A review of William Dalrymple’s ‘The Anarchy’
William Dalrymple has written about almost every phase, and every facet, of the British experience in India, from the early swashbuckling, colorful years to grim disasters in the grip of the foreigner, such as the uprising of 1857 and the colonial wars in Afghanistan. His latest book, The Anarchy, covers the 100 years from 1700-1800, which may actually be the most interesting period of them all. This is because though we can discern an overall trend, namely the gradual imposition of East India Company rule, this happens against a backdrop of wild swings of fortune across the whole range of sectors— economic, military, political, cultural and global—of a surprisingly proto-modern society. There is a huge cast of larger than life characters on both sides of the divide, Europeans and Asians, many of whom manage to figure in improbably dramatic scenes: one, an Emperor is dragged from his throne and cold-bloodedly blinded, another, a sitting governor is subjected to public scorn and disgrace. The intertwining of all these stories and the many historical interpretations that they breed, along with the fact that the eventual outcome was never a foregone conclusion, make the book unputdownable.
Dalrymple’s trademark method is to re-discover neglected primary sources, usually in indigenous languages. In Afghanistan he ferreted out accounts in Pushto from searches in the country’s bazaars. For The Anarchy he unearths a new set of sources, Mughal historians writing in Persian, like Ghulam Hussain Khan (a man who, pen in hand, seems to have been everywhere and seen everything), and a series of French noblemen and military wanderers who left behind their contemporary analyses. These perspectives help to modify and provide essential context to the voluminous British documents in the East India Company and British government archives. Dalrymple has also read the modern scholars and their often revisionist thoughts find a place, even if it is only in the footnotes. This mélange of voices sets off the author’s more even approach: non-judgmental, taking the long view, stoic in the face of appalling excesses, but also clearly enchanted by the opportunity to reflect on these times.
This enchantment rubs off on the reader. The overall contour of the story is of how the East India Company went from being a “commercial project to a territorial one”. Dalrymple gives us a blow by blow account of just how this transition was effected, including many novel, for me at least, details of the process. For example, the decisive role played by networks of hugely rich Marwari bankers who supported rival political powers of all stripes but ultimately chose to back the East India Company, on the utilitarian grounds that this represented the most secure and profitable deployment of their financial resources. Or the extent to which a market for military labor developed in Hindustan, with native and foreign sepoys “up for sale to the highest bidder” so that “warfare came to be regarded as a sort of business enterprise”. In the early part of the 18th century the British and French imported infantry tactics from their European battlefields and trained locally recruited fighting men in them. This gave them a crucial advantage at first. But already by the 1760s Indian rulers, like Haider Ali (Tipu Sultan’s father), were mobilizing large armies, adept in modern artillery-based fighting methods, who were more than a match for the East India Company’s forces.
In other words, the Company’s ascendance could never be taken for granted. Its successes against the local rulers were as much due to superior guile as to objective factors. One of Dalrymple’s most penetrating insights is that even after having reduced the Mughal rulers to ruin the British still had no option but prop them up so they could provide some legitimacy, however frayed, to the underlying reality of East India Company rule. That’s how the Company created a ground to get away with its exactions. This is one more instance of the delicate balancing game that was played throughout the 18th century in Hindustan.
Another counterintuitive finding is that the leaders of the Company based in India, from Clive to Hastings to Wellesley to Cornwallis, also had a contentious relationship with their own superiors in faraway Britain. The shareholder Directors of the East India Company with their headquarters in London’s Leadenhall Street were mainly interested in the commercial profits generated overseas and frowned upon the initiatives taken to conquer and exercise sovereignty over large regions of India.
The general public and press in Britain were also deeply shocked by many accounts of the depredations carried out by their fellow citizens in Hindustan. Hence the mighty blow-ups leading to Clive’s suicide and Hastings’ impeachment. Edmund Burke’s castigation of the whole enterprise rings out over the centuries:
“…Crimes which have their rise in the wicked dispositions of men—in avarice, rapacity, pride, cruelty, malignity, haughtiness, insolence, ferocity, treachery, cruelty, malignity of temper—in short, nothing that does not argue a total extinction of all moral principles, that does not manifest an inveterate blackness of heart, a heart blackened to the very blackest, a heart corrupted, gangrened to the core…”
What idealism! one thinks. Yet, in a way typical of the odd contradictions which mark Dalrymple’s book, the power of this wholesale condemnation is undermined by the possibility that it may have been no more than a façade for a petty personal quarrel!
But crimes there were, and in plenty. When discussing the wealth which was siphoned off by the East India Company and its hangers-on to the home country in profit remittances and in the form of jewels and gold bullion Dalrymple makes a point of mentioning the equivalents in today’s money, so that we are hit with the full visceral impact of the sustained plunder. One can’t quite get over how endless was the bounty, even during the worst economic times, which Bengal and other pockets of India regularly produced, only for the British to mop it all up with equal assiduity.
With so much frantic mayhem going on, The Anarchy is a tale of tangled complexity. It took the firm and persistent hand of a Dalrymple to tame the material. Thankfully he also made sure to add so many pops of flavor and striking ideas on almost every page that it remains an exceptionally lively read. It is indispensable for us Bengalis as a masterful evocation of a time which has left strong traces in our collective psyche, and from which we need to draw lessons to this day.
Salahdin Imam is a writer based in Dhaka. His debut collection of short stories, Diana Juxtaposed and Other Unrealities, was published last year.