‘You suddenly realise the great British conquest of India was a corporate event’: William Dalrymple

(My interview with William Dalrymple for Scroll.in on his book The Anarchy.)

William Dalrymple’s latest book, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And The Pillage Of An Empire, covers a vast arc in tracing the Company’s life and times in India, uncovering in the process a narrative of corporate power and its relationship to the State that seems uncannily familiar in the 21st Century. It is, of course, only the latest in a line of distinguished – and highly popular – works on aspects of Indian history. Dalrymple spoke to Manu Pillai, whose own books on Indian history have gained great popularity. Excerpts from the conversation:

Your previous books are all much more focused – on shorter periods of time with a more taut canvas, for example. With The Anarchy, you seem to have produced a “big picture” book. Why now and why this larger history of the East India Company and, essentially, the eighteenth century?
You’ve put your finger exactly on it. I’ve written three micro-histories already of particular moments in the history of the Company: White Mughals is just ten years in the history of Hyderabad, 1795 to 1805. The Last Mughal is three years in the history of Delhi, 1856 to 58. And Return of a King is three years in the history of Afghanistan, 1839 to 42. The advantage there is that if you take a tiny time-slice like that, it allows you to really get into the character, really get to know the period, and present them for readers.

Which is what you’re well known for…
That’s right, because that’s the sort of book I like to read. The history books I love, whether it’s Runciman’s Fall of Constantinople or Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats, take these small casts and small time-zones and really go in. And that’s how, in a sense, you can make the experience of reading a history book feel like the experience of reading a novel. Of course, the techniques are different, and one is fiction and the other fact. But you can approximate that feeling of getting to know critical characters and following them through their fate with a more limited cast and a more limited time-zone. That’s why up till now I’ve always kept away from the big sweeps of history. Although publishers always encourage me to do the big sweeps, I always say no because I think you lose all sense of character. The narrative becomes a dizzy succession of dynasties and battles until you can’t remember what matters.

But with The Anarchy – and I think you spotted this in your review [in Open magazine] – the breakthrough for me was realising that emperor Shah Alam was present throughout the whole drama. I was looking around for writing a book on this period. And I shortlisted Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, and Wellesley and all the Maratha generals as topics which would make good books. But I couldn’t work out what in a sense, the central focus would be, and how I would frame it.

That is when I found Shah Alam and realised he is the spine and the central figure in a much larger story that features the English governors as well as the Maratha generals. He was 12 when Nadir Shah rode in and sacked Delhi in 1739, and he was 75 when Lord Lake took Delhi, in 1803. And he keeps the whole story together, through eight British governors-general. In fact, the British cast comes and goes, almost flashing past like traffic, but Shah Alam is a constant. I pit them against Shah Alam, and suddenly the whole thing comes into focus.

The other thing is, obviously the realisation that both in India and in Britain, we’ve always been taught to see the “great British conquest of India” as a national event, as the beginning of imperialism and through the prism of nationalism. But when you suddenly realise it’s a corporate event, and that it’s one company – the ExxonMobil of its day – with its own private army and massive resources declaring war on the Indian state, suddenly it looks quite different.

The grant of the Diwani of Bengal to the Company by the Mughals, which doesn’t really mean anything to us, suddenly becomes an act of privatisation just as the eventual end of the Company is an act of nationalisation. These are words that do mean something to us. These are words we’re familiar with in the present.

In fact, if you start talking about the Diwani to someone who knows nothing about Indian history, they’ll just glaze over. But if you’re talking about the privatisation of power, suddenly it is something that we understand. So there’s a wonderful quote in the beginning of the book which brings the whole thing into perspective. It’s by the Lord Chancellor during the impeachment of Warren Hastings, who says, “Corporations have neither souls to be damned nor bodies to be punished. They therefore do as they like.” That’s very much the central principle of this book.

Did you ever consider doing the book as a biography of Shah Alam? The Last Mughal, for instance, builds itself around Bahadur Shah Zafar’s life…
I did consider the idea but rejected it because Shah Alam is not visible enough. There are too few of his personal letters to construct a good biography. There are quite a lot of his letters to the company in the National Archives, and there’s some more of the company monitoring him through spy reports all across his return journey to Delhi in the early 1770s. Then there are amazing French accounts which have never been translated, talking about him from a very close focus. And there’s quite a lot of his poetry. But the poetry is much less personal than Zafar’s. Zafar’s poems about being a caged bird are of the kind you can transpose back onto the individual – you don’t really have that with Shah Alam. So he never came close to being a biographical subject the way Zafar could.

Instead he becomes the glue to hold the larger narrative together…
And he’s very useful in that position. He comes into contact with so many of the main characters like Mahadji Scindia and brings other people into light, into relief. And the image, which I think will be a surprise to many Indians, of Mahadji Scindia, the great Maratha warrior, bending and touching the feet of Shah Alam: that’s just something that hasn’t entered the Indian consciousness.

And of course, it’s certainly true that the Marathas, like the Company, used the Mughals or tried to use them. But the idea that Scindia would bow down and touch the feet of the Mughals, and protect the Mughals is something that’s disappeared from the Indian political consciousness and memory today.

In fact, the book gave me several “what-if” thoughts because clearly, even the Marathas sought to preserve the ceremonial dignity and prestige of the Mughals. And at one point, you talk about how the Company was surprised by the reverence the Mughal emperor inspired.
That is certainly, certainly true. What I was surprised by, however, was in a sense also the opposite. Reading a lot of the primary sources about the Marathas, I was bowled over by how quickly Shivaji became this Hindu symbol of resistance against Islam. I, in my head, presumed a lot of that to have been fanned up during the late 19th century and early 20th century, and that when you go back to the primary sources you would find that Shivaji was a far more religiously neutral figure.

But within twenty or thirty years of Shivaji’s death, he was very much been talked of in the same terms that Maharashtrians talk about him today. And I was surprised by that. I thought it was 20th century nationalism and Hindutva that had transformed him. But that’s not the case. There are subtle accounts of Shivaji from twenty or thirty years after his death that cast him as a protector of Hindus against Muslim power.

In fact, even towards the final decade of his life, he was talking about Hindavi Swaraj, using Hinduism as a political concept. He never quite realised it in his own time, but there are people after him who built on the idea.
Absolutely. That’s what you see in the primary sources.

Speaking of sources, where did you find most of the material for The Anarchy? The Maratha records you refer to, for instance.
I’m a strong believer in travelling to the places you are writing about. And I have a strong belief that you can’t write about something until you’ve seen it. I think the only major incident, the only major battlefield that I didn’t visit, was Buxar. I went to Assaye with the current Duke of Wellington. We spent a whole day wandering the battlefield. We actually found musket balls from the period lying around. And I think the musket balls were a revelation. I had read that the battle was near Ajanta, and because I know Ajanta well and I know the landscape, I presumed that the Battle of Assaye was fought in those mountains.

In actual fact, it is almost a completely flat plain, close to Ajanta but completely different. And that’s often the case – unless you actually walk the site of a battle, you can’t create your own account when you read the primary sources. You can’t visualise it and write about it accurately. That aside, I spent a lot of time in and around Mysore, in Srirangapatna, a lot of time in Kolkata, Murshidabad.

In fact you have this amazing, amazing anecdote in the book. I remember you telling me when we met in Pune, about how you went off with Uday Kulkarni and found that place where the severed head of an English Captain led to the birth of a shrine!
(Laughs) We’d just come back from that trip outside Pune. And yes, there was an English officer whose head got severed from his body, and the head was being worshipped at the local police station. And the body was having tantric sacrifices to itself, being performed in a field!

As a local deity.
(Laughs) That’s exactly the kind of richness you discover when you travel around. But as far as sources are concerned, the two main archives were the National Archives of India, and the British Library in London. The National Archives are a great resource for the Company because quite often, what you get in London is a precis of the information that the National Archives contain. It’s often duplicated but what you get in London is shorter and less full than the National Archives.

And it’s slightly like the difference between what students get up to and what students tell their parents what they’re getting up to – of what goes on in the life of a university student and what their parents get to learn about. What you read in National Archives is what’s actually happening in India. And what you read in London is what they want the board of control directors to think, which is quite different.

In fact, that reminds me: As I was reading through the book, I realised how much depended on the person on the ground. So much depended on individual whims and discretion and you keep wondering whether these people, if they just thought something differently or if they just made one different decision, it could have completely altered major events.
This was a criticism made with an earlier draft of the book by Peter Marshall, the very doyen of Company Studies. He very generously wrote me a very long email and his big criticism of my thesis was exactly this: how much was controlled from the ground.

Over and again you get the directors saying, “All we want to do is make a profit and your military men are eating into that. We’re spending far too much on soldiers and we’re spending far too much on canons and unnecessary ventures.” But for the men on the ground, it was a question of prize. And in those days, it was completely normal for a victorious army just to loot and plunder. It guaranteed the commander and the troops a lifetime in luxury – for them, for their children, and their children’s children. It was an incredible incentive to go in, declare war, even when the Company in London wanted nothing of the sort.

So in 1799 when they take Srirangapatna, the treasure is divided between the generals, the officers, and the soldiers. Something like 30% is set aside for the general, another 30% for the officers, and the remaining 30% for ordinary soldiers. Nothing for the Company back in London, which doesn’t actually get the loot.

It’s a very strong incentive for the army to disobey orders from London, and to go ahead, wage war, and loot in India. So for the Company, they get the bill for the operation, for raising a hundred thousand troops marching across India, arming them, feeding them, and so on, but none of the treasure. So yes, it was not in the interest of the Company to fight wars, but it was strongly in the interest of the people on the ground to do exactly that.

Would you then summarise and say that, as the Company grew, it became more and more difficult for the directors to control what was happening? They were getting their dividends, but what was actually happening went out of their hands, which also partly explains why parliament had to step in and take a proactive role by the end of the eighteenth century?
Certainly not true for the British in India if you take the longer time period. As communications improved towards the end of the 19th century with the invention of the telegraph, for example, London becomes more and more powerful vis-a-vis the governor general. So by Lord Curzon’s time – and Curzon is meant to be this commanding figure – he is doing what London tells him to do, in a way that Clive or Hastings or Wellesley didn’t have to.

And by the end, Curzon has got a free hand in small things, but he has to do what London dictates in the major things. But in the days of the Company, whole wars were fought and won or lost before London could even get to hear about them.

Which brings me to the other thing, which was that while the directors didn’t always know what was happening, on the ground too, power was fragmented. But what really stands out, which also dilutes this black-and-white-isation of the history of empire, is the fact that you really turn the limelight on Indian collaborators. The Jagat Seths example, and how they were intriguing in favour of the Company because it was better for business.

I would say that this was the single biggest surprise to me. Because I hadn’t been looking for it, so I wasn’t expecting what I found. When I started this book, if you’d asked me why I thought the Company succeeded, which is really the central question of the book, I would have presumed that the answer was simple military superiority. That it was the infantry and the techniques, and that sort of detail, which gave the company the upper hand .That certainly is the reason for prior successes in the 1730s and 40s.

But in actual fact, it turns out Indian armies were at armed parity by the 1780s and the Marathas were fighting the Company with the same weapons, with the same techniques, and often with soldiers drawn from the same parts of India, sometimes wearing the same uniforms. The reason why the Company was able to overcome this is not military superiority. It’s two things really.

One, Hastings managed to break Indian unity. After the Battle of Pollilur in 1780, if Hyder had kept his confidence and pushed onto Madras, he could have walked in and conquered it. And then the Marathas, if they had in sync gone for a push against Calcutta, that would have drawn the curtains on Company rule in India. But very quickly Hasting managed to detach Mahadji Scindia from the Triple Alliance and made individual peace with him, which not only broke the alliance – which was Mysore, Hyderabad, and the Marathas – but also broke Maratha unity, splitting Scindia from Holkar, for example.

The second answer is that by this period the Marwaris and the bankers unequivocally preferred to lend to the Company. And the reason was that although they may have looted, plundered, and behaved in abominable ways, as a company, the British knew that their commercial credibility relied on repaying debts with interest on time.

So if you were a banker, it was a much safer option to lend to the Company, than it was, say, to the Holkar, who you couldn’t guarantee would pay his debt. And quite possibly, if he wanted more money, he’d hang you or your man in his court up by the heels. That’s what happened to the bankers in Delhi in 1858, for instance. There are endless descriptions of bankers being hauled in from Chandni Chowk, being hung upside down until they cough up. Which is why banking housings chose to become the Company’s bankers. And that is what, in the end, made the difference.

That really is, I think, one of the most important points in the book, which, of course, brings me to my final question. It is a cliché, but such transregional power, with a union between economic interests and military power, seems to have a lot of resonance with what we’re seeing in the world today. Powerful companies that seem to be able to flout national boundaries, national law. What do you think is the parallel you can draw with our own time when corporates seem to reign?
I discovered Steve Coll’s books on ExxonMobil after The Anarchy went to press, and I so wish I’d read it earlier because that book contains the modern paradox you refer to. Mobil’s relationship with the US government is a good example, with the twenty ex-senators recruited and contracted to lobby, ten of whom were Republicans, and ten, Democrats.

There’s a long history of American corporations, which Steve Coll gets into, which have in the present day, brought down governments. From Standard Oil and Mosaddegh in Iran, through ITT in Chile, and various others, through CIA interference, in each of these cases. Corporate lobbying can bring about, even in the present, the fall of small governments.

The way Exxon Mobil was given options in Iraq after the Iraq Conquest or how it behaved in Indonesia. So if there’s anything that I regret about The Anarchy, it’s in not building up that epilogue more, because there are far more resonances than I realised at first. The link between corporate power and political power, I think, is every bit as strong in the present as it was in the 18th century.

So the book is also in that sense a warning.