William Dalrymple, at the age of 22, left Trinity College, Cambridge, and set out on a walk in the footsteps of Marco Polo, from Jerusalem to Mongolia, and that resulted in his first book In Xanadu. In Xanadu set him off on a trajectory of writing about history, culture and travels, and has resulted in an exemplary, prolific career. He has written 12 books and edited and/or curated 8. He’s a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, of the Royal Society of Literature, the Asiatic Society and co-founder of the much-loved Jaipur Literature Festival. His passion for history is reflected in the subjects he chooses to write about – the City of Djinns, the Age of Kali, the Last Mughal, the White Mughals, the Koh-I-Noor. Following the publication of his last book The Return of a King – the Battle for Afghanistan, he was called to brief the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai and the White House on lessons learnt from Afghan history – an illustration of the fact that we must pay attention to the past so we can decode the present. His latest book, The Anarchy, tells us the story of the East India Company- the first corporate, global organisation- which, unchecked and unregulated, began looting, pillaging and finally, ruling a country. In this context, I refer to a quote from one of our founding fathers, Dr. B R Ambedkar, who said, “History shows us that where ethics and economics come into conflict, the victory is always with economics.”
We present here excerpts from a conversation between William and the journalist and novelist Manu Joseph, hosted at The Quorum Club recently.
Manu Joseph: The first question I have for you is a question many readers of popular history have, I’m sure. And that is, how much of history is actually true?
Wiliam Dalrymple: Writing history is serious stuff, you have to justify each statement with a footnote. A 550- page book will have a hundred pages of bibliography and footnotes. But, you never know what’s true, because you are not there. You’re not an eyewitness. What I think of myself and my work is like being a judge and there’s been a car crash. Whose view do you take- someone who has heard the story of the car crash from their aunt ten years later, or an eyewitness, or the person in the car? So you try and get as close as possible to the action, and if you can get eyewitness accounts from people who were there, that is as good as you can get with your sources, because ultimately when you are dealing with events 400 years ago- or for that matter, 2 years ago- in a law court, you privilege reports that you consider to be reliable.
MJ: As we know, the finest Brexit happens in 1947, and William’s book is a book is a history that ends a few decades before that. And there is one undercurrent in it- no one realized they were being colonized. They thought they were being practical, that it’s a good idea, they’re just doing trade. As a contemporary historian, what do you think are the forces that are colonizing us right now?
WD: For that, I would recommend Shoshana Zuboff’s book ‘Surveillance Capitalism’. It is one of the most extraordinary books to come out this year, and a book which I would recommend if you want to understand what is happening in politics. It’s a book by a Harvard professor about surveillance capitalism and data harvesting. It’s about how you have in your pockets spies listening to every word you say or which is being said near you. We all have examples of this in our lives – one day you’re having a conversation about juice, the next day you see adverts of the pineapple juice you were talking about with your wife. It’s eccentric to think Google is providing its services for free.
MJ: As a journalist, I feel this is an exaggerated view of things. Government spying is a different issue, but if they are collecting data through the microphones of our mobile phones, they are breaking a very important mandate.
WD: However you want to believe it, whether it is reading your emails, or they are getting data from elsewhere, this is what data harvesting is. You need to read this book. It has been a huge, massive hit. It has also won numerous prizes. This is how revenue streams come into Facebook and Google. And this is more of a question of the present, since the possibility of fogging the truth is more now than it was before.
MJ: Coming back to The Anarchy, all throughout the book, what is interesting is that William is on our side, and is never on the Company’s. Why is that?
WD: Well, I wouldn’t agree to that. When I do this lecture in London, I’m very much emphasizing the loot and pillage, in the sense the Brits don’t get it, they’re not taught it. The Empire has been removed from the textbooks. The very idea that there were any illiberal events in British history is not taught to the students, it’s just anti-racial crusades throughout history culminating in the removal of Hitler. When I am here, I am very much emphasizing facts which prove that people around India at that time were considering the Company as the least bad option- the other two being the Marathas and the Mughals, the way so many Bengalis decided to put their fortunes into Company bonds, hence providing money to fund wars against Marathas. These are uncomfortable truths, but what is an interesting part of being an historian documenting these times is that you look into nationalist myths that have been fed to people with their mothers’ milk, and so much of it is rubbish. I’m not taking sides; I’m trying to say it as I see it. Why it is easier to write about the Company than the Raj is because the Company never pretends to be about anything but to make a profit, just like Goldman Sachs doesn’t parade around the world that their goal is corporate social responsibility, that there is a school in Harlem and an opera and a drama company they support.
MJ: Do you think corporate morality itself is a more recent phenomenon, and capitalists around the Company’s time were in that sense more naked?
WD: I think just as humans are basically primed to eat, reproduce and pass on their genes and only civilization, society, law stops us being ravenous beasts. The same is true of companies, which basically exist to make profits for their shareholders. Only society, the civilizing buffer of common ethics, but primarily law, prevents all companies running amok in the way the East India Company did. In the eighteenth century, there were no laws to cope with an entity that the East India Company was, in the same way that there were no laws to cope with Facebook in the twenty-first.
MJ: Some argue that there was no India before the Company came. Would you agree to that?
WD: There is some truth in that. India is a very clearly a geographical, spiritual, cultural unit from very early on. It exists as a shape, as a peninsula jutting down bounded by hills. But no empire before the Company - not the Mauryans, the Guptas, the Sultans, the Mughals - unite India as one unit. The other important point is that not only did the Company create the Indian State, it also created the Indian Army. So many of the present regiments go back to Company times. You can view that as an ameliorating result of Company rule, although that wasn’t their point at all.