How did a small, unregulated private company with a handful of employees seated in London seize an entire subcontinent in Asia? How did this corporation, with its own private military, grow so big that it could subdue an entire nation of powerful rulers and unimaginable riches in less than half a century? William Dalrymple’s latest book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And The Pillage Of An Empire is about a firm that was among the world’s first multinationals, and its extraordinary story. “[Robert] Clive was answering to an office that was five windows wide,” Dalrymple says over the phone from Algeria. “It was almost invisible on a London street – people could walk past and miss it. Yet, this corporation was so incredibly rich, it had a mercenary army of its own. Imagine Google having an infantry.”
Dalrymple goes on to speak about why this period is relevant today, how we view historical characters and what went into writing this book.
What was the idea behind writing The Anarchy?
When I was writing this Guardian long-read piece four years ago, I realised we always looked at the British in India through the lens of nationalism – on both sides. For one, it was a tale of imperial conquest and glory. For the other, it was a tale of exploitation and looting. The more I read about the East India Company – this is my fourth book on the EIC, but the first to look at it as an institution – the more I realised that this is not a national story. The EIC was not part of the British government. It was a privately owned corporation. What it did in India is the world’s most well-documented and horrific example of corporate violence.
In our colonial narrative, the East India Company’s role gets overshadowed.
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