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The Anarchy

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

By William Dalrymple
18-minute read
Audio available
The Anarchy by William Dalrymple

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.  

  • 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

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

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

By William Dalrymple
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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The Anarchy by William Dalrymple
Synopsis

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.  

Key idea 1 of 11

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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