Readers Write In #515: Book Review : The Anarchy by William Dalrymple

Posted on October 18, 2022


By ​Jeeva

The flair with which William Dalrymple had re-imagined a sordid love story of the 18th century(The White Mughals) between an English official and an Indian princess using written testimonies and official records, led me to pick another book of the same author to add to my reading list. The book was titled The Anarchy and it was in short, a retelling of what we had studied in our tenth standard matriculation history textbooks. The story of the way the English East India Company entered India, how they took advantage of disunity among Indian rulers and within a century or so established themselves at the helm of affairs in a huge country atleast fifteen times the size of their native land- this was what I had studied in my history text book when I was 15 and Dalrymple almost narrates the same story from a different anda very dispassionate perspective with the help of records and testimonies that were not available to historians who preceded him.

The first few pages Dalrymple dedicates towards establishing the contrast between the Indian Empire and that of the British in the early 1600s. The English traders had never seen a huge country like India before and before meeting the Indian Emperor Jahangir they had never witnessed a single, powerful ruler who held sway over such a large and diverse landmass such as India. They were certainly bowled over by Jahangir’s appearance that boasted of gold, silver, rubies and emeralds in almost every part of his body and the elaborately constructed palaces and temples that filled the whole of the subcontinent was a vision that they had never even dreamt about. In many ways, Dalrymple establishes with certainty about how India’s wealth bedazzled and humbled the usually proud and overweening British and had someone told these traders at that point of time, that their descendants would within a century take complete political control of this magnificent landmass they certainly would have laughed him off. In short, Mughal India was a military and economic superpower then exporting almost one fourth of the world’s consumer goods and Britain on the other hand was a minion, a weakling whose representative hadto prostrate before the Indian Emperor for permission to setup a small warehouse in the margins of India’s long coastline.


Aurangzeb was the one under whom the Mughal Empire saw its territorial boundaries branchingout beyond unprecedented areas and curiously he was the one who for the same reason ended up sowing the seeds for the illustrious Empire’s collapse. Dalrymple narrates an incident that we don’t often find mention in our history textbooks when the East India Company tried to forcibly capture an Indian settlement during Aurangzeb’s reign (1686). The brazen attempt was repulsed immediately and the Company’s troops surrendered unconditionally to the mighty Indian Emperor. Only after Aurangzeb’s death we begin to see the unwieldiness of the huge Mughal Empire and local Nawabs and chieftains who hitherto had owed their allegiances to Agra are shown to beslowly asserting themselves over the administration of the local populace. The Nizam of Hyderabad, the Nawab of Avadh (today’s Bihar) and that of Bengal all of whom were hitherto vassals of the Mughal Emperorstart declaring their independence from Agra almost at the same time. The mighty Marathas are often depicted by Dalrymple as ruthless and formidable warriors whose occasional incursions into the prosperous Bengal territory often kept irritating and perplexing the local Nawab. The Nawab Aliverdi Khan is initially fascinated with the sophistication, training and discipline of the Company’s forces and their emphatic victory over the French in the Carnatic wars establishes them as a force to reckon with in the subcontinent.Aliverdi Khan enters into a partnership with the Company that mandates huge compensation from the Nawab for the maintenance of its troops on his territory. In additionto the military alliance, the Company keeps wresting from the Nawab favours and treaties that allow it to expand its trade further and further every now and then.

Aliverdi Khan’s death and the rise of his hostile and oftenpsychopathicgrandson, Siraj-udDaula to the position of his successor leads to newer and unsavoury developments for the British. The Company more often than not tries to keep the pact with the Nawab alive by forgiving and forgetting his cruelmisdemeanorsbut Siraj-udDaula’s recklessness and ambition angers even his courtiers, ministers and military officials all of whom decide to conspire against him with the Company’s help. The famous Battle of Plassey(1757) where the Company’s forces defeat Siraj-udDaulaand arm-twist the new ruler, Mir Jafar, the former military commander of Aliverdi Khan into treaties that empower the Company to hold territorial possessions in India is described in gripping detail by Dalrymple. Robert Clive who led the Company’s forces in the battle against the Nawab becomes the de-facto ruler over the whole of Bengal and is described by Dalrymple to have returned to England as a super-wealthy and an influential man, having risen initially from very humble origins.

The Company’s unforeseen transformation from a small and a fledgling trading institution run by England’s ‘outcastes’and its so-called society’s ‘scum’ into a powerful territory-holding and administering entity in a distant country such as India infuriates English parliamentarians and local activists.After learning aboutthe Company’s complete victory over local chieftains such as the rulers of Awadh and Bengal seven years later at Buxar (1764) and the subsequent wilful mismanagement of a famine in a formerly prosperous province such as Bengal that leads to the death of atleast seven million Indians, the British parliament is forced to take note of the Company’s audacious illegal activities. The news of hapless, innocent, over-taxed Indians dying on the streets, of hunger and malnutrition and the pauperization of farmers and peasants owing to extortionary practices followed by the Company’s officials reachesEngland and angers politically conscious Englishmen. The Regulating Act of 1773 and The Pitts Act of 1784 were bills passed by the British Parliament regulating the activities of the Company by placing them under the supervision of a state-controlled Council of Directors.

But none of the regulations placed upon the Company by the Crown makes any dent upon theCompany’s inexorable expansionist course. But if you think that only the avariciousness of the Company’s top officialsand their insatiable appetite for more and more colonial possessions in India is the only thing to be blamed, it is time to think again. The Company having established itself in the North and North-Eastern part of India is often witness to conflicts that keep happening between the Marathas and the ruler of Mysore, Haider Ali. The Nizam of Hyderabad is often caught in the middle and such a fractured political situation in a rich country such as India is not something that you don’t exploit if you have the resources to deal with its consequences. The Company had sufficient tax revenues andin addition, it had the backing of local money-lenders, the Seths who kept financing the Company’s armies and their expeditionswith attractive interest rates. To top it all, many of the local rulers were fully conscious of the advantages that a sophisticated army like that of the Company’s might offer them especially when caught in interminable, perennial conflicts with other local chieftains. So, one or the other keep approaching the Company with offers of partnerships or strategic alliances and the Company had absolutely no reason to spurn their seductive overtures.

The first two wars that happen between Haider Ali on one side and the Triple Alliance- the Marathas, the Company and the Nizam of Hyderabad on the other lead to the victory of the former and the Company is shocked to learn about how big a myth is its supposed claim to infallibility. The British are also on the other hand, acutely conscious of how close Haider Ali and the French have become over the last few years. Dalrymple reminds the reader that post Haider Ali’s death, had his son Tipu Sultan heeded to his dying father’s advice to make alliances with the local rulers to drive the Company out of the country, India’s history might have taken an altogether different course. Tipu Sultan was a reckless aggressor and he wasn’t willing to compromise with his erstwhile enemies such as the Nizam or the Marathas. The Third and Fourth Anglo-Mysore wars saw the terrible tragedy of one of India’s greatest armies led by one of India’s finest administrators surrendering its possessions to the Company allowing the foreigner to gain a foothold over the country’s vast southern provinces (1799).

After stretching its legs over the southern parts of India and with its hands firmly in hold of the North and the East, the Company was immediately delighted to see one of India’s most powerful confederacies, the Marathas of the West disintegrating quickly. The death of one of its Peshwas leads to a terrible infighting between the Holkars and the Scindias. The Company finds that one of the last Mughal Emperors, Shah Alam who is under the control of the Marathas at Agra is also trying to get rid of them with great difficulty. The Company also realises that to govern over the subcontinent it is absolutely essential to do so in the name of a local ruler and that Shah Alam, the powerless Mughal Emperor whose popularity is still intact among the local massesis the right candidate for the job. The Anglo-Maratha War (1803) is one of the most important wars fought on Indian soil that sealed the fate of Indians for close to one and half centuries to come. Dalrymple describes in stark detail the minutiae of the war that lasted for more than a couple of months and the British couldn’t but admit and admire the bravery and the terrifying aggression of the Maratha warriors during the campaign. The Treaty signed at Bassein almost significantly concludes the British campaign in India when the foreigners were invited by the blind, old Mughal Emperor Shah Alamat Agra to take over India’s territories for a meagre pension of a few lakh rupees per annum.


The Mughal Empire that was established in India in the 1500s within some three centuries or so had almost run its course. Post Aurangzeb, there was no ruler in India who could handle and keep together such a vast territorial expanse. As is often said about today’s politics in Tamilnadu, India did have a power vacuum at its centre in the late 1700s. One or the other power or a traditional dynasty had to fill it up. But almost all of India’s traditionalrulers were suspicious about each other and thoroughly insecure about their existing possessions. As a result, there had to be a mightier power that could lord over all of them and hold the entire country under its sway. The British traders who had entered India in the 1600s had sufficient and sometimes even nuanced knowledge about Indian political affairsdeveloped and perfected over more than a hundred years. In the 1750s if they were occupying almost half of India, given their experience in Indian affairs and their flair for manipulation, it must actually be considered as pretty much a very organic political development. In addition, Dalrymple reports that India’s wealthiest classes, some of whom were called the Seths or the local bankers having taken into account the prowess of the English in military and strategic affairs had decided to throw their weight behind the Company offering them enormous loans for their expensive military adventures- an advantage that Indian rulers just did not have. Most Indian rulers were at least to a very limited extent sensitive to the needs and wishes of the local populace and did not want to increase taxes to finance their wars against the English. The wars between the sophisticated Company army and the often impoverished and barely provided-for local armies owned by our traditional rulers were more often than not, wholly one-sided affairs.

Also, the traditional French- English rivalry that lasted for more than a century in the Indian subcontinent came to a tragic culmination through the defeat of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798. Until then, Dalrymple mentions that Tipu Sultan who had a very strong military alliance with the French was very optimistic about his prospects against the British. Dalrymple also mentions letters exchanged between the camps of Tipu and Napoleon where each side reports about the progress of each other in their respective wars against the English. Napoleon reportedly had plans to come to Tipu’s rescue in India after his ‘successful’ campaign against the English at Egypt and had he not lost his war there, India’s history might have taken a whole new ‘French’ turn.


Despite reporting about events that we had already known from textbooks during our schooling, Dalrymple’s book acquires a curious distinctiveness only through deft human touches that he manages to give various actors in the story of post-Mughal Indian history. Dalrymple writes very favourably about Warren Hastings who during his tenure as a Company official keeps recording the excesses of the Company’s other officialsagainst the local population and writes scathing letters to people in London about how atrocious a course the Company had takenby engaging in political expansionism, having obtained permission from the Crown only to engage in trading and sea-faring activities. The book also throws light on rulers like Siraj-udDaula whose administration often bordered on despotism and whose ruthlessness against his own family and circle to prevent its members from claiming the throne often crossed the bounds of barbarity and sadism.

Dalrymple’s portrait of one of Mughal dynasty’s last rulers Shah Alamis also nuanced and beautifully done with intriguing details about his strange benevolence to even some of his enemies, his passion for poetry and his erudition coupled with excellent political acumen. Dalrymple writes in detail about how Tipu’s army pioneered in rockets almost three centuries back, his curious tolerance for other religions within his own dominions and his inexplicable bigotry against non-Muslims in newly annexed territories, his father’s clairvoyance about the prospects of the Company becoming India’s biggest threat in the future, etc.

Even more compelling is Dalrymple’s description of the East India Company as the first multi-national corporation in the world whose ever-growing tentacles spared nobody including parliamentarians who were supposed to be accountable to their voters. The Company according to Dalrymple kept co-opting powerful politicians into its mission by allotting shares for them and had no qualms about bribing and buying off politicians. After a point when the Company had grown into a behemoth owing millions and millions of pounds to local banks in England, there was a brief time when it was about to go bankrupt because of unfavourable trading conditions in America and India. The Company kept warding off threats from the Crown and the Parliament to take it over, purely through dubious means and towards the end of the 18th Century, the Company had the potential to pull almost the whole economy of Britain down along with itself leading to a nation-wide economic catastrophe. The situation was averted by the Company’s by then well-developed bullying nature that forced the government to sanction the world’s first corporate bail-out package that swelled into millions as early as the 1770s.

The tone Dalrymple takes towards the Company is almost the same- that of derision and moral outrage as a result of which he keeps reminding the reader every now and then about how dangerous it is to give corporations a free hand on any aspect including even trade and commerce and how concentrated money is tantamount to concentrating power and how concentrated power can corrupt almost every aspect of a society regardless of how much ever prosperity the corporation might promise to create. When I finished the book, I got reminded of the news I had read that morning of how within a couple of decades, an Indian businessman from Gujarathad grown into one of the world’s biggest billionaires beating even entrepreneurs who had been pioneers in their respective fields.No country other than India could have been witness and victim to the ravages unleashed upon it by a rapacious multinational corporation for almost 140 years and yet it is still India that keeps allowing these unscrupulous businessmen to thrive and flourish at its expense.While writing this, I keep getting reminded of the following adages I had read somewhere, one – the duty of a historian is to remember and remind people of what they often tend to forget and two- the people who forget the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them time and again.