Book Review: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple

Until I left my birthplace and took to the road in earnest, seeking adventure and my voice as a writer, I had no idea that the Indian Subcontinent would become so important to me. I hitchhiked up and down the West Coast of the United States, across the United States from west to east, and around the countries of Europe. It was only when summer had passed and I realized that I had been traveling over roads already well trod by other writers that I set my sights further east. Via cheap passage on trains and buses I made my way across the Middle East and explored Pakistan, India, Sir Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh. I ended up staying for ten years on the Indian Subcontinent, and I grew to love it so much that for a long time I never wanted to leave; I supposed that maybe I would spend the rest of my life in that place so far away from the city I had once called home.

You can read about many of those early road adventures in India and other places in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search, and you can see how I adapted some of my experiences of those days into fiction by reading the collection The Dragon Ticket and Other Stories, which contains speculative fiction mostly set on the Indian Subcontinent.

Because of my personal connection with that part of the world, I am fascinated by writings that deal with it. I particularly enjoy the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore, and I have also read an excellent biography about Tagore.

Thus I was intrigued when I heard about Dalrymple’s new history of the East India Company. Dalrymple has been writing about the Middle East and India for decades, and he lives for most of the year on a farm outside Delhi. He brings great scholarly skills and a love of the region about which he writes to his work.

The story of the East India Company is a tale of corporate greed, corruption, and violence. It is incredible that from nondescript offices in London a stockholding company could raise armies and overthrow empires, all for the cause of corporate profit. This pillaging took place with the sanction of the British Crown and never had any other objective than exploitation of the local people and the siphoning of valuable goods and resources from India to Great Britain. The cost to the local peoples was intense. They were subjugated by the East India Company as if by a conquering army and forced to pay exorbitant fees and taxes, which made great fortunes for company personnel and furnished the British Empire with a significant percentage of its income.

The company drained the economic life-blood of the people and gave back nothing but chaos and violence in return. The ravaging of an entire subcontinent full of hundreds of millions of people is historically unparalleled for its brutality and indifference to human life. Exploitation by the East India Company brought extreme deprivation and famine to local people, not to mention the horrific wars that were fought in the name of company profit.

After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British Crown took over direct control of the Indian Subcontinent. Even then the exploitation did not stop, of course. India and the surrounding countries that were born at the time of partition did not begin to truly prosper and grow into their own as countries until independence was achieved in 1947.

This is a well-researched, well-written, and fascinating book. I found it slow going in the beginning when there was so much background material to absorb. I also found it a bit irritating that Dalrymple repeats information first by describing events, and then by providing extensive quotations from background material. Usually I felt that since he had already paraphrased and summarized the details, it was unnecessary to include the often ponderous source texts. Overall, though, this is an absorbing, interesting, and almost unbelievable look at the horrific lengths to which a greedy and amoral corporation will go for the sake of profit.

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