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Best Books of 2019: The Anarchy by William Dalrymple

Review of The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple. Originally published at National Review.

How did a joint stock company founded in Elizabethan England come to replace the glorious Mughal Empire of India, ruling that great land for a hundred years? William Dalrymple’s splendid history, The Anarchy, tells that story—and purports to warn us about the perils of corporate power. The American edition sports the provocative subtitle, “The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire” (compared with the neutral British subtitle, “The Relentless Rise of the East India Company”). Yet the story Dalrymple really tells is of how government power corrupts commercial enterprise.

The East India Company’s charter began with an original sin—Elizabeth I granted the company a perpetual monopoly on trade with the East Indies. With its monopoly giving it enhanced access to credit and vast wealth from Indian trade, it’s no surprise that the company grew to control an eighth of all Britain’s imports by the 1750s. Yet it was still primarily a trading company, with some military capacity to defend its factories. That changed thanks to a well-known problem in institutional economics — opportunism by a company agent, in this case Clive of India.

The “anarchy” in the book’s title refers to the disintegration of Mughal India following the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707. Religious intolerance, devastating Persian and Afghan invasions, a series of weak and unstable rulers, and powerful viziers and regional potentates left the emperor imprisoned and his heir, Shah Alam, exiled from Delhi.

Read the full review here.