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East India Company

Lord Vulture’s lethal reign

An 18th-century image of an East India Company official on an elephant. Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

In 1599 the East India Company was little more than a handful of no-hope freelancers, says William Dalrymple in The Rest Is History. The “Goldman Sachs of its day” began by plundering Spanish and Portuguese galleons for gold and trying to muscle into the Asian spice trade. When that didn’t work, “like any failing start-up”, it pivoted to India’s textile market.

The mighty Indian Moguls weren’t interested in buying British tweed. But when waves of invasion and civil war fractured the world’s richest nation in the 18th century, the East India Company’s small but thuggish security force found its services in demand.

The company produced tough nuts such as Robert Clive, “the most lethal accountant in history”. You had to be greedy and bold to climb the ladder. Boys joined at 15 and were taught accounting and languages before being packed off abroad to make a profit. It was such a risky business that two-thirds of staff died, with many not even surviving their first year.

When Indian bankers offered Clive £1m to take out the “psycho” nawab of Bengal, Siraj al-Dawlah, in 1756, he did so. He soon had the run of Bengal. Clive liked to attack armies at night, from the rear, in monsoon thunderstorms, and once plundered 60 barges’ worth of gold from the town of Murshidabad. “Lord Vulture” was later asked by parliament to justify himself. He replied: “My lords, I was astonished at my own moderation.” Clive stripped Bengal’s assets, contributed to a famine in which millions died, and sweated its weavers so hard that many cut off fingers to avoid work.

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