Skip to main content

The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

Review by Jon P. Dorschner

The Anarchy (The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire) by William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple’s deep and abiding connection to India permeates his work as an historian. I still recall with great fondness the evening I spent with him and other prominent Anglo-Indian literati sitting on carpets conversing and listening avidly to Hindustani music. Dalrymple never fails to stimulate. He makes the complexity of Indian history timely and readable by emphasizing the many colorful personalities, both Indian and European, that populate the South Asian story. Dalrymple also spares us the ideological meandering that renders so many books on South Asia impenetrable for the layman reader. He instead paints a vivid portrait of a time and place totally foreign to most Western readers.

The Anarchy is part of a contemporary subgenre of writing on India by both Indian and Western authors that corrects the many and varied myths imposed on Westerners by ethnocentric historiography. Other notable books in this subgenre include Inglorious Empire (What the British Did to India) by Shashi Tharoor, and The Chaos of Empire (The British Raj and the Conquest of India) by Jon Wilson.

American views on the British imperialist adventure in India were largely shaped by British apologists, who romanticized and obfuscated British imperialism. In the popular vein, books, and films have long romanticized the British Raj, while overlooking or de-emphasizing its essential racism and rapacity. It was not that long ago that purportedly historical works on British India were permeated with racism and xenophobia. They often constructed a false narrative, impugning Indian culture and institutions and describing British imperialism as a “civilizing” force carried out with the best intentions by well-meaning Britishers infused with a spirit of noblesse oblige.

As part of this distorted civilizational narrative, some Western historians argued that Indian civilization was inherently decadent and lacked a commitment to progress, and that Indians would have proven incapable of establishing a modern state without British colonial intervention. Dalrymple conclusively puts these erroneous suppositions to rest, pointing out that when the British East Indian Company was founded in 1599, India’s Mughul Empire was the most powerful and sophisticated in the world, while England was an insignificant and relatively backward nation.

When they arrived in India, the representatives of the Company took great pains to evidence all due humility and begged the Mughul rulers for permission to remain and conduct business on Indian soil. It was only Mughul decline that allowed the Company to gain a foothold. Dalrymple also confirms that the emerging Indian successor states to the Mughul Empire were well on their way to establishing themselves when the British began to intervene in the subcontinent’s political affairs. Dalrymple contrasts the relatively beneficent and efficient policies of the emerging Indian rulers with the rapacious and greedy looting of India by Robert Clive and his successors.

Dalrymple dispels another pernicious myth when addressing the military conflict between the British and Indian forces. Western apologists have long described Indian armies as lacking in sophistication and prowess. While this was initially the case, Indian militaries quickly adopted Western military technology, methods, and tactics. Indian rulers astutely took advantage of the deep and bitter rivalry between British and French imperialists in India, hiring many French mercenaries to train and lead military armies. Indian officers and enlisted men quickly caught on to cutting edge military science, creating armies fully capable of taking on British forces and defeating them. General Anthony Lake, who led British troops against Maratha armies, wrote:

“All the sepoys (soldiers) of the enemy behaved exceedingly well, the gunners standing to their guns until killed by the bayonet….I was never in so severe a business in my life, and I pray to God I may never be in such a situation again.” (pages 380-381).

In the end, politics, money, and treachery enabled the Company army to defeat Indian rulers on the battlefield. Dalrymple points out that Company financial resources funded a well-paid and well-equipped military force, and allowed the Company leadership to bribe Indian military leaders to switch sides at crucial moments. In the end, it was money that convinced the French mercenaries to give up, desert their Indian employers, and return to France with their ill-gotten gains.

Perhaps most critically, the British took maximum advantage of India’s political divisions to “divide and rule.” Astute Indian leaders argued throughout that Indian states needed to form a united front capable of dealing the British a death blow. These efforts led to the formation of powerful Indian alliances that defeated the British in battle, but failed to capitalize on their victories.

Some historians take great delight in constructing complex theses and attempting to back them up with mountains of data. Dalrymple is a delight because he embraces simplicity. The heart and soul of Dalrymple’s argument is that “Four hundred and twenty years after its founding, the story of the East India Company has never been more current (page 397).” Dalrymple contends that the East India Company was unique in world history because it was a private stock company that conquered more territory and subjugated more human beings than Napoleon. As a private capitalist enterprise, the Company was hell-bent on maximizing profits and had no regard whatsoever for the Indian population it was exploiting. It mercilessly stripped India of its wealth, shipping its profits back to England. Unlike previous conquerors, Company employees, both civil and military, had no regard for India, its people, or its culture, and no intention of remaining in India or integrating into India’s composite culture. Instead, Company servants, epitomized by Robert Clive, acquired vast fortunes in India, and used the money to purchase enormous estates and seats in Parliament.

While the East India Company may be one of a kind for the breathtaking enormity of its ambition and greed, it was only the forbearer of the modern multinational corporations that dominate the world economy today. The Company was unique because it turned from business to imperial rule, from buying and selling to tax farming. It methodically stripped Indian peasants of their resources, providing nothing in return. Unlike previous Indian rulers, the Company did not aspire to provide protection for the peasantry or create beneficial public works. It was bent purely on raw extortion. Company greed knew no bounds and was so methodical and amoral that it destroyed Bengali agriculture, making it impossible for Bengali farmers to feed themselves in one of the most fertile regions in the world. When famine broke out, the Company raised its extortionate taxes to make up for lost income and organized no systematic famine relief measures. As a result, 1.5 million Bengalis starved to death, one out of every five residents of Bengal (page 215).

This over-the-top greed and rapaciousness proved to be the Company’s undoing. Decent and conscientious Englishmen protested that the Company was shamefully destroying the good name of the English people, leading to calls for the crown to take over India and abolish the Company. In 1857, Company mismanagement and racism touched off a revolt by the Indian soldiers of the Company army. England and the British Army had to intervene to put down the revolt, after which the Company executed tens of thousands of Indians, in the most bloody series of reprisals ever executed in British colonial history. The subsequent takeover of India by Queen Victoria harkened the quick demise of the British East Indian Company.End.

Jon P. Dorschner
Jon P. Dorschner

A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner currently teaches at the University of Arizona.  Prior to joining the University, he was a career Foreign Service Officer from 1982 until 2011 and served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, at the United States Military Academy at West Point and in Washington.  

Dr. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona, has taught South Asian studies at the University level and published articles and books on South Asian subjects.  His numerous publications include a two part “spiritual memoir” In the Clear Light of Day.  

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.