Review: The Anarchy, by William Dalrymple

I had earlier posted a short version of this review, to which many people objected that it was not really a review, just a short rant. Major Amin has now sent a longer version. I hope this will satisfy some of the critics…

The Anarchy-
William Dalrymple

Book Review

By Major Agha H Amin

Dalrymple is not a serious historian but a highly skilled jester who plays to the gallery. He makes many factual errors in his book and frequently gets carried away by emotions. promiscuously mixing facts with fiction.

On page 12 there is a small typing error placing third mysore war victory of Cornwallis in 1782 rather than 1792:

In describing Aurangzeb on page 13 Dalrymple misses the most essential fact that it was the Hindu Maratha Insurgency that laid the foundation of the decline and fall of the Mughal Empire. In this regard, other groups such as the Rajputs etc were mickey mouse players; the real hero of Hindu resurgence was Sivaji.

Dalrymple describes Mohammad Shah in very derogatory terms,  but fails to
note that under his shaky tenure the Mughals still defeated Ahmad Shah Abdali at Sirhind in 1748.

The battle of Buxar took place in 1764 and not in 1765 as Mr Dalrymple states on page-16.

On page 60 Dalrymple fallaciously states that Bhonsle was incharge of Orrissa whereas the Bhonsla citadel was many hundred miles from Orrissa to the west in  Nagpur.

Dalrymple is addicted to fantasies (playing to the gallery), thus he projects the Mughals as the height of civilization while these so called civilized Mughals in 1719 publicly tortured Banda Bahadur’s five year old son, gouging out his heart while the child was alive and shoving it in his fathers mouth !

Nadir Shah did not invade Afghanistan in 1739 but in 1738 via Helmand, a long way from Delhi, but our brilliant and careless writer states he did so in 1739.

Dalyrmple totally misses one of the great  betrayals in Indian history at Karnal, where Nadir Shah of Persia on the prompting of Nawab of Avadh Saadat Khan decided to pillage and plunder Delhi after an initial agreement to return to Persia after being paid a relatively small fine.

Dalrymple spents great energy on vilifying the company for the famine of Bengal of 1770, but fails to reconcile the fact that a far greater famine broke out in Bengal under the British crown. In general, jis treatment of events reeks
of extreme polemics and subjectivism.

Even worse is his treatment of military events, for example in describing the First Anglo Mysore war he glorifies Hyder Ali but fails to note that he lost in several pitched battles against Colonel Smith and won the war only because of lack of cavalry by the company as well as the extreme corruption of  various company officials.

Dalrymples treatment of military history in general  is atrocious. For example,  in discussing the Second Anglo Mysore War he only discusses one battle (Pollilore) but totally ignores the fact that Hyder Ali was repeatedly defeated
at Porto Novo , Sholingur etc by Sir Eyre Coote.

Dalrymple totally ignores the fact that while the company lost one battle in 1780, the war continued till 1784 and was inconclusive in spite of Hyder Ali’s superior cavalry and the company’s corruption.

Dalyrmples use of historical facts is generally one sided and extremely biased. This is not a one-off, but a pattern. He cherry picks and higlights what fits his narrative, ignoring or downplaying what does not.

Ahmad Shah Abdali never went to Delhi in 1762 so Dalrymples claim that he ousted Imad ul Mulk in 1762 is incorrect (page-259 ).

By and large the book is a repetition of well known facts of British Indian history, framed tendentiously to fit his narrative. Basically Dalrymple has wasted a book in vain as it brings out nothing new. His whole conclusion about the company and the title of the book “Anarchy” is extremely questionable and
debatable. Firstly the English East India Company did not cause anarchy in India as Dalrymple repeatedly tries to prove. India was already in a state of complete anarchy when the British company became a serious player. They took advantage of this anarchy, they did not cause it.

Delhi was sacked more than 40 times between 1737 and 1800 by non British  forces, but Dalrymple is blind to this as it does not fit the narrative he wants to project. All the bad things he sees are only to be found in English East India Company. This will no doubt delight his nationalistic (or guilt-ridden English) readers, but it is a very questionable framing of 18the century Indian history.

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 .The first three universities in Indian history were founded at Calcutta ,Madras and Bombay in 1856-57 by the Company. Outmoded customs such as widow burning , infanticide etc were abolished by the company. A hereditary class of feudal lords 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, not an objective view of history.

Dalrymple gives no weightage to the fact that British parliament and system prosecuted Clive and Warren Hastings and tried to regulate company rule in India. They were not angels, but they were not the uniquely villainous source of all evils in 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.

Finally, my most serious issue with Dalrymple is his overly simplistic sweeping judgements. The Mughals for example were as big opportunists and greedy rulers as the company.They were a small group of adventurers, kicked out of central Asia, who captured India or north India just like the British company because of superior military tactics. If you look at Mughal contributions you find a few grand monuments such as the Taj Mahal or Shalimar Bagh in Lahore! Whereas the British company gave India , irrigation , universities, a
sound military system , a system of governance and  a class of  hereditary feudals who made the system more stable, relative to the times.

Another point that Dalrymple totally misses is that the company saved the Indian Muslim elite from total political extinction . The Muslims were practically nobodies by 1800. Delhi was ruled by the Marathas, Badshahi mosque of Lahore was a horse stable and a powder magazine! The Marathas
and Sikhs totally dominated north India! But a knight in shining armour comes and saves the Indian Muslim elite. It was Lake who saved the Muslims of Delhi from extinction! Hugh Gough saved the Muslims of Lahore and Peshawar! But Dalrymple misses out all these things.

Dalrymples most serious failure is that greed and avarice is not a British company failing but a human failing and all Indian rulers were guilty of this just as much as the EIC. Dalrymple fails to appreciate that Indians gladly
fought against Indians under the company because the company paid salaries in time !

Dalyrmple fails to note that British company]s triumphs were triumphs of organization, such as when Lieutenant Flint repeatedly defeated Tipu Sultan with a 100 % Indian force at Wandewash.Dalrymple fails to appreciate that
India was conquered by an organizationally superior company using 80 % Indian manpower! Why Indians followed them if they were as plainly evil as Dalrymple believes or wants us to believe !

And finally, Dalrymple fails to relate this past to what happened after the British left. Pakistan, where I live, is one of the most corrupt states in the
world .Pakistans tax officials of the so called FBR are 1 billion times more corrupt than the English East India Company could be in their wildest dreams. Parochialism is such that in todays Pakistan the entire ruling establishment consists of few districts and few castes of North Punjab and small parts of Sindh!

Characters like Dalrymple thrive on emotional manipulation which is why Dalrymple needs to be questioned and refuted!

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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.

14 thoughts on “Review: The Anarchy, by William Dalrymple”

  1. “On page 60 Dalrymple fallaciously states that Bhonsle was incharge of Orrissa whereas the Bhonsla citadel was many hundred miles from Orrissa to the west in Nagpur.”

    On this Dalrymple is correct, the Bhonsles were in charge of Orissa, after it was ceded by the Bengal Sultan. They ruled from Nagpur though.

  2. Characters like Dalrymple thrive on emotional manipulation..

    LOL. This review itself is a massive emotional outburst. Take gems like this..

    Pakistans tax officials of the so called FBR are 1 billion times more corrupt than the English East India Company could be in their wildest dreams.

    Why drag poor Pakistan in a book review on colonial history? Hasn’t Pak got enough problems of it own. I mean, seriously? Somebody writes a substandard coffee table book on 18th century history and you go and harangue Pak’s tax officials mechanically.

    Parochialism is such that in todays Pakistan the entire ruling establishment consists of few districts and few castes of North Punjab and small parts of Sindh!

    Somehow I feel that in Pak you can either be a feudal elite or a disgruntled commoner. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. Amin saheb is obviously falls under the latter category.

    In India you don’t have to be a part of the elite to be a happy, satisfied citizen. This middle ground is obviously lacking in Pak.

  3. “In this regard, other groups such as the Rajputs etc were mickey mouse players; the real hero of Hindu resurgence was Sivaji.”

    Since everyone is in the mood of being self-critical (of mughals). Here are my two cents on the over glorified (a bit perhaps) Shivaji.

    For the most part Shivaji controlled few districts (and not even whole) of Maharashtra. Half of his life was used up fighting and running from a much much stronger enemy. That’s not a mean feat, and deserves kudos, but to essential glorify him to some sort of Hindu resurgence is a bit like Prithiviraj Chauhan-esque.

    For the most part the Marathas would have become a one hit wonder (like Jats-Suraj Mal, Sikhs-Ranjit Singh) had it not been for two other central figures, who deserve far more credit than Shivaji. If Hindu resurgence (if we call it that) survived and flourished it was because of Tarabai and Bajirao. Without them the Marathas would have been either finished or be some small dynasty of Maharastra.

    One helped them survive in their darkest days (even more dark than Shivaji’s own). Having made an enemy of the most powerful man in India , while the real successor of the Marathas being held captive by the Mughals, a lady fighting bravely while facing challenges both outside and inside her realm.

    The other (Bajirao) won battles which he had no business winning, overwhelming great odds as if its nobody-s business. Too bad he is just shown (in popular culture) as some love struck guy. Without him there would not be an Empire to begin with anyway.

    1. Shivaji is admired not for the size of his kingdom but for being the first to conceive the possibility of defying the Mughals. He did this at the zenith of Mughal power, when two of the most powerful Mughal emperors ruled – not in its post-Aurangzeb period of decline and leaderlessness.

      His social policies were also much more people-oriented and socially liberal than under the Peshwas – although it is fair to point out Bajirao was an exception to Peshwa caste orthodoxy.

      Shivaji wasn’t just a military ruler but a statesman. He is a more suitable symbol for modern sensibilities – despite somehow having become a totem for that band of chicken-hawks called Shivsena.

      1. He wasn’t the first, Pratap did it before him, and so did innumerable other folks like Ahoms (during Aurangzeb period itself). Some succeeded, some didn’t .

        Nothing to take away from Shivaji, but my limited point is considering the achievements of his successors like Tarabai and Bajiro, frankly his demi-god status seems rather over the top (to me it has to also to do with Bajirao being brahmin/Peshwa and Tarabai a woman, and on the eventual losing side in game of thrones) . These people fought in more trying times and achieved more, while the first half of Shivaji life he either was subordinate to Mughals or fighting more equal powers like Adil Shahi and all. Its only in the last decade of his life he fought the Mughals continuously.

        Its like retroactively giving the achievements of Samudragupta (of the Gupta empire) to Chandragupta the first

        1. Shivaji would have been forgotten IF the Marathas had not continued the struggle against the Mughals after Aurangzeb started his conquest of the Deccan. I agree that Tarabai was critical in keeping the Marathas in reckoning as a challenger to the Great Mughal. Baji Rao allowed the Marathas to burst out of the confines of the Western Ghats. He understood that the Mughal Empire was tottering and much power and wealth was there for the taking.

          What is under estimated is the impact of Baji Rao’s father – Balaji Vishwanath. He was not warrior, but he advanced Maratha statecraft by emphasizing the importance of treaties and reparations which enabled Marathas to extract the best “deals” from conflicts. Marathas perfected the art of avoiding head long and pitched battles and picked the timing and location for battle that was most favorable to them. They preferred fighting short and intense battles which would convince the enemy to seek terms rather than risk a broader and extended engagement. This would be followed by negotiations that would yield them considerable reparations and additional lands from which to extract taxes.

          This Maratha war strategy also had a downside. They were never able to completely destroy their opponents. The Nizam of Hyderabad was defeated multiple times by Baji Rao, but was wily enough to play one Maratha faction against the other to maintain his dominions. The Nizam outlasted the Marathas by aligning himself with the EIC.

          FWIW, the Marathas chose to never put one of their own on the Peacock throne. The prestige of the Mughal dynasty was too great. They were content to the be power behind the Mughal throne. Even Shivaji, when he was “convinced” to attend Aurangzeb’s court, may have acquiesced to being feted as a trusted vassal if he had not been seated behind many of Aurangzeb’s generals that he had defeated in battle. It would seem that a mistake in “protocol” on the part of the bureaucrats at the Mughal court may have convinced Shivaji to continue on the path of armed struggle against the Mughals. One can wonder if Shivaji had been treated the same as some of Aurangzeb’s generals, would history have been different?

          I have not got my hands on the book yet. Dalrymple has an engaging style, and does not pretend to be a military historian.

      2. “Shivaji was the first first to conceive of defying the Mughals”

        Lol what

        There were numerous rebellions against the Mughals throughout their rule, from Muslim and non-Muslims alike. For a number of reasons the Marathas ended up being the most successful, but they were not at all the first to think they could throw off the Mughal yoke

  4. To dismiss Shivaji as the bravest Hindu in history who initiated a great guerrilla war that bled Mughal empire white is ludicrous but hair splitting has no ends — to defend Pakistani states corruption just for oppositions sake is equally ludicrous — rest grateful to omar Ali for sharing my views – to classify people as lower class and higher class is equally hilarious –

  5. How many commenters have actually read the book? Amin’s ‘review’ reads more like a rant than actually a review, but he has at least read the book. I think most of the errors in date are most likely due to the discrepancy between the Islamic calendar and the western calendar. I wouldn’t dwell too much on that, because the difference in all cases seems to be just a year. I would say Dalrymple is more like a Michael Wood kind of a historian, not a professor and no book published by any academic or university press, but rather a popular historian. There’s no question that they are useful and have their value. His style is easy to read, and if, because of him, more people end up reading more history books, then great!

    1. ” His style is easy to read, and if, because of him, more people end up reading more history books, then great!”

      So essentially , Chetan Bhagat of history writing, Got it 😛

  6. I think that the permanent settlement doesn’t really count as feudalism. At least in my view is central aspect of feudalism is tying the serfs to the land. Contemporaneous critics of the permanent settlement (PS) noted that it didn’t define the relationship between the zamindar and the ryot/tenants i.e it was left up to them to bargain over (which led to tenancy/rent control acts at a much later date).

    Interestingly as the PS fixed land taxes in perpetuity, owing to a combination of inflation and population growth, the tax burden in Bengal declined considerably over time. This resulted in Bengal being the lowest taxed region in British India, which was lightly taxed by international standards (at least by the 1870s).

    That the British stuck to the permanent settlement from 1792 until 1947 suggests that they weren’t as oppressive and rapacious as Dalrymple would like you to think. Hence he concentrates on the short part of British rule where “the anarchy” might describe the daily affairs and governance of the EIC just as well as the fighting across the subcontinent.

  7. I enjoyed your review overall, however you make a mistake when you say the first universities in the sub continent were built by the British in 1856. The first universities actually exists in ancient times and were destroyed by invaders – prime example being Nalanda

  8. This major sahib is, for lack of a better term, a complete joke. In this incongruous rant he seems to be piling on Dalrymple for being a ‘highly skilled jester playing at a gallery’, which sounds ironic because that is exactly what this ‘review’ read as. He keeps on repeating the claim that Dalrymple is out to prove a narrative, never for once bothering to suggest what that narrative might be – unless of course if triggering a Pakistani major into releasing an unadulterated verbal diarrhea was the purpose of Dalrymple, in which case mission accomplished sir! Go through this entire dumpster fire of a review and ask yourself after every line, after every paragraph what is the point of this review? What exactly is major sahib trying to achieve, other than simply to muddy waters and sound like a smart contrarian, because the book is generally reviewed positively or because being a (I seriously hope former) major of the Pakistan army, you really cannot have any expectations from the major other than to create unnecessary noise and chaos. By far the most hilarious part of this ‘review’ was his rant about the current state of Pakistan and its federal board of revenue and the corruption in the state, because field marshal whatsapp forward as received is presumably triggered by the current politics of Pakistan and the messed up role that its institutions are currently playing. Yes major, a book on the east india company should talk about issues that trigger you today, cuz why not?

    I am surprised that such cartoonish simpletons are posting on brownpundits, I used to (and to an extent still do) love this blog for the insightful posts that the likes of Omar Ali, Ali Minai etc. post. The quality of this blog is really affected by hairbrained posts like this one, for after all even a tiny amount of shit in a degh of biryani renders the entire degh unfit for consumption. A thing to keep in mind next time posts by such intellectual commandos are submitted to this blog.

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