Book Review: The Anarchy (William Dalrymple)

A longer version of this review is now up at this link.

A short review from Major Amin. I have not yet read the book, but Dalrymple’s recent books have an increasing tendency to play to the gallery. I would not descirbe this as “irrational hatred” (see review below), it is entirely rational. He knows his audience and frames his books to pander to that audience. He is a good writer and is not ignorant, but his books are spoiled by his urge to frame his story in ways that will appeal to his audience (educated Indians who are happy to hear bad things about the EIC and Westerners who want to appear virtuous). Again, I have not read this book, but his other recent books and interviews all exhibit this tendency..

The Anarchy-Dalrymple– Book Review

The Anarchy-Dalrymple Book Review

Firstly English East India Company did not cause anarchy in India as Dalrymple repeatedly tries to prove.

India was in complete anarchy when the British company became a serious player.

Delhi was sacked more than 40 times between 1737 and 1800 by non British forcces, but Dalrymple is blind to this hard fact. All the bad things he sees are only to be found in English East India Company.

His military knowledge is myopic and he constantly distorts military history and uses bits and pieces to prove or disprove as he wills at whim.

As a matter of fact the company restored order in India .First three universities in Indian history were founded at Calcutta ,Madras and Bombay in 1856-57.

Outmoded customs like widow burning , infanticide etc were abolished by the company.

A hereditary class of feudal was created by Lord Cornwallis in 1792 as a result of which political stability was introduced and strengthened in India.

The company had many reformers, philanthropists and utilitarians but Dalrymple in his irrational hatred is blind to all these people.

To Dalrymple all that British East India Company did was bad and he has an extremely jaundiced and twisted vision.

Dalrymple gives no weightage to the fact that British parliament and system prosecuted Clive and Warren Hastings and tried to regulate India.

Above all Dalrymple forgets that without the driving spirit of corporate enterprise of the company the British would never have conquered India.

While personal interest has constantly dominated human conduct in history , whether it was a company or a state , Dalrymple wears coloured glasses and his perception is cloudy as well as confused.

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

23 thoughts on “Book Review: The Anarchy (William Dalrymple)”

  1. Sati was first banned by the Hindu governments of Pune and Sawantwadi in early 1800s even before Bentinck banned it. The only regions where this practise was relatively more common were Bengal(mostly brahmin widows did it) and Rajasthan(only kshatriya widows did it). The rest of India almost had no satis, and the few they had were voluntary going against pleading by relatives.
    Total number of satis never even crossed 0.2% of widows in Bengal.

    1. Also in the Bengali case, was Sati even a big thing? I have read/heard about the whole bengali widow moving to Vrindavan thing, but not much about Sati. Perhaps haven’t read enough.

  2. “The rest of India almost had no satis, and the few they had were voluntary going against pleading by relatives.”

    Do you have a citation for this?

    1. Yes, the 1930s book ‘The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization’ by AS Altekar. Many foreign eyewitness accounts also recount the voluntary natury of satis they witnessed, its in the book.

      Also – Meenakshi Jain, Sati: Evangelicals, Baptist Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse. This one i havent personally read.

    2. Yeah the widows had pretty shitty life, but i am not sure how much prevalent Sati really was. Even within the Kshatriyas its mostly the royal family which did that, not you run of the mill Kshatriya. Or some sort of woman-conceived-as-Goddess (Pirs, Sanyasis, Mata rani) type of stuff. Even among the royal families it sort of varied, the Maratha and S-Indians didn’t do it. While Ranjit Singh’s widows did.

        1. “One of Shivaji’s wives committed sati.”

          True. In fact sati seems to be a tradition in Shivaji’s family line. Some wives of Rajaram (Shivaji’s son) and Shahu maharaj (Shivaji’s grandson) also known to have committed sati. But in general it is true that Maratha royal families like Scindhia, Holkar etc did not practice this custom.

    3. sati was restricted to a subset of upper castes. Upper castes don’t number more than 15 or 20 percent in india.

  3. One excerpt from 1873 (some names of Serbian tribes and toponyms in India are in archaic Serbian and may slightly differ from their English version) in which was ‘sati’ mentioned (tribe Kući)…
    India extra Gangem – considerable mountains were: Bebirsk – to the Bebyrus the Semantic, and the rivers; Danube rising from the Bebir Mountains. Darius of the Damascus Mountains, the Serbs, and the Sorbans of the Semantic Mountains, and the bays: Serbian, or Sabarski, Besinja, Sarbana, etc. the islands of Sarbira, Sitar, Jabadi, Bacikota, Kotigora, and further tribes are: Kosaci, Sarasvati, Vigari and others.
    At the incursion of Kabul into the Indus there lived a large tribe of Pećioti, and behind these huge and large Gandari…
    The Free Indians, according to Greek writers, were called those who lived outside the Himalayan, Jamine, and Saraswate mountains, among whom the most notable were: 1. Brothers. These Mahabharata describes as the greatest villains and troublemakers: they had no caste; their brahmins could have been from all their stock; they were eating different meats; they were the great drunkards 2. Kući – in which women, with dead husbands, were buried and burnt.
    Farther from these, on the south lived the savage-skins wearing Serbs, behind these a little farther on was the old Indian Empire of the Carvatas, or so-called by the meaning of the word: “Black Inner Side” through which flowed the river Krishna, with the ruins of the imperial city of Bichonazor and Bima, and the old capital city of this empire of Caglian (Kalyani), with cities: Devovara, Bidara, Nerobuda area, in which even today the old and ailing are jerking and killing – see the general history of Weber translated to Russian (Sp 1861 god. p. to 242 – 420. Geography from Al. Gross Cp l830 yr. p. 212—236)

  4. Omar Ali, I am in broad agreement that South Asia was in a state of ferment towards the end of Aurangzeb’s reign (1658-1707). Marathas were openly harassing Aurangzeb’s main military encampment and Mughal supply chains were frequently attacked. Aurangzeb’s forces would conquer major forts and in the Western Ghats, only to lose them to the Marathas once the main Mughal Army moved on. In short, Aurangzeb spent a fortune in the Deccan with relatively little to show for it other than to claim that he had brought (almost) all of South Asia under Mughal rule.

    Following Aurangzeb’s death, under Baji Rao I (1700-1740), the Marathas exploded out of the Deccan and feasted on the decaying Mughal Empire. The Marathas were focused on plunder and failed to build coalitions and institutions which would augment/replace what the Mughals (and She Shah Suri) had built. The Marathas became the main contender to wrest power from the Mughals, but fell short.

    The Marathas did adopt many of the advances in military equipment and tactics using European mercenaries. They built factories that manufactured guns that were better adapted to gunpowder made in India. However, the Marathas’ emphasis on plunder and extraction of revenue came at the expense of building commercial enterprises and trade, which could then be the source of revenue. Much of the Maratha territory did not generate significant agricultural surplus. This was the reason for Marathas to be constantly extracting revenue from adjoining areas in order to fund their armies. Lastly, after the era of Kanhoji Angre, the Marathas did not invest in a navy, albeit a brown water one.

    As a Deccani power, Marathas failed to control and rule over the Indo-Gangetic plain. Their reach for power in South Asia left the entire area in ferment. The EIC filled the vacuum. Local powers supported the EIC )Company Bahadur) because they were looked at a lesser evil – less predatory, as compared to the Marathas and other powers. This was also borne out by the fact that Indian moneylenders felt that it was a safer bet to loan funds to EIC than to Indian powers!

    1. The Maratha policy, like that of the earlier Central Asian raiders can be explained in ecological terms. In an agrarian economy, the Gangetic plain was the Saudi Arabia of the world (with a much more liberal, expressive culture). Productivity was much lower in all the regions around it. Actually, the regions immediately surrounding the UP, Bihar and North Punjab plains did not become sustainable till British rule and modern India (Marathwada, MP).

      Of course, in the most industrial world, the tables have turned. The Gangetic plain has a surplus of potential workers, but lacks access to markets, while Maharashtra has the most lucrative urban areas of India.

  5. This was also borne out by the fact that Indian moneylenders felt that it was a safer bet to loan funds to EIC than to Indian powers!

    Pretty much every review or excerpt of Dalrymple’s book mentions this fact. Does he actually claim that the EIC was responsible for the anarchy or that it took advantage of it? Can anyone who has read the book comment?

    1. apropos indigenous banking and divestment from the mughal state, you can check out Karen Leonard’s “great firm” theory of mughal decline.

  6. Regarding Sati i would like the people here to research the issue more deeply as there were lot of ‘oriental’ objectives & motives which were associated to it & thus to understand the issue one will have to engage with multiple perspectives to better understand of the ‘Portrayal’ & ‘Politics’ of the practice.

    The book I recommend –
    Ashes of Immortality: Widow-Burning in India

    Behind Paywall – – The Impartial Spectator of Sati, 1757-84 {Paper describes how Britishers saw the practice of Sati when they were not in control & how they saw the practice – Without ever contrasting it against their own ‘Widow Burning’ practice.}

    Or this article –
    Cultural Imperialism or Rescue? The British and Suttee –

  7. Dalrymple, i think is just following the Shashi Tharror “Lets give Indians a new villian, so that they lay off the muslims” school. But since the hate against brits is not organic, it doens;t take off.

  8. I find the review to be pretty spot on. I think both India and Pakistan should thank the Brits for their countries, rather than seeing them as villains. Their only major criticism was near the fag end of the Raj, when the battered and bruised country after WW2 was too keen to leave and left many Indians and soon-to-be Pakistanis at the mercy of feral gangs of soon-to-be Pakistanis and Indians. They could have managed the Partition much more nicely.

    All in all, a great 190 years of shaming Indians (esp Hindus) into modernity. Missed the cherry on top, but a cake well baked.

    1. It is true that modernity as we know it evolved majorly on the British isles. However, this modernity was by no means inclusive and was seen mostly in racial or cultural terms. The fact that an individual, in the current day, can partake in Anglo modernity fully, would not be possible without the reforms ultimately due to Gandhi (later King and Mandela).

      The British, when they came to India did not see freedom and democracy as abstract principles valid for the whole of humanity, rather they saw these as a natural evolution of an inherently superior Western intellectual tradition. It is the Indian Independence leaders who saw these developments in their most complete form, establishing a sustained, liberal and equal democracy before Britain’s European cousins and even its prodigal son, the US.

      OTOH, the British Raj significantly (and negatively) influenced the Indian elite understanding of modern life as well. Whereas as the old elites of the US and Japan (landlords, aristrocrats and traders) sought to convert their social and economic pre-industrial capital into modern enterprises, India’s old elites accessed (and continue to access) modern life by seeking employment in extraction dependent government institutions.

      All in all, the colonial project desperately isolated the Indian peasantry from modernity by turning the Indian elite into tax-consuming government workers rather than revenue (and job) generating entrepreneurs.

  9. I’m still on the introductory chapter of the book, but I think the reviewer is being a bit too harsh on Dalrymple. The impression I get of what Dalrymple is trying to say is that the anarchy was entirely of the Indians’ own making, which the East India Company took advantage of, and that too somewhat late in the game. Dalrymple does make a clear difference between the East India Company, which was a predatory corporate entity, and the British public at large, many of whom were shocked at the EIC’s excesses. In today’s intellectual climate, one can honestly not expect Dalrymple to be more sympathetic to the British than this. I don’t think this book will be anything like Tharoor’s. I look forward to reading the rest of it.

    1. The real research should be about how empathy suffers during periods without lack of material & social security & how ‘opportunists’ like communist leaders, extremist leaders & corporates take advantage of these people to make them complicit of their doings.

      People support wrong doing & wrong things when they see themselves stuck in their lives & the only way out they feel is to disrupt the system somehow & the case for ‘humanism’ can not supersede the financial, material & social security of individuals as well as communities.

  10. The history of most European nations – England included – at approximately the same time period – and in many cases even much later – shows similar levels of exploitation and ‘anarchy’. And yet, their history shows that left to themselves they managed to organize themselves into functioning polities.

    Even today, the prevailing wisdom is that ‘nation building’ by foreign powers – however well-intentioned – is a risky and usually self-defeating project at best.

    Not clear to me why a different standard must apply to the Indian subcontinent.

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