PLUNDERERS EX­POSED

India Today - - UPFRONT - The re­viewer is a for­mer chief eco­nomic ad­vi­sor By Ashok V. De­sai

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

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