Such was the size of the East India Company that writing a history of it raises the question of what to leave out. During its 250-year existence, the Company acquired a maritime dominion that extended from the South Atlantic to the North Pacific, an army that grew to eclipse those of most nation-states, a commercial portfolio that accounted for half of Britain’s overseas trade and enough taxable territory to form the basis of what became the British Raj. Meanwhile, at home the Company was responsible for many of the financial and corporate innovations that turned London into capitalism’s favourite capital. With all due respect to the Hanseatic League, the United East Indies Company of the Netherlands and, of course, Walmart, it probably was ‘the most powerful corporation in history’. But how is the historian to tackle such a leviathan?
In his long-awaited The Anarchy, William Dalrymple meets this challenge by playing to his considerable strengths. He focuses on 18th-century India, about which he has written much already. The main theme here is the disintegration of the ‘magnificent’ Mughal Empire and the Company’s aggressive usurpation of Indian sovereignty.