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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:

*** Excerpts Begin ***

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…

Urban Development

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…

Ancient Monuments

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…..”

Unfair Trade

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

(Further References)

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.

Related Posts:

Economic Exploitation and the Drain of Wealth during British Raj (Recommended)

The “truth” about a “benevolent Empire” 

India in the 1820s

Loot – in search of East India Co. (excerpts) 

August 30th, 2008 Posted by | British Rule in India, Distortions, Misrepresentations about India | 9 comments


  1. I hope and pray for the day when this (and similar)information is taught in schools across the country. India’s prosperity and global status in the not so distant past is hardly mentioned.

    I hope some commercially inclined producer of TV shows create a documentary series to talk about all the points mentioned above. It is important for the common man to realize that India was not always an under-developed / third world country – a tag that has been forced upon us.

    Comment by Sri | August 30, 2008

  2. Hi Mr. Shantanu

    I am flattered that you left a comment on my blog post.

    My husband regularly follows this space and he had forwarded the “Myths of the Raj” article to me.

    I will definitely read through the articles that you suggested. Thanks for the tip!

    This post was a good eye-opener. We never realize what went on until we are faced with some hard-hitting facts like this.

    Comment by Divya | September 2, 2008

  3. For the life of me, I don’t see anything wrong in the British pulling down Mughal constructed stuff…

    After all, they’re all signs of imperial rule and oppression. In a way they remind us of a past that is better forgotten so I think that is one place where the British didn’t go wrong.

    Comment by The Thinker | September 7, 2008

  4. Recommend that Michael Davies’ Late Victorian Holocausts be read… Sanjay


    The Turks haven’t learned the British way of denying past atrocities (from Oct ’05)

    It is not illegal to discuss the millions who were killed under our empire. So why do so few people know about them?

    In reading reports of the trial of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, you are struck by two things. The first, of course, is the anachronistic brutality of the country’s laws. Mr Pamuk, like scores of other writers and journalists, is being prosecuted for “denigrating Turkishness”, which means that he dared to mention the Armenian genocide in the first world war and the killing of the Kurds in the past decade. The second is its staggering, blithering stupidity. If there is one course of action that could be calculated to turn these massacres into live issues, it is the trial of the country’s foremost novelist for mentioning them.

    As it prepares for accession, the Turkish government will discover that the other members of the EU have found a more effective means of suppression. Without legal coercion, without the use of baying mobs to drive writers from their homes, we have developed an almost infinite capacity to forget our own atrocities.

    Atrocities? Which atrocities? When a Turkish writer uses that word, everyone in Turkey knows what he is talking about, even if they deny it vehemently. But most British people will stare at you blankly. So let me give you two examples, both of which are as well documented as the Armenian genocide.

    In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, published in 2001, Mike Davis tells the story of famines that killed between 12 and 29 million Indians. These people were, he demonstrates, murdered by British state policy. When an El Niño drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at the height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4m hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, officials were ordered “to discourage relief works in every possible way”.

    The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited “at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices”. The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. In the labour camps, the workers were given less food than inmates of Buchenwald. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94%.

    As millions died, the imperial government launched “a militarised campaign to collect the tax arrears accumulated during the drought”. The money, which ruined those who might otherwise have survived the famine, was used by Lytton to fund his war in Afghanistan. Even in places that had produced a crop surplus, the government’s export policies, like Stalin’s in Ukraine, manufactured hunger. In the north-western provinces, Oud and the Punjab, which had brought in record harvests in the preceeding three years, at least 1.25m died.

    Three recent books – Britain’s Gulag by Caroline Elkins, Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson, and Web of Deceit by Mark Curtis – show how white settlers and British troops suppressed the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the 1950s. Thrown off their best land and deprived of political rights, the Kikuyu started to organise – some of them violently – against colonial rule. The British responded by driving up to 320,000 of them into concentration camps. Most of the remainder – more than a million – were held in “enclosed villages”. Prisoners were questioned with the help of “slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes”. British soldiers used a “metal castrating instrument” to cut off testicles and fingers. “By the time I cut his balls off,” one settler boasted, “he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket.” The soldiers were told they could shoot anyone they liked “provided they were black”. Elkins’s evidence suggests that more than 100,000 Kikuyu were either killed or died of disease and starvation in the camps.

    David Anderson documents the hanging of 1,090 suspected rebels: far more than the French executed in Algeria. Thousands more were summarily executed by soldiers, who claimed they had “failed to halt” when challenged.
    These are just two examples of at least 20 such atrocities overseen and organised by the British government or British colonial settlers; they include, for example, the Tasmanian genocide, the use of collective punishment in Malaya, the bombing of villages in Oman, the dirty war in North Yemen, the evacuation of Diego Garcia. Some of them might trigger a vague, brainstem memory in a few thousand readers, but most people would have no idea what I’m talking about.

    In the Express we can read the historian Andrew Roberts arguing that for “the vast majority of its half-millennium-long history, the British empire was an exemplary force for good … the British gave up their empire largely without bloodshed, after having tried to educate their successor governments in the ways of democracy and representative institutions” (presumably by locking up their future leaders). In the Sunday Telegraph, he insists that “the British empire delivered astonishing growth rates, at least in those places fortunate enough to be coloured pink on the globe”.

    (Compare this to Mike Davis’s central finding, that “there was no increase in India’s per capita income from 1757 to 1947”, or to Prasannan Parthasarathi’s demonstration that “South Indian labourers had higher earnings than their British counterparts in the 18th century and lived lives of greater financial security.”)

    In the Daily Telegraph, John Keegan asserts that “the empire became in its last years highly benevolent and moralistic”. The Victorians “set out to bring civilisation and good government to their colonies and to leave when they were no longer welcome. In almost every country, once coloured red on the map, they stuck to their resolve”.
    There is one, rightly sacred Holocaust in European history. All the others can be denied, ignored, or belittled. As Mark Curtis points out, the dominant system of thought in Britain “promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence…

    Comment by Sanjay | November 7, 2008

  5. The impact of colonial rule in India was massive and comprehensive . The impoverishment of India was rapid and took a mere 50 years after the Battle of Plassey to accomplish. The looting of the country was carried out in an unabashed manner. The accompanying malnutrition of the average Indian had long term consequences. There is now evidence that starting with the famine of 1770 , there was a concerted effort to decimate the population of the subcontinent. Altogether it is estimated that 50 million died of malnutrition and hunger during the 70 famines that occurred in India under british rule. This number approaches in magnitude the holocaust 70 milion deaths ( due to wars and under 7 centuries of Islamic domination when it was common practice to indulge in the killing of 100,000 civilians after a war.

    But the most damaging effect of colonial rule was the damage done to the Indian psyche. The English educated indic has become a mass of contradictions, with very little pride or even curiosity about his own heritage and has become adept at portraying the past and the present in India in an extremely unfavorable manner and is constantly apologetic of who he is. It is this that will durant remarked on when he made the comment on the damage to a civilization that can never again be retrieved “”…the Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. It is a discouraging tale, for its evident moral is that civilization is a precious good, whose delicate complex order and freedom can at any moment be overthrown by barbarians invading from without and multiplying from within.” while he made the remarks in regard to the Islamic period of indian history, they ar equally applicable to the British period, if not more so

    Comment by Kosla Vepa | March 21, 2009

  6. Kosla: Thanks for your comment.

    This is worth highlighting:

    “But the most damaging effect of colonial role was the rule of damage done to the Indian psyche. The English educated indic has become a mass of contradictions, with very little pride or even curiousity about his own heritage..and is constantly apologetic of who he is..”

    Comment by B Shantanu | March 22, 2009

  7. It was only because of India’s tropical climate that we escaped the same fate as the natives of North America, Australia and New Zealand (majority exterminated and replaced with White settlers). There are some interesting statements by Britons of that period which confirm this.

    Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843-1911), an Liberal politician and apologist for colonialism who presented Britons as a benevolent master race, described Indians in Volume 2 of his book Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-speaking Countries During 1866 and 1867 as, “naked barbarians, plunged in the densest ignorance and superstition, and safe only from extermination because the European cannot dwell permanently in the climate of their land”.


    In Volume 1 he boasted about the genocide of large indigenous populations:

    “The Saxon is the only extirpating race on earth. Up to the commencement of the now inevitable destruction of the Red Indians of Central North America, of the Maories, and of the Australians by the English colonists, no numerous race had ever been blotted out by an invader”.

    Addressing the question of whether England could bear the drain of people if emigration to India was allowed, politician Philip Francis (1740-1818) said in April, 1793, that: “The climate of India was of itself a sufficient security against emigration of any consequence from England, for the real purpose of colonization”.

    William Bentinck (1774-1839), the Governor-General of India from 1828 to 1835, said: “India may be described as a tropical country, in which the European cannot safely labour in the field, excepting at particular times, and in which the Northern races appear, after a few generations, to lose much of their physical hardihood”.

    You can find the Greater Britain volumes and the above quotes in a few books if you search Google Books.

    Comment by Surya | August 23, 2009

  8. Imperial gazetteer 1851-1947 in searchable digital book form.

    Thanks to Gurnath Prakash for this URL. This is a very useful resource for documenting the colonial loot which impoverished Hindusthan which clocked 33% of the world GDP in 18th century according to Angus Maddison.


    Comment by Dr Kalyanaraman | February 3, 2010

  9. The “lasting legacy” of the Raj includes the rule of corruption and injustice.

    Today’s treatment of whistleblowers and RTI users brings to my mind the Trial of Maharaja Nandakumar during the time of Warren Hastings.

    In 1775 Mah. Nandakumar had threatened to bring evidence of bribery against Hastings. He probably believed in the British system of justice. But it was the complainant who was finally hanged, accused of forgery !

    I quote from Warren Hastings:

    In 1787 Sir Elijah Impey had been charged on the Nandakumar ‘murder’ but, through the deployment of a highly skilled defence, he had been acquitted. This meant that the Nandakumar case could hardly be used against Hastings, even though most moderate commentators are agreed that Impey’s conduct of the trial of Nandakumar was highly questionable if not downright censurable…

    Isn’t that what is continuing even today ?

    Our RTI laws are being diluted by our law makers, and we are letting it happen.

    Comment by A | February 5, 2010

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