As a writer about British India, I have always found it useful to learn the local words for ‘sorry’ on trips to the subcontinent. This imparts a subtle and high-toned flavour to the accusation of being an apologist for empire. Repeatedly I have apologised, and my words are usually accepted with grace.
My constant plea is for better history, or at least history that is aware of its own nationalistic traits – emotional biases that so easily drift into exaggeration and self-justification. This is exactly the problem with Inglorious Empire by Dr Shashi Tharoor: it has rhetorical force and emotional appeal, but it is also high on overstatement. It would be difficult to write a more riveting book, but not hard to write a more accurate one.
All in all it’s a strangely uneven piece of work, sure of its villains but less convincing about their crimes. Tharoor actually admits three main points that any imperial apologist worth his indigo would make: that the British Empire did spread democracy (p. 40), that Indians did collude in the making of British India (p. 52), and that modern politics – ‘a less violent form of political competition’ as he puts it – did grow up in India under the influence of British models (p. 68).
Such generosity should not go unacknowledged by any true gentleman. So, for my part I would say that the British in India were definitely guilty of two major sins – failing to deliver prosperity despite such extensive control of the economy, and failing to follow their own oft-declared liberal principles when they made a Faustian political pact with wealthy conservative forces to preserve colonial rule.
Better books than Tharoor’s may follow, unless the Indian public is content that the final word has been said. I hope it doesn’t, and I for one will continue to contribute. My new book on the subject is out now, and I will be mentioning it on this site for the foreseeable future.
The longer view of empire – or more accurately, the age of European domination – still has to be taken, and the British Empire cannot be wholly dismissed as a malign idea cooked up by a few violent racists in London, who mapped out a strategy of world conquest that featured the extermination of anyone who could not instantly be converted into a supplier or customer. This isn’t what happened, and it is often very difficult to separate out the various victims of imperialism from its beneficiaries. If all white people had prospered, and all non-whites had suffered, then the reading would be easier. But that was never the case.
There are certain basic points that need to be made, and which, if accepted, would considerably reduce the degree of outrage surrounding the subject. It is this outrage on which Dr Tharoor has successfully been surfing, but in order to do so he has persistently overstated his case. That is a substantial accusation, and it can be supported.
First we can take the idea, repeatedly stated by Tharoor and others, that South Asia somehow funded the industrialization of Britain. This is regularly presented as an invincible and solid fact, but there is no historical truth in it. Its alleged verity relies on the debased and essentially speculative idea that somehow around 23 per cent of the world’s wealth (whatever that may mean) was located in South Asia in around 1700, and that it was carried away over the next two hundred years. Angus Maddison’s statistics – which are guesses, not facts – suggest that India held 23 per cent of the world’s wealth in 1700, and 3 per cent in 1947.
Leaving aside the methodology that produced these figures, the difference between them does not mean that India’s economy shrank by a factor of about nine, or that twenty per cent of the world’s wealth was carried from India to Britain to build factories and machines.
Perhaps the statisticians of the world already knew this, but readers keen to feed voracious resentments have not been so discerning. Statistics without context are like bath water without a bath – thoroughly useless, and likely to cause a terrible mess.
There is undoubtedly a seductive narrative here, of a rich India, contact with the west, a malicious government, a precipitous decline, and an ending in poverty. But of this story. the only secure steps are the contact and the poverty. Tharoor and his ilk naturally do not accept this, because the before-and-after contrast in this version of events makes their case for them without the obligation to expend further effort. Yet in truth what we are dealing with is not a precipitous decline in actual wealth, but a slow decline in relative wealth.
Do we know how rich medieval India actually was? No we don’t, and anyone who claims to be able to deliver secure figures is bluffing. We can make good guesses about population levels, and we can be assured that the population was feeding itself; India was fertile then, and still is. So it is reasonable to project that about a quarter of the world’s population would ‘own’, or at least produce, about a quarter of the world’s pre-industrial wealth. Thus South Asia could have been an entirely average region in 1700, and not extraordinarily wealthy, to have constituted the share of the global pie that it is accorded in Maddison’s assessments. The luxury sector, which caught the eye of visitors to India, was a tiny fraction of the overall economy.
Under British management India failed to grow, though there were many attempts at stimulation and restructuring. Tharoor sees only the failure, and simply imputes malice to the British, denying point blank that there were ever any attempts by the British to stimulate and modernize the Indian economy. But there were. Over the whole British period, up to about 1914, there was massive investment in canals, roads, docks, dams and railways, especially after 1857. Attempts were made to form new social classes that would enhance the economy, and particularly to create property rights in land on an English model; an urban bourgeoisie; improving landlords in Bengal; sturdy independent yeoman farmers in the south, as envisaged by Thomas Munro, and in the Punjab by John Lawrence.
Tharoor fills in the blurry edges of his picture by the use of misleading terms like ‘deindustrialization’, which, of course, implies a degree of previous industrialization. But South Asia had manufactures, not industries in the modern sense. Manufacturing was undoubtedly affected by the arrival of mechanization in the west, but mechanization in Britain preceded any large volume of trade between Britain and India. That, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is a fact.
Machines in Britain were developed, built and paid for largely by northerners, while the India trade was monopolized by financiers and merchants based in the City of London. It would be correct to say that the Indian market provided profits for British industry across the nineteenth century, but the idea that somehow the legitimate trade before 1750, or the unofficial looting of Bengal, which proceeded for about a quarter of a century after 1757, somehow ‘financed the Industrial revolution’ is wrong on three major counts. The sums were too small, they arrived too late, and they went to the wrong people. Within the British economy, West Indian trade was larger than East Indian till the 1830s.
This brings up another troubling trope – that somehow British capitalists and political elites treated Asians wholly differently from the way they dealt with their domestic white underlings. In this view, western business minds were, from the start, ‘racist’. This is also not true. The weavers of Dhaka definitely suffered under the competition of British industry – certainly by the 1820s. But British handloom weavers were equally put out by the new machines, and soon set about wreaking direct economic revenge on them. James Hargreaves, the inventor of the ‘spinning jenny’, had his premises attacked by disgruntled workers in the late 1760s.
But widespread mechanization did not begin until the early nineteenth century. Was this the result of an influx of Indian profits? No. The great Luddite upsurge was around 1810, and the Machine Breaking Act was passed in 1812, that is, before the great expansion of textile exports, which took off about ten years later. Tharoor’s victim narrative here reverses the order of events.
Imports of foreign cloth to England were certainly restricted though the eighteenth century as a protective measure, but the EIC always did a thriving trade in re-export to Europe. Domestic protection and the restriction of trade were not identical processes. Henry Dundas, President of the Board of Indian Control from 1793-1801, publicly implored the directors of the East India Company to expand the import of Indian textiles, expressly in order to maintain Indian artisans in work. That doesn’t appear in nationalist accounts.
Tharoor launches a wholly unjustified tirade on this subject. “As long as the EIC was in charge [of India] its profits skyrocketed”, he says, and follows by claiming that its dividends ‘were legendary’. No and no.
A Commons Select Committee found that between 1792 and 1809 the EIC had a deficit in India of £8 million, which explains why it received £4 million in loans from the government between 1810-12; this on top of the £1.4 million it had begged for and received in 1773. As for the EIC’s dividends, though as high as 12.5 per cent in the 1760s, they were limited by law to 8 per cent in 1784, then 10.5 per cent in 1793. By which time the EIC’s profits came almost exclusively from China.
The Company was not quite the villain it has been painted as being. Its relationship with the British government was complex and fluid; Tharoor constantly fails to distinguish between the public treasury and the EIC’s coffers. This essentially confuses the geo-strategic elements of empire with the commercial. The EIC was not a self-standing corporate body in anything like the modern sense. Anyone who insists that it was is asking for serious methodological problems in interpretation.
But it is certainly true that exploitation, or the pursuit of profit, was a real and central feature of all the Anglo-Indian history one will ever find, and there is no sense in denying it. The only issue is scale, and the motivations one cares to read into it.
It is beyond question that the colonial relationship had a depressive effect on the Indian economy. Suffering under exterior control of tariffs, tax policy and currency exchange rates made colonial status a problem on a national scale. But this did not preclude individual Indians from doing well financially, and a great many did. And a great deal of indigenously-owned Indian industry was founded on the profits of opium. This can draw us back from detailed economics into the broader area of politics, where the picture is rather different.
There have always been ways to get rich in South Asia, and the British regime diversified, but did not destroy, these opportunities. The prime local resource was agriculture, and the British tried very hard to stimulate that sector, by a variety of theory-based initiatives, designed to create a British-style market in land. The idea that they ‘threw Indians under the wheels’ of the ‘bus of industrialization’, as Tharoor has claimed, is inaccurate, and can only be viewed as a defiantly ignorant smear.
The first grand initiative was the Permanent Settlement in Bengal of 1793. This fixed the rate of government extraction from the land, forever, at Rs. 286 lakh. The idea that the British cruised to wealth on land taxation from Bengal thus cannot be correct. The peasantry did suffer a high rental burden, but this was mostly because the sums due to the government from landholders remained pegged, while the level of rent charged to tenants was not. Additional extraction thus went to the middlemen, not the government.
In the ryotwari regions of the south, taxation levels were usually revised at thirty year intervals. Although initially set too high, over time this too produced lower extraction as the government, especially after 1857, tried to move taxation from ‘inelastic’ sources, such as the land, into potentially more lucrative non-rural sectors. Agricultural incomes were, however, always excluded from these schemes, for political reasons. So the idea that the British constantly racked up extraction from agriculture, as Tharoor alleges, is simply not true. In 1854, the Saharanpur Rules limited levels of tax in the north to half the rental assets, a figure extended to all India ten years later. By the time of demission, only about one per cent of government revenue came from the land.
Of course the overall picture here is not bright. Agriculture did not become greatly more productive per capita, except in areas of irrigation. But the question remains: where did all the surplus from the agricultural sector go, if it was not into the greedy hands of the Raj?
The larger point here is that empire in India was at least as much about class as about race. The British essentially did a deal with the landlord classes after 1857 and dumped the rising bourgeoisie who had supported them till then. None of the presidency towns rebelled in that year. And if colonialism was the main grievance of the revolt, if political independence and cultural assertion were its objectives, it is striking that the most colonized, most deracinated and least traditional classes in India did not lift a finger to expel the British.
Does this matter? Isn’t this all just cavilling, mere rhetorical embarrassment from guilty whites? Well, no. Accuracy should matter, unless we are all simply allowed to make up whatever we like in an attempt to allow our anger to run free, and to support our pre-existing prejudices with an endless supply of pleasing falsehoods. Accuracy is the best way to resolve arguments, and understanding reduces resentment. The embarrassment argument can equally well be turned around and trained by ex-colonials on each other. How did we let this happen?
It all happened because, in the longer view, Britain was temporarily strong and India temporarily weak, at a time when political stability and deep reserves of private and public credit combined with oceanic travel to arrange new financial structures across the world. But the requisite capital accumulation preceded the domination, not the other way around.
European domination accentuated the disparity, and the inequity has lasted till today. That can be accounted an injustice, and it is probably only time that can remedy it, along with better organisation among those who suffered most from the disparity. ‘Organise’ has always been the left’s mantra, and there is a profound wisdom within it. It was organization that created the imperial system, and enabled it to invent a number of post-rationalisations about what it was doing.
But that is another story for another day. Colonialism carried with it a great cargo of inequity, but it also thrived on such inequities as it found. Overcoming its legacies requires looking honestly at the longer history of those inequities, and taking steps to resolve them.