This week saw the release of William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company from Bloomsbury Publishing and not only has the book been bringing in some brilliant reviews, but it’s just been announced that it has a place on the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction longlist.
In August 1765 the East India Company defeated the young Mughal emperor and forced him to establish in his richest provinces a new administration run by English merchants who collected taxes through means of a ruthless private army - what we would now call an act of involuntary privatisation.
The East India Company's founding charter authorised it to 'wage war' and it had always used violence to gain its ends. But the creation of this new government marked the moment that the East India Company ceased to be a conventional international trading corporation dealing in silks and spices and became something much more unusual: an aggressive colonial power in the guise of a multinational business. In less than four decades it had trained up a security force of around 200,000 men - twice the size of the British army - and had subdued an entire subcontinent, conquering first Bengal and finally, in 1803, the Mughal capital of Delhi itself. The Company's reach stretched until almost all of India south of the Himalayas was effectively ruled from a boardroom in London.
The Anarchy tells the remarkable story of how one of the world's most magnificent empires disintegrated and came to be replaced by a dangerously unregulated private company, based thousands of miles overseas in one small office, five windows wide, and answerable only to its distant shareholders. In his most ambitious and riveting book to date, William Dalrymple tells the story of the East India Company as it has never been told before, unfolding a timely cautionary tale of the first global corporate power.
Praise for The Anarchy
‘…I can’t recommend it enough … A powerful account of the “relentless rise of the East India Company” … It filled huge gaps in my education’ Sathnam Sanghera, The Times
‘Gloriously opulent … India is a sumptuous place. Telling its story properly demands lush language, not to mention sensitivity towards the country’s passionate complexity. Dalrymple is a superb historian with a visceral understanding of India … A book of beauty’ Gerard DeGroot, The Times
‘A tour de force’ ★★★★★Anne de Courcy, Telegraph
‘It is well-trodden territory but Dalrymple, a historian and author who lives in India and has written widely about the Mughal empire, brings to it erudition, deep insight and an entertaining style’ Financial Times
‘An organisation that began as an unlikely business venture in Elizabethan London became one of Victorian Britain’s most influential institutions. The story of this extraordinary transformation is the subject of William Dalrymple’s magnificent new book … Dalrymple is an accomplished historian with a gift for imposing narrative clarity on a complex story. He combines a profound understanding of the background against which the Company’s story played out with an impressive capacity to weave a range of historical voices into this history … The Anarchy explodes myths that have accreted around the history of the Company like barnacles on the hulls of its ships. Dalrymple’s beautifully paced prose corrects the view that there was a masterplan for conquering the subcontinent… Dalrymple shines a forensic light on the knotty historical relationship between commercial and imperial power’ John McAleer, Evening Standard
‘As William Dalrymple shows in his rampaging, brilliant, passionate history … the East India Co. was the most advanced capitalist organization in the world … Dalrymple gives us every sword-slash, every scam, every groan and battle cry. He has no rival as a narrative historian of the British in India … The Anarchy is not simply a gripping tale of bloodshed and deceit, of unimaginable opulence and intolerable starvation. It is shot through with an unappeasable moral passion’ Wall Street Journal
‘A masterful account of the rise of a predatory multinational that became a law unto itself is as timely as it is fantastic … William Dalrymple has been for some years one of the most eloquent and assiduous chroniclers of Indian history. With this new work, he sounds a minatory note … Dalrymple has done a great service in not just writing an eminently readable history of eighteenth century India, but in reflecting on how so much of it serves as a warning for our own time’ Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday
‘Dalrymple’s first achievement in The Anarchy is to render this history an energetic pageturner that marches from the counting house on to the battlefield, exploding patriotic myths along the way … Dalrymple’s spirited, detailed telling will be reason enough for many readers to devour The Anarchy. But his more novel and arguably greater achievement lies in the way he places the company’s rise in the turbulent political landscape of late Mughal India … Dalrymple brings the insights of years of living in Delhi and immersing himself in Indian art, archives and historical sites … He has a particular talent for using Indian paintings as historical sources, a skill complemented by the volume’s sumptuous illustrations. And nobody sets a scene as well as he does … It needs to be read to beat back the wilfully ignorant imperial nostalgia gaining ground in Britain and the poisonously distorted histories trafficked by Hindu nationalists in India. It needs to be read because with constitutional norms under threat in both countries, the defences seem more fragile than ever’ Maya Jasanoff, Guardian
The book’s appearance on the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction longlist is wonderful news. The shortlist for the award, which recently announced it was raising prize money to £50,000, will be announced on 22nd October, before the winner is crowned on 19th November in a ceremony at the Science Museum.
Chair of judges Stig Abell said: "It's been a summer of reading with unbridled pleasure, and I think we've ended up with a longlist of books that are - by turns - provocative, magisterial and beautiful pieces of work. Above all, they are companionable: stories to which you are happy to turn and return, some with contemporary resonances, others that are more timeless. Going from twelve down to six and then picking a winner is going to be a bit of a challenge."
Alongside the TLS editor, the panel includes TV producer and writer Dr Myriam Francois, English Literature professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, critic Frances Wilson, writer and lawyer Petina Gappah, and TV presenter Dr Alexander Van Tulleken.