present, but to some extent that of the future too.”
(In his first interview to the Indian media, William Dalrymple tells IANSlife that his new book ‘The Anarchy’ narrates not just the story of British plunder, but also of the Indians who facilitated it)
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