Book, Greed, Imperialism, Money

The Anarchy

Last weekend I finished reading a fascinating book – “The Anarchy” by William Dalrymple. The book is about the days of East India Company (EIC) in India. For a history book, it is detailed and yet dramatic. I wish that it was my history textbook at school.

I found the following facets of the book remarkable and resonate with current day realities.

  1. EIC was one of the first companies to be publicly held and to be traded on the London Stock Exchange during the early 1600s. It was considered too big to fail and was bailed out, perhaps on more than one occasion by the British government
    • The bail out reminded me of AIG’s in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis
  2. For those who argue Mughal era was no better or worse than the British era, it would be hard to fathom that the proceeds from tax collection were dispatched to London and portrayed as profits of trade
    • In my view, it is hard to ascertain what part of the treasury was spent by Mughals on the welfare of the state but it does seem at least that they did not resort to forceful collection of taxes from the subjects, especially in the course of calamities. It is widely known that the 25M deaths in Bengal famines in the time of the EIC/British era rank 3rd in the 100 most atrocities in the history of mankind. Deaths were avoidable considering Bengal was the richest province and India had roughly 25% GDP of the world
  3. Eunuchs had a very important role of managing the finances of the Mughal empire.
    • It is interesting to explore and find out as to why they had such an important role. One possible explanation is that since they couldn’t have any progeny and therefore were less likely to misappropriate finances. Another is rooted in the Islamist tradition that has had eunuchs as guards at Prophet’s tomb. Though this is largely for practical reasons, for e.g. handle any female offenders as in a sense the eunuchs were not real men, eunuchs were nonetheless revered
  4. Jagat Seth brothers, richest bankers at the time funded EIC lead coup and played a central role in the ouster of Bengali Nawab and eventually helped EIC/Britain gain control over the whole of India
    • We see this even today, the nexus between business and government and power struggles in a “democratic” setup
  5. Marathas plundered Bengal ofttimes for its riches
    • This is hard to imagine in the current day  unified India
  6. Cornwallis had lost to George Washington in the Americas and subsequently replaced Warren Hastings in the 1780s. Cornwallis was wary of his own countrymen in India and let go nearly all (about 11000) of them including quite a few living with their Indian wives. Anglo-Indian community ensuingly sidelined.
    • I found it interesting that while the native American population (~50M) was almost completely exterminated, the population in India was dealt with not so brutally. Along with natural commercial interests I wonder whether the learning from American wars has had a role to  play in the manner in which the EIC/Britain chose to deal with India

The book reaffirmed my belief that, through out history, there was never a dearth of opportunists that seek legitimacy and far-flung approval for their selfish pursuits in the name of class, race, region or religion.

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