The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple is a richly researched, engagingly told and brutally direct indictment of the British stock company that systematically raped the subcontinent of India over the course of two and a half centuries.
Employing Indian, British, French and other sources, Dalrymple weaves together a story that, at every twist and turn, leaves the reader aghast:
- at the wealth that was shipped off in bulk back home by the Company and individually by its greed-lusting employees,
- at the social chaos the Company fomented — the anarchy of the title — and exploited to gain control of immense areas of India and over millions upon millions of Indians,
- at the wars the Company, with its own huge army, one of the largest in the world, twice the size of the British force, waged and the deaths, destruction, disorder and massacres that resulted,
- at the famines and starvation deaths caused by cold-hearted Company policies,
- at the bullying, denigrating and abusing of Indians by haughty, supercilious British businessmen who considered themselves “civilized.”
The Company was an infestation on the culturally rich and diverse subcontinent from 1600 through 1858, effectively ruling all of India for the last century. Then, forced by circumstances and political digust, the Company had to hand over control to the British government — which held similar dominance for nearly another century.
In an epilogue, Dalrymple writes:
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.
That is certainly true.
And, yet, as Dalrymple’s book shows in dreadful detail on page after page, the Company power in India — its economic, military and social control over roughly 20 percent of the world’s population — was unprecedented. Indeed, it was so total and so completely unchallenged that it is difficult to imagine that any business entity today or in the future would be able to equal it, much less surpass it. In fact, Dalrymple writes:
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 bests compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarized East India Company.
“Power, money and unaccountability”
Even so, if the likelihood of another corporation creating one of the largest armies in the world is non-existent today, the same super-charged greed that motivated the Company and its employees is on display in myriad other ways across the globe.
Yes, nations are too jealous of their own power to give any modern corporation the same sort of carte blanc that the Company had. But corporate avarice today is a mutated plague, as Dalrymple suggests.
Yet 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….
Corporate influence, with its fatal blend of power, money and unaccountability, is particularly potent and dangerous in frail states where corporations are insufficiently or ineffectually regulated, and where the purchasing power of a large company can outbid or overwhelm an underfunded government.
Large armies, for multi-national corporations, are unnecessary expenses, Dalrymple notes. These entities have their own ways of getting things done.
The East India Company has, thankfully, no exact modern equivalent. Walmart, which is the world’s largest corporation in revenue terms, does not number among its assets a fleet of nuclear submarines; neither Facebook nor Shell possesses regiments of infantry.
Yet the East India Company — the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok — was the ultimate model and prototype for many of today’s joint stock corporations. The most powerful among them do not need their own armies; they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out.
In telling such a dark story, Dalrymple gives Indians and their historians their due. He is exquisitely sensitive to the rich and varied Indian society that the Company found and ransacked. His book does much to tell the Company’s story from, in part, the perspective of its victims.
For that, he is to be thanked.
The story he tells, however, is deeply appalling.
Patrick T. Reardon