From the start British imperialism was about loot, not spreading civilisationby Sameer Rahim / October 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
Taking pride of place between the modern Treasury and the Foreign Office is a statue of Robert Clive, better known as Clive of India. It is an unwittingly apposite place to remember a man whose “extreme aggression and devil-may-care audacity,” in the words of William Dalrymple, established Britain’s wealth and overseas dominance in the 18th century.
But Clive was no ordinary imperialist, and this was no ordinary conquest. As Dalrymple shows in this beautifully written history, it wasn’t the English state but the East India Company (EIC), the first modern joint stock company founded in 1599, that eventually led to the hostile takeover of Mughal lands. Sir Thomas Roe, the first petitioner to the Emperor Jahangir, went as a supplicant—a power relationship made clear in a Mughal miniature painting that shows the emperor enthroned in glory while James I, complete with an expression of “vinegary sullenness,” is relegated to the bottom.
The British soon turned the tables, skilfully sniffing out weaknesses among the competing sultans and nawabs, and developing an advanced economic system of exploitation—“loot,” as Dalrymple reminds us, was one of the earliest Hindustani words to come into English.
He draws on the EIC archives but also, valuably, from accounts telling the other side of the story. There was admiration for some of the EIC’s business and staffing practices—“the English have no arbitrary dismissal,” wrote one Persian traveller to Calcutta—as well as puzzlement at cultural differences—“neither men nor women remove pubic hair, accounting comely to leave it in its natural state,” the same traveller adds.
For Dalrymple, the anti-Clive was Warren Hastings, the “austere, sensitive” Georgian who tried to ameliorate the EIC’s worst excesses. But as this account shows, for all the later talk of noble mission, the conquest of India was from the start a commercial venture backed by ruthless military might.
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, £30)