The East India Company was not a hypocrite like the British Raj: William Dalrymple

The historian speaks to Down To Earth about his latest work, The Anarchy

By Rajat Ghai
Last Updated: Tuesday 29 October 2019

William Dalrymple is habituated to his books creating a buzz, as his new volume is doing now. The Anarchy focuses on how a joint-stock company, established by London merchants, took over practically the entire Indian subcontinent between 1756 and 1803. The historian-author spoke to Down To Earth about the East India Company and the factors that led to its ascent in South Asia. Excerpts:

What made you embark on the project? Does the death of one of your ancestors in the Black Hole of Calcutta have anything to do with it?

Absolutely nothing except in the much wider sense that I do feel that this is my family history as much as everything else. I mean not just that guy (Stair Dalrymple) but generations of my family were involved, first in the Company and then in the Raj. Along the way, I have acquired trickles of Bengali and Mughal blood. And so being Scottish as well as part-Bengali and part-Mughal, I am well-placed to see all sides of the story.

The East India Company (EIC) was also involved in the Opium Wars with China and the colonisation of Malaya. Why did you decide to focus on just its South Asian theatre of operations?

That was after this book closes. This book is not about the East India Company per se. It is about the EIC’s conquest of India between 1756 and 1803. So the Opium Wars, which were in the 1840s, are way out of the scope of this book.

Trading is an ancient vocation. We had the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean, the traders of the Silk Route in Eurasia and Indian traders in East Africa and Maritime Southeast Asia. What was so different about the traders of the EIC?

Nothing at all initially different. I think all trade in antiquity was armed trade. Chola navies set up armed factories in Southeast Asia very similar to the early EIC factories in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. In both cases, they were armed and fortified enclaves. People often forget the Indian armed colonies on the coast of Southeast Asia but you are quite right this is an exact parallel to the first stage of EIC activity.

What changed was in the 1750s when the EIC militarises on a previously unprecedented scale. It had always been, as I say, both with the Company and the other trading houses — the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Cholas — trade was usually armed in that there were so many pirates and predators on the seas in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Periods that no one went to seas trading unarmed.

So what was completely new about the EIC in the 1750s was they militarised at an unprecedented level, starting off with a few thousand sepoys, growing to 20, then a 100, then a 199. So by the 1820s, the EIC had 260,000.

The crucial moment to me is 1799, which is when the Company’s army becomes double the size of the British Army.


Can the success of the EIC and Dutch VOC (Dutch East India Company) at trade, commerce and capitalism be ascribed to their belonging to Protestant nations? What Max Weber later called the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’?

No, I think that has got very little to do with it. I think that was self-congratulation on the part of Protestants speaking of the Catholics. I think no one today should believe these racialised stereotypes about amorous Frenchmen or industrious Germans. These are not things that happen in national DNA.

The success was because the Mughal Empire in the 18th century was this very odd creature — a major industrial power that did not have a navy. And the Company for its early period, effectively became the Mughal navy. It transported Mughal textiles around Asia, Europe and even as far as Mexico.

And it was the incredible quality and quantity and skill of the weavers, particularly of Bengal that gave the EIC their unique products. They were the ones who had got the dominance of the Bengal textile trade. And this was an incredible asset at the moment when for the first time in India’s history, India had overtaken China as the world’s leading industrial producer and Indian GDP was about 37 per cent of world GDP.

In other words they were the workhouse of the world, particularly Bengal and eastern India down to the Andhra coast which was producing the incredible Kalamkaris. And yet, there was no indigenous Indian navy freighting this around the world. The Company was able to fill that gap. And initially grew on the basis of being the main trader out of those coasts.

But the Company’s success within India as an interior power was due to two things: One was the recent developments from the 1740s onwards in European military technology, including the invention of the socket bayonet, the elevating screw on artillery, new developments in ballistics, shells, grapeshot, etc.

So number one, a military edge and number two, the fact that the Indian financial classes, particularly the Marwaris in Calcutta but also the big Hindu bankers in Benares from the beginning saw the EIC as ideal partners. They repaid their loans on time… they might loot, they might plunder, they might be foreign, they might be meat eaters, they might do all sorts of things that disgusted the Marwaris privately, but they repaid their loans on time, they had courts which they could take civil complaints and commercial contracts to, they hung forgers, and they did not tax traders.

Calcutta in the early 18th century was like Dubai or Singapore today, places to which the rich flocked and could go and live in without taxation. And so initially, it was the military edge and subsequently it was the fact that they were in collaboration with the Indian financial world. 

What role did the politics of the British Isles at the time of the company’s formation play in its rise? As a Scot yourself, do you think if Scotland had not failed in the Darien Scheme, maybe, we might have had the Scots too coming to trade with the Subcontinent alongside the English?

I think that was a small part of it. I mean certainly the failure of Darien was one of the main reasons was why the Scottish elite wanted to join the Union. They saw it as a source of wealth. And after the failure of their own colonising project, they wanted to have an entrée to the EIC. But I think that was much later than the foundation of the Company. The Company was founded in 1602 and by the 1700s was one of the world’s largest trading units, all before the Act of Union. So the success of the Company initially was due to quite different factors.

In the book’s ‘Notes’ section, you have written about the views of a couple of historians like Angus Maddison and Shireen Moosvi on the taxation policies of both, Mughal and British India. Who in your personal view, was more exploitative, the Mughals or the British vis-à-vis land revenue? Similarly, who among the British was more exploitative — the Company or the Raj?

It is not a matter of opinion. These are things one can quantify with facts and figures. There is no question that the Mughals had higher land taxes than the British. The Mughals, especially under Aurangzeb, were particularly extractive. That is not a matter of opinion, that can be proven. And this is something Mughal historians agree on. The best work on this is done by Irfan Habib and Shireen Moosvi.

Between the Company and the Raj, I think there wasn’t much difference in land revenue rates. The Company is generally more extractive, looting, asset stripping and more militarily predatory. But they were also surprisingly collaborative. They worked alongside business partners. Many of their commercial ventures were actually joint ventures. At the time there was a huge amount of intermarriage — intellectual, social, sexual intermixture. Not only with the Jagat Seths borrowing money and the Bengalis investing their wealth in Company bonds… a third of all Company men were married or living with Indian women.

Lord Robert Clive with Mir Jafar. Photo: WikipediaWhile the Raj had this rhetoric about being there for the good of Indians, a civilisational mission and all the rest of it, while being far more racist. So there was an actual apartheid under the Raj in a way there was never under the Company. The Raj was the one that had the ‘Whites Only’ Club, the ‘Dogs and Indian not allowed’ in Simla, and the Indian Civil Service was largely free of Indians till the 1920s. And there was no intermarriage.

So they were two very different periods. The unique thing about the Company was there was none of the hypocrisy that you get under the Raj, pretending to be there for the good of Indians, while actually obviously engineering things for the good of the British. With the EIC, they were quite frank that they were there to make a profit. They were a company and that is what companies do. And there was absolutely no question of them to be doing anything for the good of India or pretending to doing so.

Could the Bengal Famine of 1770, caused by the Company, have inspired the Bengal Famine of 1943, caused by Churchill?

Well, I think that in both cases, the administration did not have the best interests of the Bengalis at heart. Amartya Sen’s point that democracies don’t have famine is very pertinent here. Because the Company was interested in everything except the welfare of the Bengalis, there was no stockpiling of grain, there was no effort at soup kitchens or labour creation streams or anything. All they were interested was in extracting maximum land revenue and in paying their shareholders their dividend.

The 1943 Famine is obviously a much more complicated issue in that it was during wartime, a lot of the problems were caused by orders to destroy boats which meant that grain did not move around. And basically, the administration was not focusing again on the Bengalis, it was focusing on fighting the war. And the Bengalis were again the ones who suffered.

But I think you could write an interesting comparative account because obviously they are very different situations with the same end result. But the Bengal Famine of 1770s was the more devastating. One million died, about a fifth of Bengal, but mainly in the west. Rajat Dutta’s work has shown that the Bengal Famine of 1770 did not affect the eastern part of the province nearly as badly.

In the book, you will find a long footnote about whether the Company was to be blamed. Famines are caused initially by climatic reasons, by failed monsoons. What the Company did, was not react. Rajat Dutta takes the view that the famine was largely ecological, largely beyond the Company’s abilities to deal with it. But what is true is that the Company made no efforts to do so, even if they wanted to.

In one of the chapters, you note a keen observation by Ghulam Hussain Khan, a chronicler of 18th century India, whom you have quoted throughout the book. He not only notes the ‘extinction’ of certain social classes like artisans in Company-ruled Bengal but also notes that the British, unlike the Mughals came to India only to make money. Would you agree that the regions of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha are still racked by poverty today due to factors that go back to the Company period?

Again, you are mostly simplifying a very complicated economic series of… the decline of eastern India is a hugely complicated question.

But what I will say is that Ghulam Hussain Khan is a genius… one of the greatest Indian writers on colonialism and in a sense a kind of Edward Said figure 200 years ahead of Said. He is the first really intelligent Indian observer of the effects of colonialism. And he sees before anyone else, the one wider effect beyond the immediate destruction of the Mughal dynasty. The whole end of a civilisation, a world of artisans and craftsmen. And in all these, he is the most observant, fascinating and valuable sort.

Do you agree with Shashi Tharoor’s demand for reparations by the British to India?

Shashi is a good friend and we are on the same page on most things. Shashi did not ask for reparations. He wanted a token apology of Re 1. Just acknowledgement of what Britain had done to India.

By and large I will agree with that. England does need to acknowledge the darker side of its past.

I think it is a complicated balance sheet. Here are many things that the British and even the Company did, most notably, obviously unifying India politically. India had been a cultural, spiritual, artistic and geographical space for millennia but it did not become a united political space until the Company knocked it together and broke up all those warring kingdoms as well. It was also the Company that created the Indian Army. Many of the regiments that are the pride of this country now were created in Company times and still have the same names in many cases.

I think it is very important on the one hand for the British to recognise the loot, plunder, corruption and asset stripping that the Company engaged in, particularly the 18th century and it is also very important for Indians to recognise the degree of collaboration that made that possible.

The Jagat Seths and the Hindu banking communities supported the Company. Most of the Bengal bhadralok benefitted from the breakup of the Mughal estates. 

Families like the Debs, the Mallicks and the Tagores bought those estates and became part of the British system and the wider Bengali middle class went on to buy Company bonds and invest their savings in the Company. Had it not been for all these reasons, the Company might have never thrived.

I am all for much greater honesty on all sides on this one. It is a complicated process. When I am in England, I emphasise the loot and the pillage. When I am here, I also emphasise the collaboration and the degree to which many in Bengal saw the Company as the least worst option. 

Given the choice of the Mughals on one hand with all that they had done and the Marathas with all the rape and loot and pillage in the 1740s, many Bengalis thought the Company was the least worst option. And that is something not many Indian textbooks recognise.  

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.