It is difficult to describe William Dalrymple. He does not write fiction, but his books are as readable as fiction. He is not a historian as historians understand their craft: he does not plumb obscure sources to modify marginally the picture of the past that historians have built up. But most of his books are about the past. Indologists would not recognise him as one of their tribe; among his best books is one on Byzantium, and he has also ventured into Afghan history. But he is one of the most entertaining writers in our part of the world and he brings to it his own, unique point of view.
This book is unlike his others in two respects. One, it exudes outrage. Dalrymple’s love of India is reflected in his writings, but it is subdued enough for his books to pass as historical travelogues. This is the first book in which he is engaged. As the title suggests, he regards the East India Company as a predator; this is a story of how it vanquished the Mughal Empire and looted India, and how it then faded away when the British parliament woke up to its misrule. Two, the source work of this book is much wider. Dalrymple has delved into archives in Exeter, Chambèry, Edinburgh, Pasadena, Lahore and other places to find obscure material; over 400 sources and 1,000 footnotes give an idea of his labours. But, it is not a labour of love; it is more a work of passion. And it is a serious historical study.
The book begins with the voyage of Sir Thomas Roe. He brought presents including a stage coach, a virginal (a musical instrument like a harpsichord), mastiffs and greyhounds, mannerist paintings and crates of red wine and expected that Emperor Jahangir would fall for them and grant him permission to trade. Jahangir was pleasant and
curious about the English, but he made Roe wait three years for permission. Some would wish he had waited forever.
It goes in some detail into the career of Robert Clive, an incompetent young man sent to India by his father as a writer. He made a fortune, returned to England to bribe his way into parliament, lost the fortune, failed and had to return to India to make a second fortune. Dalrymple describes in detail the contretemps between Siraj-ud-daulah, the Mughal governor of Bengal, and Clive, which led to the battle of Plassey and the beginning of Company rule in India. It was Clive who established the company in Bengal. Later in life, he was charged with corruption, and though he was cleared by parliament, he could not bear the disrepute and committed suicide.
Shah Alam, the Mughal emperor, was painfully aware of the Company’s sinister plans and tried through the second half of the eighteenth century to thwart it. Shah Shuja, his nobleman, fought and lost two battles against the Company in Patna and Buxar; his defeat sealed the fate of the Mughal Empire. Shah Alam turned to the Marathas for support; their defeat by the Company in Assaye and Aligarh sealed his dynasty’s fate. These, for me, were the book’s highlights; it goes on to cover the rest of the Company’s history up to 1803.
This is history well told. But history is not just a sequence of events and the fracas of fighters. Technology matters: the British won battle after battle with a very small number of soldiers. Maybe they were supernatural; more likely, their guns and powder were better. Money matters: India’s prosperity in the 16th and 17th centuries had much to do with the bullion the Spaniards found in Latin America which multiplied European demand for Indian spices and textiles, and its decline may have something to do with the end of the bullion bonanza. And organisation matters: the Company brought to India an economical organisation unlike the chaotic structure of Indian kingdoms. Dalrymple has proved his prowess as a historian, I hope he will broaden his variables to bring in the impersonal in history. ■
Jahangir made Sir Thomas Roe wait three years for permission to trade. Some would wish Roe had waited forever
THE ANARCHY The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple BLOOMSBURY `699; 576 pages