In his characteristically vivid style, William Dalrymple describes the wholesale loot of the wealth of the Mughal Empire of India by a handful of directors sitting in a nondescript London building. The amount of wealth - to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars in today's amounts - that the East India Company pilfered through deceit, shrewd military support of warring local factions and downright pilfering was staggering, and so was the complete political takeover of India by the Company; today''s giant corporations are downright tame compared to it.
At the center of the Company's early activities was Robert Clive, a greedy Company officer who enriched himself beyond measure by bribing the local general to desert the Nawab (lord) of Bengal during his hour of need. The Company was beyond the reach of any kind of regulation, and in fact it engineered the first corporate lobbying in modern history by bribing members of the British parliament and making sure they would not curb its power as well as the first corporate bailout by being "too big to fail". Tactics like insider trading (Clive bought shares of the Company right after defeating the Nawab of Bengal) and using military force to threaten businessmen and leaders were not just ignored but considered an essential part of enriching the Empire and making sure it stayed ahead of the Dutch, Portugese and French who had gotten a foothold in India and the East before the British did.
Dalrymple also paints a vivid portrait of mid-18th century India and especially Bengal, giving us snapshots of everyday lives of rich and poor alike as well as gradually encroaching Company establishments; the man sure knows how to write great narrative history. It was largely through trading with Europeans that the sleepy villages of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta grew into great cities. There was unprecedented wealth in the form of jewels, spices and animal skins, but also great poverty and inequality. Dalrymple similarly has sharp character portraits of key British leaders like Clive and Warren Hastings and Indian political leaders like Shah Alam, Mahadji Scindia and Siraj Ud Daula. The one complaint I have is that Dalrymple minimizes the cruel history of the Mughal Empire itself - an empire that had taken over India by invasion, looting and killing - while emphasizing the atrocities of others. Also somewhat problematic in the same vein is his extensive quoting of single Mughal sources like Ghulam Hussain Khan that may paint a biased picture. On the other hand, I generally appreciated Dalrymple's copious, constant references to first-hand accounts.
The East India Company came to India at the turn of the 16th century, when this Empire was at its peak and relatively tolerant and flourishing, and bided its time before waiting for a fortunate (for them, unfortunate for India) confluence of factors, including the weakening of Delhi and its affluence by raids by the Persian Emperor Nader Shah from the North and the Maratha Empire from the South and internal squabbling and division among local nawabs and factions. The Mughal Empire was now crumbling and the time was right to strike, and making the pretense of wanting to squelch French expansion, the British struck Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and Buxar in 1764. They further weakened the two other ruling powers in India over the next thirty years - the Marathas and the Mysore Empire, which were defeated and their leaders deposed or killed in a series of engagements from the late 1790s to the early 1800s. This was in spite of key British defeats in the 1780s by the Marathas and the Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan which were serious enough to threaten to undo Company rule for good: The tragedy was that while the Marathas especially were often equal or even better than the British in terms of manpower, strategy, and even technology (they acquired a lot of cutting-edge artillery technology and military strategy for the French), their lack of unity and funding and internal shifting alliances doomed them.
It didn't help that India itself was divided among religious, linguistic, caste and regional lines, and many Indian local leaders foolishly enlisted the support of the Company in fighting local wars, not realizing that when it was was over they would be in the Company's pockets. Self-serving businessmen like the Jagat Seths also took the side of the British against their own people, and one of the most revealing aspects of Dalrymple's account is how the British started eventually winning not because of superior strategy or manpower but simply because they were better funded by a handful of leading Indian businessmen who realized that they were better at paying their debts. One of the Peshwas (Brahmin leader of the Maratha Empire) tried to reach out to his traditional rivals to form a unified coalition when he realized the existential threat the Company poses, but by then it was too late. When the dust had settled, the East India Company essentially ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent, had established a steady system of pillage shipping India's wealth over to England through taxation and downright theft and had made all regional leaders puppets. At no other time has a single corporation wielded so much power and territory. There are no heroes here since all sides engaged in their own brands of atrocities and greedy pillage, but there does emerge one great villain (it's also interesting to contemplate India's history and its modernization in a counterfactual history where the British had not ruled the subcontinent). Ultimately, the Company's excesses - especially after a reign of sheer, unadulterated greed during a horrific famine in 1770 - became too much even for the British crown, and bitter denunciations started emerging from the intellectual strata of British society and the crown. Control of India finally passed to the crown after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.
The valuable warning to take away from this story is simply that to give individual corporations unfettered power without regulation can lead to great injustice and unprecedented thievery. Another important lesson for today is one which has been imparted since time immemorial, one that Edward Gibbon taught in his famous history of the Roman Empire for instance, and that is that a nation falls from within, not from outside; if Indians had been united it would have been very hard, if not impossible, for the East India Company to take over. Yet another big lesson here which is perhaps even more relevant is that even if you are individually a relatively kind and decent man, as Clive's successor Warren Hastings who genuinely loved India was, you can still be on the wrong side of history because you work for the wrong institution. Corporations are an important part of modern capitalism, but without some form of regulation it is in their very nature to enrich themselves and their shareholders at the expense of others. Finally, Dalrymple leaves us with a warning for the future: while the giant corporations of today may not command armies or take over entire countries, recent developments concerning surveillance and privacy breaches and corporate mercenaries for war indicate that the imperialistic spirit of the East India Company is not quite dead yet. All cogent lessons, vividly communicated in this superbly written history.
- Paperback: 576 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (10 September 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 140886438X
- ISBN-13: 978-1408864388
- Product Dimensions:: 23.3 x 4.6 x 15.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 862 g
- Customer reviews: 222 customer ratings
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: 1,288 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)