The Anarchy: Appalling and enriching – but not in equal measure

Book Review: William Dalrymple takes no prisoners in this history of the East India Company

The East India Company funded local wars, rewarded winners, punished disloyalty, left historic cities devastated and thousands dead.

The East India Company funded local wars, rewarded winners, punished disloyalty, left historic cities devastated and thousands dead.

With William Dalrymple’s tenth publication, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of The East India Company, there has been discussion as to which he is– travel writer or historian? It’s a game anyone can play, so here’s the first sentence in the book to help you: “On the 24th of September 1599, William Shakespeare was pondering a draft of Hamlet in his house downriver from the Globe in Southwark…(while) a motley group of Londoners were gathering in a rambling half-timbered building lit by many-mullioned Tudor windows.”

Most of Dalrymple’s books have been travel books, many of them set in India, but here’s the surprise: this one zooms in on a specific period of India’s history when the shape and future of the country was irrevocably changed by that group of Londoners, merchants all, who came together to form the East India Company, later known as the Company. Already active in the financial world were the Jagat Seths. Their name means “bankers of the world” and they were a family group of influential Indian bankers and moneylenders, originally from Jodhpur in north India who later settled in Bengal. Giving their support to the Company when it suited them, they bankrolled uprisings, coups, borrowings and investments. Made rich by territorial aggrandisement, they were well placed to control the fortunes of India.

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