The Anarchy, by William Dalrymple

As I read The Anarchy, a history of how the East India Company came to take over most of India in the eighteenth century, I kept having the same thought: they can’t do that! This heavily researched yet highly entertaining history reveals that, when there are no laws to stop you and no authority strong enough to stop you, it is entirely possible for a business to boldly disrupt and then conquer the empires of India. The Anarchy is wall to wall audacity.

Originally founded in 1660, the East India Company was started to compete with French and Portuguese traders who were starting to make a lot of money in India from their small trading posts. But, where other nations moved slowly with the various emperors, nawabs, and other rulers of India’s empire and kingdoms, the men who the EIC sent to India were more likely to start fights. These fights escalated over the years from skirmishes in the 1600s to full-on wars in the 1800s. Battles like the ones at Plassey and Assaye were so devastating to indigenous powers that the EIC was able to push right into the power vacuum. The EIC’s aggressive expansion and their rapacious money making were so inhumane that even members of Parliament (the ones whose finances weren’t dependent on the Company) were appalled enough to start regulating what the Company could and could not do.

Dalrymple recounts the battles and fights with the kind of blow-by-blow commentary that reminds me of the first history lessons I ever got, ones that focused on the movements of armies and the bold (or foolish) actions of the Indian and British leaders. Dalrymple’s commentary is balanced in two ways (for those who don’t want histories that are all about fighting and politicking). First, Dalrymple frequently discusses how all of the EIC’s actions affected the daily life of ordinary Indians, from changing their farming practices to disrupting the entire artisan class to destroying the military class up to so aggravating a famine that up to a fifth to one-third of all the people in Bengal died in 1770. Second, Dalrymple does outstanding work letting historical figures speak for themselves. Dalrymple used materials from the British and Indian Company archives, contemporary letters and diaries, and accounts from Indian historians to bring figures like Shah Alam II, Tipu Sultan, Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, and dozens of other to life. Reading the words of all these contemporaries brought immediacy to The Anarchy; this is one of the most gripping histories I’ve read.

After reading The Anarchy, I know what happened and a lot of the why. That said, I continue to be astounded by the rise of the East India Company and its actions in India. I tried to imagine if, say, Apple or Walmart decided to set up shop in another country and then decide to start fighting with that country’s army before eventually just taking over. It seems unthinkable now, even though I know that it’s happened since then in Hawaii and Guatemala. The powers of capitalism and colonialism are stronger than a nation’s right to sovereignty, says The Anarchy (and a lot of history).

Mir Jafar meets Robert Clive after the Battle of Plassey, in a painting by Francis Hayman (Image via Wikicommons)

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