Britain’s plunder of India

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india Famine 1876

‘The British empire is under Providence the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen.’

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India 1899–1905

• Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India

by Shashi Tharoor, Hurst and Company 2017, 296pp, £20

Shashi Tharoor has written a searing indictment of the British occupation of India, demonstrating how the colony was looted of its wealth, its industry destroyed, its development obstructed, its people impoverished and subjected to starvation and famine. It takes the form of a polemic against latter-day apologists for empire such as Niall Ferguson whom Tharoor cites as arguing that Britain’s empire promoted ‘the optimal allocation of labour, capital and goods in the organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth century... Prima facie, there therefore seems a plausible case that Empire enhanced global welfare.’ As Tharoor shows, this ‘optimal allocation’ of resources ‘meant, to its colonial victims, landlessness, unemployment, illiteracy, poverty, disease, transportation and servitude’ (p215).

Inglorious Empire traces the looting of India from the arrival of the East India Company in 1600 and the development of its trading monopoly. The process really took off from 1757 with the defeat of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula at Plassey and the Company’s assumption of power in Bengal. This put the company in a position, eight years later, to force the Mughal Emperor to cede tax-raising powers in Bengal and neighbouring Bihar and Orissa to the company. Over the next half-century, an estimated £18m a year was sent back to England: colossal fortunes were made by Company officials. Under Warren Hastings, de facto the first Governor-General of India between 1772 and 1785, corruption became the norm; immense physical cruelty was employed by company officials as they exacted taxes from the peasantry set at levels of up to 90% of the rent or 50% of income; local rulers were bribed or replaced and often murdered to ensure that nothing got in the way of the plunder. The taxation was so onerous that an estimated two-thirds of the population ruled by the British fled their lands. Torture was normal for those unable to pay; their lands were seized by company officials. Meanwhile, the local weaving industry, once the most advanced in the world, was destroyed and instead of being an exporter of fabrics, Bengal shortly became an importer of overwhelmingly British-made textiles. The population of Dhaka, the centre of muslin production, fell from several hundred thousand in 1760 to 50,000 in 1820. Hastings himself boasted of the bribes he received from princely rulers, often then going to war against the briber. Impeached in 1788 for corruption, he was exonerated after a trial lasting seven years.

The flood of Indian money into England was crucial to launching the Industrial Revolution. Ranjani Palme Dutt in India Today (published by the Left Book Club in 1940) quotes Brooks Adams, author of The Law of Civilisation and Decay: ‘Prior to 1760...the machinery for spinning cotton in Lancashire was almost as simple as in India...the English iron industry was in decline...At that time four-fifths of the iron used in the [United] kingdom came from Sweden’ (Dutt, p119). Then came the invention of the flying shuttle (1760), the spinning jenny (1764), the mule (1776), and in 1768, the steam engine. However, money capital was needed to set this in motion, and ‘before the influx of the Indian treasure, and the expansion of credit which followed, no force sufficient for this purpose existed.’ The plunder of Bengal changed everything: capitalist manufacture on an expanding scale was now possible. Dutt concludes ‘In this way, the spoliation of India was the hidden source of accumulation which played an all-important role in helping to make possible the Industrial Revolution in England’ (Dutt, ibid). By contrast, over the period of the British occupation, it is estimated that India’s share of world output fell from 23% to 3%, and its share of world manufactured exports from 27% to 2% (Tharoor, pp3, 8).

The oppression and corruption of the East India Company was to culminate in the 1857 Revolt; thereafter the British government assumed direct control of most of India and indirect control of the remainder through a network of treaties and agreements with more than 560 feudal states policed through a British Resident or Political Agent. Nothing of consequence changed for the Indian people: as Tharoor observes, ‘Taxation remained onerous. Agricultural taxes amounted, at a minimum, to half the gross produce and often more’; furthermore, ‘while British revenues soared, the national debt of India multiplied exponentially. Half of India’s revenues went out of India’ (Tharoor, pp20-21). The majority of the rest went towards the British Indian Army which saw most of its action abroad in wars of conquest on behalf of the British Empire: China (1860, 1900-01); Ethiopia (1867-68); Malaya (1875); Egypt and Sudan (1882, 1885-86, 1896), to name but a few. In 1922, 64% of Indian government revenue was devoted to paying for British Indian troops in operations abroad (p21).

Estimates of the total amount looted from India are difficult to arrive at; one by William Digby writing in 1901 was that the total wealth drained from the country in the 19th century amount to over £4bn. Writing in the 19th century, Indian nationalist Dadabhai Naorojhi calculated that £30m a year alone was being exported in the form of railway dividends or pensions to retired officials. By the 1920s an estimated 7,500 British Indian Civil Service pensioners were receiving £20m a year, paid for of course by the Indian people.

Under direct rule, the British colonial government ensured not only that the looting was even more systematised, but that it continued even while the Indian people faced that most appalling of social disasters, famine. This was a direct result of the taxation and economic policies of the British occupation. The numbers who died are mind-numbing: up to 35 million, from the first Great Bengal famine of 1770 to the Bengal famine of 1943-44 which accounted for three million deaths (Tharoor, p150). At root were the principles of taxation laid down by the East India Company: payment could only be in cash, not in kind, and no exemption during harvest failures. Prior to the British occupation, there had been no inevitability that famine would follow a drought since it was possible for the peasant on both an individual and collective basis to set some grain aside as an insurance against poor harvests. British taxation demands rendered this impossible, and the increasing indebtedness of the Indian peasant merely made matters worse.

The number and severity of Indian famines multiplied as the 19th century progressed; Dutt cites figures showing that one million are estimated to have died between 1800 and 1825, five million between 1850 and 1875 and 15 million in the last quarter of the century (Dutt, p132). As with the Great Famine in Ireland of 1845-52, this did not prevent the British from maintaining the export of locally-grown grains, which rose in value ten-fold between 1849 and 1901. During the 1866 Orissa famine, the governor of Bengal refused to lower food prices, saying that if he were to do so, he would consider himself ‘no better than a dacoit or thief’. Indian Viceroy Lord Lytton made this a matter of principle during the Great Famine of 1876-78, overseeing record exports of wheat while instructing district officers ‘to discourage relief works in every possible way...mere distress is not a sufficient reason of opening a relief work’ (Tharoor, p154). In 1943, Churchill ordered the diversion of food from Bengal to feed British troops and expand stockpiles in Europe; the famine was the fault of the Indian people for ‘breeding like rabbits’; his aide Lord Cherwell prevented any famine relief.

Tharoor dispels the myth of enlightened despotism put forward by apologists for imperialism such as Ferguson, dismissing the notion that the British occupation was anything other than a racist, oppressive regime. From the savagery with which the revolt of 1857 was put down, through the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar) massacre, the record is one of unending brutality. Racism permeated every aspect of the relationship between the occupiers and the occupied. Tharoor illustrates this in relation to the railways: initially an exclusive preserve for European employment as Indians apparently did not have ‘the judgement and presence of mind’ to deal with emergencies and ‘seldom have character enough to enforce strict obedience’ to railway rules (p180). When economic necessity required Indian employment as train drivers, English employees objected and training ended after three years. From 1862, Indian workers were employed in locomotive maintenance workshops; in 1878 they started to design and produce their own cheaper and equally good quality engines. This was so successful that the British government passed a law in 1912 to put an end to it and returned India to a situation where it continued to import 10% of British locomotive output.

Tharoor deals with the liberation struggle only in passing, focusing not surprisingly on Gandhi’s role, and the manner in which the British occupation created and fostered communal divisions through its unashamed sponsorship of the Muslim League against the Indian National Congress (INC). He is particularly strong on the sectarianism and venality of the leaders of the League, but criticises INC leaders for deciding on the outbreak of war in 1939 to resign all the provincial ministry positions it had won in 1937 elections and launch the Quit India campaign. This, he argues, allowed the British occupation to promote the interests of the Muslim League, which then used its alliance to advance the demand in 1940 for the creation of a separate Pakistan.

Tharoor is a bourgeois politician, an INC member of the Indian parliament. He views Gandhi as a great leader, but regards his ideas of non-violence outside of the Indian struggle for independence as ‘frighteningly unrealistic’ (p243). Yet he misses the point of Gandhi’s leadership, which was to expel any revolutionary influence from the Indian independence movement, particularly when it was taken up by the Indian working class and peasantry. ‘This Jonah of revolution’, Dutt says, ‘this general of unbroken disasters was the mascot of the bourgeoisie in each wave of the developing Indian struggle’ (Dutt, p323; see also ‘India: the struggle for independence’ FRFI nos 138-139 for a summary). At each and every stage of the Indian revolution, when the struggle was threatening to get out of hand, Gandhi’s role was to pour water on the flames on behalf of the Indian bourgeoisie and British imperialism.

In 1918-20, the communist MN Roy had already pointed to the revolutionary role that the nascent Indian working class would have to play if India were to be freed. In December 1928, 20,000 Calcutta workers had marched to the INC congress demanding an Independent Socialist Republic of India. The response of the British occupation was swift: in March 1929, it arrested the most prominent and revolutionary working class leaders, including several communists, imprisoning them in Meerut for the duration of a four-year juryless trial. In 1928 there was a realistic prospect that the Indian working class would assume leadership of the liberation struggle. Meerut put an end to that possibility, leaving two sections of the Indian bourgeoisie to dispute how to divide the spoils through an independence which would require partition and the continued subjugation of the Indian working class and peasantry. Read Tharoor for an understanding of the scale to which Britain looted India, and the immense human cost of that plunder; get hold of Dutt’s book as it is still indispensable for understanding not just the looting of India but also the politics of the Indian national liberation struggle and Gandhi’s reactionary role within it.

Robert Clough

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 258 June/July 2017