'East India Company's exploits were a libertarian wet dream'

Updated: Oct 18, 2019, 08:14 IST | Fiona Fernandez |

From corrupt traders to ruthless administrators, William Dalrymple's latest book chronicles how exactly a London-based joint-stock company went on to rule India

Dalrymple's next project is a catalogue in the form of a slim, glossy appendix for an exhibition of the Company paintings. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Dalrymple's next project is a catalogue in the form of a slim, glossy appendix for an exhibition of the Company paintings. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Either way, William Dalrymple would have ended up discovering new chapters of history. The Scottish historian had originally planned to be an archaeologist. "As a 14-year-old, I went digging at sites during the summers. My worldview was very Scottish. If you told my teenage self that I would be writing about the 18th and 19th centuries, I would have been horrified, and regarded it not as history but tame stuff!" he says early into our chat at a Colaba five-star with a panoramic view of the Arabian Sea.

Serendipitous or otherwise, in his newest book, The Anarchy (Bloomsbury), the first batch of wily traders from the East India Company (EIC) arrived on India's shores and went on to change the course of Indian history forever. Edited excerpts from the interview.

This is your fourth book about the Company.
It remains one of the great unwritten periods of Indian history. Indian historians tend to concentrate on the golden periods — Gupta and Maurya ages, Ashoka's reign, the Mughals; and later, the freedom struggle and Gandhi. The period between the Mughals and the Raj is my rich hunting ground. I am always on the lookout for stuff that escapes people's notice. But I had not expected to find something as big as this. The three titles were micro histories with a small cast of characters. I am sure this will be my last.

Parliament and the Crown were aware of EIC's rampant corruption but didn't intervene. Why?
The EIC was an unregulated ruthless company. You could call it a libertarian wet dream! It's why it was so successful. It was the 17th century. Britain didn't know where India was even. When Bombay [spelt as 'Bumbye' then] was given to the Crown as part of the dowry for Catherine of Braganza from Portugal, a 'knowledgeable' figure in London said it was near Brazil.

They overestimated their knowledge of India. They impeached the only governor general (Warren Hastings) who did famine relief work, spoke Hindi, Bengali and Persian. He was attacked for several offences, including a case of muddled identities where they accused him of murdering a Persian poet from the 14th century. There was no knowledge of atrocities until reports about the big Bengal famine emerged in 1772 because it was covered in the British press. Gory details emerged, like the Ganges being clogged with dead bodies. Angry Britons questioned why India wasn't a crowned colony like America and why a profit-making company ran it out of a boardroom 10,000 miles away.

How did the EIC move from being a trading company to an imperial power?
In the EIC's original charter of 1599, it clearly states its right to wage war. They had to travel with guns and cannons since the Portuguese and Spanish were at war with Britain. They had no impunity of using violence from the beginning. But it was only until the Battle of Plassey (1757) and later, Battle of Buxar (1764) that they took total and formal control of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, the three most prosperous provinces of the time. India's eastern part was a major textile hub, even more significant than China. The EIC started off as an exporter for the Mughal Empire since chintzes and fine weaves were highly exportable commodities. They made enormous profits that it resulted in de-industrialisation in far-off Mexico.

Both were living in a strange symbiosis. But then it changed with two wars (Spanish and Austrian succession) in Europe. Suddenly, Europeans realised they had huge amounts of artillery that could wipe out old-fashioned armies; they now had the technology to do as they pleased. This continued from 1740-1780. Around the time, Nawab of Bengal Siraj ud-Daula fell, and Buxar happened. However, the Marathas and Tipu Sultan defeated the Company's armies. Amidst such military parity, the business class allowed them to conquer the rest of India. From today's patriotic viewpoint, it is difficult to understand why they supported a foreign infidel army that was up to no good.

So, why were they pro-EIC?
There are two answers. Firstly, the EIC offered more security for their capital. They understood the importance of repaying debts in time, and had access to courts to defend financial contracts. Two sets of businessmen spoke the same financial language despite their differences.

Secondly, by the end of the 18th century, the Company under Cornwallis broke up the Mughal estates for auction, and guess who bought it? The upper middle class bhadralok with their financial know-how. The Debs, Maliks and Tagores bid for these estates; they became landowners, and a part of the British system and hence, you still see this odd Bengali-anglophilia. There were never more than 2,000 goras in Bengal and they trained 2,00,000 Indian warriors to fight for them and paid them by borrowing from Indian bankers and by raising money from bond issues.

Why did the Mughal Empire collapse so swiftly?
Important question. Aurangzeb was a bigot and alienated the Rajputs who conquered the Deccan armies. But also that in over-expanding too quickly, he had exhausted the Mughal war machine. Wars are expensive affairs. By taking over the entire Deccan in one generation, including Bijapur and Golconda, the empire broke down. By doing this, he unleashed the Marathas who actually lived up to their legend and played a critical role at the time.

Everyone is aware of Shivaji but little is known about the later phase. The most fatal thing that could have happened was the rivalry between the Holkars and the Scindias. Both had spectacular armies, which if united could have driven the Company out of India. But they never united. Nana Fadnavis, the brilliant statesman was the first to realise their existential threat and made an alliance with his enemy, Tipu. First, the Marathas defeated the EIC army from Bombay, and later, Tipu defeated them outside Madras. If they'd only realise how weak the Company was at the time and had pushed harder or walked into Madras the next day, that would have been it. In fact, parliamentary secretary Philip Francis wanted the EIC to pull back its troops, abandon their posts in Madras and Bombay, and return to Calcutta. Ultimately, it was Warren Hastings who kept his nerve, and fended off Tipu's forces. He came to an understanding with Mahadji Scindia and broke the triple alliance.

The biggest positive however, that emerged from the EIC's dominance was a united political country — India was a geographical, cultural and spiritual entity for long, but was never a unified one.

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