Saturday, 10 October 2020

Book review: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple (2019)

I bought this book at Gleebooks for the usual price while there to pick up something else. The cover and the introduction promise one view of events, but the text delivers another.

This mismatch between a politically-correct view and one steeped in history is striking. Or at least it was for me. Dalrymple’s book is interesting for what it brings in the form of extracts from previously unused original sources, but the book’s gist – the East India Company (EIC) grew in power and influence almost despite itself – was already known to me from prior reading.

Founded by former pirates in London at the time of Old Queen Bess, the EIC had an inauspicious start. Steady application of a simple set of principles for 150 years led, in the mid-18th century, to it being embroiled in a new set of circumstances tied to what should be thought of as the first world war – between England and France. This conflict culminated in 1759 but the seeds of Company expansion were sown in North America; to be exact, in the Ohio wilderness. 

It was the French who first applied superior European military tactics in the subcontinent, but without French expansionary policies the EIC wouldn’t have started rebuilding the defences at Fort William (in modern-day Kolkata). This circumstance enraged the local Nabob, Siraj ud-Daula, who attacked it. His action led to an aggressive soldier named Robert Clive being brought in. Clive was later used by local bankers – the Jagat Seth – to get rid of the Nabob and install in his place Mir Jafar. But once British fighting abilities had been proven in the field that became a tempting recourse for local rulers eager to overcome their Indigenous enemies. Here lies the key to understanding what wasn’t a relentless rise at all but, rather, a rapid upslope followed by a bumpy plateau during which the Company’s dominance was tested by various actors.

The first use of the term “anarchy” precedes Plassey (the battlefield where Clive won against the Nabob’s forces) by a number of years. This is due to the fact that the Mughal emperor’s power had already waned and that other Persians were happy to capitalise on this fact. (The Mughal Emperor himself was of Persian background.)

Dalrymple sometimes ignores the sources he gained access to. On at least one occasion a source quoted in the book says one thing and then, immediately afterward, Dalrymple says the opposite. In general the text is undercooked and it’s clear that the author is not an academic. 

A bit more rigour would have improved things but Dalrymple’s method – to use individual events to develop a central thesis about kingship – is mostly effective. While the EIC had the knowledge and technology needed to stay ahead of those who would try to compete with it, it didn’t possess the loyalty of the people. And while the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam – which translates, optimistically, and in a way that gives you a taste of some of the chronicles of the era, as “ruler of the world” – was given help wherever he went even though he had no money and few escorts, he had no money and no military power. So the two institutions complemented each other. This is a good lesson to learn for those who say they prefer republicanism to constitutional monarchy.

More rigour might’ve been applied in cases where Dalrymple relies on primary sources, especially letters, to build a story. The kaleidoscope of influences and contemporary players – let alone the players in such debates as exist now, in the 21st century – are multiple, and include the Nabob of Calcutta (Mir Qasim), the factor of Forth William (whose name is Ellis), and the governor of Bengal, Henry Vansittart. You also have (just to make things more complex) Warren Hastings, who would go on to become the governor of India once Parliamentary control was introduced later in the 18th century. 

Just taking at face value the complaints of Mir Qasim about English traders, especially Ellis, without any corroborating evidence, is more than a bit slack, it undermines the whole enterprise, allowing innocent readers to draw conclusions that sit easily with the thesis situated in Dalrymple’s title and in his introduction but which – as we have seen – is often contradicted by other sources. To just drag in selectively chosen sources in an effort to bolster an already-discredited idea is bad scholarship. Maybe Hastings was being groomed for the position he would go on to hold? Maybe Ellis and the traders around Calcutta were just trying to do business so that the Company could earn the profits its investment warranted? Maybe Mir Qasim was unhappy with the new arrangements because it reduced his own personal income or influence? 

None of these possibilities is given much attention by Dalrymple intent, as he is, on making a point he’d already undermined. As a general rule I felt that the book is underwritten (despite the original sources) and that inadequate attention is given to individual events. More could easily be written on narrow chronological ranges, for example the Bengal Famine, or the Company’s victory at Buxar, or the relations between the Company and the Marathas. In the absence of such sustained scholarship, Dalrymple allows himself to veer skittishly across wide swathes of territory without sufficiently describing their peculiarities and characteristics. It’s like writing an account of a visit to India without getting of the train at any of the stations on the way from point A to point B.

In fact the rise of the Company wasn’t relentless and it wasn’t accomplished without falls. Indeed, there were many low points along the way, but one thing is certain is that the quantity of written material to do with it is one reason why it’s possible to read about people who might otherwise be ignored by history. Indeed, Dalrymple should have gone further and spent more time examining the lives of the common people rather than focusing to the exclusion of most else on the military and political activities of the great men of the era. If the Company is a lens through which to view an entire civilisation, then historians are obliged by the desires of their readers to raise up the little man and to show what life was like before the Company began its rise and what life was like afterward. For example, Dalrymple is quick to censure Robert Clive on account of insider trading, but he neglects to illustrate for the reader’s benefit what hardship for local artisans looked like in the wake of the victory at Buxar.

You can’t see the forest for the trees. Excited by the quantity of material he gained access to in his researches, it appears that Dalrymple has done what any undergraduate soon enough learns not to do: put everything in. And the emphasis on the political aspects of British India and the decline of the Mughal Empire is less than satisfactory, bringing me back to the fact that the troubles many communities had in the years between 1600 and 1850 can be slated to the effects of greed by a range of actors, notably the Persians.

This book was a missed opportunity and better editing wouldn’t have fixed its problems. A more serious and thoughtful approach to its subject matter – and possibly more time – might’ve allowed the author to produce something of lasting purpose.

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