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Dalrymple’s tome to perils of corporate power abuse
His new book dissects the machinations of the East India Company and studies the relationship between commercial and imperial power
Historian, writer, art curator, critic and also an award-winning broadcaster, William Dalrymple has exceeded himself with his latest book. The towering 522-page book, which was in the making for six painstaking years, dissects the machinations of the East India Company (EIC) that began as a trader but gradually became an occupying power before it was cut to size — but exists even today, owned by two brothers from Kerala ‘who use it to sell condiments and fine foods from a showroom in London’s West End’.
“The East India Company today remains history’s most ominous warnings about the potential for the abuse of corporate power — and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state. For, as recent American adventures in Iraq have shown, our world is far from post-imperial, and quite probably will never be. Instead, the Empire is transforming itself into forms of global power that use campaign contributions and commercial lobbying, multinational finance systems and global markets, corporate influence and the predictive data harvesting of the new surveillance — capitalism rather than — or sometimes alongside — overt military conquest, occupation or direct economic domination to affect its ends.
“Four hundred and twenty years after its founding, the story of the East India Company has never been more current,” Dalrymple writes in The Anarchy -— The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And The Pillage Of An Empire.
To explain the “loot”, the Hindustani slang for plunder and one of the very first Indian words to enter the English language, the author graphically transports the reader to the 13th century Powis Castle, a craggy fort in the Welsh Marches, which houses the treasures that Robert Clive brought home from India.
“For Powis is simply awash with loot from India, room after room of imperial plunder extracted by the East India Company in the 18th century. There are more Mughal artifacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display in any one place in India — even the National Museum in Delhi,” Dalrymple writes.
He then provides a fresh perspective. “We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that began seizing great chunks in India in the mid-18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by a violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator — (Robert) Clive. India’s transition to colonialism took place under a for-profit corporation entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors,” the book says.
“The Company’s conquest of India almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations — whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google — they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company.”
The Company had been authorised by its founding charter to “wage war’’ and had been using violence to gain its ends since it boarded and captured a Portuguese vessel on its maiden voyage in 1602. Moreover, it had controlled small areas since the 1630s.
Nevertheless, the defeat of Mughal emperor Shah Alam in 1765 “was really the moment that the East India Company ceased to be anything even distantly resembling a conventional trading corporation, dealing in silks and spices, and became something altogether much more unusual”.
The book has attempted to study the relationship between commercial and imperial power, as Dalrymplehimself states.