The private-public exploitation of the British colonies

Those who come from former colonies of the British empire will remember from their history lessons the way that the British government worked with private entities such as the East India Company (“an empire within an empire”) in exploiting those colonies. Historian William Dalrymple has written a book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire about its role in what was the “military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia… almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.”

Matthew Clayfield reviews the book and says that the author makes the strong case that the ravages inflicted by that company, in collusion with the British government and wealthy Indians financiers who were willing to sell out their country and fellow Indians in pursuit of private wealth, presages what we see now.

“For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations,” Dalrymple writes as he draws the volume to a close, “they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarized East India Company.”

“The story of the East India Company is the story of this odd dance between the power of the corporation and the power of the state,” Dalrymple says. “Behind the story of the Company’s conquest of India is this tussle between the two. Sometimes it looks as though the Company is winning—bribing the state to alter the law, guarantee its monopolies, provide it with military assistance—and at other times it seems as though the state is winning, which it ultimately does in 1858, when the Company is nationalized.”

“The most obviously relevant moment is when the company goes bust in 1772 and has to borrow massive sums of money. It’s the largest loan ever given to a British company up to that point. But they have to do it. The Company’s responsible for half of all British trade by then. It really is too big to fail.”

Dalrymple has a wide readership in India but says that his fairly sympathetic portrait of the former Moghul rulers of India has incurred the wrath of the Hindu nationalist followers of current prime minister Narendra Modi.

“I’m obviously very lucky in that people do read and like my stuff in India,” Dalrymple says. “But there’s also no question that there’s a whole segment of society there that’s deeply Islamophobic.

“My books are obviously fairly sympathetic to the Moghuls and embrace the old Nehruvian idea of India as a diverse, rather than specifically Hindu, country. It’s impossible to say whether, in the longer term, given my positive views on Indo-Islamic culture, whether a new generation will grow up not wanting to read my books or listen to their message. India is certainly changing. You can see it just by going on Twitter.”

Dalrymple has an impressive 1.2 million followers on the social media platform. But he’s quick to disabuse me of the notion that anywhere near that number of them are real.

“About two years ago, something very weird began to happen,” he says. “I went from about 100,000 followers to more than a million in a matter of months. I went about preening myself and thinking what I fine fellow I was before my sister-in-law pointed out to me that most of my new followers were BJP bots. I’d somehow wound up on a list of influencers and been followed by hundreds of thousands of government bots and trolls.”

“They sleep until you use words like ‘Modi’ or ‘BJP’ or ‘RSS’—or ‘Kashmir,’ obviously, more recently—and the abuse they tweet at people can be shocking.”

It looks like a book worth reading and I plan to obtain it.


  1. mailliw says

    This, perhaps, is nearly the present state of Bengal, and of
    some other of the English settlements in the East Indies. In a
    fertile country, which had before been much depopulated, where
    subsistence, consequently, should not be very difficult, and where,
    notwithstanding, three or four hundred thousand people die of hunger
    in one year, we maybe assured that the funds destined for the
    maintenance of the labouring poor are fast decaying. The difference
    between the genius of the British constitution, which protects and
    governs North America, and that of the mercantile company which
    oppresses and domineers in the East Indies, cannot, perhaps, be
    better illustrated than by the different state of those countries.

    Adam Smith, “The Wealth of Nations”

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    wealthy Indians financiers who were willing to sell out their country and fellow Indians in pursuit of private wealth

    I wonder whether there is an Indian version of “(Such a Parcel of) Rogues in a Nation“.

    But pith and power, till my last hour
    I’ll make this declaration
    We were bought and sold for English gold:
    Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

  3. mnb0 says

    “the way that the British government worked with private entities such as the East India Company”
    A model the world can thank the Dutch Republic for -- it’s inseperably connected witth Dutch Golden Age. The low point probably was the genocide on the Banda Islands for nutmeg in 1621. Here’s the “hero” who was responisble:

    Yup -- the people in the British colonies could even have been worse off.

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