William Dalrymple talks to Libas Now (and Actually Makes History Fun!)
The Anarchy, William Dalrymple’s latest masterpiece, is an extraordinary account of how The East India Trading Company, a modest venture based out of an office ‘five windows wide’ in London, was able become the undisputed master of India, then the richest country in the world.
The book is full of fascinating characters, epic battles, and valuable history. The author quotes Lord Thurlow who two centuries ago warned that ‘corporations have neither bodies to be punished nor souls to be condemned. They therefor do as they like.’ Those words could not be truer today.
“[The East India Company] was not just like any beast. If you have seen the movie Alien, imagine that creature. Something that starts small but deadly”
Your book starts with the word ‘loot’, which means to pillage or steal, as being East India Company’s (EIC) primary motive in India. Could there be more to that than just self-interest that inspired an undertaking as grand as the annexation of India, such as nationalism or glory for the Crown?
William Dalrymple: There is no interest like self-interest. The first group of East India traders were actually ‘privateers’, which is an Elizabethan euphemism for pirate. EIC’s first profitable venture wasn’t from trade but from spices they seized by force from a Portuguese ship.
“There is no interest like self-interest. The first group of East India traders were actually ‘privateers’, which is an Elizabethan euphemism for pirate”
The company existed purely to enrich its shareholders. It did so by whatever means necessary. Sure, when they were applying for their Charter in the 1500s, there was talk of ‘Glory for England’ and such but it was just rhetoric. It was a sales-pitch.
Sure, there were certain people inside the company that wanted to further the English cause. For example, Lord Wellesley came to India with a very nationalistic agenda to F*** the French. As head of the company he used EIC’s vast resources and army to conquer more of India than anyone and defeat EIC’s most formidable adversary Tipu Sultan. But his nationalism was selfish. He wanted to return home a hero so he could have a run at being Prime Minister.
You often refer to EIC as a beast. Was it really so wicked?
WD: It really was, and not just like any beast. If you have seen the movie Alien, imagine that creature. Something that starts small but deadly. Beginning its inception by ripping out of someone’s gut then growing to become this fully-grown mother-monster devouring everything in its sight, one by one and giving birth to other little monsters as well.
How could the Indians miss such a threat? Sir Thomas Roe spent a considerable amount of time at the Emperor Jahangir’s court as Ambassador. His journals were a great source of information on the Mughals but there isn’t a single mention of him in Emperor Jahangir’s numerous writings. Did the Mughals underestimate the British?
WD: Not a single mention of him, can you believe it. It wasn’t until much later when the British began to win battles in India did the Mughals realise the existential threat they were in. European nations were constantly at war so their armies, tactics and technology evolved which were no match for the more traditional Mughal armies.
“It wasn’t until much later when the British began to win battles in India did the Mughals realise the existential threat they were in”
But that isn’t to say that no one saw the danger they posed. 18th century stateman Nana Phadnavis [dubbed the Maratha Machiavelli] did his best to create a unified front to stop the EIC. He realised very early on what was coming. Tipu Sultan was another person who resisted the company to the end.
“18th century stateman Nana Phadnavis did his best to create a unified front. Tipu Sultan was another person who resisted the company to the end”
I live in Lahore.
WD: Lucky you.
Which is next to Sheikhupura. A city literally erected as a mausoleum for a prince’s favorite pet deer. The Hiran Minar.
WD: It is a beautiful building.
Does that highlight the Mughal rulers’ aloofness and dispositions of prioritising pleasure over more important matters of the State? Is that what The Company exploited?
WD: Not at all. I don’t know why that is the general impression of the Mughal Emperors, that they were this group of insatiable, sensuous kinds of pleasure-seekers or tyrannical rulers. That is not true. Right now, all that remains is their art and architecture. So I can understand why it may seem that’s all they were about. British propaganda is also partly to blame. They wanted to justify their actions as a sort of liberation of India from a bigoted or inept regime. [Sound familiar?]
“I don’t know why that is the general impression of the Mughal Emperors, that they were this group of insatiable, sensuous kinds of pleasure-seekers or tyrannical rulers. That is not true”
When in fact Emperors such as Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jehan were all very impressive rulers, especially if you compare them to their European counterparts of the time. I am a Catholic from Scotland. I would have probably fared better in Mughal India than parts of Europe in terms of religious tolerance.
“Emperors such as Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jehan were all very impressive rulers, especially if you compare them to their European counterparts of the time”
Even General Sleeman, not exactly an Indophile, admitted that India had one of the most educated communities. He said Aristotle was part of their curriculum and that Indian universities were at par with any in England at the time. When the EIC arrived, India was 40% of the world GDP. It had overtaken China as the largest manufacturer in the world. So no, contrary to common belief the Mughals were not bad governors.
In The Anarchy, you write about many hard-fought battles which could have gone in anyone’s favour. For example, more than once, it was rain that ultimately chose the victor and changed the course of history. Do you believe in fate and destiny?
WD: I believe that the British won those battles because they covered their cannons when it rained and their opponents did not. I do not believe it was fate or destiny. I do believe in chance.
“The British won those battles because they covered their cannons when it rained and their opponents did not”
What if the Mughals won those crucial battles against the Company. What would India look like today?
WD: It’s very possible that India would still have an Emperor. But considering the times, probably with limitations. Perhaps a constitutional monarchy like in Britain, with very strong provincial governors.
In the initial stages the English and the French were battling over India. What if the French prevailed – how would they have been as overlords compared to Britain?
WD: You would have even better food.
You tweeted that ‘a man in a shalwar kameez is reading my book’ and posted a picture of Prime Minister Imran Khan reading The Anarchy on his flight back from the United States. What do you hope he learned from it?
WD: I had no idea who he was. No, of course I did, Imran and I have been friends since the 80s. I am a great admirer of his and very glad he read it. He sent a very kind message afterwards. The book has two main themes. One is the history of how the British conquered India. The other is how a company conquered an empire, and the potential dangers of letting corporations loose without regulation. We live in a new world of data mining and mega corporations worth more than some nations. That’s something we’ll have to deal with.
“Imran [Khan] and I have been friends since the 80s. I am a great admirer of his and very glad he read [The Anarchy]. He sent a very kind message afterwards”
Most Pakistanis can name more American Presidents than Mughal Emperors. Why have we forgotten our own history?
WD: It’s the same in India, and I am not quite sure why. I think it has something to do with the fact that there are almost no non-fiction writers in South Asia. If there are then they’re too few and far between. Forget short list, South Asian authors are not even long listed for The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. So, there is a tremendous shortage. But I am not complaining. I have made a living of filling that void, and happy to keep doing so.
“I think [Indians and Pakistanis forgetting their own history] has something to do with the fact that there are almost no non-fiction writers in South Asia”
Speaking of forgetting history, you have another book coming out called Forgotten Masterpieces.
WD: Yes. The Mughal era produced some fine artists. Many of whom found new patrons in the East India Company. It’s a less-known but fascinating subject and one that I am very passionate about. I hope everyone enjoys it.