William Dalrymple tells me that his homemade quinoa koftas never turn out quite as well as the ones we’re about to eat. We’re having lunch in Cinnamon Kitchen City, a vibey Indian restaurant in a converted warehouse in Spitalfields that once housed spices, tea and opium belonging to the East India Company, which is the subject of Dalrymple’s latest book.
His publishers are selling The Anarchy as the story of the East India Company “as it has never been told before”. It’s certainly a departure from most previous British histories of the Empire, but before getting stuck into telling me why the long-established “benign” view of the British Empire is all wrong, Dalrymple orders himself another beer, piles a spoonful of prawns in fragrant coconut sauce onto my plate and launches straight into Brexit gloom.
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“I used to be mildly pro-Remain, but the more I read about how things I’d always taken for granted are suddenly being threatened, the more passionately Remain I’ve become,” he says.
“Like a lot of my generation, I grew up reading Boris Johnson’s columns in the Telegraph about how Euro sizes for Durex were going to squeeze the manhood of Britain, or about the size of bananas and kippers. They were funny and we all absorbed this story about Europe being a bureaucratic, slightly obstructive presence in our life.
“We never considered that we were actually living in the longest period of European peace since Waterloo, or the ease with which we could jump on a flight to Italy, barely taking our passports out of our pockets, or if we could afford to buy a little house in Tuscany. My generation moved around without thinking about it. I regret the degree to which I joined in the jokes and I’m very anxious for the future.”
Dalrymple, 54, is best known for his lively, prize-winning histories of India, notably 2001’s White Mughals, for which the film rights have been optioned by Ralph Fiennes and Frank “Game Of Thrones” Doelger. His skill is to turn tough, meaty material into engaging narrative, both in print and on TV and radio. Clad in a floppy navy linen, he is charming, effusive and quick to laugh. Educated at Ampleforth and Cambridge, and a relative of Virginia Woolf’s with baronets on his father’s side of the family and earls on his mother’s, he displays all the easy confidence of the well-bred aristocrat.
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“The British still have this ridiculous view of our own imperial story,” he continues. “The idea that the Empire was this great civilising mission, as we were taught at school, is historical nonsense. Even if it was true, it was only from 1858 onwards, after the EIC became nationalised. The entire conquest of India beforehand didn’t happen under the government, but under this private company based on Leadenhall Street where the Lloyd’s Building now stands. From the boardroom of a tiny building only five windows wide, it conquered the Mughal empire, the richest empire in the world, and ruthlessly asset-stripped it.”
In 1799, the East India Company had a military security force of 200,000 men, almost twice the size of the British Army, and operated like a nation state, collecting taxes, administering justice and waging war. In many ways, says Dalrymple, it was the equivalent of “any of the mega corporations today like Google, Facebook, Walmart or Mobil. These guys were there to make money and manipulated Parliament to support the company’s interests. The East India Company invented lobbying!”
Should we feel collective shame? “The book isn’t a hand-wringing work of apology, and the question about modern fads in literary preferences should be distinguished from the very real fact that we ignored our own atrocities. I’ve tried to record it as it was, but there are undoubtedly many things to be ashamed of — massive human rights abuses and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed — which we were responsible for and which are not in our textbooks.
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“It isn’t just a matter of fashion or viewpoint, and taking down imperial art from the walls of art galleries isn’t the answer either. It’s our responsibility to learn, study and understand. Public apologies by politicians aren’t as important as our schoolchildren learning both sides of the story. It’s not how it’s remembered anywhere else, and more and more people from other parts of the world have come to live among us with a very different set of memories.” Dalrymple pauses thoughtfully. “For some Indians, the Brits were equivalent to the Nazis. And yet when the Brexit vote took place, lots of British politicians, bright Oxbridge-educated, top-rank minds, genuinely believed that they could go to India and sort of kick start the Empire 2.0. As if, now that we were in trouble in Europe, our friends in India would fill in because they love us so much and were so grateful for the railways. Bullshit! Indians think we plundered and exploited them, that we were a bunch of pirates. Still, they’re very happy to do business with us, they come to university here, and love coming to London for holidays.” Dalrymple has curated an exhibition of 18th and 19th-century Indian art commissioned by EIC officials, which opens at the Wallace Collection in December, and the glamorous Jaipur Literary Festival, which he set up in 2004, now has satellite festivals in London, Adelaide and Belfast. “It’s the biggest literary festival in the world in terms of visitors,” he boasts. This year it travels to Houston, New York, Colorado and Toronto. Quite the growing empire, in fact.
For nine months of the year Dalrymple and his artist wife Olivia Fraser live outside Delhi on a farm, with two gardeners, a cook and 21 goats. From June to September, the couple are based here — with two sons at Oxford and a daughter working in London. Wherever he is, Dalrymple has to spend a lot of his time raising sponsorship for his festival. If the EIC was operating today, would they chip in? He demurs. “Well, they took very little interest in the arts, so I suspect the answer is no!”
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company is out now (Bloomsbury, £30).