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A Licence to Print Money

Philip McDonagh

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, by William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury, 576 pp, £30, ISBN: 9781635573954

William Dalrymple has written yet another enjoyable book, a substantial work in which the glossary, notes, and bibliography add one hundred pages to a narrative that already ran to four hundred. Above all, this is an important book, which builds on some of Dalrymple’s earlier work, such as The Last Mughal (the Delhi of 1857) and Return of a King (the Afghan Wars). The illustrations are superb.

The Anarchy is not so much a complete history of the East India Company as a survey of the struggles for power in eighteenth century India in which “the Company” was at first only one of several players. Hence, the “relentless rise” of the book’s title. One of Dalrymple’s principal strengths is his ability to draw on multiple sources in constructing his narrative. The Persian-language historian Ghulam Hussain Khan is frequently quoted and deserves to be much better known. It is good also to be reminded that some of the most important sources for the period are French.

Dalrymple’s book is important because we can read it through a contemporary political lens, with two questions in mind. Last month, the writer Simon Kuper said in the Financial Times that “Britain has a uniquely untroubled relationship with its past, and a suspicion of anything new.” Does Dalrymple belong to the “untroubled” school of historiography? How far does he go to temper the twentieth century view (Philip Mason) that “no other people in history can equal their record [the record of British administrators in India] of disinterested guardianship”? In Brexit Britain, the difference between nostalgia and historical literacy is very important for the future. (The same applies, of course, in every other society.)

My second question concerns the relevance of the East India Company to current debates about the future of the market economy. This September, 181 American CEOs made a statement concerning the responsibilities of business to “stakeholders”. This can be seen as an opening to new thinking about the relationship between for-profit and not-for-profit factors in the workings of the economy.

There is, of course, a long-standing view that the “conscious will of England expressed in Parliament” (Mason) eventually curtailed the abuses of the East India Company. In this view, Warren Hastings is a benign transitional figure: “since Akbar, no one of this stature had walked the Indian stage” (Mason). Though Dalrymple is noticeably pro-Hastings, his focus in The Anarchy on the eighteenth century does not give him the space to develop an “evolutionary” vision of how the “Company” may or may not have mellowed into the Raj. Dalrymple does, however, expose the structural factors that made the original East India Company such an inherently defective enterprise.

An “untroubled relationship” with unearned privilege, like an “untroubled relationship with the past”, is best addressed by new forms of historical and political literacy. Our understanding of limited companies and their prerogatives, no less than a critical scrutiny of the past, is key to our shared future. In 1600, a group of London merchants received from the government of Elizabeth a charter to trade with the East Indies. This was in defiance of a papal ruling dating from the beginning of the sixteenth century conferring on the Portuguese the rights of exploration, conquest and trade in an easterly direction (Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, India). The Indian economy at that moment was several times greater than that of Britain.

The first Company ship reached India in 1608. A “factory” (warehouse) was established in Surat on the west coast in 1612. In 1668, King Charles leased Bombay Island (which he had received as part of his wife’s dowry) to the East India Company. In the seventeenth century the Company gradually built up a position on the opposite coast of India in Bengal and Madras. Throughout this period it was accepted by the Westminster parliament that the Company should have a military wing. Three dates stand out in the following century. In 1709, a merger with a rival English company led to a rebranding of the enterprise as the Honourable East India Company. In 1757, Robert Clive won the Battle of Plassey, establishing the Company as the de facto power across a wide swathe of the subcontinent. Following the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the Company became primarily a tax-gathering operation, to which the Mughal emperor acquiesced under duress.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Honourable East India Company lost its trade monopoly. However, it was allowed, in practice, to govern India. Only the rebellion of 1857 forced a change of thinking on Westminster. Through changes in name, focus, and legal basis, the Company had lasted for 250 years. Its development had a profound effect on America and China as well as on the Indian subcontinent. High officials made personal fortunes through exploitation, plunder, and bribery. In the early nineteenth century, the Company had a private army of 250,000 men, greater than that of the European nation states. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its financial and corporate manoeuvres were at the cutting edge of global trends. Dalrymple has chosen an epic theme.

For the greatest historian of all, Thucydides, the terrible suffering of ordinary people is the main reason for researching and recording the past. The dissonance at the heart of Thucydides’ narrative – the vision of a civilisation, the errors and sufferings of humanity – is not evaded or subjected to any kind of premature synthesis. The Anarchy largely meets this test of dissonance. Dalrymple begins well, with his choice of title; the Mughal historians characterized the eighteenth century as a period of anarchy; Dalrymple does not contest their judgment. At one point, he quotes Ghulam Hussain Khan:

Then it was that the Sun of Justice and Equity … declined downwards, degree by degree, and at last entirely set in the Occident of ignorance, imprudence, violence, and civil wars … There arose new sorts of men, who so far from setting up patterns of piety and virtue, squandered the lives and properties of the poor so shamelessly that other men, on beholding their conduct, became bolder and bolder, and practised the worst and ugliest actions, without fear or remorse. From those men have sprung an infinity of evil-doers, who plague the Indian world, and grind the faces of its wretched inhabitants … Evils are now risen to such heights, as render a remedy impossible … One is apt to think that this world is overwhelmed with darkness.

Ghulam Hussain Khan has a Thucydidean vision: the ubiquity of conflict, the emergence of a “new social type”, the unparalleled suffering of ordinary people, the fading of religion, the absence of any remedy, the downhill trajectory of a whole civilisation.

Dalrymple does not scale these poetic heights. He does, however, begin his book bluntly and effectively:

One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot.

He does not disguise the East India Company’s essential nature in its period of expansion:

… seizing great chunks of India … a dangerously unregulated private company … managed by a violent, utterly ruthless, and intermittently unstable corporate predator [Robert Clive] … a for-profit corporation which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors …

Nor does he disguise the facts of the great famine in Bengal that began in 1769 and led to millions of deaths:

Company efforts to alleviate the famine were contemptible … The Company administration as a whole did not engage in any famine relief works … Nor did it make seed or credit available to the vulnerable even though the government had ample cash reserves … To maintain their revenues at a time of low production and high military expenditure, the Company rigorously enforced tax collection and in some cases even increased revenue assessments by 10 per cent … They erected gibbets in prominent places to hang those who resisted tax collection … There was no question of cuts to the military budget, even as a fifth of Bengal was starving to death … At the height of the Bengal famine, an astounding £1,086,255 was transferred to London by Company executives … the share price was now higher than it had ever been … [the shareholders] celebrated by voting themselves an unprecedented 12.5 per cent dividend …

Dalrymple’s verdict that this was “one of the greatest failures of corporate responsibility in history” seems limp under the circumstances. However, The Anarchy does not seek to perpetuate “an untroubled relationship with the past”. Against the background of today’s English nationalism, Dalrymple makes a brave and significant contribution to historical literacy.

Using a technique he has employed before, Dalrymple provides a dramatis personae list at the beginning of the book. And he demonstrates by his choice of protagonists, of whom I count thirty-three, that he is attempting to look at history from the perspective of different actors: the British, the French, the Mughals, the Nawabs, the Rohillas, the Sultans of Mysore, the Marathas. This takes us a distance from some other histories of India and represents progress.

However, what about history’s hidden men and women? The story of The Anarchy is largely centred on portraits of “great men” ‑ Clive, Hastings, the Wellesleys, Lord Lake and their like, plus leaders in other camps who are less familiar to European readers. What has happened to the insight of Ghulam Hussain Khan? “There arose new sorts of men, who so far from setting up patterns of piety and virtue, squandered the lives and properties of the poor – and did so in such a shameless way that their way of thinking and acting spread like a contagion throughout India.”

Some of Dalrymple’s pen portraits of powerful actors are, as one might expect, worth having, especially the rounded portrayal of Shah Alam, the Mughal emperor. Here was a legitimate ruler, a man of sorrows who wrote poetry even after his blinding by a violent warlord. Other portraits are tinged, however, with an ancient Roman colouring; as if we are meeting the heroes of what we may begin to think of as an adventure story. General Lake, well-known in Ireland, is “famous for his boyish charm” and even (at one point) “chivalrous”. Overall, Dalrymple might have told us more about the demography and culture of the subcontinent and the lives of the ordinary people who paid the taxes.

I would also like to have heard more about the “unheroic dead who fed the guns” in all these wars, and their widows and orphans. In eighteenth century India, as elsewhere, there is a nexus involving, on the one hand, the status and intense inner life of armies, and on the other hand, the patterns of economic exploitation. This was as true under local rulers as under the British. On the British side, the forces of both the Company and the government relied heavily on sepoys and of course Irish and Scottish recruits looking for an escape from serfdom. The common soldiers fought with courage. But anyone who has dipped into the Recollections of Rifleman Harris will understand both the precariousness of everyday life that drove men into military service and the ever-present savagery that ensured the discipline of Wellington’s armies.

What lessons are to be learned from the story of the East India Company? William Dalrymple wants us to see, I think, that the Company, like its counterparts in other countries, was an ethical fiasco from several points of view. It waged war without legitimate authority. It “ground the faces of the poor” (Ghulam Hussain Khan). It corrupted politics at Westminster through bribery. It was a rent-seeking association, if “rent” means a scale of rewards that bears no relationship to the work done or any conceivable common good. It sought monopoly. It was “too big to fail” and had to be rescued by taxpayers.

There are wider issues that Dalrymple does not take up in The Anarchy. The nineteenth century Opium War, in part a consequence of the Company’s activities, was fought in the name of free trade. The most obvious point about the Company, by contrast, is that it depended not on free trade, but on access to military power (see Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Estrangement). Some Asian historians appear to believe that the goal, conscious or otherwise, was to prevent the economic development of India and China; while some Indian historians have taken up the even more delicate subject of the impact of British intervention on the religions of India.

One line of Indian cultural development runs from Ashoka through Akbar to Gandhi. The core values in this tradition are peace, an option for the poor, and in some cases the rejection of the Western economic model. Gandhi is the key figure. This line of development owes something to a nineteenth century tradition of inter-religious dialogue associated with Ram Mohan Roy and later Swami Vivekananda, whose assistant Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble) was Irish.

Another line of development gathers strength in the twentieth century with the Hindu nationalist RSS (whose members drill in uniform), the Vishva Hindu Parishad (an international cultural organisation), the currently ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and more recently the emergence of the Hindu equivalent of mega-churches and the “gospel of prosperity”. These movements are premised in part on what many Indian people have seen as the vulnerability of Hindus in the face of the more assertive and aggressive personal style of many Western religious believers. Warren Hastings had some understanding of what was at stake when he praised the “gentle and benevolent” character of the Hindus and warned the English “to leave their religious creed to the Being who has so long endured it …”

There was a time when the East India Company was often (rightly) compared to Anglo-Persian Oil in Iran, United Fruits in Guatemala and ITT in Chile, the main ethical issue posed by such multinational companies being violent political intervention on their behalf. William Dalrymple, in a short epilogue, seeks to broaden the ethical issue to “the 300-year-old question of how to cope with the power and perils of large multinational corporations”. Telling references are made to the bank collapses of 2007-’09 and the role of money in politics.

It is perhaps a weakness that Dalrymple does not find space to draw parallels between the East India Company and companies that operated in other parts of the British domains (including the slave-traders), and between the British companies and forms of colonial exploitation developed by the Netherlands (the Dutch East India Company) and other European countries ‑ all of whom knew, or ought to have known, that they were acting unjustly. This bigger picture raises even larger questions about the roots of today’s lop-sided, carbon-intensive economy.

Dalrymple’s peroration deserves to be quoted extensively, opening as it does (whether we agree or disagree) a whole new horizon for historical and political studies:

… our world is far from post-imperial, and quite probably never will be. Instead Empire is transforming itself into forms of global power that use campaign contributions and commercial lobbying, multinational finance systems and global markets, corporate influence and the predictive data harvesting of the new surveillance capitalism …

In the end, Dalrymple understands very well the values that were in play in the “relentless rise” of the East India Company.


Philip McDonagh has published poetry and plays with Dedalus and Arlen House. Among his many postings as a diplomat, he served as ambassador to India (and is an Overseas Citizen of India). Under the auspices of the Edward M Kennedy Institute (Maynooth), he is principal author of a report (2019) on religion and security-building in the wider European region.



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