“Remember where the money came from.” Historian William Dalrymple on the legacy of the East India Company

Celebrated Scottish historian William Dalrymple joined BBC special correspondent Fergal Keane in an Edinburgh International Book Festival online event this afternoon to talk about his latest book, The Anarchy: a searing study of corporate greed in Imperial India, focussing on the rise to prominence of the East India Company, and the horrors India suffered under its corporate rule.

Dalrymple began the event with a stark reminder about Scotland’s role in the East India Company: “The East India Company was obviously somewhere that had a huge impact on Edinburgh. In fact one of the underhand deals at the Act of the Union was that the Scots would get more access to the East India Company, and a great many of the fancy houses in the vicinity of Edinburgh – ranging from Newhailes to places further north – were built on the loot and the profit brought back by the East India Company to Scotland.”

The profiteering from India can be seen most overtly in the rooms of Powis Castle in Wales.  “Inside you can see room after room of loot from India.” (Dalrymple soberly reflects that even the word ‘loot’ is actually Hindustani – brought back from India to explain the enormous quantities of treasures that began to get shipped into Britain at this period.) This particular ‘loot’ at Powis came from Bengal in 1756, the result of an ‘unpleasant’ treaty between the Moghul Emperor Shah Alam and Robert Clive, who was running the East India Company at the time. Essentially, claimed Dalrymple, it was a deal of involuntary privatization – where the rights to tax, mint and run the economy of the three richest provinces of Moghul Empire were handed over, “not to the British government, but to a private corporation – the East India Company.”

What, Dalrymple claimed, is most astonishing – yet so often overlooked – is the unprecedented power of a single corporation at this time in history: “They begin to conquer great chunks of India. So you have this strange situation whereby India and the Moghul Empire is conquered, not by a nation state, but by a corporation” Dubbing the East India Company, “the 18th century equivalent of Amazon, or Google or Facebook, an incredibly powerful corporation that just gobbled up a lot of the wealth of the world, “ he went on to explain that The Company’s power was so colossal, and their trading so vast, that by the 1760s countries like Mexico began to enter a period of de-industrialisation due to the shear amount of goods being shipped to Europe from India.

Managed by just 35 people in its head office the East India Company managed to pull off the most “incredible corporate coup – the biggest corporate windfall in history – of conquering the richest empire in the world”.   In fact, Dalrymple noted, “They controlled 40% of the world’s manufacturer.  For the modern equivalent, you’d have to have Jeff Bezos take over the whole of Latin and North America, and replace Trump as his vassal, as a sort of puppet ruler.”

So how did the East India Company rise to power? Dalrymple stated that after the decimation and pillaging of the Mughal Empire’s armies and treasures by Nadir Shah – a warlord who had already taken over Persia – in 1739, the entire Mughal Empire had collapsed, and “where before you had one army of 2 million men, now you’ve got hundreds of little courts.” This weakness is then exploited by the European resurgent companies. And, with the help of Major-General Robert Clive – later to be known as Clive of India – the East India Company toppled Siraj ud-Daula of Bengal, who had taken over Calcutta in 1756, and plundered the city’s treasury.

“What is the gain of Clive and his cronies,” remarked Dalrymple, “is the loss of India… suddenly this company, still based out of one tiny office block in London, has defeated the Mughal Empire in battle and it has the whole of North India under its sway. And what does it do? It does what any corporation would do, it asset strips on an industrial scale. And half the National Trust houses in Scotland and half in England built in this period, in the 1760s, come from the loot of India shipped back to Britain.” He added “What is India’s loss, is Britain’s gain… Remember where the money came from.”

But, Dalrymple remarked, the biggest “trick they pull off, is this is not done with white soldiers” noting that “the East India Company army is 95% Indian. A mercenary army paid for by money borrowed from Indian bankers… And these bankers take the view that the Company may loot, may plunder, may asset strip, but it repays loans on time, with interest.”

The strength of the Company over the next few decades grows with rapidity: “In 1799 the East India Company army is 200,000, at a time when the British army is only 100,000 strong. And it’s controlled not by Downing Street, or by the Crown, but by the directors of the East India Company.”

But it’s their ruthless treatment of Indians during the 1770 famine that perhaps remains their cruellest legacy. With over a million dead in Bengal, the East India Company still sent out Sepoys to collect taxes – increasing their own shareholder percentage in the process. However, “by 1772 they have literally picked the bone clean,” condemned Dalrymple, “there is no money left. Soon they have a million pound failure of profits, so they have to go to Parliament to ask to be bailed out.  The East India Company by this stage is too big to fall… Because not only does it provide a third of all tax revenue, it provides half the country’s customs revenue, and so Parliament bails them out to the tune of a million pounds and in the process takes a share of the East India Company – controlling shares – so suddenly what you see for the first time is the State is involved. And suddenly what you see from this stage is increasing State interference, then State control of the East India Company.”

The Company finally collapses in 1858, following the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857 – known to the Indians as The First War of Independence. With over 100,000 killed, it was a bloody, brutal and bitter end.

The lessons learned from the East India Company, said Dalrymple, “are universal ones for today, and something we should very much take to heart.”  Asserting that the East India Company in many ways set the standard for multinational conglomerates operating today – raising the bar for the level of greed, corruption and manipulation a single corporation can wield: “So many of the things we fear most about multi-nationals today – the way they can topple governments; influence opinion; the way that Facebook and social media can manipulate people’s ideas and alter the results of elections, this happened for the first time with the Company… This whole history that we think is so contemporary, of corporations malignly using their influence to alter foreign policy, this goes back to the East India Company.”

Dalrymple ends with a sharp criticism of ‘Raj nostalgia’, which he says was exacerbated during the Brexit campaign: “Our generation badly needs to roll back this rose-tinted nostalgia that has dominated British thinking about it [the Raj era], and to see it for what it was, which was a money making enterprise, run like any Empire, for the benefit of the coloniser.” He stressed that, “There are no happy colonials longing to be reintegrated into our system.” Adding “it gives Britain’s an entirely mistaken view of how the world looks at it, and as Rabbie Burns says, ‘We’ve got to see ourselves as others see us.’”

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