Encounters with India too often end up like bad first dates. Governments sometimes convince themselves they can construct strategic alliances or natural complementarities, only to be disappointed. Some of the businesses which try to establish themselves are dismayed by corruption or bureaucracy. Tourists fall ill, touring cricket teams lose, false dawns in relationships can be followed by false sunsets. Such illusions and follies can be overcome only by deep, long, intense immersion therapy with India. William Dalrymple is an expert in that art.
Dalrymple published his first book on India three decades ago. Since then, he has not only sustained an admirable momentum with his writing but also organised the world's most enjoyable literary festival,at Jaipur in Rajasthan. Hard work, tough love, intelligence and discernment combined, refining those qualities has turned Dalrymple into a genuine expert on Indian history and culture.
Now he has written a history of rapacious, voracious capitalism, red in tooth and claw. His is the tale of "the world's first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok", the East India Company (EIC). Dalrymple has focused specifically on the 47 years (from 1756 onwards) in which the EIC conquered much of India, set up its own army and controlled nearly half Britain's trade, thereby transforming a little joint venture enterprise into "the most powerful corporation in history". Imagine if the Goths and Vandals had been a private, capitalist enterprise when they ransacked Rome, or the Ottomans when they besieged Constantinople. The EIC achieved "a corporate coup unparalleled in history".
Dalrymple tells a good story, lots of them, and can guide the reader through endless dynasties, wars, plots and bloodshed.
In appraising John Company, an economist might prefer a more technical, chart-based, statistics-laden approach. In his turn, a military historian might surreptitiously turn to Bernard Cornwell's extravagantly vivid novels about the EIC's battles against the Mysore Sultanate and the Maratha Confederacy. Dalrymple includes only cursory treatment of the Company's decline and dissolution after India's first war of independence (1857). Opium wars and hideous massacres would define that second-half narrative.
Dalrymple has, however, already dealt with the tragedies and horrors of the war of independence in his most compelling book, The Last Mughal. Readers seeking a more comprehensive, if polemical, account of how the British looted and ruined India should buy Shashi Tharoor's Inglorious Empire.
This book then tells a story, or, in the Dalrymple manner, one story after another after another still. It is inconceivable that Indian history would ever run out of poignant, dramatic tales, but most of those stories will be novelties to a non-Indian, non-specialist reader. Dalrymple revels in his use of previously un-translated, un-published Persian documents, and makes the most out of that material. Some of that cache necessarily comprises a top-down, nawabs-and-nabobs perspective. Ordinary folk in India only really spoke up when they refused to bite cartridges in 1857, precipitating the war which destroyed the EIC.
In his book on early British imperialism in Afghanistan, Dalrymple chose to include parallels and parables with recent history. Here the lessons learned sections are quite specific and categorical. Rapacity, murder, theft, lies, bribery and thuggery are given a name.
Dalrymple draws conclusions about "the relevance of history's most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power". If that wording might seem too stark and simple, the detail about the EIC as a model or prototype for multinational companies is more nuanced.
Dalrymple certainly concedes that Walmart is not going to wage wars, just as amazon is not likely to loot an entire country. With the EIC, the British sub-contracted its dirty work by ostensibly privatising the conquest of a country.
Rewards, risks, responsibility and guilt (insofar as there was any) were out-sourced. "Shady, brutal; and mercantile" are the first adjectives Dalrymple uses about the Company, but they by no means exhaust his thesaurus.
Dalrymple tells a good story, lots of them, and can guide the reader through endless dynasties, wars, plots and bloodshed. On the English side, Clive and Hastings are judiciously dissected. The Company's Indian adversaries are given their due, emerging as consistently more refined and sophisticated than England's mercenaries.
"Loot' was one of our first borrow words from Hindi. That noun is really a euphemism for the wholesale extortion and plunder on which the EIC based its fortunes. If there are any heroes left in Dalrymple's story, they are the charming and handsome Shah Alam as well as the Tipu Sultan, who waged four wars over 32 years against the EIC. Both came to bad, sad ends.
Dalrymple is always alert to irony, whether at play in the narrative or lurking at the edge of court paintings. (The Anarchy is lavishly and beautifully illustrated.) He can pick out an arresting detail, even in lethally dire punishments like being flayed with tiger claws or obliged to wear leather drawers filled with live cats.
Amid all the back and forth between warring groups, the sweetest rejoinder is reserved for a courtesan invited to sleep with her conqueror: "Having ridden an elephant before, I cannot agree to ride an ass".
- The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, by William Dalrymple. Bloomsbury, $30.
- William Dalrymple will be in conversation about his book in an ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event on October 29, at 6pm at Kambri Cultural Centre, ANU. Bookings at anu.edu.au/events or 6125 4144.