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East India Company: the original corporate raiders

How the British trading behemoth took control of 200 million people and one of the richest empires on Earth.

In 1930, a book emerged by the young American historian and philosopher Will Durant that occasioned apoplectic outrage in British colonial India. The Case for India was a brief but savage indictment of the British Raj, written in indignant passion with the forensic precision of the historian and the moral empathy of the philosopher. Durant had interrupted a research visit to India, part of a worldwide journey that would result in the 11-volume The Story of Civilisation (1935-75), to record what he saw and read of Britain’s “conscious and deliberate bleeding of India”. So shocked was he by “the invasion and destruction of a high civilization by a trading Company [the British East India Company] utterly without scruple or principle”, that he set aside his research into the ancient past to produce a philippic about the present, depicting in wounding terms this “greatest crime in all history”.

Durant’s portrait of a corporation running amok, “overrunning with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing”, profoundly shocked its readers in 1930. The plunder of India marked the beginning of the destruction of a thriving and prosperous civilisation, and its supplanting, eventually, by the rise to global dominance of imperial Britain.

At the beginning of the 19th century, as the British economic historian Angus Maddison has demonstrated, India’s share of the world economy was around 23 per cent, almost as large as all of Europe put together. (It had been 27 per cent in 1700, when the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s treasury raked in £100m in tax revenues alone.) By the time the British departed India, it had dropped to just over 3 per cent. The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was substantially financed by its depredations in India.

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It all began when a group of burghers were granted a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 to incorporate themselves as the East India Company, in order to trade in profitable Indian commodities, notably silk and spices, which were in great demand. The Company set out to establish outposts in India. The first British expedition to land in India, led by William Hawkins in 1608-09, found it hard going. Things improved slightly when the British ambassador Thomas Roe presented his credentials from King James I in 1615 to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, then the world’s mightiest monarch, at whose court the Englishman was a humble supplicant. After three years of effort, Roe established a Mughal-East India Company relationship based on trade, not attempted military domination.

In order to conduct its trading activities, the Company set up outposts (known as “factories”) along the coast, establishing settlements in what would grow into the grand port cities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. But if trade was profitable, it could also be threatened, not least by colonial rivals and local rulers. This prompted the Company – whose charter granted it the right to “wage war” – to recruit soldiers, initially to defend its premises, personnel and trade. But soon enough, in an increasingly strife-torn land, the business of commerce became the business of conquest. The Company’s factories were protected by forts, its merchants shielded (and outnumbered) by armed mercenaries.

As Durant pointed out, the India that the East India Company gradually took over by conquest was no primitive country, but a prosperous and sophisticated civilisation. It accounted, William Dalrymple tells us in The Anarchy, for a fifth of the world’s population and a quarter of the globe’s manufactured goods, while England, with a 20th of India’s population, produced 3 per cent of the world’s manufactured goods.

India’s accomplishments and prosperity, its vast and varied industries, meant that it was considerably ahead of any nation in Europe. It had been a producer and exporter of fine cotton, wool, linen and silk for nearly two millennia. It mastered jewellery making, metalworking (steel, silver, gold and brass) and architecture – of which the Taj Mahal was but the best-known example – and had a great shipbuilding tradition, which was used not for naval warfare but, in conjunction with merchant bankers, for commerce and trade by land and sea.

The scale of British conquest could scarcely have been imagined when the Company first set out. The Mughal empire in India was vast, extending west to east from Afghanistan to what is today Bangladesh, and from Kashmir in the north to what is today Karnataka in the south. The Mughal empire had been weakened by internal rivalries and fratricidal wars, the growing independence of its provincial governors and the increasing fecklessness of its monarchs.

The devastating sacking of Delhi by the Persian invader Nader Shah in 1739 accelerated the collapse of Mughal authority. Chaos ensued; while the emperor hung on to his throne, his significance was largely symbolic, as provincial satraps paying him nominal allegiance asserted control over their own regions. Meanwhile the Marathas, formidable military warriors from central India, also grew in power, establishing their own rule over large pockets of the Mughal dominions.

This was the anarchy that the Company took advantage of. In 1757 the Company’s commander, Robert Clive, won a stunning victory over the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud- Daulah, at the Battle of Plassey, through a combination of military strength and double- dealing. Clive engineered the betrayal of the nawab by one of his closest nobles, Mir Jafar, who was duly placed on his throne, in exchange for surrendering a vast fortune (25m rupees, or £325m in today’s money) and granting the Company control of Bengal. Clive began the practice of transferring the contents of Indian treasuries to the Company’s coffers in England as the spoils of conquest. (“Nader Shah had shown the way,” Dalrymple tartly observes.)

There was no looking back. In August 1765 the young and weakened Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II was in no condition to resist when the Company pressed him into issuing an imperial edict giving “the high and mighty, the noblest of exalted nobles, the chief of illustrious warriors, our faithful servants and sincere well-wishers, worthy of our royal favours, the English Company” the right to collect revenue in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. A British company had supplanted the Mughal government; but this was no ordinary business, since it wielded its own private army and exacted deference from rulers across the country. India would never be the same again.

As a number of warring principalities battled for authority, the Company wrested control of India from the collapsing Mughal empire. It enjoyed several advantages: powerful artillery (the Brown Bess muskets, in particular), superior European-style military techniques and the armour of an utterly amoral cynicism. The Company displaced Muslim nawabs and Hindu maharajas for the right price, emptied their treasuries, took over their states through various means of coercion (including, from the 1840s, the cynical “doctrine of lapse” whenever a ruler died without an heir), and stripped farmers of their ownership of the lands they had tilled for generations. With the absorption of each native state, as a company official observed in the 1840s, “the little court disappears, trade languishes, the capital decays, the people are impoverished, the Englishman flourishes, and acts like a sponge, drawing up riches from the banks of the Ganges, and squeezing them down upon the banks of the Thames”.

The Mughal court was reduced to a combination of fig-leaf and rubber-stamp for the British. Shah Alam II and his successors lived on the sufferance of the Company. “What honour is left to us,” Dalrymple quotes a Mughal official named Narayan Singh asking around 1765, “when we have to take orders from a handful of traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms?” But honour was an irrelevant concern for his emperor’s “faithful servants and sincere well-wishers”. The Company – “the most advanced capitalist organisation in the world”, Dalrymple calls it – ran India, and like all companies, it had one principal concern animating its capitalist masters in London: the bottom line.

The century after Clive’s victory at Plassey saw the East India Company extending its control over most of India. By the 1750s the business from Bengal alone accounted for a fifth of Britain’s total export trade. At the start of the 19th century the Company’s army employed 260,000 men and enjoyed the backing of the British government and parliament.

In 1803, where Dalrymple’s narrative reaches its climax, the Company’s troops marched into Delhi and seized the old and terrified Mughal monarch. Dalrymple does not cover the half-century thereafter, when Lord Dalhousie, governor-general from 1847, annexed a quarter of a million square miles of territory from Indian rulers in just eight years. Until 1857, when an open revolt – the “Indian Mutiny” – led to the takeover of the Company’s domains by the British Crown, the East India Company ruled over a subcontinent. It presided over the destinies of more than 200 million people, determined their economic, social and political life, collected taxes, reshaped society and education, introduced (and profited grossly from) the railways and financed the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Its shareholders had reason to be pleased.

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This is the story Dalrymple tells, and he tells it exceedingly well, with a command of both the sweeping historical summary and the telling anecdote. His style is fluent and compelling, with only the occasional indulgence – “buttery Elizabethan burghers, their white-bearded faces nestling in a feathery tangle of cambric ruffs”. As a historian, he is sure-footed in his command of his material, which is leavened by a fondness for gossipy detail: Dalrymple recounts, for instance, that the Company grandee Francis Day established Madras at a location chosen only because it was convenient for him to pursue his romantic assignations with a Tamil lady whose village lay just inland from the new British settlement. A throwaway line mentions “the Raja from Tipperary”, a former Irish cabin-boy turned artillery captain. Another footnote narrates the story of Captain James Stewart, killed by a sniper in 1779, whose head is still worshipped at a shrine in the local police station.

Dalrymple is a storyteller, not a polemicist; he lays out his narrative in unsparing detail and leaves the readers to draw their own conclusions. In his recounting of events and motivations he skilfully depicts both the chaos and anarchy that enveloped India when the British seized their chance, and the cynicism and avarice that propelled most British actions. What is clear, though, from his extensive reading of contemporary records, accounts and correspondence, is that the self-serving myth that the British acquired India in a “fit of absent-mindedness” is utterly false. The British knew what they were doing at every stage, even when luck, weather and happenstance enabled some of their more unlikely successes.

At the same time, he gives us enough information to read between the lines. We are told, for instance, that the British in 1756 made no effort to save the “Black Town” in Calcutta – where their “native” servants lived – from the depredations of the invading Siraj ud-Daulah, nor to offer shelter in the fort to the terrified victims of the marauders: “No wonder, then, that… all the Indian support staff… defected, leaving the garrison without lascars to pull the guns, coolies to carry shot and powder, carpenters to build batteries and repair the gun carriages, or even cooks to feed the militia.” The words “racism” or “apartheid” nowhere occur in this volume, but the reader will have no difficulty finding the seeds of both in the early days of the empire’s establishment.

It is hard to disagree with most of Dalrymple’s assessments, whether of the role of the opportunistic Indian merchant bankers – the Jagat Seths, who dealt at their peak with as much money as the Bank of England – in the triumph of the East India Company (they financed the Company’s overthrow of rulers they saw as hostile to their trading interests and profits), or of the weaknesses, faults and sheer cruelty of many of the Indian princes whom the British defeated.

He comes to even-handed conclusions on such contentious issues as the “Black Hole of Calcutta”, the tale of the imprisonment and suffocation in 1756 of British prisoners by Siraj ud-Daulah. British mythologisers described it in lurid terms to whip up outrage at home and justify the Company’s conquest as righteous revenge. Dalrymple is also good on the positive qualities of the “connoisseur and intellectual” Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, Britain’s most redoubtable Indian military opponent. Tipu Sultan – who invited Napoleon to come from Egypt to help him defeat the British, and died heroically in battle in 1799 – was a Muslim ruler now unjustly demonised by India’s current ruling establishment as an Islamic fanatic.

Dalrymple is unsparing in detailing how the takeover of Bengal by the Company was an “unmitigated catastrophe” for the Bengali people, a fifth of whom perished in the famine of 1770, caused and prolonged by British policy. (In historian Thomas Babington Macaulay’s words, the Company looked on Bengal as “a Buccaneer would look on a galleon”.) More contentiously, he is kind to Warren Hastings, the subject of the most famous impeachment trial in British parliamentary history. Hastings, the Company’s former de facto governor-general of India, was tried in parliament between 1788 and 1795 on charges of corruption and malfeasance: the dramatic process, led by the Whig MPs Edmund Burke and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, amounted to an indictment of Company rule in India.

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When Lord Wellesley, governor- general of Bengal, whose reputation Dalrymple does much to restore, heard of the death of Tipu Sultan, he raised a toast: “I drink to the corpse of India.” Dalrymple contents himself in The Anarchy with describing the “most extraordinary corporate takeover in history” – the first 200 years of the Company’s existence, 1599-1799, culminating in British dominance of the whole of India by 1803. A sequel to extend the narrative to 1857 would have been most welcome, and would surely warrant as many pages; but Dalrymple disposes of it in two. The corpse of India did rise in 1857, against the Company that mutilated it, drained it of everything it possessed and then stitched it back together again. After the Crown then took over the Raj, the East India Company, shorn of its grandest possession, wound up in 1874. A few years ago, its brand name was acquired by a Gujarati Indian businessman who uses it to sell “condiments and fine foods” from a showroom in the West End of London.

The Anarchy ends on a minatory note, finding parallels between the dominance today of “multinational finance systems and global markets”, and the overweening power of the East India Company, whose story “has never been more current”. That is a departure from the historian’s engaging narrative and seems to be a hastily tacked-on “current affairs” justification for the book. The Anarchy is a lucidly written, knowledgeable and gripping work of narrative history; it doesn’t need the lecture. It is well worth reading in its own right.

Shashi Tharoor’s most recent book is “Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India” (Penguin)

 

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company
William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury, 576pp, £30

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos