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How Indians were used to conquer India


How does a company go from operating out of a small London apartment to becoming the world’s first great multinational? For historian William Dalrymple, the meteoric rise of the East India Company was about two things — being at the right place at the right time and a sharp business acumen.

Speaking at the Times Litfest about what happens when unchecked corporate greed gets an open field, Dalrymple challenged the myths surrounding colonial expansion. “There were never more than 2,000 white people in Bengal,” Dalrymple said, “India was conquered by Indian soldiers, with money raised by Indian financiers.” What began as a company of 35 people in their head office, was able to loot and plunder these vast resources. How? The East India Company paid sepoys double what any Indian army was offering.

The corporate nature of this operation was central to Dalrymple’s thesis. “Everyone talks about the Raj — Kipling and Curzon are the only references that come to mind. But the Raj only lasted 90 years. The Company was there from 1599 to 1897. It did not pretend to be about railways or the civilisation — it was just about profits and asset-stripping.”

In contrast, those painted as “invaders” today are the ones who contributed to the economy. “Today, it’s quite fashionable to look at the Mughals as foreign invaders who wrecked and looted India, but the reality is that it was under the late Mughals that Bengal became the production and industrial centre of the world,” he said, adding at this point in 1765, India controlled 30% of global GDP.

The session was based on Dalrymple’s book The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.

But what does it say of present-day conglomerates? “Today, no company actually claims sovereign control over a territory the way East India Company did. But they are listening to this conversation now — all of you with mobile phones will get East India Company tea ads in your social media feeds.”

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