Friday, April 3
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Bad society? | History today


A Mughal Fort, probably in Agra. Watercolor painting by an Indian artist, 19th century. Wellcome Collection.

This portrait of 18th-century India is, as you would expect from its author, well-written and extensively researched, and endowed with numerous endnotes that are remarkable for its dependence on local Mughal sources. As William Dalrymple reminds us, such sources were far from impartial in assessing the British masters who replaced the Mughal patrons of the region. His nostalgia for the disappeared Mughal world sometimes makes him uncritical of such party political reports.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his treatment of Robert Clive, the founder of the British Indian Empire, who is portrayed here as a racist, corrupt adventurer. Although he undoubtedly made these mistakes at different times, there is little recognition of the leadership qualities that made him such a successful general and administrator, despite lack of military training, when the poacher became a gamekeeper during his second fight, like Dalrymple granted term of office as governor of Bengal.

Dalrymple is friendlier than Warren Hastings, who built on Clives' reforms, and Lords Cornwallis and Wellesley, who conquered much of the subcontinent through the company. Hastings is credited with reviving India's classic heritage through its patronage for the Infant Asian Society.

Dalrymple is friendliest to the poet emperor Shah Alam, whose long, tragic life forms the backbone of this narrative. Shah Alam experienced the cruel robbery of Persian Nadir Shah in Delhi as a child and grew up to be an emperor without a throne. He sought protection from various regional warlords who were blinded by a psychopathic Afghan protege and who eventually ended up being retired from the United States, who treated him more kindly than his Indian vassals.

Dalrymple is extremely compelling to describe the various palace intrigues that have been so fatal to the Indian regimes to which Sahib Company has been exposed. He highlighted the often neglected support for new, predominantly Hindu banking and business elites that supported British rule and funded this war machine against oppressive Muslim and Maratha warlords. Dalrymple rightly highlights the corporation as the most revolutionary idea that society has introduced. By the 1780s, Bengal had regained the prosperity and stability that had made it the envy of the rest of India and the basis of British military rule.

The book is least successful when it wanders occasionally to portray the East India Company as a parable of corporate greed, which is still relevant as a warning to capitalism today. The resulting company is a unique public-private partnership that, from 1773, was controlled more by the government in London than by the directors who avoided its territorial takeovers. Dalrymple rightly rejects the fog of lies and inventions that haunted Hastings' impeachment, which was finally relieved after seven years. What he doesn't mention is that such accountability is unprecedented in the history of any empire. Parliament reviews every document that passes a governor's desk to enforce human rights.

A fantastic accusation that the book mentions in a tract from a Dutch whistleblower that the company had deported from India for diamond smuggling. William Bolts made it his life's work to publish the company's actual and imaginary abuses, including the completely fictitious rumor that Indian weavers would cut their thumbs off to escape the company's service. A wholesome warning of how misleading contemporary sources can be.

Anarchy: the relentless rise of the East India Company
William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury 389pp

Zareer Masani is the author of Macaulay: Britain's liberal imperialist (Bodley Head, 2013).

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