by Hugh Gilmore
According to the historian William Dalrymple, one of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot. In his book, “The Anarchy,” published last year, he presents a fascinating, detailed and vivid account of the looting of India.
“The Anarchy” is engagingly written with an intention to make parallels between the world of the East India Company (EIC) and modern-day mega-corporations, especially in its use of terms from current business jargon (“corporate power,” “global markets,” “commercial lobbying,” e.g.). The reader is never far from seeing modern parallels to what at first seem to be ancient conflicts.
The EIC began simply enough. In 1599, about 100 men gathered in a ramshackle London building near the Thames to sign a charter. They then petitioned Queen Elizabeth I for permission to go to India to barter, trade and buy exotic spices, timber, jewels and minerals for resale in Europe. Permission was granted and the traders went forth. If necessary, they were given permission to “wage war,” that is, defend themselves against whoever (the French, Indians, Dutch & Portuguese, mostly) might thwart or try to steal from them. By 1803, what had started as an armed guard eventually evolved into a private corporate army of over 200,000 soldiers equipped with all the latest European technology and firepower. During this span they came to dominate nearly half of the world’s trade. And by mid-century, all of India.
Establishing many of their supporters as members of Parliament helped enormously when it came to loosening any legislation that might have hindered them – another strategy that is still practiced worldwide today. But, according to Dalrymple, the single most ingenious contribution the English made to the world was the invention of the joint stock company.
Unlike the craft guilds of yore, the passive investors could own corporate shares simply by buying them, and selling them, to whomever they pleased, and the stock price could rise or fall depending on demand and success. Several charted joint stock companies preceded the EIC, but none lasted so long nor succeeded so grandly.
Pressure from stockholders and the voracious greed of the directors created what we’ve come to know in modern parallels as “grow or die.” The fattest part of this book is filled with stories of raids, counter-raids, impromptu wars, long castle sieges and tale after tale of the destruction of common folk, farmers, merchants, soldiers, traders, Indian royalty, Mughals, castles, forts, shacks and lean-tos. The detailed biographies of the principals, especially the Indian emperors, princes, chieftains, assassins, soldiers of fortune, viziers, Peshwas, diplomats and Nizams are vivid and enthralling. The betrayals and bloodletting described would make a Soprano blush. The stories, the conniving, the bravery, the viciousness, all in great detail from contemporary Indian sources and the archives of the EIC, are told with masterly command by the author.
In the epilogue of “The Anarchy,” Dalrymple returns to one of his principal themes: The East India Company was not a freak occurrence. It is a sample on a grand scale of what can happen when huge corporations are not monitored. It is in the nature of the entity itself to want and need to expand and acquire. Corporations are easily capable of buying political and legal support that do not necessarily benefit the citizens of the world or the world itself, in terms of morality, ecology, and the personal welfare of individual human beings.
His final words: “Four hundred and twenty years after its founding, the story of the East India Company has never been more current.” “The Anarchy” is a demanding, highly readable and rewarding book.
Thanks to: Chuck Gupta for writing to me last October and recommending this book.