William Dalrymple on why Britain shouldn't be speaking nostalgically about empires amid Brexit

The British author talks about his new book 'The Anarchy', the rise of the East India Company, and British imperial nostalgia

William Dalrymple in his London Library. Courtesy William Dalrymple. 
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William Dalrymple is a seasoned travel writer, journalist and historian. He grew up in Scotland on the banks of the Firth of Forth, a wide and beautiful stretch of water that separates the counties of Lothian and Fife. Educated at Cambridge, he is a distant cousin of the writer Virginia Woolf, and one of his ancestors is Alexander Dalrymple, cartographer to the East India Company.

Dalrymple started his writing career with In Xanadu (1989), which documented a youthful hitch-hiking trip from Jerusalem to Inner Mongolia, retreading the path of the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo. He followed this with The Age of Kali (1998), a journalistic survey of South Asia that includes a gripping profile on the former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto and her love of romantic fiction. Now aged 54, Dalrymple lives in Delhi with his wife and three children alongside goats and peacocks that roam the grounds of his farmhouse.

He has built a reputation on writing bestselling history books on India and the Middle East, such as White Mughals (2002) and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (2012).

Dalrymple, who co-directs the Jaipur Literature Festival, the largest free literary event in the world, proudly says he is "a writer and a historian working outside academia" influenced by "wonderful models like Sir Steven Runciman, Stella Tillyard and Edward Gibbon".

What is 'The Anarchy' about?

This month, Bloomsbury published his 12th manuscript, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. He is at the start of a publicity tour for the book, which argues that "the East India Company [was] the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok".

The book concludes it "was the ultimate model and prototype for many of today's joint-stock corporations".

An 18th century Indian image of an East India Company official riding an elephant. Getty Images

The Anarchy opens in the 16th century, inside The Nag's Head Inn on the banks of the River Thames. It ends in a present-day department store in London's West End that sells luxury tea and biscuits. Between these points in time, fortunes are made, a 300-year-old Islamic dynasty collapses and most of India, home to a fifth of the world's population, is conquered by a trading company run from a tiny office on Leadenhall Street, London. This is the story of The East India Company, which Edmund Burke, an Irish philosopher and politician, called "a state in the disguise of a merchant".

The vast expansion of the initially modest business is emphasised in The Anarchy's introduction: "skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia" – seemingly unimaginable today, when corporations benefit from a globalised and open economy.

The relationship between Britain and India, a story of greed and plunder

The book has received praise for its narrative brilliance and lush prose, with The Guardian calling it an "energetic pageturner" and the Financial Times lauding Dalrymple's "erudition, deep insight and … entertaining style". In response, the author says: "If you're writing narrative history, the closer the shape of it can be to a novel [the better]." Dalrymple is in full flow on one of his favourite subjects: the relationship between Britain and India, describing the book as "a corporate story of greed and plunder". The British were "only there for profit, just like Goldman Sachs is only there for profit".

'The Anarchy' by William Dalrymple

The Anarchy traces the development of Britain's premier revenue-producing organisation from a small joint-stock enterprise in the 16th century to a corporate colonial power three centuries later. By the early 19th century, the East India Company had become so large and so rich that Burke called it "a state in the disguise of a merchant".

Dalrymple says the corporation was "Britain's biggest single employer in the private sector and provided millions of jobs and brought huge sums of wealth to the shores of [the UK]". The Anarchy, however, shies away from a patriotic reading of the era, and the East India Company's success in the South Asian subcontinent is always at the cost of the 300-year-old Mughal Empire and its rich culture.

A portrait of Shah Alam II, blinded on the Peacock Throne.

Dalrymple has a talent for bringing his characters to life, especially the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, whose poetry adorns numerous pages of the book: “the peafowl murmur atop the hills … turn your eyes to the beautiful waterfalls and spread the covering cloth fully… come on this beautiful day; take the air and delight in the garden.” He also talks engagingly about why the ruler is so important to the story.

When the British marched

into Delhi in 1803, Shah Alam was still around at age 89, "blinded in a ruined palace: a living symbol of the Mughal's decline and fall".

The East India Company’s success came at a cost

In a particularly brutal episode of The Anarchy, the emperor's eyes are ripped out by a rival, an Afghan warlord he had held prisoner, and yet he is still the "most sympathetic" character, the author says. Far less endearing is Lord Clive, who established political hegemony for the East India Company in Bengal, after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. "Clive is so nakedly vicious, a psychopath … But I loved writing about him … like all the best villains, he's horribly effective. He constantly calls it right," Dalrymple says.

Nathaniel Dance, Lord Clive at Plassey, 1811. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

But the British are not given all the credit for their early imperial success. "There's definitely no imperial masterplan to conquer India… the only reason that Plassey was fought was because of some garbled intelligence that the French had sent a fleet, which they hadn't," he says. "The only person who comes out with a very clear idea about wanting Empire is Lord Wellesley, at the end of the book."

In the introduction to The Anarchy, Dalrymple describes Wellesley as the "Governor-­General of India who conquered more of India than Napoleon did of Europe".

Wellesley, the brother of the Duke of Wellington, is constantly working against the rapacious profit-seeking of the Company, and The Anarchy casts him as the man who first imagines the possibility of a British Raj (imperial rule) over India.

Why Britain shouldn't speak nostalgically of empires 

Unlike drier and more theoretical writers, Dalrymple seems to see The Anarchy's characters in moral and political terms. He is only too happy to talk about history's relevance to today.

In 2017, he took part in a debate on "whether British colonial rule was good for India" at the UK Supreme Court, alongside Shashi Tharoor, an Indian National Congress party MP. He opened sarcastically by saying "I think it's actually very quaint that you can have a debate [in 2017] about whether colonialism was good."

Dalrymple expands on that idea of nostalgic colonialism, saying: "Once you realise the cost of it, you just roll your eyes at the Jacob Rees-Moggish style of history." ­Rees-Mogg, a British Conservative politician and Brexit campaigner wrote The Victorians, published in May, which was panned in the press as a nostalgic and selective reading of British history.

Dalrymple ends our conversation on a cautionary note, saying "I do think that it is important, from a pragmatic point of view, to realise the negative side of what we did in our empire.

There are all sorts of contacts that we can build on [post-Brexit] – but the one way to wreck that is to start coming out with nostalgic stuff about empires.”