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The Anarchy summary

William Dalrymple

The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

4.6 (148 ratings)
30 mins

Brief summary

The Anarchy by William Dalrymple is a historical account of the East India Company's rise to power in India, and the devastating consequences of its profit-driven actions for the Indian subcontinent.

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    The Anarchy
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    By the eighteenth century, the East India Company had transformed from a trading concern to a militarized entity bent on exploitation.

    The East India Company was founded in 1599 as a joint-stock company. The joint-stock company was a sixteenth-century English innovation that allowed collectives of medieval craft guilds to combine their purchasing power. The aim of this new type of corporation was to enrich shareholders and investors. Spurred by lucrative colonial profiteering in the Caribbean, Queen Elizabeth I gave the Company a royal charter, granting it monopoly over trade in the East Indies. 

    The first English men stepped foot on Indian soil in 1608. Their mission? Establish trade with the Mughal empire, which had been the dominant political power on the subcontinent for nearly a century. Dripping in jewels and draped in lavish fabrics, the Mughals stunned the Europeans with their wealth and sophistication; these first interactions are the origin of the modern-day word “mogul.” 

    But it wasn’t until 1614 that the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, received English emissary Thomas Roe. Roe tried to focus the conversation on trade, but Jahangir – bored of talking about money – wanted to discuss art and astronomy for hours.

    Finally, Roe got permission to build a trading fort in Madras. Soon after, another fort was built in Bombay. And then another, in Calcutta. 

    At first, it was a beneficial relationship for everyone. Company trade blossomed, and more European investors soon lined up. Drawn by the stable trade in India, thousands of artisans and merchants moved to the Company’s new settlements. By the 1690s – just 30 years after the Company built its first fort – Bombay had grown from a backwater port to a commercial capital that was home to 60,000 people.

    Many migrants to the cities were seeking refuge from an increasingly unstable countryside. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb died in 1707, leaving no clear heir. His rivals pounced. First came the Marathas, Hindu peasant guerrilla fighters. Then Afghan warlord Nader Shah ruthlessly sacked Delhi in 1737. The many wars against these enemies drained the Mughal coffers.

    Mughal power was in chaos. The East India Company and its rival French counterpart, Le Compagnie, took advantage by surreptitiously building more forts. When the Mughals tried to punish this impudence, 700 French sepoys – European-trained Indian soldiers – trounced 10,000 Mughals at the Battle of the Aydar River in 1745.

    It was now clear that eighteenth-century European military tactics could best anything in the Mughal armory. The English and French trading concerns in India transformed into increasingly bellicose, militarized entities. 

    India was primed to be violently transformed into the richest colony the world had ever known.

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    What is The Anarchy about?

    The Anarchy (2019) details how the East India Company, an English joint-stock corporation, came to rule the British economy – and the fates of 200 million South Asians. From its founding in 1599 by privateers and pirates to its time as master of the largest standing army in South Asia, the Company fanned the flames of anarchy, then used the resulting chaos as an opportunity to loot an empire.  

    The Anarchy Review

    The Anarchy (2019) by William Dalrymple is a captivating historical account of the rise and fall of the British East India Company in 18th century India. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It sheds light on a lesser-known period of history, offering fascinating insights into the power struggles, corruption, and chaos that defined this era.
    • Meticulously researched and packed with details, the book provides a comprehensive understanding of how the East India Company transformed India and shaped British imperialism.
    • Dalrymple's narrative skill brings the complex characters and events to life, making the book a compelling and immersive read from start to finish.

    Who should read The Anarchy?

    • History hounds so appalled by colonialism that they can’t look away
    • Those interested in how corporations came to rule our lives
    • Travel junkies looking to contextualize their time in India

    About the Author

    William Dalrymple is an acclaimed Scottish travel writer and historian whose work focuses on South Asia and the Middle East. In addition to writing over a dozen award-winning books, he has created TV series, curated museum exhibits and music compilations, and received honorary doctorates from three universities. He has lived in India on and off since 1989.

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    The Anarchy FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Anarchy?

    The main message of The Anarchy is the rise and fall of the East India Company, and its impact on India.

    How long does it take to read The Anarchy?

    The reading time for The Anarchy varies, but it would take several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Anarchy a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Anarchy is a captivating and informative book that sheds light on an important period in history. It is definitely worth reading.

    Who is the author of The Anarchy?

    The author of The Anarchy is William Dalrymple.

    What to read after The Anarchy?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Anarchy, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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