William Dalrymple is one of the foremost historians of colonial India, known for works such as White Mughals, The Last Mughal, and Return of a King. His latest work– The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of The East India Company (Bloomsbury 2019)– continues in the tradition of popular history, telling the story of the East India Company’s conquest of India following Lord Clive’s 1757 victory over Siraj ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, at the Battle of Plassey. The book ends with the Company’s conquest of Delhi in 1803 and the defeat of the Marathas– the last Indian power capable of resisting the British. The Company would rule India until the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, when governance was transferred directly to the British Crown.
While we commonly speak of the “British conquest of India”, Dalrymple notes that it was not the British government that colonized India, but a private corporation, solely interested in maximizing its shareholders’ profit. In the Epilogue, he succinctly explains his book’s thesis, writing:
The East India Company remains today history’s most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power–and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state. For as recent American adventures in Iraq have shown, our world is far from post-imperial, and quite probably never will be. Instead Empire is transforming itself into forms of global power that use campaign contributions and commercial lobbying, multinational finance systems and global markets, corporate influence and the predictive data harvesting of the new surveillance-capitalism rather than–or sometimes alongside–overt military conquest, occupation or direct economic domination to effect its ends (397).
Dalrymple introduces the reader to several fascinating characters including Siraj-ud-Daula, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, and the leaders of the Maratha Confederacy. Chief among these figures is the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam (1728-1806)– “a man whose fate it was to witness the entire story of the Company’s fifty-year-long assault on India and its rise from a humble trading company to a fully fledged imperial power” (xxxi). As a young prince, Shah Alam fled Delhi to avoid assassination by his father’s vizier Imad ul-Mulk. He fought the Company at the Battle of Buxar (1765) and then retreated back to Delhi, where he attempted to re-establish the Mughal Empire. He was then blinded by one of his former favorites, and became a puppet emperor under Maratha protection. After the conquest of Delhi, the Company retained him on the throne, due to the Mughals pan-Indian legitimacy. Despite all these tribulations, Shah Alam’s court was a center of high culture. Dalrymple writes:
It had hardly been a glorious reign, but his was, nonetheless, a life marked by kindness, decency, integrity and learning at a time when all such qualities were in short supply. Above all, Shah Alam showed an extraordinary determination through successive horrific trials… In the most adverse circumstances imaginable, that of the Great Anarchy, he had ruled over a court of high culture, and as well as writing fine verse himself he had been a generous patron to poets, scholars and artists (387).
Tipu Sultan of Mysore (1750-99) is another particularly interesting figure. He was one of the most formidable military opponents of the Company and attempted to unite the other native powers such as the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Maratha Confederacy against the British. He also attempted to play European powers against each other by allying with the French. Contrary to the British portrayal of him as a fanatic (which Dalrymple notes is a pattern later followed against other assertive Muslim rulers), he “went out of his way to woo and protect the Hindus of his own dominions. From the beginning of his reign he had loaded the temples of his realm with presents, honours and land” (319). Dalrymple notes that “This was not just a matter of statecraft. Tipu, despite being a devout Muslim and viewing himself as a champion of Islam, thoroughly embraced the syncretic culture of his time and believed strongly in the power of Hindu gods. In his dreams, which he diligently recorded every morning in a dream book, Tipu encountered not only long-dead Sufi saints, but also Hindu gods and goddesses” (320). Finally, he was a connoisseur and intellectual, who possessed a large library of works in several languages “mainly on law, theology and the secular sciences” (321). While praising all these strengths Dalrymple notes that Tipu possessed several weaknesses as well including his tendency to“use unnecessary violence against his adversaries and those he defeated, creating many embittered enemies where conciliation would have been equally possible and much wiser” (321).
Dalrymple’s book is an epic treatment of an important era in Indian history. It will appeal not only to fans of the writer’s previous works but also to those who enjoy sweeping stories of conquest and resistance to Empire. One can easily imagine a Netflix series based on it, in the tradition of the Turkish docudrama “Rise of Empires: Ottoman”.