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Historian William Dalrymple likens the immense power of the East India Company to large corporations today

For hundreds of years, private enterprise spearheaded the British Empire’s colonization of India

William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple at the 2022 Kite Festival in Kidlington, Oxfordshire (England).Lorne Thomson (Getty Images)

“The power of big corporations like Meta, Google and Twitter to influence governments is not a modern phenomenon. Over 300 years ago, the British East India Company wielded immense power over nations in Asia and Britain itself,” said Scottish writer and historian William Dalrymple in an interview with EL PAÍS. Dalrymple is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society, and has received honorary doctorates from several British and Indian universities. A prolific author of books and essays on colonial and modern India, Dalrymple’s most recent book, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (2019) reveals the disturbing parallels between the immense power of the East India Company (EIC) and the privilege enjoyed by large corporations today.

“The East India Company was the largest and wealthiest private corporation in history,” said Dalrymple. “It aggressively used allies in the British Parliament to manipulate governments, and it blackmailed and violently destroyed the empire that ruled India using a powerful private army. The big corporations of today don’t use soldiers or artillery in their efforts to dominate the world. They analyze and use the information they’ve collected about almost everything we do and discuss.” Dalrymple’s book tells the story of the East India Company, a corporation that abused its power and plundered the assets of one of the world’s richest empires in the 18th century. The company’s avarice ultimately led to anarchy, savage violence and the collapse of a society that was far more prosperous and civilized before the EIC traders arrived on its shores.

Dalrymple, who has lived between Scotland and New Delhi since 1989, first described the excesses, greed and racism of this great British commercial enterprise in White Mughals (2002), his book about English, Irish and Scottish settlers in India, the British Empire’s “jewel in the crown.” Dalrymple describes how an initially harmonious relationship with India’s indigenous culture turned into colonial subjugation. In Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (2012), he writes about the disastrous British withdrawal in Afghanistan in the 19th century. And in The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 (2006), Dalrymple describes how EIC’s private army helped overthrow the last independent ruler of India and suppress the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

“The way in which greedy large corporations today bribe and enlist politicians to achieve their ends is identical to how the East India Company operated in Victorian London to defend its own interests at the expense of the nation’s citizens,” said Dalrymple. “Another parallel is how the British crown government had to bail out the EIC using public funds, much like the bailouts of Lehman Brothers and others during the 2008 financial crisis.”

The way in which greedy large corporations today bribe and enlist politicians to achieve their ends is identical to how the East India Company operated in Victorian London

Educated at Cambridge University’s Trinity College, Dalrymple claims that his compatriots are profoundly uninformed about the colonization of India. He says that very few people are aware that a private company spearheaded the country’s colonization, at least until the 1857 Indian Rebellion against the EIC, when the British Crown took control of the immense colony. “During the 19th century Victorian period, there was little separation between the state and the EIC, and company mandarins like Robert Clive and Warren Hastings were considered national heroes.”

The East India Company established its foothold with small commercial enclaves on both coasts of the Indian subcontinent through agreements with Mughal rulers, who underestimated the dangers of those concessions. So began the East India Company’s military expansion from the immensely rich Bengal region in the south, to total control of a territory that today comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka by the 19th century. With a handful of employees in its small London headquarters, the EIC became a trade monopoly that imposed its own labor, civil and criminal laws on the indigenous populations in its vast domains.

A grandnephew of Virginia Woolf, Dalrymple won the Wolfson History Prize in 2003 for White Mughals, and the Kapuscinski Award for literary reporting in 2015 for Return of a King. From his home in New Delhi, Dalrymple told us: “The work of historians is more important than ever these days. There has been a recent a wave of nostalgia about the British Empire within the most conservative right wing of British society. They express pride about what they say was the best period in our history, and point to positive aspects like the abolition of slavery. But they conveniently ignore facts like the massacres in Delhi and other cities after the Indian Rebellion, and the plundering of India’s wealth. A few months ago, the ill-fated former prime minister Liz Truss urged us to rid ourselves of any guilt for the United Kingdom’s colonial past. The ignorance in schools and universities about the history of the British Empire, and especially its dark side, is astonishing,” he said, noting that “UK schools teach about the Roman and Aztec empires, but hardly anything is taught about the British Empire since its demise in the mid-20th century.”

Not only is history being distorted and misconstrued in the former colonial powers, but also in the former colonies themselves, says Dalrymple. “The ultra-nationalist government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued a zealous anti-Muslim course and has repeatedly portrayed the medieval wars between India and Afghanistan as sectarian conflicts – Hinduism against Islam. In fact, they were political power struggles. Likewise, they dismiss the Mughals, who ruled a great empire in India for three centuries, as ‘genocidal foreigners.’ They also conveniently ignore facts like the alliance of Rajasthan’s Rajput warriors, who were Hindus, with the Muslim Mughals to fight against other Hindu armies.”

Dalrymple believes that the Hindutva movement seeking to establish Hinduism and Hindu culture as dominant in India, a country with millions of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and other religious minorities, “will continue to grow because it’s popular among voters, which is a cause for great concern.”

Buddhism and cosmology

Dalrymple is currently working on his next book, which is about the colonizing influence of medieval India throughout Southeast Asia. “This time, it’s all about cultural and intellectual influence, with hardly any armed conflicts. There are several fundamental aspects of India’s great cultural influence on other Asian countries. First of all, Buddhism is a faith deeply rooted in Indian cosmology that many don’t know originated in India. What’s extraordinary is that it spread to Korea, Japan, and even a great hermetic empire like China. Secondly, there is the expansion of Hinduism to Indonesia and Cambodia, where it was combined with the Buddhism practiced in the Khmer temples. Lastly, consider the exportation of mathematics and the Indian numerical system (the inventors of zero) to the Arab world, to Baghdad and to all of Islam. This numerical system eventually reached Europe, where we paradoxically call them ‘Arabic numerals’ even though they’re Indian in origin.”

Dalrymple compares the Indian “colonization” of Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Maldives to the influence of Ancient Greek culture throughout Europe. “Without using weapons, Greece exerted a tremendous influence on architecture and civilization because its system, ideas and gods were not only attractive, but also useful. This was also the case in Southeast Asia, which even adopted the Sanskrit script.”

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