The Red Fort

Should we be concerned about the growing aegis of international corporate entities monopolizing markets, often with the connivance of government?

A new iPod series, Capitalisn’t, hypothesizes our future. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg becomes President and manipulates anti-trust law in his favor, assuring his company can never be broken up. Too extreme? Luigi Zingales, of the University of Chicago, co-creator of the series along with Kate Waldock, of Georgetown University, reminds us of the disgraced Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who parlayed his media shares into political power. If Zuckerberg were able to emulate his example, he could conceivably become president and control both government and the world’s largest communication network.

Far-fetched? Not according to historian William Dalrymple, utilizing the East India Company as his exemplum, the threat is papable and emerges the underlying thesis of his recent highly esteemed The Anarchy: The East Corporate Violence and the Pillage of an Empire (2019).

Dalrymple, who lives in his adoptive India and has written fifteen other books on India, offers us a scenario where the unlikely actually happened in the swift rise of an initially small private enterprise to absolute power, replete with its own army, and achieving power hegemony over India.

I had come across Dalrymple’s book in compiling my drawbag reading favorites, posted annually on New Year’s day. Since I had majored in Victorian literature in grad school, I was not unfamiliar with the Company’s aggressive exploitation in Bengal under the ruthless Robert Clive in the mid-17th century, which saw its vast expansion.

I also remembered that John Stuart Mill, my favorite Victorian, had been a major functionary in the EIC for many years, ultimately becoming Chief Examiner, overseeing relations with several Indian states. His father had written the still highly influential History of British India and served as spokesman for the EIC’s board of Directors. I wasn’t aware of any notoriety on their part, so I was intrigued.

More specifically, The Anarchy traces the founding of the corporation, replete with stock investors in 1599 to 1803, when it had amassed a private army of 200,000, twice the size of the British army, and acquired dominance over the sub-continent with the defeat of the Marathi (not fully so until 1818), resulting in unprecedented opulence extracted from subjugated monarchs and ruthless taxation, even among the poor, setting the stage for the British Raj (1858), when the Company would become subordinate to the Crown following the sepoy rebellion of 1857.

India constituted Britain’s consolation prize for having lost its colonies in America. (Ironically, the EIC’s transgressions in India had agitated colonists that a like corporation might descend upon them.) In 1781, the defeated General Cornwallis at Yorktown was appointed Governor General by the EIC to preempt its repeat.

The book isn’t easy reading for the squeamish, as Indian history reeks with conspiracy, warfare, and carnage, continual conflict pitting huge armies, even by modern standards, against one another. Cities like Delhi and Calcutta are routinely pillaged and laid waste by rival Mughal factions serving-up unbridled brutality and repression, with the rare exception of enlightened monarchs like the blinded Shah Aram, last Mughal emperor, and the beloved Tipu Sultan, killed by EIC allied forces. A substantial portion of Dalrymple’s narrative details the many battles waged for control of India.

Dalrymple chronicles the rapacious Company’s opulence in a huge transfer of Indian wealth from trade, taxation, and payments from subjugated or protected local sovereigns. It brought to mind the Spanish in the New World bent on mercantile profit, heedless of unleashed cruelties on indigenous tribes.

One of the most riveting episodes of Company pecuniary malfeasance occurred with the horrendous famine of 1769-70, consequent with the absence of monsoon rain. Rice stocks grew ten times more expensive, exacerbating an already public emergency. Despite some efforts to provide famine relief, “anxious to maintain their revenues at a time, the Company, in one of the greatest failures of corporate responsibility in history, rigorously enforced tax collection and in some cases even increased revenue assessments by 10 per cent….Even starving families were expected to pay up; there were no remissions authorised on humanitarian grounds,” Dalrymple writes.

Two-thirds of Bengal peasantry perished from famine or ensuing disease. In all, an estimated 1.2 million died in Bengal, India’s formerly richest and most fertile province. Shamelessly, the Company would inform investors back in England of an increase in revenue, despite the famine.

Dalrymple’s account of the Company’s presence in India is balanced. There were good Brits, like distinguished linguist and simple living Warren Hastings, de facto first Governor General of India from 1773 to 1785. Hastings tried earnestly to stop the rampant looting of Bengal by Company associates. He would later wound his persistent antagonist Philip Drake, who survived being wounded, only to accuse him and his Chief Justice, Elijah Impey, of impropriety. Recalled to England, both would be tried in court, but ultimately acquitted.

That a relatively small private company succeeded in achieving the downfall of the Mughal Empire, attaining unprecedented power in short space, was due to three principal factors: rivalries among Indian ruling factions, some of whom would join the EIC ranks; superior training and weaponry among privately hired sepoys, reenforced by seasoned British military leadership; and no less, by speculative Indian money lenders advancing funds to the Company, allowing it to finance its huge military.

Dalrymple’s history serves as a warning of the dangers posed by international corporations, often in league with government investors, heedless of the public good. As Dalrymple comments in the “Epilogue,” “The Company’s conquest and plundering of India almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. The East India Company remains today history’s most ominous warning 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.”

Dalrymple has written an informed history, drawing upon multiple sources, scholarly, yet easy to read, relevant to our own time of growing corporate power and the dangers it imposes.
–rj