Book Review: The Anarchy

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And The Pillage Of An Empire, by William Dalrymple

This book, like a great deal of anti-imperial as well as anti-corporate propaganda, rests on flawed assumptions. The assumption is that corporate villainy is something inherent within capitalism itself, without recognizing that crony capitalism and overmighty companies like the East India Company (or its Dutch equivalent) are powerful themselves because they serve as the unofficial agents of state power. Anarchy is ultimately not in the best interests of companies and their profitability, because profit depends on there being an orderly exchange of goods and services and the currency to purchase them. This is not to say that the British conquest of India was entirely orderly–it was not–but that is not the fault of the East India company itself. That is not to say that this is a bad book, for it tells an interesting story from an interesting point of view about the collapse of Mughal power and the rise of the British and about the various conflicts that took place over the course of the period between roughly 1750 and 1800 that changed the history of India and of Great Britain in very dramatic ways and that brought a great deal of suffering to some of the people the book talks about.

This book is a fairly long one at about 400 pages in length. The book begins with maps, a lengthy discussion of the people discussed in its pages, and an introduction that sets up the author’s anti-British position. At this point the author begins with the early history of the East India company (1), which had very modest beginnings indeed for quite a long time. The author also spends a great deal of time talking about the increasing chaos and confusion within the Mughal Empire that gave the British the space to increase their power and influence (2). This is followed by a look at the companies rise to increasing power first in Bengal (3), which it sought first through indirect means and then, later on, after the failure of native rulers, through more direct leadership (4). This leads to a discussion of the bloodshed and confusion of the last half of the 18th century (5) as well as the famine suffered by India as well as the lack of profits this meant for shareholders (6). The author then reflects on the desolation of Delhi (7), which had more to do with the failure of the Mughal defenses against Afghanistan and to the disunity of Northern India than with British fault, as well as the unfortunate impeachment of Warren Hastings, who comes off here like a scapegoat (8), and the corpse of India that was left for the British to rule (9), after which the book ends with an epilogue, glossary, notes, bibliography, image credits, and index.

It is hard to do justice to companies. One of the things that this book reveals is that the efforts by the East India Company to make themselves too big to fail ended up bringing them under increasing government regulation that eventually, after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (out of the scope of this book’s discussion) legislated the company out of existence and took over India directly as a crown colony. For the shareholders of the East India Company to make money, they required a fair amount of peace as well as the orderly transportation of tea and other supplies as well as the payment of rents in a timely fashion. Anarchy did not help any of these things take place, and although it can be said that the company itself took advantage of the great disunity of India as well as the collapse of the governing class of the subcontinent, it is not as if the company or its shareholders profited from this to any great degree. And to be sure, the people of India did not profit from this chaos either, as many of them died horribly or suffered terrible indignities, as was the case of the poor and longsuffering Moghul Emperor who spent most of his reign as a beggar to those powerful enough to offer protection and suffered incredible indignities at the hand of a former Afghan favorite who took cruel revenge. Yet many of the people in the book, including Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, who were on the side of the company suffered horribly and unjustly as well, suggesting that this was a common fate of the times and not something that should make us sympathetic for Indians as opposed to British.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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