The British Empire Library

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company

by William Dalrymple

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The opening line of The Anarchy tells us that ‘loot’, meaning ‘plunder’, was one of the first Hindustani words to enter the English language in the late eighteenth century. The timing was no coincidence because this was the period when Robert Clive and others of the East India Company were stripping the Mughal Empire of its treasures. Much of it ended up, Dalrymple continues, ‘room after room of imperial plunder... more than on display in the National Museum in Delhi’ in the remote Welsh Marches castle at Powis, home of Clive’s daughter-in-law Henrietta, Countess of Powis. The Anarchy tells of the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century, undone from within by the inadequacy of its rulers and from without by the plundering of its neighbours, the Rohillas, the Marathas, Tipu Sultan of Mysore and, particularly greedily and successfully, the East India Company. Dalrymple writes with relish. He is a storyteller whose bracing exposition is given historical validity by eyewitness accounts translated from Persian, Urdu and Hindustani when necessary and pinned down, as often as not, by startling detail. To add to the colour are Dalrymple’s views, forthrightly expressed without the academic equivocation of the ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’. It is irresistible.

A good example is his account of the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Allahabad (1765) in which the Company was granted the diwani - the office of economic management of the Mughal provinces in return for administering them - a hugely significant transfer of power. ‘A trading corporation had now become a colonial proprietor and corporate state’, writes Dalrymple. Clive arrives outside Allahabad ‘tormented by bugs and flies’ and meets for the first time the young Emperor Shah Alam whose ‘grave deportment bordered on sadness’. To give the Shah stature he is enthroned the next morning ‘on a silk-draped armchair perched perilously on Clive’s dining room table’ placed outside Clive’s tent. Negotiations do not take long.

Dalrymple tells us that according to the Mughal historian Ghulam Hussain Khan whose Tarikh e-Gulzar e-Asafia was translated into English in the 1790s ‘much negotiation was done and finished in less time than would normally have been taken up for the sale of a jack-ass or a beast of burden’. Dalrymple concludes his exposition on the significance of the Treaty by saying, bluntly, that while for Clive and the shareholders of the Company the diwani was another triumph, ‘for the people of Bengal it was an unmitigated catastrophe’. The unregulated plunder that ensued reminded him of the Macaulay quote that the Company looked on the Mughal Empire ‘merely as a buccaneer would look on a galleon’.

Shah Alam, whose long life (1728 - 1806) covers most of this book, is for me the most noble and tragic character in it. In old age, despite being cruelly blinded and living in poverty, he defies the Company as far as he is able. He presides over a court of high culture and edits his lifetime collection of poetry, songs, and a 4,000 page novel: the first written in Urdu. Nevertheless, considering the structure of The Anarchy, Shah Alam is at times an infuriating distraction. Just when Siraj ud-Daula is about to capture Calcutta (1756) and incarcerate the firangis (foreigners including Britons) in the Black Hole, there is a ten-page digression to introduce Shah Alam. Just when Warren Hastings is about to be impeached (1788), one of the most significant events in the history of the Company, there is a whole chapter’s digression to tell us about the fate of poor Shah Alam in the ‘desolation of Delhi’ by the Rohillas and Marathas in the 1770s and 80s, in which the Company played no part.

The Anarchy ends with the capture of Delhi by General Lake in 1803 and Shah Alam’s death soon afterwards. Now the Company ruled India. ‘The Great Anarchy’ was succeeded by ‘The Golden Calm’. As the contemporary poet Khair-ud-Din put it in another delicious quote, ‘the country is now flourishing and at peace. The deer lies down with the leopard, the fish with the shark, the pigeon with the hawk, and the sparrow with the eagle’. Just as the Company’s army numbered an establishment of ten supporters (from mahouts to ‘votaries of pleasure’) for every one fighting sepoy, so by now Dalrymple is supported by an establishment of researchers, translators and typists, archivists and advisers whose assistance has resulted in this incomparable book, the result of six years work.

Unlike many books published today it looks good too, with no fewer than 48 pages of colour prints. They do not include the picture that to me sums up the blind dishonesty of the Company in the eighteenth century. Hanging in its boardroom until moved to the Foreign Office (who have since removed it from public view) is a classical portrayal of a half-naked black female emerging from the darkness, crouching before Britannia lit by shafts of light, to whom she is offering up a cushion dripping with precious stones; Britannia sits on a cloud, hands spread wide by a pearl necklace, as if receiving what is her due. It is called ‘The East Offering her Riches to Britannia’. Shah Alam could have written a ghazal about it. It is surely justice that when the Company was closed down in 1874 it was with ‘less fanfare than a regional railway bankruptcy’. Today the brand name is owned by two brothers from Kerala, Dalrymple reports, who use it sell ‘condiments and fine foods’ in the West End of London.

British Empire Book
William Dalrymple
First Published
Review Originally Published
Spring 2020 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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