THE ANARCHY, William Dalrymple’s gripping book on the East India Company’s “relentless rise” in the Indian subcontinent from 1756 to 1803, settles many things. No one can now argue that Indians did not put up a tough fight; that they lacked in enterprise, dignity, or political sophistication; that the Mughals — the empire that ruled much of the subcontinent before the British — were a decrepit dynasty that let the British have their way. And no one can argue that Company rule was just, benevolent, or about anything other than greed. Still, Dalrymple’s literary commitments and tight focus on the Company constrain it from grappling fully with the realities of colonialism.

Drawing richly from sources in multiple languages, The Anarchy is gorgeously adorned with luminous images representing a range of perspectives. (I only wish the poetry laced throughout had also been presented in the original languages.) Delightful passages abound, including of the duel between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis, Shah Alam as “the sightless ruler of a largely illusory empire,” and action-packed scenes of battle. In postwar Calcutta, mansions rise “jagged from the loot-littered riverfront like blackened, shattered teeth from a diseased gum.” These gems are enrolled in an account of the conquest of India as “the most extraordinary corporate takeover in history.”

Corporate greed is certainly a compelling target but requires some logical acrobatics. Dalrymple’s prosecution of the Company as the villain of colonialism is premised on the “astonishing” rapidity of its achievement, “swiftly” subduing a subcontinent in “less than half a century.” But his patient account of its ferociously resisted half-century struggle dispels any sense of astonishing progress. This was nothing like Napoleon’s lightening conquest of Europe. By the end, Dalrymple is forced to change key, reflecting on the company’s “gradual penetration,” how it “slowly appropriated the power of the mighty Mughal Empire.” The company’s turtle pace is even more apparent when we recall that its quest for substantive access to India dated from the 17th century.

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The book’s framing concept of “anarchy” further stretches the gap between premise and narrative. Initially, “anarchy” refers to India’s condition following the death of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1707. Dalrymple, however, nods to scholarship that has replaced this myth of an Indian “Dark Age” with a narrative of rising regional powers shrewdly maintaining continuities with Mughal practice. Nevertheless, he insists on the “reality of the Anarchy” as something that explains the Company’s activities — even though the Company’s first territorial inroads were in Bengal, where Mughal power was intact. He portrays the new Company city of Calcutta as a unique oasis of prosperity and security in the 1740s — but a few pages later reveals that it was still dwarfed in the 1750s by Murshidabad, itself a “rare island of calm and prosperity amid the anarchy of Mughal decline.” This swipe at Mughal anarchy seems particularly gratuitous, given Dalrymple’s awareness that the Company was the destabilizing force in the region in the 1750s: Murshidabad’s ruler knew on his deathbed in 1756 that Europeans used Mughal nawabs as puppets. In short, if Dalrymple knows this was “Hindustan’s unhappy century of being fought over, and plundered, by rival armies,” why pin anarchy on the Mughals?

To be sure, elsewhere Dalrymple acknowledges the Company’s role in provoking ever-shifting alliances in a manner offering “little prospect of peace or stability.” He explicitly calls out “the anarchy [Robert Clive] had helped unleash” and quotes a French adventurer who perceived that the English stoked “fires of civil discord, which they then offer to resolve.” But there is too much at stake in the distinction to elide the source of anarchy this way. If it was the Mughals, the blame for colonialism can be laid at India’s feet — precisely the story 18th-century Britons told themselves to justify colonialism.

Of course, history is a human story, not a crime scene, but the way we narrate it is informed by the ethical and political mores we favor in our own time, and insofar as “our world is far from post-imperial, and quite probably will never be,” we are obligated to question the old canard that India was asking for it. Dalrymple styles Delhi as “an overripe mango […] in decay, ready to fall and disintegrate,” but colonial cliché is surely more rotten.

The restless European subcontinent in the same period offers a useful comparison. There, continual wars over successions and territories, infused with sectarian differences (and driving much of the conflict in South Asia), have typically not been read as anarchy but as progress, history’s march toward the natural order of nation-states. Given the evident strength of the new regional powers in India, normative language like “decline,” “crisis,” and “anarchy” may be equally inappropriate to historical transitions underway there. Dalrymple calls the new powers “smaller and more vulnerable” — would we talk about the successor states of the Holy Roman Empire in such terms? Why is disunity among the Marathas more of a historical failure than, say, Jacobite rebellion in England? The key difference between the two subcontinental stories is perhaps simply that groups of armed traders were not poised at Europe’s coasts to exploit tectonic shifts there, because Europe offered little seduction in the way of riches.

Dalrymple’s certitude of Indian weakness rests partly on his belief in European military superiority. Britain’s success in dominating the subcontinent by 1803 retrospectively tilts his judgment: Indian military errors appear as irredeemable folly while British errors are merely incidental. Thus, when British errors lead to catastrophic defeat at Pollilur in 1780, Dalrymple reserves his criticism for Mysore’s “lack of confidence and initiative” in capitalizing on this victory. In fact, in the early period, Indians and Britons used similar technologies differently. Mughal combat with firearms was about precision and range, not the rate of fire prized by Europeans. The Mughal historian Ghulam Hussain Khan’s description of European firepower as deafening and blinding corroborates Adam Smith’s 1776 observation that they had revolutionized warfare with their “noise […] smoke, and the invisible death to which every man feels himself every moment exposed.” [1] European tactics were about terror, not marksmanship. Is a more terrible use of a technology automatically superior, even if the Mughals held their ground against it in key moments?

To be sure, British gun sales to Indian powers climbed in the century’s second half, partly out of a craven ambition to smother indigenous arms manufacturing, and with each British victory, Indian powers became more willing customers. Learning European drill tactics from French mercenaries, they came to exceed the capacity of Company armies. (Not only did Indians master rocket-firing first, as Dalrymple notes, but William Congreve built his rocket system by experimenting with Mysorean rockets.) Dalrymple describes this as Indian “catch up.” Such language implies that the action the British judged the “most severe” ever fought in the country, when Maratha army and artillery matched theirs, was happy proof of Indian progress — that the measure of cultural evolution is the capacity for maximally severe warfare. In this view, the century-long French and British contest that “caused so much bloodshed mostly of non-Europeans” was really the march of history. Is it possible to redeem 18th-century Indians from the myth of military ineptitude by affirming different values?

The emphasis on technological catch-up is strange given Dalrymple’s argument that it was actually the company’s financial resourcefulness that sealed its military success: “[I]t all came down to money.” But this deduction — which shifts blame for colonialism to the Company’s Indian financiers — likewise crumbles under the weight of Dalrymple’s narrative.

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Dalrymple’s argument can’t, for instance, explain Governor-General Richard Wellesley, whose activities were governed not by the Company’s military and financial strength but the great pleasure he took in the chess-like maneuverings that led to dominance. Such colorful characters, whom Dalrymple endows with enormous agency, subvert his efforts to locate causality in structural factors like money or technology.

In Dalrymple’s storytelling hands, the “artless northern traders” who long struggled even to attract notice in the Mughal court morph into enterprising upstarts, springing to life in a manner inspiring delight but also relying on literary tropes entangled with colonialism itself — notably the daring imperial adventurer. Random events land Robert Clive in India in 1755, but, then, Clive’s personal “devil-may-care” attitude makes history by “directly” causing the Company’s usurpation of Mughal power. Dalrymple describes Clive’s ruthlessness unsparingly, but nevertheless grants him great-man potential: “[A] streetfighter’s eye for sizing up an opponent, a talent at seizing […] opportunities […], a willingness to take great risks and a breathtaking audacity […] reckless bravery.” The Wellesley brothers’ likewise possess “steely self-confidence, quick brains and extraordinary chutzpah. Like Clive before them.” Naturally, these men made history.

Dalrymple’s preoccupation with the reputations of Clive and Bengal’s first British governor, Warren Hastings, follows in a long line of attempts at rehabilitation by British historians; Britain’s redemption seems to hang on these two. [2] Here Clive’s chutzpah redeems his cruelty and antipathy for Indians, while Hastings’s despotism is redeemed by his deep affection for India. But Hastings was no naïf; he knew that the Company held Bengal not by the grace of the emperor but by the “the sword,” a blunt avowal of coercion that renders moot the fact that some of his best friends were Indian. However different he and Clive were in deeds and temperament, surely what is most germane is their shared presumption that the British should rule India. (The unexplained peppering of Dalrymples in Company India also raises questions about the personal stakes of this waffling history.)

These great men are the agents of momentous change in Dalrymple’s telling. Great storytelling perhaps requires dramatic chapter turns, points of no return when all was fatefully decided. Again and again, Dalrymple identifies pivotal events that settled history in the Company’s favor — Aurangzeb’s death, the Battle of Adyar River, Plassey, Buxar, Wellesley’s defeat of the Marathas. And, yet, the power of contingency continually bubbles up to subvert these deterministic claims. Aurangzeb’s death was not as fateful as the happenstance of “a string of weak and powerless emperors” after him. “Fate” may have planted the uniquely endowed Clive in the right place and time to avenge the fall of Calcutta, but it was the insubordination of his deputy Major Kilpatrick that caused the victory at Plassey. Nor did Plassey settle anything. The Mughal prince Shah Alam daringly tried to take Bengal back, and might have succeeded: after taking the Company by surprise, an ill-considered pause between Murshidabad and Calcutta spoiled what even his enemies considered a “masterful plan.” Accident powerfully determined outcomes: Shah Alam regained control of Delhi in 1773 thanks to the premature death of a Maratha prince. Indian struggle against the Company was so relentless that it is hard to see any actual point of no return. The massive British defeat at Pollilur certainly makes mince of the notion that Plassey or Buxar decided everything. The Afghans, too, were a powerful and dynamic element in the picture. Late in the book, to justify 1792 as yet another irrevocable turning point, Dalrymple suddenly acknowledges that the Company had been “insecure” till then — upending his insistent claims about its unstoppable, meteoric rise. His painstaking narration of the vicissitudes of the time undermines his claims for the outsized significance of particular great men.

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In a narrative headed to an endpoint of British dominance, the moral flaws of the British come across as having served historic purpose, while Indian flaws appear fatal. Considering recent revisions of the view of Aurangzeb as a puritanical zealot, Dalrymple concludes that he was an “unusually cold, ruthless and unpleasant character.” He may have been a bit like Clive, then — with whom he also shared a taste for reckless expansionism. But Dalrymple forces him into the hackneyed role of “bitter and bigoted Islamic puritan,” for this helps his story make better moral sense (even if it leaves us wondering why Aurangzeb’s death rather than his rule “changed everything for the Company”). If Aurangzeb was too cold, the emperor Muhammad Shah was too “effete.” In a narrative in which great men determine outcomes, and the outcome is British dominance, Indian rulers can only have been wrong in different ways. It was the Nawab of Bengal Siraj ud-Daula’s bad luck that he was born in an era when “naked aggression and brute force seemed to yield more reliable results than either charm or conciliation,” sympathizes Dalrymple. But why had brute force come to pay so well in this time?

Indian commentators saw this as an English style. Mughal officials were disgusted by the rude, bullying attitude of Company officials from the start. Aurangzeb’s death can’t explain why Company men laid waste to 52 towns and villages in 1710, earning official praise for the “impression” this created on Indian minds. Ghulam Hussain Khan called out the cultural traits that made British rule colonial: a disinterest in putting down roots and sense of “divine obligation” to scrape “together as much money as they can in this country” and carry it home. To him, their greed was cultural, not corporate.

It was not Clive but the cultural type of Clive — the adventurer with a sense of imperial entitlement and presumption to great-man destiny — that mattered. Clive’s father counseled him in his moment of fame in 1752, “this is the time to increase your fortune, [and to] make use of the present opportunity before you quit the Country.” Such advice emerged from a particular view of heroism and the purpose of venturing to places abroad. Clive molded himself after a cultural type dating at least to the Age of Exploration — Cortés, the European adventurer who returns with treasure from conquest abroad. An understanding of history as the work of great men shaped the actions of many figures under scrutiny here: the conquest of India depended significantly on men who set about very consciously trying to make history themselves — hence, in part, Wellesley’s sheer pleasure in maneuvering for dominance. To narrate it as the work of actual great men is to miss this larger cultural reality. Dalrymple’s narrative brims with evidence of the power of such cultural forces and of British cultural notions about Indians, including, for instance, portrayals of Tipu Sultan as a savage and fanatical barbarian and ideas about “Asiatic principles of government.” Though Dalrymple pushes back against these myths, he does not register the way in which their very currency implicates British society beyond the Company.

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Apart from a concluding nod at the way commerce and colonization walk in “lock-step,” the book’s central problematic — how a “single London corporation” conquered the magnificently strong Mughal Empire — is premised on the distinction between the Company and the rest of Britain. But the outlook of the great men that Dalrymple casts as the drivers of events shows that something more than corporate greed was at play; certain national or regional cultural traits and values fueled the corporate adventure. The Company’s move to strengthen its fortifications in 1756 without permission from the nawab of Bengal, which set off the chain of events that led to conquest, smacks of political arrogance that has little to do with its status as a company. A similar sense of imperial entitlement underwrote the Company’s collection of taxes during famine. Governor-General Cornwallis’s raft of racist legislation depended on British, not Company, views of Indians. The Company officer who dreaded the day Indians found out that “we are but men like themselves” knew they held India by cultural as much as company power.

In fact, the Company was not merely a company but a key component in a national contest between the French and British. A repentant French adventurer saw India’s anarchy as the product of European contests that went beyond the greed of a single company:

Ruthlessly ambitious Europeans were no less deadly in these parts, as if Europe and America were too small a theatre of war for them to devour each other[;] pursuing chimeras of self-interest, and undertaking violent and unjust resolutions, they insisted on Asia too as the stage on which to act out their restless injustices.

In the mercantilist mindset, trade was a zero-sum game that could not but be belligerently pursued. Horace Walpole saw Indian and American rebellion in 1780 as part of a single moment of imperial calamity, even though the former was an arena of Company action. The Mughals knew there was something different in the British approach to trade, which kept the British from being content to exist as a subject merchant community like the Armenians; the difference was that their trade was never only about trade, and the Company was never only a company.

British critics tried to distance the Company from the rest of British society, labeling its abuses “Asiatic”; Edmund Burke insisted: “The East India Company […] is not the British nation.” Dalrymple, too, repeatedly points out Britons’ lack of awareness of Indian affairs. But, importantly, they knew enough to complain vehemently about the Company’s corruption in the 1770s, and apathy is shaky ground for claiming innocence. After all, the attempt to censure Clive failed; Hastings was acquitted. The Crown bailed out the Company in 1773 out of an awareness of its centrality to British imperial power. As an MP explained, the question was one of “the state of the Empire; and perhaps upon it depends whether Great Britain shall be the first country in the world, or ruined or undone.” British conquest of India was undertaken by a company, but for the nation. Philip Francis wanted to replace Hastings out of a determination to serve Britain’s “glorious empire.” Dalrymple sees this as another instance of great-man ambition driving events, but, in fact, it illustrates the motivating power of collective cultural commitment to empire. Wellesley too sought to secure India for Britain. His efforts to bait Tipu and glee at the prospect of an “entirely avoidable war against the French-led forces in India” were not shaped by his role as a Company man but as a Briton. Likewise, he offered succor to Shah Alam with an eye to the resulting “increase in reputation to the British name.” His “aggressive” conception of British empire in India may have been “more nationalist” than his predecessors, but it didn’t come from nowhere.

Financial investments reinforced these national stakes: “too many MPs owned EIC stock, and the EIC taxes contributed too much to the economy” for the Company ever to be allowed to sink. As Dalrymple observes, the “most crucial factor” in the Company’s rise was Parliament’s support; the relationship grew “steadily more symbiotic,” evolving into a “public-private partnership.” This was the nature of early modern British statehood; there were not distinct private and public “sectors.” The Company was not a rogue entity, then, but represented the interests and cultural outlook of the British national elite. It acted on behalf of the state, even if decisions originated on the ground rather than in London. The state entrusted it with the prerogative of behaving aggressively when necessary, as the historian Philip Stern has shown. [3] Hence did the Company’s 17th-century director call for use of “the sword His Majesty has Intrusted us with, to vindicate the Rights and Honor of the English Nation in India.” It was never “just” a company but a hybrid entity presuming political power. The book is littered with evidence of the Company’s awareness of itself as an arm of the state and representative of the nation, however shambling its early political and military interventions. Dalrymple is emphatic that the Company’s expansion was “not part of any imperial masterplan”; but the fact that it unfolded contingently, as men made decisions on the spot, does not mean it acted solely on its own behalf. Its men emerged from a particular social and cultural milieu and acted on the authority of the British state. Its London directors may have been wary of debts accrued from conquest, but it was never stopped from doing as it wished, and was bailed out when necessary.

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By scapegoating the Company, Dalrymple corners himself into arguing that the end of Company rule in 1858 was some sort of fix for whatever was wrong with colonialism. After the Company brutally crushed the Indian rebellion of 1857, he writes, the British state had had enough: “[A]lerted to the dangers posed by corporate greed and incompetence, [it] successfully tamed history’s most voracious corporation” by taking over its Indian possessions. This conclusion makes it difficult to imagine why Indians continued to resist British rule after 1858. The reality is that racism, exploitation, violence, and extraction were not merely corporate liabilities but continued to mark the history of colonialism. And Britons continued to set great store by the idea of company rule, relying soon after on similar monopoly charter companies in the scramble for Africa, as recounted in Steven Press’s Rogue Empires (2017). [4]

Dalrymple shows us the devastating impact of British colonialism in India, the massive scale of death and impoverishment, but absolves all but a few bad men of responsibility, as if empire was the unintended consequence of corporate greed rather than the very presumption guiding Company activities. This amnesia is echoed in his concluding gesture at the legacy of this period in “recent American adventures in Iraq,” as if they were not British, too. Such forgetting makes it hard for Britons today to come to terms with the past. He hints at the need to return the loot of Srirangapatnam and helpfully highlights continuities in global corporate power but otherwise ends on a strangely sanguine note about India’s immunity from Western power today. But the entrenched power of the imperial state India inherited, and Indians’ preoccupation with corporations, ensure colonialism in the subcontinent is far from over. It is difficult, too, to credit Dalrymple’s claim that the joint-stock company was a colonial legacy after historians like Ritu Birla have shown how Indians shaped such formations themselves. [5] That it was Britain’s “most important” legacy also seems doubtful, alongside the inheritance of colonial structures of state and society — and colonial myths of saving India from Mughal anarchy and Muslim outsiders, being put to such malicious use in India today. 

Far from the astonishing rise of a single company, The Anarchy traces an epic struggle for mastery of a subcontinent, driven by a relentless dynamic of massive resistance. Salman Rushdie’s description of Dalrymple as “a scholar of history who can really write” aptly adorns it. Dalrymple has taken us to the limit of what page-turning history can be and do. But it works by activating cultural-neural wiring older than Kipling. Shah Alam begs Ghulam Qadir not to blind him. “But,” Dalrymple writes, “the appeal to religion had no effect on the Afghan” — a sentence that quietly trades on Orientalist tropes about the ruthless Afghan. We cannot give up writing literary history; this past is our collective heritage. But instead of allowing history to be the judge of our characters’ merit, we might, in Tolstoyan fashion, find our way toward a literary mode that forgoes judgment in favor of understanding based on an awareness of human frailty and the ethical commitments of our own time.

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Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University, focusing on the history of Britain and its empire. She is the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia (2008) and Empire of Guns (2018). Her new book, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History will be out in 2020.

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[1] An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (orig. 1776; repr. New York: Modern Library, 1994), 755–756.

[2] For more on this, see Priya Satia, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2020).

[3] Philip Stern, The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[4] Steven Press, Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe’s Scramble for Africa (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[5] Ritu Birla, Stages of Capital: Law, Culture, and Market Governance in Late Colonial India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).