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The East India Company, Corporate Violence
and the Pillage of an Empire

Book Review
Capt D P Ramachandran

It has all the characteristics of the typical Dalrymple treat, exhaustive research, excellent prose and history in a novel-like read; and of course, the underlying adulation of the finesse of Mughal arts and culture, which at times makes it dreary. The narrative takes you from the genesis of the East India Company (EIC) in London in 1599 to early 19th Century by which time; it had come to wield political power over most of India bar the Punjab. However, it is in no way the commercial history of the company, but a vivid depiction of India in the turbulent second half of 18th Century when the EIC, which had hitherto remained a humble trading outfit, entered the political arena of the country and, through a series of acts of intrigue and violence, destroyed the three main centres of power in the land, the Mughal Empire, the Sultanate of Mysore and the Maratha Confederacy, in that order; to emerge the dominant political power.

The three decisive military engagements that helped the Company achieve this, the battles of Buxar, Seringapattam and Assaye are evocatively portrayed, and so are the events and intrigues that handed them a victory at Plassey and a foothold in Bengal, the springboard it launched its future manoeuvres from. As we move on from one battle to the next, we find the easy, initial victories of the Company troops for their superiority in weaponry and methods of warfare, giving way to tougher battles because of the native forces adapting themselves to modern weaponry and fighting methods with assistance from French and other European mercenaries. Campaigns and battles apart, the book brings forth the economics that made or marred the fortunes of the participants. The Company benefitted immensely from the huge revenues from Bengal, the richest province of the Mughal Empire, while the emperor himself, deprived of all his taxes, was reduced to the pitiable state of having to treat with the former for his survival. The forlorn story of the emperor, Shah Alam, a virtuous man of fine talents and tastes, dogged by misfortune all his life, runs as a poignant subtext. The next adversary of the Company to fall, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, heading a prosperous state, probably had the financial clout to take on the Company, but Richard Wellesley, the Company-appointed Governor General and its chief architect of political strategy, cleverly manipulated to turn the entire lot of fighting forces available in the country, including the Marathas, against him. And by the time the turn of the Marathas came, their revenues, from the parched lands of Deccan and Central India, were so pathetically below what the Company reaped from the fertile land of Bengal, that even if the gallant Marathas had held on, they could not have lasted long against their vastly resourceful opponent. Yet another interesting aspect the book throws light on is the influence the Indian businessmen wielded in shaping the politics of the land, especially the Hindu money lenders who were virtually king makers. Even the Company came to depend on them to finance their campaigns.

The book is essentially about, as a Leo Tolstoy quote in the opening page says, how ‘A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred million people’. Discussing the legacy of the British colonialism in India in the epilogue, the author observes that the idea of the joint stock company is one of Britain’s most significant imports to India and one that has had its impact on entire South Asia. He draws parallels of the EIC with contemporary mega corporations, to point out how much political clout they wield, though bereft of any military machinery like the former, and how corporate influence with its fatal blend of power, money and unaccountability could be potent and dangerous in frail states.

The book reveals or highlights some of the lesser-known chapters of history as well. For instance, Aurangzeb is mostly remembered only for his bigotry and unsuccessful military campaigns against the Marathas. Seldom told however is an episode when in 1686 an arrogant British attempt to bulldoze their way in Bengal was soundly beaten back by him. The EIC lost almost all its holdings in India and had its trading privileges withdrawn after an expeditionary force it attempted to land was swept away by the Mughal army and its factors paraded in chains and tortured. The situation was restored only after four years, after the Company had begged for the emperor’s forgiveness, a humiliating period for the EIC indeed.

Then again, in popular narratives the Mughal Empire becomes largely irrelevant after Aurangzeb, with only Shah Alam’s meek surrender to the EIC and the eventual, tragic deportation of Bahadur Shah drawing any attention. In telling Shah Alam’s story however, the book paints a graphic account of the horrid phase that Delhi went through during his lifetime. Having watched the savage sacking of the city by Nadir Shah as a boy and later forced into exile by the machinations of the megalomaniac vizier, Imad ul-Mulk, Shah Alam was just a titular emperor while allying with the Nawabs of Awadh and Bengal to fight the EIC army at Buxar. Defeated, he fell prey to the clever designs of the Company, which found merit in offering him protection and upkeep in return for the legitimacy of his seal for their actions. Eventually, frustrated by the Company’s betrayal of not rendering him the promised help to retake Delhi, he is compelled to call for help from Marathas, the archrivals of the Mughals once. Although he succeeded in retaking Delhi from Rohilla Afghans who had taken possession of the city with the help of the Marathas, he lost it again to the Rohillas, who struck back during a temporary absence of the Marathas. The hapless emperor suffered the worst humiliation at the hands of the young Rohilla leader, Ghulam Qadir, who not only tortured and blinded him but raped the royal ladies as well, in an all-time low in Mughal history. Indeed the Marathas evicted the Rohillas in short order and avenged the act by torturing the perpetrator to death. Nevertheless, the blinded emperor remained a puppet of the Marathas and was to end up a pensioner of the EIC after it took the city from the Marathas at the end of the Maratha wars.

Intertwining the tragic tale of the emperor with the advent of the British power in India in its most aggressive phase, the book presents an absorbing account of the period when the country slid down the path of colonialism.

The Anarchy
The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of an Empire
William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019

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