- William Dalrymple
- ARRSE Rating
- 5 Mushroom Heads
First published in 2019, this fascinating book somehow escaped the vigilance of the ARRSE book review team until now. Running to 522 well-written pages, it is an ideal Covid-19 book; enjoyable as well as instructive. In Salman Rushdie's words, William Dalrymple is “that rarity, a scholar of History who can really write”. He has written many travel and history books, mainly about India, and comes from a Scottish family that was formerly much-involved in India; a relation perished in the Black Hole of Calcutta.
The Honourable East India Company was founded in 1599, while Shakespeare was writing Hamlet; it was wound up in 1874. Between those dates it transformed itself from a trading organisation, whose first aim was to make a lot of money through import-export, into the world's first and greatest multinational; dangerously unregulated and answerable only to its shareholders; a private imperial power.
From the start the Company's Charter had permitted it to 'wage war', although that was envisaged primarily as defending its factories(emporia) and personnel. In the event they were to go well beyond that. In August 1765 the Company defeated the young Mughal Emperor and forced him to establish in his provinces a new administration to collect taxes, run by the Company's merchants and enforced by their private army, which was to reach 200,000; twice the strength of the regular British Army at that period. It was a spectacular act of enforced privatisation. In the words of Charles Metcalfe, a Company diplomat: “Sovereigns you are and as such [you]must act.” In the event the Company chose to act more like an arbitrary absolute sovereign than a constitutional one.
The Company temporarily succeeded in reversing the centuries-old drain of bullion from the West to the Orient. Instead, the riches of India and other countries poured into London. Sometimes these were the product of legitimate trade and of the West's technological superiority; at other times the riches were extracted by less-ethical means. A visit to Robert Clive's collection at Powis Castle gives an idea of the quantity and quality of the loot.
How and why was this permitted to happen? Dalrymple is harshly critical of the Company, and there was much to criticise. However the collapse of Mughal power was probably inevitable; the Company simply seized an opportunity that arose without their planning it. The apogee of Mughal rule occurred under the Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707). A bigoted Muslim, he alienated his empire's majority Hindu population. His ambitious conquest of the Deccan took the Mughal dominions to their widest extent but led to the empire's eventual collapse through over-stretch. After him, it was downhill all the way. In the contest that followed it was far from clear who would emerge as winner: a revived Mughal State; a new imperial dynasty; the Mahrattas or an outside power?
The century that followed is known to Indian historians as The Anarchy. India became a battle-ground: Mughals vs Mahrattas; Princes vs other Princes; the British vs the French; and the Afghan invaders vs everyone. The Persians invaded and carried off the Peacock Throne. Atone stage France seemed the most likely candidate to succeed; the East India Company determined to resist French ambitions at any cost. The loss of the American colonies, whose independence could not have been achieved without French support, hardened the Company's resolution: we must not lose India too.
A factor of the colonies' rebellion was a not-entirely-groundless fear that the notorious Company were planning to extend their unethical activities to British North America. The tea of the Boston Tea-Party was East India Company tea, imported from China. The Company's unregulated activities were causing concern in the UK too. British journalists and clergy were increasingly vocal in their disapproval of the Company's methods. The concern sometimes extended to Parliament but, since many MPs were Company shareholders, their criticism was usually muted. The nearest that Parliament ever came to putting the Company on trial was the impeachment of Governor-General Warren Hastings, who was ironically the wrong Defendant: an uncorrupt and cultured lover of India, he had done his best to reform Company rule and end abuses. After a long and very public trial, Hastings was acquitted in 1795. People like Robert Clive and the Marquess Wellesley (Wellington's elder brother) emerge from the narrative as the real villains.
In 1825 the Government finally took action. It removed the Company's monopoly of the East India trade. In 1833 Parliament passed the East India Company Charter Bill, which removed the Company's right to trade and turned it into a governing corporation. Finally in 1857 the Company's army rose in rebellion. The Company distinguished itself by the ferocity of its reprisals; hanging and murdering tens of thousands of suspected rebels, many of whom were innocent of any involvement. Thereafter India was 'nationalised', with Queen Victoria becoming the sovereign of India. The Company's charter ran out in 1874; it expired almost unnoticed and unregretted.
Both modern Indian Nationalist and British Victorian writers have tended to exaggerate the importance of the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence, which in reality did not last for long and involved a relatively small area of India. Most of South Asia either remained aloof or supported the British authorities. By contrast the Anarchy had lasted a century and engulfed most of India. It was the memory of the Anarchy that persuaded a majority of Indians that there were far worse things than British rule, so they consented to it. This enabled the Raj to continue for nearly a century after the Mutiny. It was after the First World War, when it became clear inter alia that an enfeebled Great Britain could not even pacify its own back yard(Ireland), that Indians began to think that they could do better themselves. But that is another story.