The Anarchy by William Dalrymple
522 pages inc. glossary and index.
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2019
Subtitled, ‘The Relentless Rise of the East India Company’, the quality and distinctiveness of this book is reflected in the extraordinary collection of positive comments gathered together at the front of the book and on the back cover, which represent a pretty comprehensive ‘clean sweep’ of the quality and literary press.
Lavishly mapped and illustrated, with three generous sections of full colour plates, the book, first and foremost, tells a tremendous story, beginning with a few isolated coastal outposts where the British established tenuous footholds, to the point where the Company had become, to all intents and purposes, a state with a state.
Dalrymple is credited with several prize-winning books, including White Mughals, The Last Mughal and Return of a King. He has won the British Academy’s President’s Medal for outstanding literary achievement and co-founded the Jaipur Literary Festival. His control and organisation of a truly vast reservoir of material, and the fact that he can write as well as be a historian (the two don’t always go together), means the book is worth the time it takes to read it and then some.
Anyone expecting a gung-ho acclamation of Britain’s glorious imperial past might find themselves disappointed. Britain’s interest in India was, from the start, overwhelmingly commercial, and in the early years, the Company’s rapidly growing private armies, recruited mainly from native troops, was a mercenary force prepared to offer their services to whichever declining Indian empire, the Mughals or the Marathas, paid best.
To the credit of Victorian Britain, the ruthlessness and cruelty of the Company’s opportunism eventually appalled even a nation with a huge percentage of its own population living in the most abject poverty. Famines responsible for killing people in their hundreds of thousands while various powerful interests, including the Company, stockpiled grain and watched the prizes rise, wars including unrestrained slaughter on all sides, but especially of the natives, forced the British Government to take the Company into national ownership. The book’s title is an accurate depiction of the political and social condition of India for many years.
As can be imagined, a tale of this length and complexity inevitably produces a vast panoply of individual characters, Indian, British and many other nations besides. These are no cardboard cut-outs or dismissive footnotes for Dalrymple, whose characterisations are consistently vivid and evidence-based.
Daunting as it may look at first sight, this is a richly rewarding book which puts a huge chunk of our economic and colonial history in its realistic perspective.
The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore
692 pages including index
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicholson
Simon Sebag Montefiore is an established historian and television presenter with a string of prize-winning books to his name, including Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar; Young Stalin and Jerusalem: the Biography. He is also a novelist, his work including Sashenka and One Night in Winter.
Such a resource of skills means that he, too, is a historian who can write and bring a story to life, and there are few more intricate and astonishing tales than that of the Romanovs, the family who provided the Russian Tsars from 1613 to 1918.
Both the beginning and end of the story are inauspicious. In 1613, a teenager with various health problems, the only survivor of five sons, was taken from the Ipatiev Monastery, 200 miles away from Moscow, to the capital along with his four sisters and their parents. He was an extremely reluctant choice of Tsar, but chosen he was, and the family’s rule continued until the deposed Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family, including the heir Alexei, were murdered in a cellar in Ekaterinburg.
Their 300-year rule saw Russia change from a medieval state to a major European power. Some of the family could most kindly be described as eccentric, and the two of them who have been given the title ‘the Great’ were remarkable indeed. Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682 to 1725, travelled Europe and spent some time in London. He grew up playing soldiers with real soldiers, and modernised a reluctant country with determination and utter ruthlessness. He is the creator of St. Petersburg, though countless thousands of ‘serfs’ died in the process of building it.
Catherine the Great, styled as empress and ruling from 1762 to 1796, was actually German, not Russian, but she had an uncanny knack of choosing the best people for government and military alike, and she made Russia a power to be reckoned with. She also had male lovers like many kings, such as our Charles II and Louis XIV of France, had mistresses.
However, many other members of the family were non-entities and some were quite mad. In the later years, the story reads like a Greek tragedy, with reform coming slowly and ineffectively, the eventual outcome clearly pointed out by the assassination of the most reforming Tsar up to that point, Alexander II, in 1881.
It is a story on an epic scale, and parts of it are not for the squeamish. Sebag Montefiore handles the vast amount of detail masterfully, and the story is also not short of its lighter moments. Comparing the past and present of Russia does tend to suggest that, while the country might have rid itself of the Romanovs, it hasn’t rid itself of tsars, and it seems as far from what we would understand as a democracy as it has ever been.