I’ve noticed that historical books written about India during the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries fall, perforce, into one of two categories: either they are mind-bendingly dull text books or they are lyrical post-modern takes on how ‘cool’ the Companywallas really were. I looked at my review copy of Nick Robins' The Corporation that Changed the World, with its crowded text, its maps and graphs, and winced: dull text book, it was.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is one of those rare things in non-fiction: an Unputdownable. Robins’ account of the East India Company’s business practices in India is a riveting blend of crisp, almost thriller-like writing with a great amount of intelligence and passion. While we all pretty much know the broad outlines of what happened, Robins looks at that time in Indian and British history so closely, and with such a unique perspective, that you can’t help but be swept along on his fascinating journey.
Robins’ aim through this book is to examine the East India Company – the world’s first multi-national corporation – in the light of its business practices. He finds insider trading, exploitation and greed – pretty much the basic template for multinational corporations of our times. Though the Company operated nearly 400 years back, its methods are uncannily familiar. There was the same hunger for monopoly, the same irresponsibility, and shockingly, nearly the same amount of unaccountability.
And as Robins gently unfolds page after page of the Company’s history, you see his point. As it gained more monopoly over Indian trade, the Company became a policy-maker by default. Placing the fate of an entire people in the hands of a few businessmen who were driven by ‘persistent share holders’ led to the inevitable: famine and the destruction of a thriving textile industry. India, as he puts it trenchantly, was basically screwed over by the Company.
Robins slides the reader smoothly into the historical, always pegging his narration on individuals and not mere dates. To this end, he harnesses Victorian ‘corporate’ art, cartoons and poetry; Ghalib’s verse; local legends and stories of real people. There are some amazing accounts of people who history books rarely have time for. Like Rajah Nabakrishna, the Indian merchant, and his interaction with Hastings; the Armenian traders based in India who actually managed to take the Company to court in 1777; and the miserable conditions of lascars, Indian sailors who made up a quarter of the Company’s sailors, and were later abandoned on the streets of London in the 1700s.
Robins links the various forms of the Company’s cruelty to ‘geographical morality’, a frighteningly hypocritical belief system. It condoned everything from slavery to drug-trafficking and undemocratic practices so long as it happened in a different region, to people of a different religious persuasion or colour. Cornelius Walford, writing in 1877, observed that in the 120 years of British rule in India, there had been 34 famines, as opposed only 17 in the entire two millennia that went before. When famine struck, traditional rulers like the Mughals would punish hoarders and give away grain for free. This is contrasted with the Company’s response, which was to do some of the hoarding itself!
To learn from history, one must first acknowledge it. So Robins feels that the Company’s seamier practices (like that of growing opium in Bihar instead of food and smuggling it into China in exchange of tea) should be discussed fully. He is critical of exhibitions which present the Company’s history as a mutually beneficial and fascinating exchange of goods. He is also critical of fellow historians who romanticize individual Company executives like Warren Hastings and their cultural pursuits, while turning a blind eye to their corporate malpractices.
The book is a clear indictment of what can go wrong if corporations are given the right to determine policies. There are parallels between the Company and contemporary corporations like Union Carbide and Enron; with the American and British presence in Iraq; with Shell’s human rights violations in Nigeria; and with Wall Mart’s malpractices in China.
The Corporation… has honestly upped the bar for historians who want to write sound but eminently enjoyable, relevant and accessible history books. Robins’s success lies in the fact that in presenting history, he has created a spanking good read as well. More importantly, there are many evocative reminders for a world that is rapidly decreasing corporate accountability. Not always is the profit motive good; almost never does it seek the larger good of society.