What the British Did to India

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by Neil Godfrey

Oh my god. The lies we were taught in school. I have just finished listening to an interview with (v.i.p.) Shashi Tharoor about his book on the British rule of India: Inglorious Empire: What the British Did To India.

  • Before the British arrived India represented over 20% of the world’s GDP (textiles, steel, shipbuilding…) and had done so for centuries. By the time the British left it was reduced to 3% of world’s GDP.
  • There is an eyewitness account the British smashing Indian looms and breaking or cutting off the weavers’ thumbs so they could not rebuild the looms and resume production.
  • The Indian export textile industry was effectively destroyed as Indians were forced to sell cotton to Britain and then buy back inferior British textiles.
  • The railways did little to benefit Indians until after the British left.

An interesting datum given today’s situation…

  • The British were the ones responsible for introducing the Hindu-Muslim antagonistic divide. The Hindus and Muslims were united, serving under common native command, to oppose the British. The British responded by initiating policies that over time succeeded in their aim of building hostility between the two faiths — the old “divide and conquer” tactic.

And we are reminded again of the genocidal policies that I first read about in Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts. This time, however, it was Winston Churchill himself who emerged as the Stalinesque monster, diverting grain from regions where millions were dying in order to build up reserves for remotely hypothetical threats in Europe. Churchill is on record as saying the deaths are the Bengalis own fault for “breeding like rabbits”.

And on and on it goes…..

And we were taught how different the British empire was from any other previous empire. The British empire was a civilizing boon to the world, spreading law and civilization and lifting the standards of living of its subjects.

The only redeeming detail in Tharoor’s account is that there were many British voices who saw the reality of what was happening in their own day and did speak out. But like the anti-war and anti-neoliberalism voices today they were sidelined by those with the power.


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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “What the British Did to India”

  1. I read a book years ago called “The Great Hedge of India”, which was about a hedge/barrier built by the British extending eventually some 2,500 miles across India to control the salt trade in Bengal and other parts. Sections of the hedge exist to this day. The hedge acted to reinforce the British monopoly on salt, allowing exorbitant prices to be charged to the natives. The Salt Laws weren’t finally abolished until the Gandhi revolution.

  2. Yes; the British most likely were economically bad for India:
    but the economic decline of India mostly occurred decades before British imperialism became a major force there:
    Likewise, the very primitive textile industry of 18th century India was highly labor-intensive, continued well into the 20th century (though in a diminished state), and was a technological dead end. India’s modern textile sector fell behind Japan’s in the early 20th century due to the British being less willing to combat wildcat strikes than the Japanese and India having a more segmented labor market:

    “The British were the ones responsible for introducing the Hindu-Muslim antagonistic divide.”

    Nonsense. The rise of the Delhi Sultanate was hardly peaceful.

    If you want to read real economic history, search Pseudoerasmus’s tweets and posts.

    1. Have you read Tharoor’s book or do you disagree with some of the points he concludes simply because other works have given different conclusions? Tharoor’s work is certainly an attack on standard views. I’d check out both sides of the arguments before jumping in with a firm opinion either way. Examine the data, the evidence cited for each argument.

      1. “Have you read Tharoor’s book or do you disagree with some of the points he concludes simply because other works have given different conclusions?”
        The latter.

        Yes; India did shrink as a percentage of world GDP under British rule because Europe, Japan, and the Americas became much richer during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, while India’s GDP per capita grew far less. Whether India would have taken the route of Europe, the Americas, and Japan without British rule is an open question, but, as with China, I suspect it was doomed to shrink as a percentage of world GDP regardless of whether its institutions were native or foreign.

        1. Relative rises and falls in global GDP are not the point. . . .

          From the book (I have highlighted the critical point responding to your apology.)

          The British destruction of textile competition from India led to the first great deindustrialization of the modern world. Indian handloom fabrics were much in demand in England; it was no accident that the Company established its first ‘factory’ in 1613 in the southern port town of Masulipatnam, famous for its Kalamkari block-printed textiles. For centuries the handloom weavers of Bengal had produced some of the world’s most desirable fabrics, especially the fine muslins, light as ‘woven air’, that were coveted by European dressmakers. As late as the mid-eighteenth century, Bengal’s textiles were still being exported to Egypt, Turkey and Persia in the West, and to Java, China and Japan in the East, along well-established trade routes, as well as to Europe. The value of Bengal’s textile exports alone is estimated to have been around 16 million rupees annually in the 1750s, of which some 5 to 6 million rupees’ worth was exported by European traders in India. (At those days’ rates of exchange, this sum was equivalent to almost £2 million, a considerable sum in an era when to earn a pound a week was to be a rich man.) In addition, silk exports from Bengal were worth another 6.5 million rupees annually till 1753, declining to some 5 million thereafter. During the century to 1757, while the British were just traders and not rulers, their demand is estimated to have raised Bengal’s textile and silk production by as much as 33 per cent. The Indian textile industry became more creative, innovative and productive; exports boomed. But when the British traders took power, everything changed.

          In power, the British were, in a word, ruthless. They stopped paying for textiles and silk in pounds brought from Britain, preferring to pay from revenues extracted from Bengal, and pushing prices still lower. They squeezed out other foreign buyers and instituted a Company monopoly. They cut off the export markets for Indian textiles, interrupting long-standing independent trading links. As British manufacturing grew, they went further. Indian textiles were remarkably cheap—so much so that Britain’s cloth manufacturers, unable to compete, wanted them eliminated. The soldiers of the East India Company obliged, systematically smashing the looms of some Bengali weavers and, according to at least one contemporary account (as well as widespread, if unverifiable, belief), breaking their thumbs so they could not ply their craft.

          Crude destruction, however, was not all. More sophisticated modern techniques were available in the form of the imposition of duties and tariffs of 70 to 80 per cent on whatever Indian textiles survived, making their export to Britain unviable. Indian cloth was thus no longer cheap. Meanwhile, bales of cheap British fabric—cheaper even than poorly paid Bengali artisans could make—flooded the Indian market from the new steam mills of Britain. Indians could hardly impose retaliatory tariffs on British goods, since the British controlled the ports and the government, and decided the terms of trade to their own advantage.

          India had enjoyed a 25 per cent share of the global trade in textiles in the early eighteenth century. But this was destroyed; the Company’s own stalwart administrator Lord William Bentinck wrote that ‘the bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India’.

          India still grew cotton, but mainly to send to Britain. The country no longer wove or spun much of it; master weavers became beggars. A stark illustration of the devastation this caused could be seen in Dhaka, once the great centre of muslin production, whose population fell from several hundred thousand in 1760 to about fifty thousand by the 1820s. (Fittingly, Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh, is once again a thriving centre of textile and garment production.)

          British exports of textiles to India, of course, soared. By 1830 these had reached 60 million yards of cotton goods a year; in 1858 this mounted to 968 million yards; the billion yard mark was crossed in 1870—more than three yards a year for every single Indian, man, woman or child.

          The destruction of artisanal industries by colonial trade policies did not just impact the artisans themselves. The British monopoly of industrial production drove Indians to agriculture beyond levels the land could sustain. This in turn had a knock-on effect on the peasants who worked the land, by causing an influx of newly disenfranchised people, formerly artisans, who drove down rural wages. In many rural families, women had spun and woven at home while their men tilled the fields; suddenly both were affected, and if weather or drought reduced their agricultural work, there was no back-up source of income from cloth. Rural poverty was a direct result of British actions.

          Apologists for Empire suggest that Indian textiles were wiped out by the machines of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, in the same way that traditional handmade textiles disappeared in Europe and the rest of the world, rather than by deliberate British policy: in this reading, if they hadn’t collapsed to British power, the weavers would have been replaced within fifty years by Indian textile mills using modern machinery. India’s weavers were, thus, merely the victims of technological obsolescence.

          It is plausible that, in due course, handlooms would have found it difficult to compete with massproduced machine-made textiles, but they would surely have been able to hold on to a niche market, as they do to this day in India. At least the process would have occurred naturally and gradually in a free India, perhaps even delayed by favourable protective tariffs on English imports of mill-made textiles, rather than being executed brutally by British fiat. And many Indian manufacturers would surely have imported technology themselves, given the chance to upgrade their textile units; the lower wages of Indian workers would always have given them a comparative advantage over their European competitors on a level playing field. Under colonialism, of course, the playing field was not level, and the nineteenth century told the sad tale of the extinction of Indian textiles and their replacement by British ones.

          Still, inevitably, Indian entrepreneurs began to set up their own modern textile mills after 1850 and to produce cloth that could compete with the British imports. The American Civil War, by interrupting supplies of cotton from the New World, set off a brief boom in Indian cotton, but once American supplies resumed in 1865, India again suffered. As late as 1896, Indian mills produced only 8 per cent of the total cloth consumed in India. By 1913, this had grown to 20 per cent, and the setbacks faced by Britain with the disruptions of the World War I allowed Indian textile manufacturers to slowly recapture the domestic market. In 1936, 62 per cent of the cloth sold in India was made by Indians; and by the time the British left the country, 76 per cent (in 1945).

          But for most of the colonial era, the story of Indian manufacturing was of dispossession, displacement and defeat. What happened to India’s textiles was replicated across the board. From the great manufacturing nation described by Sunderland, India became a mere exporter of raw materials and foodstuffs, raw cotton, as well as jute, silk, coal, opium, rice, spices and tea. With the collapse of its manufacturing and the elimination of manufactured goods from its export rosters, India’s share of world manufacturing exports fell from 27 per cent to 2 per cent under British rule. Exports from Britain to India, of course, soared, as India’s balance of trade reversed and a major exporting nation became an importer of British goods forced upon the Indian market duty-free while British laws and regulations strangled Indian products they could not have fairly competed against for quality or price.

          The deindustrialization of India, begun in the late eighteenth century, was completed in the nineteenth and only slowly reversed in the twentieth. Under the British, the share of industry in India’s GDP was only 3.8 per cent in 1913, and at its peak reached 7.5 per cent when the British left in 1947. Similarly, the share of manufactured goods in India’s exports climbed only slowly to a high of 30 per cent in 1947. And at the end of British rule, modern industry employed only 2.5 million people out of India’s population of 350 million.

            1. The post is about a published argument. You are welcome to provide information that you can demonstrate relates to that argument. Your information completely misses the point. 🙂

              (Or perhaps you can inform us how your information relates to the argument presented.)

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