As Dalrymple himself reminds us, such sources were far from impartial when assessing the new British masters who were replacing their Mughal patrons. Dalrymple’s own very apparent nostalgia for the disappearing Mughal world sometimes makes him uncritical of such partisan accounts.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his treatment of Robert Clive, the founder of Britain’s Indian empire, portrayed as a rapacious, racist, corrupt adventurer. Though he undoubtedly showed some of these faults at different times, there is scant recognition of the remarkable leadership skills that made him such a successful general, despite no military training, and such an able administrator when poacher turned gamekeeper, as Dalrymple concedes, during his second term as Governor of Bengal.
Dalrymple is far kinder to Warren Hastings, who built on Clive’s reforms, and to Lords Cornwallis and Wellesley, who completed the Company’s military conquest of most of the subcontinent. Hastings is rightly credited with reviving India’s classical heritage via his patronage for the infant Asiatic Society and the great Indologist, Sir William Jones.
Dalrymple is kindest of all to the poet-emperor Shah Alam, whose long, tragic life forms the spine of this narrative. Witnessing as a child the ferocious sack of Delhi by the Persian Nadir Shah, Shah Alam grew up to become an emperor without a throne, seeking shelter from various regional warlords, blinded by a psychopathic Afghan protegee, eventually ending as a pensioner of the British, who treated him more kindly than any of his Indian vassals.
This book is at its most gripping in detailing the various palace intrigues which were so fatal to all the Indian regimes the Company Sahib encountered. It also throws welcome light on the oft-neglected support of new, predominantly Hindu banking and business elites, who backed British rule and financed their war machine against the oppressive Muslim and Maratha warlords of The Anarchy. Dalrymple rightly singles out the joint stock company as the most revolutionary new idea imported by the Company. He also portrays Bengal’s recovery by the 1780s, under British rule, of the enormous prosperity and stability which made it the envy of the rest of India and the basis of British military dominance.
Where the book is least successful is in its occasional digressions to present the East India Company as a parable of corporate greed, still relevant as a warning to our corporate capitalism today. The Company that emerges from Dalrymple’s own narrative is a unique public-private partnership, controlled far more by the British Home Government from 1773 onwards than by the Directors who shunned its territorial acquisitions. Dalrymple rightly dismisses the fog of lies and inventions that dogged the parliamentary impeachment of Warren Hastings, who was eventually exonerated after seven long years. What he doesn’t mention is that such accountability is unprecedented in the history of any empire, with its parliament scrutinising every document that crossed a governor’s desk in order to enforce human rights.
One fantastic accusation which the book mentions appeared in a tract by a Dutch whistleblower whom the Company had deported from India for diamond smuggling. William Bolts made it his life’s mission to publish the Company’s abuses, real and imagined, including the totally fictitious rumour of Indian weavers cutting off their thumbs to avoid the Company’s service. A salutary warning of how misleading contemporary sources can be.
Zareer Masani is the author of “Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist”, Bodley Head, 2013.