5 min read.Updated: 23 Aug 2019, 02:08 PM ISTWilliam Dalrymple
William Dalrymple’s new book is a magisterial history of the rise of the East India Company
This excerpt gives a glimpse into the East India Company’s origins and its role in corporate lobbying
We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that began seizing great chunks of India in the mid-eighteenth century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by a violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator—Clive. India’s transition to colonialism took place under a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors.
At the height of the Victorian period in the mid-nineteenth century there was a strong sense of embarrassment about the shady, brutal and mercantile way the British had founded the Raj. The Victorians thought the real stuff of history was the politics of the nation state. This, not the economics of corrupt corporations, they believed was the fundamental unit of study and the real driver of transformation in human affairs. Moreover, they liked to think of the empire as a mission civilisatrice: a benign national transfer of knowledge, railways and the arts of civilisation from West to East, and there was a calculated and deliberate amnesia about the corporate looting that opened British rule in India.
A...picture, this one commissioned from William Rothenstein, to be painted onto the walls of the House of Commons, shows how successfully the official memory of this process was spun and subtly reworked by the Victorians. It can still be found in St Stephen’s Hall, the echoing reception area of the Westminster Parliament. The painting was part of a series of murals entitled The Building of Britain. It features what the Hanging Committee at the time regarded as the highlights and turning points of British history: King Alfred defeating the Danes in 877, the parliamentary union of England and Scotland in 1707, and so on.
The fresco in this series that deals with India shows another image of a Mughal prince sitting on a raised dais, under a canopy. Again, we are in a court setting, with bowing attendants on all sides and trumpets blowing, and again an Englishman is standing in front of the Mughal. But this time the balance of power is very different.
Sir Thomas Roe, the ambassador sent by James I to the Mughal court, is shown before the Emperor Jahangir in 1614—at a time when the Mughal empire was still at its richest and most powerful. Jahangir inherited from his father Akbar one of the two wealthiest polities in the world, rivalled only by Ming China. His lands stretched through most of India, all of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, and most of Afghanistan. He ruled over five times the population commanded by the Ottomans—roughly 100 million people— and his subjects produced around a quarter of all global manufactures.
Jahangir’s father Akbar had flirted with a project to civilise India’s European immigrants, whom he described as ‘an assemblage of savages’, but later dropped the plan as unworkable. Jahangir, who had a taste for exotica and wild beasts, welcomed Sir Thomas Roe with the same enthusiasm he had shown for the arrival of the first turkey in India, and questioned Roe closely on the oddities of Europe. For the committee who planned the House of Commons paintings, this marked the beginning of British engagement with India: two nation states coming into direct contact for the first time. Yet … British relations with India actually began not with diplomacy and the meeting of royal envoys, but with a trade mission led by Captain William Hawkins, a bibulous Company sea dog who, on arrival in Agra, accepted a wife offered to him by the emperor and merrily brought her back to England. This was a version of history the House of Commons Hanging Committee chose to forget.
In many ways the East India Company was a model of commercial efficiency: one hundred years into its history, it had only thirty-five permanent employees in its head office. Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.
Historians propose many reasons for the astonishing success of the Company: the fracturing of Mughal India into tiny, competing states; the military edge that Frederick the Great’s military innovations had given the European Companies; and particularly the innovations in European governance, taxation and banking that allowed the Company to raise vast sums of ready money at a moment’s notice. For behind the scarlet uniforms and the Palladian palaces, the tiger shoots and the polkas at Government House always lay the balance sheets of the Company’s accountants, with their ledgers laying out profit and loss, and the Company’s fluctuating share price on the London Stock Exchange.
Yet perhaps the most crucial factor of all was the support that the East India Company enjoyed from the British Parliament. The relationship between them grew steadily more symbiotic throughout the eighteenth century until eventually it turned into something we might today call a public–private partnership. Returned nabobs like Clive used their wealth to buy both MPs and parliamentary seats – the famous Rotten Boroughs. In turn, Parliament backed the Company with state power: the ships and soldiers that were needed when the French and British East India Companies trained their guns on each other.
For the Company always had two targets in its sights: one was the lands where its business was conducted; but the other was the country that gave it birth, as its lawyers and lobbyists and MP shareholders slowly and subtly worked to influence and subvert the legislation of Parliament in its favour. Indeed, the East India Company probably invented corporate lobbying. In 1693, less than a century after its foundation, the EIC was discovered for the first time to be using its own shares for buying parliamentarians, annually shelling out £1,200 a year to prominent MPs and ministers. The parliamentary investigation into this, the world’s first corporate lobbying scandal, found the EIC guilty of bribery and insider trading, and led to the impeachment of the Lord President of the Council, and the imprisonment of the Company’s Governor.
Edited excerpt from The Anarchy, releasing 10 September in India, used with permission from Bloomsbury India.