William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: A Vivid Reconstruction of Indian History under the Company

M. K. Raghavendra

Any new book by William Dalrymple going into Indian history in the past few centuries is nothing less than a treat, so well-written, vivid and engaging is his writing. His new book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of an Empire deals primarily with the East India Company, its history and doings in India concluding with its final triumph when it defeated the Marathas and directly or indirectly controlled all of India under Richard Wellesley. Dalrymple began as a travel writer but moved to Indian history with White Mughals (2002), primarily taken up with inter-ethnic romances between British officers and Indian women. The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 (2006) dealt with the Mutiny of 1857 and the life of Bahadur Shah Zafar, for which Dalrymple was able to access records in Rangoon where the last Mughal Emperor was confined as a prisoner until his death. With The Anarchy Dalrymple has produced an invaluable trilogy dealing with the history of India under the Company, reconstructing not only events in their larger sense but also the intimate lives of British officials and the aristocracy they socialized with in the course of their duties.

The most admirable thing about Dalrymple’s writing is its clarity, the care with which he lays down the action, delineating every bit and structuring his accounts so we are able to retain much more than we might of standard histories. This is not speculative history where the evidence is weighed and interpreted but a narrative presented as fact. Here is how Dalrymple begins The Anarchy, with the founding of the East India Company by public figures and merchants: “On 24 February 1599, while William Shakespeare pondering a draft of Hamlet in his house downriver from the Globe in Southwark, a mile to the north, barely twenty minutes’ walk from the Thames, a motley group of Londoners was gathering in a rambling, half-timbered building lit by many-mullioned Tudor windows.” 

Although he is relying on another author (writing on Shakespeare) it shows that his preference, while being true to key facts, is partly colourful invention, but it is so vividly drawn that we actually visualize history enacted. History is not, as we know, simply an account of ‘what happened’ since ‘what happened’ needs elucidation, but Dalrymple does not write history that way, as scrupulous interpretation. He is also using his imagination as a creative writer with an eye to how things might have happened. Ramachandra Guha and Amitav Ghosh also use the strategy but Dalrymple’s writing is exciting as few histories are.

Before his introduction Dalrymple lists his chief dramatis personae each of whom is given a paragraph – the British and key functionaries in the Company, the French, the Mughals, the Nawabs of Bengal and Avadh, the Rohillas who were Pashtuns who invaded India and fought the Mughals, Hyder and Tipu, Sultans of Mysore, and the Marathas from Chhatrapati Shivaji to the divided confederacy with headquarters in Pune, Indore and Gwalior. This helps us retain what we have read and we go back to this section when we are confused by names.    

The East India Company (EIC) was set up as a trading company after the Dutch had already made a fortune trading in spices procured from the East Indies. When the EIC tried to get into the same business they came into conflict with the Dutch but were outshone. This drove them to seek other markets and they began trading in India where they procured fine cotton textiles, indigo and chintzes. When the British entered India through the EIC, India had 20% of the world’s population and produced 25% of global manufacturing. The European traders/colonists elsewhere had got accustomed to killing natives but there was no possibility of doing that in India since the Mughals kept an army of 4 million men. For over a decade or so the EIC did not even get an audience with the Mughals and they got it only when King James I sent his emissary Sir Thomas Roe to meet the Emperor Jehangir in 1615. Dalrymple describes the meeting, uses the illustration of the occasion by court painter Bichitr to do it, also commenting on the modes of representation. The painting itself is included in a collection of colour plates.

Under the Emperor Auganzeb the empire was strong but it was too widely stretched to be safeguarded and the Marathas were an especially big threat. The Emperor therefore allowed regional governors more autonomy and it was in Bengal that the EIC first began to trade. The Marwari moneylenders in Bengal (the Jagat Seths) were especially powerful and the EIC quickly saw in them potential allies. In the final years of Auganzeb’s reign the Company already began to be less respectful of local authority in Bengal and the Carnatic. In 1710, a few years after Auganzeb’s death, it undertook a military excursion in the vicinity of Madras (Fort St George) sacking villages, killing villagers and destroying crops; peace had to be established through the intervention of the French in Pondicherry.  

In 1739 Nader Shah, who had seized the Persian throne in a military coup, invaded India and attacked Delhi. He had no intention of staying on, but looted the city and made off with a huge amount of Mughal wealth, including the famed Peacock Throne. This weakened the Emperor and his governors in Avadh and Bengal stopped sending revenues to Delhi. With their army remaining unpaid, the Mughals became weaker still and that further strengthened the Nawabs of Avadh and Bengal. While the seat of the Nawab of Bengal was Murshidabad, the British were allowed to construct Fort William for themselves downstream in Calcutta, with strict instructions on how strong it could be made. The Nawab Aliverdi Khan was a capable administrator and cultured, but also cunning and ruthless. He was able to keep the Marathas at bay and in 1744, after inviting the Maratha military leadership for negotiations had them all murdered in the tent where negotiations were to take place.

Aliverdi Khan was however ill and died in 1756 and, having only daughters, his heir was his grandson Siraj ud-Daula, known to be cruel and who had acted brutally against his own aunt after the death of Aliverdi Khan. The fact that the EIC was strengthening the fort beyond the permissible limit caused him to attack them at Calcutta with a force of 70,000 against which the EIC had 265 uniformed soldiers and an untrained militia of 250 civilians. Dalrymple gives a detailed description of the battle that followed, the destruction and the looting, and culminating in the infamous ‘Black Hole of Calcutta.’ One of Dalrymple’s own ancestors apparently died during the fall of Fort William to Siraj ud-Daula. The Black Hole of Calcutta, Dalrymple observes, was exaggerated in London and 150 years later “was still taught in British schools as demonstrative of the essential barbarity of Indians and illustrative of why British rule was supposedly both necessary and justified.” But as a contemporary event it was barely remarked upon. 

It was in the retaliatory move against Siraj ud-Daula that Robert Clive first distinguished himself. The French and British were now engaged in hostilities throughout the world and Clive was at the head of three regiments of Royal Artillery that had arrived south of Madras in preparedness for any French attack. Clive had the attitudes of a street-fighter, saw opportunity in Bengal and convinced the other Council members that Calcutta should be retaken and the restoration of all the EIC’s settlements and factories demanded from the Nawab of Bengal. India was a treacherous place for Europeans and half of Clive’s force had succumbed to various diseases by the time his flotilla entered the Hooghly. Still, after inflicting a defeat on the enemy and taking Budge Budge Fort, the group went on to Fort William and took it without much resistance. Once Calcutta (in a bad shape) was in British hands, Clive declared war on Siraj ud-Daula, the first time the EIC had declared war on an Indian prince. This was a big victory but the Nawab had made enemies and Clive won the key battle against him at Plassey, after entering into an understanding with his general Mir Jaffar and the Jagat Seths, who had begun to see Siraj ud-Daula as a bad investment.  

A question that should engage any reader is how the EIC was able to overcome such odds in India and conquer a country of such a size with so few Britishers actually working for it; most of its soldiers and servants were Indians. An answer that suggests itself was that being a corporate there was consistency in its motives, and it was always profit. Regardless of who was at the helm the personal whims of those at the top mattered little. Judging from Dalrymple’s account Robert Clive was a boastful but capable scoundrel with little interest in India while Warren Hastings, who succeeded him, was a cultured Indophile and an essentially decent person. Still, Hastings sent back huge profits to Britain at the expense of India, his decency scarcely showing itself in the Company’s financial and military doings. Perhaps India had a greater hand in their personal lives than vice versa: Hastings, although insolvent, lived respectably till 85 after his acquittal in an impeachment; Clive cut is own throat with a paper knife at 49.    

In contrast Indian kingdoms depended enormously on who was ruler, his personal qualities. While the Company, because of its clearly defined aims, was willing to negotiate and treat defeated enemies courteously, although squeezing them to the fullest, even good Indian kings, while being exemplary rulers were needlessly vicious and brutal against their enemies. This was not only the case with the Mughals but also with the Marathas (often against each other) and Tipu Sultan. Tipu had been advised by his father Hyder Ali that he should have his subjects on his side and that he could not fight the British alone; while the British had painted him as a monster they were surprised in 1799 at the love he had inspired in his subjects, whatever their religion. But Tipu had also been brutal in war and had made powerful enemies all around him. The ancient Sriranganathaswamy Temple was supported in his capital but he forcibly converted people to Islam outside. When he needed help against the British, both (the Muslim) Nizam and (the Hindu) Marathas aligned themselves against him.   
Coming lastly to Dalrymple’s own inclinations in his history writing, he takes great relish in describing large events and affairs of the state, the pomp and pageantry of monarchs and their (often) brutal fates. Here is a description of Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Durrani’s last days: “Ahmad Shah’s disease started consuming his nose, and a diamond-studded substitute was attached in its place. By 1772 maggots were dropping from the upper part of his putrefying nose into his mouth and his food as he ate.” Whenever he mentions the value of something looted or the sums paid as compensation he painstakingly provides an indication of how much that would amount to today. What one misses – although one cannot justly demand their inclusion – are the conditions of the people when these events were happening. Dalrymple notes that, during the famine of 1770, children were sold by hungry people indicating that slavery was very much in practice. This was noted by foreign travellers both of the Mughal and the Vijayanagar Empires. While hunting, Mughal nobles killed animals but also captured forest dwellers, exchanged them for horses and dogs in Kabul. It was also a fact that while India was fabulously rich, and produced the best kinds of merchandise, the workers lived pitiable lives. The poverty in India today cannot have come out of nowhere; my proposition is that it has always been present, although unnoticed by historians. Perhaps the election process made the poor visible at last.

September 2019