William Dalrymple is well-known for his penchant for the Mughal Empire and has written reams about its grand aura and cultural richness, but the celebrated historian's new book is an eye-popping account on how an unregulated private company led to the downfall of one the world's most magnificent and wealthiest empires. Titled 'The Anarchy - The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And The Pillage Of An Empire', the 405-page book is Dalrymple's most ambitious work till date.
It chronicles the conquest of India by the infamous London-based East India Company (EIC) which, as one of its directors described, was "an empire within an empire". The book, published by Bloomsbury, is an attempt by the 54-year-old Scottish historian to highlight the nexus between commercial and imperial power, and demonstrates how commerce and colonization have so often walked in lock-step.
Dalrymple writes that people in India and Britain still talk about the British conquering India, but informs that this phrase disguises a much more "ominous and complex reality". "Because it was not the British government that seized India in the middle of the eighteenth century, but a private company. India's transition to colonialism took place through the mechanism of a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors," he asserts.
Dalrymple gives a detailed account of how the EIC defeated its principal rivals - the nawabs of Bengal and Avadh, Tipu Sultan's Mysore Sultanate and Maratha Confederacy – and rose from a humble trading company to a full-fledged Imperial power. He informs that the Company – the first multinational corporation, and the first to run amok – was the ultimate prototype for many of today's joint stock corporations, and probably invented corporate lobbying.
"The Company's conquest of India almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world's largest corporations - whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google – they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarized East India Company," he writes. "When historians debate the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea and cricket, yet the idea of the joint stock company is arguably one of Britain's most important exports to India, and one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much as any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweighs that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy," he notes.
Dalrymple backs what may appear, in the first place, as lofty assertions with more than 400 pages of evidence to buttress his arguments. The bestselling writer states that if history shows anything, it is that in the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, the corporation will use all the resources in its power to resist.
The award-winning author says that the 300-year-old question of how to cope with the power and perils of large multinational corporations remains today without an answer. "It is not obviously apparent how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess," Dalrymple says.
"The East India company remains today history's most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state," he notes. To elucidate on this, Dalrymple points out to the American adventures in Iraq, asserting that the war has shown that the world is far from post-imperial, and quite probably never will be.
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