The Myth of a Benevolent “Raj”
I came across this fascinating piece of research a while ago but almost forgot to post it here. From The Colonial Legacy – Myths and Popular Beliefs, some thought-provoking excerpts:
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While few educated South Asians would deny that British Colonial rule was detrimental to the interests of the common people of the sub-continent – several harbor an illusion that the British weren’t all bad. Didn’t they, perhaps, educate us – build us modern cities, build us irrigation canals – protect our ancient monuments – etc. etc. And then, there are some who might even say that their record was actually superior to that of independent India’s! Perhaps, it is time that the colonial record be retrieved from the archives and re-examined – so that those of us who weren’t alive during the freedom movement can learn to distinguish between the myths and the reality.
Literacy and Education
…(since) the last year, I have been making a point of asking English-speaking Indians to guess what India’s literacy rate in the colonial period might have been…Most guessed the number to be between 30% and 40%. When I suggested that their guess was on the high side – they offered 25% to 35%. No one was prepared to believe that literacy in British India in 1911 was only 6%, in 1931 it was 8%, and by 1947 it had crawled to 11%! That fifty years of freedom had allowed the nation to quintuple it’s literacy rate was something that almost seemed unfathomable to them…
It is undoubtedly true that the British built modern cities with modern conveniences for their administrative officers. But it should be noted that these were exclusive zones not intended for the “natives” to enjoy. Consider that in 1911, 69 per cent of Bombay’s population lived in one-room tenements (as against 6 per cent in London in the same year). The 1931 census revealed that the figure had increased to 74 per cent – with one-third living more than 5 to a room. The same was true of Karachi and Ahmedabad.
…Yet, in 1757 (the year of the Plassey defeat), Clive of the East India Company had observed of Murshidabad in Bengal: “This city is as extensive, populous and rich as the city of London…” (so quoted in the Indian Industrial Commission Report of 1916-18). Dacca was even more famous as a manufacturing town, it’s muslin a source of many legends and it’s weavers had an international reputation that was unmatched in the medieval world.
…The percentage of population dependant on agriculture and pastoral pursuits actually rose to 73% in 1921 from 61% in 1891. (Reliable figures for earlier periods are not available.)
In 1854, Sir Arthur Cotton writing in “Public Works in India” noted: “Public works have been almost entirely neglected throughout India…
Nothing can be more revealing than the remark by John Bright in the House of Commons on June 24, 1858, “The single city of Manchester, in the supply of its inhabitants with the single article of water, has spent a larger sum of money than the East India Company has spent in the fourteen years from 1834 to 1848 in public works of every kind throughout the whole of its vast dominions.”
Irrigation and Agricultural Development
There is another popular belief about British rule: ‘The British modernized Indian agriculture by building canals’. But the actual record reveals a somewhat different story. ” The roads and tanks and canals,” noted an observer in 1838 (G. Thompson, “India and the Colonies,” 1838), ”which Hindu or Mussulman Governments constructed for the service of the nations and the good of the country have been suffered to fall into dilapidation; and now the want of the means of irrigation causes famines.” Montgomery Martin, in his standard work “The Indian Empire”, in 1858, noted that the old East India Company “omitted not only to initiate improvements, but even to keep in repair the old works upon which the revenue depended.”
The Report of the Bengal Irrigation Department Committee in 1930 reads:…“As regards the revival or maintenance of minor routes, … practically nothing has been done, with the result that, in some parts of the Province at least, channels have been silted up, navigation has become limited to a few months in the year, and crops can only be marketed when the Khals rise high enough in the monsoon to make transport possible”.
Sir William Willcock, a distinguished hydraulic engineer, whose name was associated with irrigation enterprises in Egypt and Mesopotamia had made an investigation of conditions in Bengal. He had discovered that innumerable small destructive rivers of the delta region, constantly changing their course, were originally canals which under the English regime were allowed to escape from their channels and run wild. Formerly these canals distributed the flood waters of the Ganges and provided for proper drainage of the land, undoubtedly accounting for that prosperity of Bengal which lured the rapacious East India merchants there in the early days of the eighteenth century.. He wrote” Not only was nothing done to utilize and improve the original canal system, but railway embankments were subsequently thrown up, entirely destroying it. Some areas, cut off from the supply of loam-bearing Ganges water, have gradually become sterile and unproductive, others improperly drained, show an advanced degree of water-logging, with the inevitable accompaniment of malaria. Nor has any attempt been made to construct proper embankments for the Gauges in its low course, to prevent the enormous erosion by which villages and groves and cultivated fields are swallowed up each year.”…
Modern Medicine and Life Expectancy
Even some serious critics of colonial rule grudgingly grant that the British brought modern medicine to India. Yet – all the statistical indicators show that access to modern medicine was severely restricted. A 1938 report by the ILO (International Labor Office) on “Industrial Labor in India” revealed that life expectancy in India was barely 25 years in 1921 (compared to 55 for England) and had actually fallen to 23 in 1931! In his recently published “Late Victorian Holocausts” Mike Davis reports that life expectancy fell by 20% between 1872 and 1921…
Poverty and Population Growth
Several Indians when confronted with such data from the colonial period argue that the British should not be specially targeted because India’s problems of poverty pre-date colonial rule…But some readers may find the anecdotal evidence intriguing. In any case, the population growth data is available and is quite remarkable in what it reveals.
…In the first half of the 19th century, there were seven famines leading to a million and a half deaths. In the second half, there were 24 famines (18 between 1876 and 1900) causing over 20 million deaths (as per official records). W. Digby, noted in “Prosperous British India” in 1901 that “stated roughly, famines and scarcities have been four times as numerous, during the last thirty years of the 19th century as they were one hundred years ago, and four times as widespread.” In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis points out that here were 31(thirty one) serious famines in 120 years of British rule compared to 17(seventeen) in the 2000 years before British rule.
Not surprising, since the export of food grains had increased by a factor of four just prior to that period. And export of other agricultural raw materials had also increased in similar proportions. …Particularly galling is how the British colonial rulers continued to export foodgrains from India to Britain even during famine years.
Annual British Government reports repeatedly published data that showed 70-80% of Indians were living on the margin of subsistence. That two-thirds were undernourished, and in Bengal, nearly four-fifths were undernourished.
Contrast this data with the following accounts of Indian life prior to colonization:-
” ….even in the smallest villages rice, flour, butter, milk, beans and other vegetables, sugar and sweetmeats can be procured in abundance …. Tavernier writing in the 17th century in his “Travels in India”.
Manouchi – the Venetian who became chief physician to Aurangzeb (also in the 17th century) wrote: “Bengal is of all the kingdoms of the Moghul, best known in France….. We may venture to say it is not inferior in anything to Egypt – and that it even exceeds that kingdom in its products of silks, cottons, sugar, and indigo. All things are in great plenty here, fruits, pulse, grain, muslins, cloths of gold and silk…”
The French traveller, Bernier also described 17th century Bengal in a similiar vein: “The knowledge I have acquired of Bengal in two visits inclines me to believe that it is richer than Egypt. It exports in abundance cottons and silks, rice, sugar and butter. It produces amply for it’s own consumption of wheat, vegetables, grains, fowls, ducks and geese. It has immense herds of pigs and flocks of sheep and goats. Fish of every kind it has in profusion. From Rajmahal to the sea is an endless number of canals, cut in bygone ages from the Ganges by immense labour for navigation and irrigation.”
The poverty of British India stood in stark contrast to these eye witness reports…
Perhaps the least known aspect of the colonial legacy is the early British attitude towards India’s historic monuments and the extend of vandalism that took place. Instead, there is this pervasive myth of the Britisher as an unbiased “protector of the nation’s historic legacy”.
R.Nath in his ‘History of Decorative Art in Mughal Architecture’ records that …”Out of 270 beautiful monuments which existed at Agra alone, before its capture by Lake in 1803, hardly 40 have survived”.
…The Mughal fort at Allahabad (one of Akbar’s favorite) experienced a fate far worse. Virtually nothing of architectural significance is to be seen in the barracks that now make up the fort. The Deccan fort at Ahmednagar was also converted into barracks. Now, only its outer walls can hint at its former magnificence.
Shockingly, even the Taj Mahal was not spared…..At an earlier date, when picnic parties were held in the garden of the Taj, related Lord Curzon, a governor general in the early twentieth century, “it was not an uncommon thing for the revellers to arm themselves with hammer and chisel, with which they wiled away the afternoon by chipping out fragments of agate and carnelian from the cenotaphs of the Emperor and his lamented Queen.” The Taj became a place where one could drink in private, and its parks were often strewn with the figures of inebriated British soldiers…”
Lord William Bentinck, (governor general of Bengal 1828-33, and later first governor general of all India), went so far as to announce plans to demolish the best Mogul monuments in Agra and Delhi and remove their marble facades. These were to be shipped to London, where they would be broken up and sold to members of the British aristocracy. Several of Shahjahan’s pavilions in the Red Fort at Delhi were indeed stripped to the brick, and the marble was shipped off to England (part of this shipment included pieces for King George IV himself). Plans to dismantle the Taj Mahal were in place, and wrecking machinery was moved into the garden grounds. Just as the demolition work was to begin, news from London indicated that the first auction had not been a success, and that all further sales were cancelled — it would not be worth the money to tear down the Taj Mahal.
Thus the Taj Mahal was spared, and so too, was the reputation of the British as “Protectors of India’s Historic Legacy” ! That innumerable other monuments were destroyed, or left to rack and ruin is a story that has yet to get beyond the specialists in the field.
India and the Industrial Revolution
Perhaps the most important aspect of colonial rule was the transfer of wealth from India to Britain. In his pioneering book, India Today, Rajni Palme Dutt conclusively demonstrates how vital this was to the Industrial Revolution in Britain….Without capital from India, British banks would have found it impossible to fund the modernization of Britain that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries.
…As early as 1812, an East India Company Report had stated “The importance of that immense empire to this country is rather to be estimated by the great annual addition it makes to the wealth and capital of the Kingdom…..”
Few would doubt that Indo-British trade may have been unfair – but it may be noteworthy to see how unfair. In the early 1800s imports of Indian cotton and silk goods faced duties of 70-80%. British imports faced duties of 2-4%! As a result, British imports of cotton manufactures into India increased by a factor of 50, and Indian exports dropped to one-fourth! A similiar trend was noted in silk goods, woollens, iron, pottery, glassware and paper. As a result, millions of ruined artisans and craftsmen, spinners, weavers, potters, smelters and smiths were rendered jobless and had to become landless agricultural workers.
…In the last half of 19th century, India’s income fell by 50%. In the 190 years prior to independence, the Indian economy was literally stagnant – it experienced zero growth. (Mike Davis: Late Victorian Holocausts)
References: Statistics and data for the colonial period taken from Rajni-Palme Dutt’s India Today (Indian Edition published in 1947); also see N.K. Sinha’s Economic History of Bengal (Published in Calcutta, 1956); and “Late Victorian Holocausts” by Mike Davis
Bibliography: (For further research into this area)
M. M. Ahluwalia, Freedom Struggle in India,
Shah, Khambata: The Wealth and Taxable Capacity of India
G. Emerson, Voiceless India
W. Cunningham, Growth of English Industry and Commerce in Modern Times
Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decline
J. R. Seeley, Expansion of England
H. H. Wilson, History of British India
D. H Buchanan, Development of Capitalist Enterprise in India
L. C. A Knowles: Economic Development of the Overseas Empire
L. H. Jenks: The Migration of British Capital
For an anti-imperialist view from the US, see British Rule in India by William Jennings Bryan, as it appeared in the New York Journal, Jan. 22, 1899:-
“Wherever it was possible to put in an Englishman to oust a native an Englishman has been put in, and has been paid from four times to twenty times as much for his services as would have sufficed for the salary of an equally capable Hindoo or Mohammedan official. *** At the present time, out of 39,000 officials who draw a salary of more than 1,000 rupees a year, 28,000 are Englishmen and only 11,000 natives. Moreover, the 11,000 natives receive as salaries only three million pounds a year; the 28,000 Englishmen receive fifteen million pounds a year. Out of the 960 important civil offices which really control the civil administration of India 900 are filled with Englishmen and only sixty with natives.”
Colonialism and Cultural Imperialism
Two centuries of colonial rule have also had a strong impact in the cultural and educational arena. Much of Western historiography has been shaped by thinly veiled colonial attitudes that continue to dominate the intellectual and philosophical space in the field of Indology, comparative studies and in anthologies of world history and culture. India continues to be represented in a form that is often a caricature of Indian reality. Even when the Indian historical record is not treated with outright contempt, condescension and superficiality taint mainstream writings on India.
While India was often a source of admiration (or grudging envy) prior to colonization, the British victory in India led to a sea change in how India came to be viewed and characterized in the west. Not only was India’s physical wealth expropriated by colonization, Western social scientists, philosophers and historians attempted to do the same in the cultural and intellectual space.
Amongst those who critiqued British colonial exploitation during the early 20th C, was a leading German Marxist, Karl Kautsky. For an excerpt from Kautsky’s critique of colonization, and defense of India, see: Kautsky on Exploitation Colonies.