What happens when a corporation colonizes a country?

William Dalrymple talks to Salon about his new book on the brutal, imperial history of the East India Company

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published October 7, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultaun," by Henry Singleton, c.1800 (Wiki Commons)
"The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultaun," by Henry Singleton, c.1800 (Wiki Commons)

In all the history courses that I ever took, I was taught that the British Empire colonized India. Yet, as William Dalrymple's eminently readable new book, "The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire" details, that story is far more nuanced — and more horrific — than we were ever taught. It is more accurate to say not that the British Empire colonized India itself, but rather that a British corporation, the East India Company, colonized what we call India today on its own private terms. Hence, for around a century, India was essentially controlled by said corporation, which amassed a mercenary army in India twice as large as the British Army. It was only upon being dissolved and nationalized by the British government in the late nineteenth century — an early exemplar of a company deemed “too big to fail” — that one could accurately say that the British Empire formally colonized the Indian subcontinent.

The corporate looting and colonization of the Indian subcontinent has been largely erased from our modern history, and to our detriment, as Dalrymple writes. Indeed, the distinction between a nation-state and a nation-state’s corporation is not mere splitting hairs. There was no precedent prior for such an incursion, and we clearly have not learned from the debacle since. Many corporations nowadays, from Exxon to Coca-Cola, lobby for coups or hire mercenaries to protect their profits, acting as mini-empires in their own right. Now, as several billionaires claim they intend to use their immense wealth to colonize space, it is pivotal that humanity understands what happens when private actors colonize on their own terms.

I interviewed William Dalrymple about his new book and the implications of corporate imperialism; this interview has been condensed and edited for print.

Keith A. SpencerI’m particularly interested in your book as exemplary of what happens when a corporation is involved in colonization—

William Dalrymple: The Elizabethan equivalent.

—Yes, the Elizabethan equivalent, right. There don't seem to be too many historical examples to pull from when you're thinking about trying to find something that is comparable to, you know—

—Elon Musk or something like that?

Exactly. Like his plans to colonize Mars, privately.

I've been using Elon Musk as an example in my lectures, as the main equivalence. We're both thinking on the same lines.

A lot of this book is about looting — by, say, Nader Shah, or the East India Company, or the Empire. And I'm particularly interested in some of the contemporary parallels here. It makes me think of, say, the American Imperial project in Iraq, which I guess maybe is slightly different because the soldiers can't just put oil in their pockets or something like that.


But there is an element of looting of a place like Iraq, by the American government in concert with all the private military contractors, that seems at least somewhat similar.

What seems to me to be the strong parallel with all that is the degree to which modern corporations are in this complicated relationship with the state in the same way that the company was. The East India Company (EIC) basically invents corporate lobbying in 1697, I think it is. They're caught giving fares to [Members of Parliament] who will vote for the company to extend its monopoly. That was the first time there's a proper corruption scandal associated with a corporation.

The 40% of parliamentarians that actually have shares in the company, they use them as a block [in] parliament to push through military support for the company, an extension of its monopoly, a whole variety of different things that it wants from parliament.


And the parallels between, for example, Anglo American Oil in Iraq in 1953 bringing down, or lobbying MI6 and the CIA to bring down Mossadegh was the first and only democratic regime in Iran.

Then again, a few years later, United Fruit in Guatemala, getting the CIA to bring about a coup because it owns 42% of agricultural land in Guatemala, and there's going to be land restitution issue with a socialist government in Guatemala. So they bring down the government.

1977, in Chile. Salvador Allende. The CIA stages a coup and a brutal junta takes over. So the East India Company seems to be the first, the prototype for all those sorts of things. The way that it's a corporation so powerful it can overcome the state.

And then there's the whole question of ExxonMobil, which Steve Coll wrote that brilliant book about, “Private Empire,” which won a Pulitzer. And this whole question of how, you know, if ExxonMobil were a nation state, its revenue would make it 14th in GDP terms in to the world.

It's a massively profitable organization that could buy states. And the influence on policy in Indonesia and the whole question of how far it was involved in the whole calculations of the Iraq war. These are really intricate and important questions throughout time.

Do you have a sense of how powerful the East India Company was? Was it comparable to a nation-state? I mean, obviously it had this military apparatus, but were its budget and revenues comparable to a lot of the empires of the time?

Yeah, I think larger. I mean, I think at its time it was the biggest and the richest that's ever been. Not only did it have, in 1799, double the number of troops of the British Army. It also had... I think its spending in Great Britain was about half that of the government. It created about half the London Docklands. It was responsible for, I think a third of all British exports.

No modern company has that proportion of the United States revenue. You know, you'd have to combine Facebook, ExxonMobil and Google into one mega, horrific corporation. And so there is no exact modern equivalent, thank God.

And in the end — the EIC in the end falls to the state.

It dances this intimate and complicated dance with the state, whereby sometimes it's bribing it, sometimes it's cajoling into action, sometimes it's keeping the state at bay and saying that these conquests — despite being sometimes won partly by government troops — are the property of the company, not of the crown.

But at the end, when they go bankrupt in 1773 and they have to borrow massive amounts of money, it's a Lehman Brothers situation. It's too big to fail. And the state intervenes. And that's the moment that the state gets its claws into the company.


And we begin to see it turning into a sort of public/private partnership. And then finally in 1858 it's nationalized. It's part of the state. And then disbanded.

So it's a complicated story, and in this particular story the state wins.

The Victorian state proves more powerful than the corporation. But there were earlier points in its history when it looks as if it's going to turn out differently.

Say that I was just a person living somewhere in England in, say, 1800. And I look at a place like India — would I think, “the EIC is colonizing India” or “my government, the British Empire, is colonizing India”? Do the people have a sense of a company doing this?

In the 18th century it was very well known that it was the company [that was colonizing]. And no one could go to India if they didn't have a company pass. The company had [a] monopoly. So, let's say I was interested in natural history and wanted to go off and explore the sea otters of Bengal. The only way I could get there is if the company gives me a pass. It has a total monopoly on all Europeans coming in and out of the country.

Right. And so did people living in India have that sense too?

Yeah, there's no question that in the 18th century, Indians and the British both understand that this is a corporate entity and that it's... Although Indians often don't understand exactly what the company is. And Mir Jafar clearly thinks the company is a person at one point. And there's some confusion in India about what exactly, what sort of institution we're talking about.


But that's what's interesting is that, certainly in 18th century Britain, there is often outrage about the company's power. And one of the encouraging things is to discover how much opposition there is to the company in 18th century Britain.

A lot of people are absolutely appalled by what's going on. And there are headlines and articles particularly when the Bengal famine breaks out in 1772 and people like Horace Walpole are writing, "We have out done the Spanish conquest of the Incas." The Spanish at least had the excuse of religion. We had only that greed.

But it's the Victorians who muddy the waters. And that's what's interesting to me. They turn it into a story of national empire and glory.

The Indian nationalists take it on and just invert it. So, it's a story of oppression, then liberation.


But the fact that it was a corporation has been completely lost and has remained lost, I think. Most people in India just think it's the British conquering India.

That's what I found so fascinating. I was taught in school that the British Empire colonized India. I never had a sense of it being sort of unilaterally colonized by a corporation.

So that's the kind of Victoria spin. The Victorians were embarrassed by this, you know, the dirty corporate entity which conquered them. And they rewrote the history.

But anyone that reads company history or reads through the 18th century papers knows that this is a deeply controversial and dodgy episode. And everyone in Britain is aware of that.

Even the company's main historiographer at the time, a guy called Robert Orme, writes two or three volumes of his history of the the conquest and he decides to stop at volume three and says, "I can't continue because If I were to tell the truth, I would lose all my friends and I know too much."

If I were sort of a lower level functionary who signed on to work for the EIC and got sent down to India, would it sort of be like indentured servitude or would I have a fair bit of freedom there? Was this sort of like the military, where you sign up for a stint or a tour?

So it's interesting. There was huge competition to get these jobs. Because they were the single easiest way of enriching yourself in 18th century Britain. And so it was the equivalent of joining Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey or something. If you were a bright young thing with good prospects who needed money, this was the first port of call.

But it was also an extremely risky one. Because three quarters of the people that went out at 16 — and they signed on that young — simply never came back.

And so it was never the top level gentry, it was never the Lords and Ladies and Dukes and so on. What it was,  it was minor gentry who were well connected but desperate enough financially to need this job. And very much the kind of the world my family came from. We were kind of Lowland Scottish gentry with social aspirations greater than our purse. And so generations of my family ship out there.

And it's often Scots, it's often the Northern Irish. The sort of — low gentry squires, vicar's sons, this sort of thing. But it's never the really posh folk, nor the really poor.

People realized — or at least were aware — that it was fucking dangerous. The chances were you'd never see these people again. And there's these rather moving letters, occasionally when people are leaving [for India], and they say, "I know [there’s] a chance that we will never meet again."

And even if everything went well, and you did exceptionally well, you wouldn't come back, even on furlough, for the next 15 years or something.

And that was if you were lucky — and most people wouldn't come back at all.

So the actual work – I mean, is this like grunt work? There was a promise of wealth that people went there with?

Yeah, I mean the direct parallel is joining Goldman Sachs. Some vicious people compete to get these jobs. And use influence to get these jobs. But they know that they're signing their life away. You're not to have more than whatever it is, a week's holiday and five hours sleep a night for the next 20 years, you know? But you also know that it's the best way possible of turning you into a millionaire.

How dangerous and isolated is the work? Is it like working on an oil platform?

I think maybe the East India Company military was more like an oil platform, in that it was often [taking labor] from the streets rather than the gentry. And more dangerous. I mean, I think some of the military had a turnover of —  about one in three died every year.

And so your chances of surviving in the East India Company military were very low. So you had to be desperate.

So I was also wondering, you mentioned that the EIC’s behavior in bribing MPs made it essentially the first example of corporate lobbying. But I'm also curious, regarding this Victorian resistance — was this like the first instance of organized anti-corporate activism, similar to, say, the Seattle WTO protests?

If you read the newspapers at the time, particularly in 1772 when the Bengal famine was uncovered, there is an incredible amount of resistance in [the newspapers]. In fact, I got very into this and photocopied a huge amount in the British Library. And in the end wasn't even enable to sort of, get through half of it because there's too much of it.

And in exactly the same sort of tone that you get in the Guardian today — they're writing about the evil deeds of large corporations.

And even within the company, someone like the young Warren Hastings, when he first discovers what his compatriots are up to, he's absolutely horrified. The British name will suffer for forever if we allow India to become, I think he calls it, "a refuge for triennial adventurers feathering their own nests," or some quip like that.

I think that was the biggest single surprise researching it. I wasn't surprised by the loot and the asset stripping and the plundering.


Because we knew that was going to be there. But I was surprised by the amount of resistance in the press. Some of it's snobbery because, you know, these are often people who are not the top drawer, coming back with huge fortunes buying country houses and buying a parliamentary seat. So the old money looked down on the returned nabobs. So there's an element of snobbery in the criticism, but there's also just an element of outrage and people being appalled at human rights abuses in a very modern way.

And in a very modern way, it doesn't really do much to alter the way things carry on.

I was wondering if like you think something comparable could happen nowadays? Or if no corporation is quite as powerful and wealthy as the EIC was back then?

No, there's nothing even remotely comparable I think. But nonetheless, I think that there is a lot to learn from this in the sense of, lots of regulation and the necessity of keeping an eye on these [corporate] beasts, which [exist] solely to make profit for their shareholders. That's what they do. In a sense, that's what they're hardwired to do. A biological species is hardwired to eat and reproduce. A corporate entity is hardwired to make as much profit as it possibly can within the regulations available.

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William Dalrymple's book, "The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire" is out now from Bloomsbury Publishing. 


By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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