September 12, 2019
William Dalrymple’s Case Study: “The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire”Historians in the News
tags: colonialism, britain, East India Company
Founded in 1599 to run British trade in Asia, the East India Company evolved from being a profitable corporation with a security force to being a mighty army with a trading division. By 1765, it had even taken the ruler of the once-vast Mughal Empire under its protection — rather as if Huawei were to invade Europe and hire Boris Johnson. To Edmund Burke, the company was “a state in the guise of a merchant”; to Adam Smith, “a strange absurdity.”
Dalrymple, the author of nine books on India and the Islamic world, devotes only a few pages to editorializing about contemporary corporations, offering instead a vivid and richly detailed story about how, and why, the company turned into an empire. These questions have recently become historical battlefields, with traditionalists insisting that the indigenous Mughal Empire’s decay forced the company to take up arms to restore order, while those on the left respond that the company created the chaos that it exploited. Dalrymple, however, is delightfully evenhanded. Making war, he argues, was rarely the company’s only option — yet it really did have violent enemies, and the French really were plotting against it. Similarly, the company’s men were often wicked and arrogant; they bribed, robbed and killed those who crossed them — yet their Indian opponents could commit even more appalling acts of violence. Worst of all, the company sucked 1 million British pounds (equivalent to $120 million today) out of Bengal in 1769-70 even as one in five Bengalis starved — yet while native rulers certainly did better, when famine struck their own territories in 1784-86 it also killed one Indian in five. Eighteenth-century India was just a tough place to live.
Dalrymple of course recognizes the differences between our world and the company’s. “For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations,” he reminds us, “they are tame beasts compared with … the militarized East India Company. Yet if history shows anything it is that in the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, the corporation will use all the resources in its power to resist.”
This conclusion is arguably one that readers could have reached for themselves without reading 400 pages of historical narrative, but the greatest virtue of this disturbingly enjoyable book is perhaps less the questions it answers than the new ones it provokes about where corporations fit into the world, both then and now.