In the eighteenth century a career with the East India Company was a throw of the dice for unattached young British men. Arriving in India wan and scurvy after a year at sea, many quickly succumbed to disease, madness, or one of the innumerable little wars that the company fought in order to embed itself on the subcontinent. The salary was hardly an incentive. In the 1720s junior clerks, or “writers,” received just £5 per year, not enough to live on in Bengal or Madras and a pittance when set against the handsome 8 percent annual dividend the company’s shareholders awarded themselves back in London. Such drawbacks tended to put off all but those whom circumstances had already disfavored: second sons, members of the down-at-heel Anglo-Irish gentry, dispossessed Scottish landowners who had backed the losing side in a rebellion against the crown.
Being on the company payroll was rather a means to an end; moonlighting was where the money lay in one of the richest places on earth. In 1700 India is estimated to have accounted for 27 percent of the world economy and a quarter of the global textile trade. A considerable number of company employees who survived the shock of arrival went on to make fortunes from off-books trading in textiles, saltpeter, indigo, opium, salt, tobacco, betel, rice, and sugar; sidelines also included selling Mughal-issued tax exemptions and lending money to distressed Indian grandees.
The wills of company officials in the early 1780s show that one in three left their wealth to Indian wives, or as one put it, “the excellent and respectable Mother of my two children for whom I feel unbounded love and affection and esteem.” Others went home. Newly enriched returnees elbowed their way into high society and were rewarded with a moniker, “nabob,” which derived from an Indian word for prince, nawab, and signified an Indian-made plutocrat of boundless amorality.
Neither the directors in Leadenhall Street, the company’s headquarters in the City of London, nor the Mughal authorities who had granted the company its trading privileges in return for “presents” and taxes, approved of the nabobs’ freelancing. But the directors didn’t particularly mind, provided that the thirty-odd ships that sailed east every year from England’s south coast returned laden with luxury imports, along with a share of the taxes collected from the Indian enclaves that the company controlled. All the while the authority of the emperor, the unwarlike Shah Alam, was crumbling under the pressure of repeated Maratha, Afghan, and Iranian incursions into the Mughal heartland of the Gangetic Plain. These and the foragings of another group of armed Europeans, the French Compagnie des Indes, turned what the Mughal chronicler Fakir Khair ud-Din Illahabadi called “the once peaceful abode of India” into “the abode of Anarchy.”
Through adroit use of its well-trained, disciplined armies, over the course of the eighteenth century the company expanded its influence inland from the three littoral “Presidencies” of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. By the 1750s, William Dalrymple tells us in The Anarchy, his new account of the rise of the company, it accounted for almost an eighth of Britain’s total imports of £8 million and contributed nearly a third of a million pounds to the home exchequer in annual customs duties.
A well-known historian both in his native Britain and his adoptive India, where he cofounded what may be the world’s biggest literary festival, at Jaipur, Dalrymple has influenced the scholarly as well as the popular understanding of South Asian history through his use of both European and Indian sources, thus uniting the halves of a previously bisected whole. (To pick just two examples from the extensive company literature, both John Keay’s 1993 book, The Honourable Company, which also deals with its extensive involvement in Southeast Asia, and Nick Robins’s commercial history, The Corporation That Changed the World, from 2012, are entirely reliant on British sources.) Dalrymple’s ability to present events from an Indian as well as a European perspective owes much to his mining of the National Archives in Delhi and his collaboration with the late Bruce Wannell, a waspish global flaneur and gifted linguist who lived in a tent on Dalrymple’s lawn in South Delhi while translating Mughal-era texts for him.
The company was transformed into an instrument of imperialism under Robert Clive, a terse, pugnacious delinquent from Shropshire. After arriving in Madras as a writer in 1744, Clive distinguished himself on the battlefield, making up in daring what he lacked in experience. In 1752 he and a fellow officer led a company force that took prisoner almost three thousand troops from the Compagnie des Indes, for which he was rewarded with a lucrative sinecure.
In 1756, after a spell back home, Clive’s taste for conquest and treasure took him to Bengal, whose production of silks and muslins made it the biggest supplier of Asian goods to Europe. In 1757 Clive led the company’s forces to victory against both the French and the uncooperative local nawab; from defeating the latter the company received what Dalrymple calls “one of the largest corporate windfalls in history”—in modern terms around £232 million. Clive himself pocketed an astronomical £22 million, with which he went on to acquire a string of desirable British properties, including an estate outside Limerick to go with his Irish peerage, while Lady Clive, as the Salisbury Journal informed its readers, garlanded her pet ferret with a diamond necklace worth more than £2,500.
Besides his military exploits Clive was admired by the directors for his administrative vigor, and he ended his Indian career as governor of Bengal. In 1765—two years before he returned to Britain for good—he secured his most substantive legacy when he forced Shah Alam to recognize the company’s financial authority over three of his richest provinces, Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. A Mughal chronicler lamented that the British “have appointed their own district officers, they make assessments and collections of revenue, administer justice, appoint and dismiss collectors…heaven knows what will be the eventual upshot of this state of things.”
The baneful consequences of a commercial concern enjoying political power but answering only to its shareholders became apparent during the Bengal famine of 1770–1771. Company officers exacted dues from a dying populace as diligently as they had from a healthy one. Tax evaders were publicly hanged. The following year Calcutta informed Leadenhall Street that “notwithstanding the great severity of the late famine…some increase [in revenue] has been made.”
While at least one million Bengalis were dying of the famine and its effects, some company employees enriched themselves by hoarding rice. According to one anonymous whistleblower whose account was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine back in London:
Our Gentlemen in many places purchased the rice at 120 and 140 seers a rupee [a seer was about two pounds], which they afterwards sold for 15 seers a rupee, to the Black [Indian] merchants, so that the persons principally concerned have made great fortunes by it; and one of our writers…not esteemed to be worth 1,000 rupees last year, has sent down it is said £60,000 to be remitted home this year.
In Calcutta, the same source went on, “one could not pass the streets without seeing multitudes in their last agonies,” while “numbers of dead were seen with dogs, jackalls, hogs, vultures and other birds and beasts of prey feeding on their carcases.”
Back home, denunciations of the company’s conduct equaled in vehemence anything that would be uttered by nationalist Indians in the later stages of British rule. One satire attacked the directors of the company, among them “Sir Janus Blubber,” “Caliban Clodpate,” “Sir Judas Venom,” and “Lord Vulture,” as a “scandalous confederacy to plunder and strip.” But when Clive was investigated by Parliament on charges of amassing a fortune illegally, his achievements in defeating the French and increasing company revenues counted for more than the regime of plunder he had overseen—and Parliament included company shareholders and men who owed their seats to his largesse. Clive was exonerated in May 1773. The following year he committed suicide. He had, Samuel Johnson wrote, “acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat.”
The company was now a permanent subject of controversy in Britain, which was, in strenuous, unemphatic fits, moving from absolutism to accountability. But only rarely in the course of the Indian debates, trials, polemics, and reports that punctuated British politics in the last third of the eighteenth century did the company’s critics suggest that its abuses might be so grave as to warrant a full withdrawal from India. In 1783 George Dempster, a penitent former company director and MP, told Parliament, “I for my part lament that the navigation to India had ever been discovered…. It would be wiser to make someone of the native princes king of the country, and leave India to itself.” But many more MPs believed that the answer to the recent abuses was to bring the company and its Indian possessions under state control.
The company’s growing financial woes made it vulnerable to annexation. In 1772 its balance sheet finally showed the effects of the Bengal famine, and it defaulted on loan repayments to the Bank of England. The £1.4 million bailout that Parliament approved in June 1773 was made conditional on closer state supervision of company appointments and operations, beginning a trend toward nationalization that accelerated as Britain took control of the rest of India in the early nineteenth century.
In Dalrymple’s hands the later life of Shah Alam, the Mughal emperor whom Clive humbled in 1765, is a plangent tale of thwarted revival. Exhausted by the brutality of the Marathas’ expansion from their heartlands in the west and by the annual sackings of Afghan raiders, many North Indians felt nostalgic for the comparative stability, plenty, and communal harmony that the region had enjoyed until Mughal authority began to wane in the 1680s. Setting out in 1770 to reoccupy his ancestors’ domains, Shah Alam and the commander of his army, an Iranian of royal blood named Mirza Najaf Khan, won to their side an eclectic set of recruits including opportunistic Maratha chieftains, European soldiers of fortune—among them a gloomy Alsatian, Walter Reinhardt, who kept a “numerous seraglio, far above his needs”—and the dreadlocked and naked Nagas, devotees of Shiva whose reputation for sanctity was known to inspire even their foes to prostrate themselves at their feet.
The Delhi that the emperor occupied in 1771 after more than a decade in exile had been reduced by war to what the Urdu poet Mir described as “ruined walls and doorways…the palaces were in ruin, the streets were lost in rubble.” While Najaf Khan used modern tactics he had learned from French mercenaries to reimpose his master’s rule over large parts of northern India, the emperor played dice with his concubines, wrote lyric poems, and visited the saints’ tombs that delineate the sacred geography of Sufi Islam. Shah Alam’s Sunni faith was accommodating and eclectic. When Najaf Khan, a Shia Muslim, was stricken with consumption, the emperor attempted to placate the Hindu gods by distributing sweets to Brahmans and releasing cows that had been earmarked for slaughter.
After Najaf Khan’s death in April 1782, rebellions surged in the provinces along with factionalism in Delhi. News that the emperor’s Maratha guards were neglecting the capital’s defenses reached the ears of Ghulam Qadir, an Afghan chieftain’s son who wanted to avenge his father’s defeat at Mughal hands and the sexual humiliation that according to some chroniclers he himself suffered while a young captive at Shah Alam’s court. In July 1788 Ghulam Qadir and his army entered Delhi.
Drawn mostly from sources in Persian, Dalrymple’s account of Ghulam Qadir’s despicable vengeance bears comparison with the almost contemporaneous writings of the Marquis de Sade. An Afghan knife, Illahabadi recounts, was used to scoop the emperor’s eyes from their sockets; the dowager empress was stripped naked and the younger princesses searched “in every orifice” before being raped. When a retainer whose mouth was to be stuffed with excrement protested that he had saved Ghulam Qadir’s life as a baby, the latter retorted, “Do you not know the old proverb, ‘to kill a serpent and spare its young is not wise.’”
In due course Ghulam Qadir met his predictably violent end, but the Mughal revival was over almost before it started, with the sightless Shah Alam reduced to the status of a chessboard king in Maratha hands. In 1803 the British displaced the Marathas, and the emperor ended his days a British patsy in an increasingly pacified North India. “In comparison with the horrors of the last century,” Dalrymple writes, “the next fifty years would be remembered as the ‘Golden Calm.’” It ended with a rebellion in 1857, when mutinous soldiers in company uniforms rallied to the reluctant Bahadur Shah Zafar, the grandson of Shah Alam, before being crushed by forces that stayed loyal to their British paymasters. In the uprising’s aftermath the British put an end to both the Mughal dynasty and the East India Company, whose assets were transferred to the crown.
Inglorious Empire is a bracing, polemical work that spans both the company and imperial phases of Britain’s involvement in India. Its author, Shashi Tharoor, was for years a senior official at the United Nations. In 2006 he came second to Ban Ki-moon in the contest for the secretary-generalship, after which he returned home to become a Congress MP, junior minister, and unflagging presence on social media. The book is the byproduct of a debate he took part in at the Oxford Union in 2015, in which he argued that Britain owed India symbolic reparations for the wrongs it had inflicted on its colonial subjects. Atonement, not money, is the point; “a simple ‘sorry’ would do as well.” The Oxford debate got a lot of attention online (Tharoor has more than seven million Twitter followers), and he was congratulated even by his most prominent political opponent, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, for saying “the right things at the right place.”
Tharoor’s arguments in Inglorious Empire reflect a consensus, shared by many current Indian and Western historians, on the iniquity of colonial rule. He is critical of the late Cambridge historian Christopher Bayly’s contention that the schools, newspapers, and courts of British India allowed the Congress Party to build a liberal democracy after independence, and he vigorously rebuffs the argument of Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian with professorships at Stanford and Harvard, that the British Empire bequeathed its colonies such laudable precepts as free trade and democracy. Tharoor draws instead on research into Britain’s exploitation of India’s wealth and on the work of Nicholas Dirks, a former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, who has written that class-obsessed British bureaucrats helped change the caste system from one measure of identity among many into the pervasive agent of social stratification it became.
Colonial India was a captive market for British products and services. British-made rails carried British-made rolling stock the length and breadth of the subcontinent; British ships offloaded Indian cargoes at British ports after rules were introduced that discriminated against ships that had been built in India. In the 1750s India had a commanding global position as a producer of textiles, yet by 1870 it was importing more than a billion yards of British cloth and woven fabrics. As Britain’s home secretary put it in 1928, “It is said in missionary meetings that we conquered India to raise the level of the Indians. That is cant. We conquered India as an outlet for the goods of Britain.”
Recalling the economist Amartya Sen’s dictum that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” Tharoor notes that between 1770 and 1900 some 25 million Indians died in famines, the mortality rates aggravated by colonial officials who viewed with Malthusian detachment nature’s solution to the problem of overpopulation. (In support of Sen, on the only occasion since independence that mass famine has threatened, in Bihar in 1967, the government of Indira Gandhi stopped it in its tracks using food aid and public works.)
To modern eyes the most odious aspect of British rule was its racism. A color bar denied talented Indian civil servants access to senior jobs, and for British judges the color of the defendant was sometimes the most important factor in a verdict. “The death of an Indian at British hands was always an accident,” Tharoor writes, “and that of a Briton because of an Indian’s actions always a capital crime.” The relative cultural intermingling of the 1780s gave way to a British horror of miscegenation. Whether in the bedroom, the club, or the railway carriage, the separation of the races was the outstanding feature of British rule that distinguished it from that of earlier colonizers, notably the Mughals, who married Indian women and were quickly submerged in the local gene pool.
In 1890 just six thousand British officials presided over 250 million Indian subjects; Stalin later found it laughable that India was kept down by so few. While many British officials strove honestly to promote harmony among India’s many racial, religious, and linguistic groups, a policy of divide and rule informed the British decision in 1905 to split Bengal into two provinces, a Muslim-majority one and a Hindu-majority one. That policy also influenced the constitutional reforms of 1919, which introduced a limited franchise while reserving seats in the new legislative assembly along religious lines.
As independence approached, the implications of minority status in a free India alarmed many Muslims; they looked in vain to the British to protect them from Hindu majoritarianism before adopting the idea of a separate state, which had first been mooted by a Muslim law student at Cambridge University in 1933. Mahatma Gandhi’s unavailing efforts to bind communal wounds ended with the country’s bloody partition in 1947, which created Pakistan, resulted in the deaths of at least one million people, and led to Gandhi’s murder at the hands of a Hindu chauvinist.
Inglorious Empire is an impassioned indictment of an alien government whose true interests lay in an imperial capital five thousand miles away. And yet for all the rapacity of the nabobs and the unrealized reforms and investment—which, when applied by Meiji Japan in the 1870s, turned a closed monarchy into a modern nation-state—Tharoor’s assessment of British conduct is too uniformly negative to do justice to a multifaceted engagement that lasted well over three centuries. While the premise and ethos of British rule seem ever more suspect with the passing years, its consequences for the people of India were more mixed.
In the 1750s the roughly 200,000 Indians who flocked to live in British Calcutta (just a thousand or so of whose residents were European) were drawn not only by the city’s wealth but also the prospect of security from the Marathas. (A recent Maratha invasion of Bengal had caused as many as 400,000 civilian deaths.) An affluent and literate class of Bengalis, the bhadralok, prospered alongside the company’s employees, while in the boom of the 1780s laborers’ wages rose 50 percent. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Bombay’s impressive public works and thriving Parsi and Jewish minorities attested to intense pockets of dynamic wealth creation and multiculturalism. Nor was the empire’s record of indigenization always as bad as Tharoor maintains. Having been a supplier of raw jute to the mills of Dundee, by 1914 Calcutta had eclipsed the Scottish port city as the world’s leading manufacturer of jute products, and Indians owned 60 percent of shares in the jute companies.
Tharoor is frustrated by the “cravenness, cupidity, opportunism and lack of organized resistance” that his compatriots exhibited toward their colonial masters. Only after World War I, and intensifying after a British massacre of hundreds of protesters in the northern city of Amritsar in 1919, would polite requests for more Indian representation in the government harden into the independence movement. But no Indian empire in history had ruled as large a territory as the British Raj. That the fantastically diverse peoples whom the British had coerced into their Indian domain might voluntarily unite as a modern nation wasn’t as obvious to the Congress Party in 1885, the year of its foundation, as it seems now, seventy years into India’s independence. And when the republic’s founding fathers, Gandhi and his protégé Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, brought about this miraculous feat, the loss of Pakistan amid the violence of Partition proved to be surmountable traumas; the Republic of India is a sovereign state in good standing and has never been threatened with revolution or internal collapse. Ironically enough, the unwillingness of the British to set down roots in the countries they colonized made withdrawal more straightforward than it was for the French, for example, in Algeria. As soon as the economic and psychological reasons for keeping up the empire were exhausted, the British simply went home.
Well into the late twentieth century a residue of India clung to postimperial Britain. To “have a dekko” (from the Hindi verb dekhna, to see) meant to take a look at something, while kedgeree and mulligatawny persisted on the menus of coastal guest houses. That residue has since flaked away along with memories of the Raj. No longer do national museums mount the kind of glittering exhibitions that were common into the 1990s, celebrating the scope and splendor of British rule; more representative is the recent exhibition “Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company” at the Wallace Collection in London (curated by Dalrymple), which featured deftly done ornithological pictures by hitherto little-known Indian painters in the company period. Gone, too, are the days when pupils at the nation’s schools were taught the heroics of “Clive of India.” Ten years into a government of Conservatives who brought the country out of the European Union amid grandiose talk of a return to greatness, the history syllabus that British schoolchildren must follow remains virtually silent on the empire, save for the iniquities of slavery, and few young people have any idea who Clive was.
Amnesia isn’t the apology that Tharoor and his compatriots arguably deserve and will probably never receive. It is a national elision, an unstated decision not to interrogate ourselves about awkward aspects of the past. For India, living with the consequences of the events Tharoor writes about, its Gandhian template of communal amity trampled on by Hindu nationalist rule, there is no such comfort.