On Sunday, as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, acclaimed author and historian William Dalrymple discussed his seminal work, published over a period of 20 years – The Company Quartet.
In a talk that was both engaging and enlightening, Dalrymple delved into the history of the British colonisation of India and Afghanistan, with a specific focus on the rise and fall of the infamous East India Company. Speaking with the confidence and assurance that only an expert in their field could have, he laid bare the exploitative nature of the company, which drained India’s resources and abused its people in the quest for profit.
Though there was a loosely chronological structure to the talk, as Dalrymple covered the basics of each of the four books in the Quartet, it did not feel like he was merely rushing through the bare facts and timelines of the East India Company’s rule. Rather, he interspersed his talk with images of paintings, letters, portraits and homes of different colonial figures, with the hope of encouraging the audience to examine more closely the real people who were subjects to and/or subjected others to colonial rule.
One of the biggest takeaways from Dalrymple’s fascinating talk was that the East India Company marked the start of the era of the mega-corporation; it was not, originally, the British government who took over India, but this small, London-based company. Using loans from Indian bankers to pay for Indian mercenaries, the East India Company essentially used Indian capital and soldiers to take over India. Throughout their rule, even as they had over 200,000 Indian mercenaries paid by them, the East India Company only ever had 35 employees working out of its flagship office in London, and only around 250 English and Scottish officials in India, according to Dalrymple. The company evaded tax, traded illegally and worked illicitly, with little regard for the human lives they controlled and destroyed overseas. In his talk, Dalrymple emphasised that this is the British history that is not taught in schools, yet, a history that is vital for us to know.
The Privatised Imperialists was, all in all, a compelling and informative talk. In one short hour, Dalrymple captured the attention of his audience and shared with us some aspects of colonial history that Britain often neglects to remember. He dismantled the parasol-toting, white linen-wearing, nostalgic ideas of empire, and presented us with some of the real colonial horrors and stories. Most importantly, he spelled out how the British empire, with the East India Company as its representative, essentially centred around extraction, enriching the colonising country moreso than any ‘civilising missions’ or ‘white man’s burden’. It was a poignant, impressive talk, and I am looking forward to The Company Quartet, as it surely is essential reading.