India is More Unified Today Than Ever Before: William Dalrymple  

Had India’s Hindu bankers & Marwari traders not helped East India Company, history would’ve rolled out differently.

6 min read

Camera: Sumit Badola
Video Editor: Deepthi Ramdas
Transcription Assistance: Kanav Bali
Producer: Indira Basu

‘The British Need to Know the Dark Side of Their Past’

“The British could never come to terms with the sins of their forebearers in the way that the Germans have come to terms with what the Nazis did. One of the things I hope to do with this book is to show people in a sense, how very venal the Company was.”
Historian William Dalrymple to Indira Basu, The Quint

“The British obviously like to think the best of their forebearers and imagine the Raj to be some wonderful sort of Merchant Ivory film with crinolines, and maharajas and elephants and croquet matches. The way that the British reduced the incredible riches of Bengal and turned it into poverty, is not something that I think they know, and they need to know — they need to know the dark side of their past,” William Dalrymple added during an interview with The Quint.


Celebrated historian and travel writer William Dalrymple, in his latest book ‘The Anarchy’, records in detail the extent of the loot and plunder by the East India Company in India, and the manner in which the Company grew to become an imperial power — with the help of the Indians themselves.

The Quint caught up with Dalrymple during his book tour. Below are excerpts from the interview with Indira Basu:

Is there a parallel between Indian politics then and now?

No, I think it’s in a very, very different situation, the political situation today. We have a more centralised, more unified India than we’ve had for many centuries. The period I am writing about is very opposite. It’s when the Centre gives way and breaks up, and the whole of India shatters into a thousand fragments; those pieces the East India Company hoovers up.

‘English Were Scandalised to Learn India Was Being Controlled by a Boardroom in London’

While researching for the book, what was the most interesting discovery about the Company and its dealings in India?

Well, I think nothing that would surprise anyone in India. For English readers, I think the looting and plundering and asset-stripping is news to them, in the sense that Indian nationalist historiography was very clear and outspoken about the drain of wealth, and the way that the Company plundered the riches of particularly Mughal Bengal in the 18th century, and the degree to which the most prosperous regions in India turned into a dust bowl by the famine of 1770... In a sense, the biggest surprise was the opposite — how much opposition and resistance there was from the English public to this. It was a cause of great scandal in the 18th century that India was being controlled by a boardroom in the city of London. And when news of the 1770 famine came, it headlined in every paper (in England). It said at the time that 5 million Bengalis had died in the famine. There were plays on in the Haymarket Theatre with (Robert) Clive being parodied as ‘Lord Vulture’.

Would India have flourished had the Company not plundered us?

It’s very difficult to do these counter-factuals, to say that if the Company hadn’t existed what would have happened. I suppose the most likely outcome would’ve been the dominance of the Marathas. But there were many other options, such as for example, the French East India Company who probably would have been more likely to have taken over if it wasn’t for the British one.


‘My Family Was Exactly the Sort of Family That Joined East India Company’

Tell us about your ancestors, the Dalrymples’, connection with the East India Company.

So, my family was exactly the sort of family that went into the East India Company. It was never the grand senior gentry, it was never the dukes and the lords and so on, because it was terribly risky. Three quarters of young men that were sent to India never came back. And so, the likelihood was that you were sending the family member off to his death when you sent him out to India — mainly from disease, not from battles. But my family was exactly the sort of family that joined the Company. They were minor Scottish gentry with aspirations above their pockets, and generations of younger sons got sent out, one of the first being Stair Dalrymple, who had all sorts of grand ideas but ended up dying in the Black Hole. And his name is on the Black Hole Memorial, now in St John’s Church out in Kolkata. Every generation in my family sent someone out here which is why, in a sense, I am so interested in this.

“So, this, in a sense, is my story too.”
William Dalrymple to Indira Basu, The Quint

‘I’ve Got a Trickle of Mughal & Bengali Blood in My Veins’

“And there was one James Dalrymple in Hyderabad who married the great grand-daughter of Nur Jahan’s youngest sister, Mooti Begum. There’s another Dalrymple who married an Anglo-Indian girl in Chandannagar in Bengal...I’ve got a trickle of Mughal and a trickle of Bengali blood in my veins.”
William Dalrymple to Indira Basu, The Quint

‘Victorians Doctored History to Portray Tyranny of Mughal Rule’

Is today’s religious divide due to the Company and the Raj?

It’s a really complicated question, whether the British contributed to the communal divide in the country. There’s certainly no question that they exacerbated it and you find very conscious efforts by the Victorians to show what they saw as the ‘tyranny’ of Mughal rule and to try and doctor history, to make British rule seem like ‘liberation’ from tyranny. But if I think you can also go too far in the opposite direction. Arguably, some Nehruvian historians did so after Independence, to create a paradise-like India where all religious communities got on perfectly well, and there was no religious divide or communal tension of any sort. You’ve got to somehow have both things in the picture, the fact that there are differences in religion and that there are tensions which can be exploited, while bearing in mind that it suited the British way, obviously, to play on these differences and blow them up.


‘East India Company Was Tempted into Politics by the Jagat Seths’

What could’ve possibly stopped the Company from becoming the imperial power it grew into?

So there were two things that really threatened the Company. One was the military power of Indians after 1780, when the sort of techniques that the Company imported — infantry squares, socket bayonet, horse artillery with elevating screws —  all these military innovations in the 18th Century gave the Company an edge over its Indian rivals such as Tipu (Sultan) and the Marathas. And by 1780, both Tipu and the Marathas had got this technology too, and there was a kind of military parity.

So, what in the end gave the British the edge was the fact that because they were a multi-national company — because their shares were like world reserve currency, and because, for all the asset-stripping and plundering, they understood the importance of commercial contracts, which could be enforced in courts of law. They understood the importance of repaying loans with interest. And for this reason, there was a great deal of collaboration, and the Company was first tempted into Indian politics by the Jagat Seths, the bankers of Murshidabad — incredibly powerful, and the richest bankers in India. And thereafter, it was other Hindu bankers such as the bankers of Banaras and Patna, who competed to lend the Company money.

‘A Section of Hindu Bengali Society Colluded With the Company’

“Had the Indian financial community not collaborated enthusiastically with the Company, had it cut off funds, history would not have rolled out as it was.”
William Dalrymple to Indira Basu, The Quint
“The Company had a continual series of collaborators who smoothed their path, and by the time of the Cornwallis Land Reforms and the Permanent Settlement, when the big Mughal estates were broken up and sold to the rising ‘bhadralok’ of Calcutta, a whole section of urban Hindu Bengali society basically had an interest in Company rule, and made a conscious decision to opt for that as the ‘better’ option over Mughal or Maratha rule.”
William Dalrymple to Indira Basu, The Quint

‘No Companies Today That Have Sovereign Control Over States’

Do you see parallels to the Company in the modern world?

Well, thankfully there are obviously no companies in the modern era which actually control the sovereign rights of a nation state. We don’t have Facebook or Google occupying Switzerland or Indonesia. Exxon Mobil, the largest oil producer in the world is obviously very influential in states where it operates but it doesn’t actually have sovereign control.

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