“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” Around the same time William Shakespeare wrote that line, the “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies,” better known as the East India Company, was taking shape. During the two and a half centuries of its existence, the EIC would become one of the most powerful private-run institutions on the planet, gaining a monopoly on “two thirds of the trading World,” and accruing a reputation that Edmund Burke would refer to as “a state in the guise of a merchant.” In The Anarchy (Bloomsbury, $35), his new history of the EIC, William Dalrymple offers something of a revisionist view. Without underplaying the company’s excesses, Dalrymple puts them into a wider context, showing us, with engrossing storytelling, how the EIC’s malfeasance affected actual lives, especially across caste divides. He also richly evokes the company’s heyday through detailed scenes of military conflict, political intrigue, and even some swashbuckling action. At a time of renewed suspicion of corporate power, Dalrymple’s story is rich, nuanced, and, above all—riveting.
The Anarchy by William Dalrymple