Officers of the British East India Company being entertained by musicians and dancers, One of the European officers smokes a large hookah. India. Moghul. circa 1820. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
© Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

When the Red Dragon slipped anchor at Woolwich early in 1601 to exploit the new royal charter granted to the East India Company, the venture started inauspiciously. The ship lay becalmed off Dover for two months before reaching the Indonesian sultanate of Aceh and seizing pepper, cinnamon and cloves from a passing Portuguese vessel.

The Company was a strange beast from the start — a joint stock company founded by a motley bunch of explorers and adventurers to trade the world’s riches. This was partly driven by Protestant England’s break with largely Catholic continental Europe.

“Isolated from their baffled neighbours, the English were forced to scour the globe for new markets and commercial openings further afield. This they did with piratical enthusiasm,” William Dalrymple writes.

From these Brexit-like roots, it grew into an enterprise that has never been replicated — a business with its own army that conquered swaths of India, seizing minerals, jewels and the wealth of Mughal emperors. This was mercenary globalisation, practised by what the philosopher Edmund Burke called “a state in the guise of a merchant”.

The 18th-century triumph and then fall of the Company, and its role in founding what became Queen Victoria’s Indian empire is an astonishing story, which has been recounted in books including The Honourable Company by John Keay (1991) and The Corporation that Changed the World by Nick Robins (2006). It is well-trodden territory but Dalrymple, a historian and author who lives in India and has written widely about the Mughal empire, brings to it erudition, deep insight and an entertaining style. He also has a pitch — that globalisation is rooted here, albeit that “the world’s largest corporations . . . are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company.”

Front cover of 'The Anarchy', by William Dalrymple

Like many start-ups, it had to pivot in its early days, giving up on competing with the entrenched Dutch East India Company in the Spice Islands, and instead specialising in cotton and calico from India. It was an accidental strategy, but it introduced early officials including Sir Thomas Roe to “a world of almost unimaginable splendour” in India, run by the cultured Mughals.

The Nawab of Bengal called the English “a company of base, quarrelling people and foul dealers”, and one local had it that “they live like Englishmen and die like rotten sheep”. But the Company had on its side the adaptiveness and energy of capitalism.

It also had a force of 260,000, which was decisive when it stopped negotiating with the Mughals and went to war. After the Battle of Buxar in 1764, “the English gentlemen took off their hats” to clap the defeated Shuja ud-Daula, before reinstalling him as a tame ruler, backed by the Company’s Indian troops, and paying it a huge subsidy.

“We have at last arrived at that critical Conjuncture, which I have long foreseen,” wrote Robert Clive, the “curt, withdrawn and socially awkward young accountant” whose risk-taking and aggression secured crucial military victories for the Company.

It was a high point for “the most opulent company in the world”, as Clive described it; even Lady Clive’s pet ferret wore a diamond necklace. The Great Bengal famine of 1770 soon led to unease in London at its methods. “We have murdered, deposed, plundered, usurped,” wrote the Whig politician Horace Walpole.

“I stand astonished by my own moderation,” Clive protested, after outrage intensified when the Company had to be bailed out by the British government in 1772. Clive took his own life in disgrace and Warren Hastings, whom Dalrymple portrays as the more sensitive and sympathetic Company man, was first made governor general of India and later impeached.

“In truth, I love India a little more than my own country,” wrote Hastings, who spoke good Bengali and Urdu, as well as fluent Persian. At his public impeachment hearing in 1788, Burke thundered: “We have brought before you . . . one in whom all the frauds, all the peculation, all the violence, all the tyranny in India are embodied.”

They got the wrong man but, by the time he was cleared in 1795, the British state was steadily absorbing the Company, denouncing its methods but retaining many of its assets. That brought to an end the era when “almost all of India south of [Delhi] was . . . effectively ruled by a handful of businessmen from a boardroom in the City of London.”

It is hard to find a simple lesson, beyond Dalrymple’s point that talk of Britain having conquered India “disguises a much more sinister reality”. Facebook and Uber usurp national authority but they do not seize physical territory; even an oil company with private guards in a war-torn country does not compare.

Perhaps the moral is to keep a stern eye on “corporate influence, with its fatal blend of power, money and unaccountability”. Clive reflected after Buxar, “We must indeed become Nabobs ourselves in Fact if not in Name . . . We must go forward, for to retract is impossible.” That was the nature of the beast.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury, RRP£30/$35, 544 pages

John Gapper is the FT’s chief business commentator

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Letter in response to this article:

Baffling neighbours since the East India days / From Andrew Spence, Salisbury, Wiltshire, UK

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