Myths of British India

The Colonial Legacy – Myths and Popular Beliefs

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

Several Indians are deeply concerned about why literacy rates in India are still so low. So in 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. These were Indians who went to school in the sixties and seventies (only two decades after independence) – and I was amazed to hear their fairly confident guesses. 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. Perhaps – the British had concentrated on higher education ….? But in 1935, only 4 in 10,000 were enrolled in universities or higher educational institutes. In a nation of then over 350 million people only 16,000 books (no circulation figures) were published in that year (i.e. 1 per 20,000).

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. After the Second World War, 13 per cent of Bombay’s population slept on the streets. As for sanitation, 10-15 tenements typically shared one water tap!

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. But in 1840 it was reported by Sir Charles Trevelyan to a parliamentary enquiry that Dacca’s population had fallen from 150,000 to 20,000. Montgomery Martin – an early historian of the British Empire observed that Surat and Murshidabad had suffered a similiar fate. (This phenomenon was to be replicated all over India – particularly in Awadh (modern U.P) and other areas that had offered the most heroic resistance to the British during the revolt of 1857.)

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… The motto hitherto has been: ‘Do nothing, have nothing done, let nobody do anything…..” Adding that the Company was unconcerned if people died of famine, or if they lacked roads and water.

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: “In every district the Khals (canals) which carry the internal boat traffic become from time to time blocked up with silt. Its Khals and rivers are the roads end highways of Eastern Bengal, and it is impossible to overestimate the importance to the economic life of this part of the province of maintaining these in proper navigable order ……. ” “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.”

“Sir William Willcock severely criticizes the modern administrators and officials, who, with every opportunity to call in expert technical assistance, have hitherto done nothing to remedy this disastrous situation, from decade to decade.” Thus wrote G. Emerson in “Voiceless Millions,” in 1931 quoting the views of Sir William Willcock in his “Lectures on the Ancient System of Irrigation in Bengal and its Application to Modern Problems” (Calcutta University Readership Lectures, University of Calcutta, 1930)

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.

In 1934, there was one hospital bed for 3800 people in British India and this figure included hospital beds reserved for the British rulers. (In that same year, in the Soviet Union, there were ten times as many.) Infant mortality in Bombay was 255 per thousand in 1928. (In the same year, it was less than half that in Moscow.)

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, and in any case, were exacerbated by rapid population growth. Of course, no one who makes the first point is able to offer any substantive proof that such conditions prevailed long before the British arrived, and to counter such an argument would be difficult in the absence of reliable and comparable statistical data from earlier centuries. 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.

Between 1870 and 1910, India’s population grew at an average rate of 19%. England and Wales’ population grew three times as fast – by 58%! Average population growth in Europe was 45%. Between 1921-40, the population in India grew faster at 21% but was still less than the 24% growth of population in the US!

In 1941, the density of population in India was roughly 250 per square mile almost a third of England’s 700 per square mile. Although Bengal was much more densely inhabited at almost 780 per square mile – that was only about 10% more than England. Yet, there was much more poverty in British India than in England and an unprecedented number of famines were recorded during the period of British rule.

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. Land that once produced grain for local consumption was now taken over by by former slave-owners from N. America who were permitted to set up plantations for the cultivation of lucrative cash crops exclusively for export. 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 and has to be ascribed to the pitiful wages that working people in India received in that period. A 1927-28 report noted that “all but the most highly skilled workmen in India receive wages which are barely sufficient to feed and clothe them. Everywhere will be seen overcrowding, dirt and squalid misery…”

This in spite of the fact that in 1922 – an 11 hour day was the norm (as opposed to an 8 hour day in the Soviet Union.) In 1934, it had been reduced to 10 hours (whereas in the Soviet Union, the 7 hour day had been legislated as early as in 1927) What was worse, there were no enforced restrictions on the use of child labour and the Whitley Report found children as young as five – working a 12 hour day.

Ancient Monuments

Perhaps the least known aspect of the colonial legacy is the early British attitude towards India’s historic monuments and the extent 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 scores of gardens, tombs and palaces that once adorned the suburbs of Sikandra at Agra were sold out or auctioned. “Relics of the glorious age of the Mughals were either destroyed or converted beyond recognition..”. “Out of 270 beautiful monuments which existed at Agra alone, before its capture by Lake in 1803, hardly 40 have survived”.

In the same vein, David Carroll (in ‘Taj Mahal’) observes: ” The forts in Agra and Delhi were commandeered at the beginning of the nineteenth century and turned into military garrisons. Marble reliefs were torn down, gardens were trampled, and lines of ugly barracks, still standing today, were installed in their stead. In the Delhi fort, the Hall of Public Audience was made into an arsenal and the arches of the outer colonnades were bricked over or replaced with rectangular wooden windows.”

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. David Carroll reports: “..By the nineteenth century, its grounds were a favorite trysting place for young Englishmen and their ladies. Open-air balls were held on the marble terrace in front of the main door, and there, beneath Shah Jahan”s lotus dome, brass bands um-pah-pahed and lords and ladies danced the quadrille. The minarets became a popular site for suicide leaps, and the mosques on either side of the Taj were rented out as bungalows to honeymooners. The gardens of the Taj were especially popular for open-air frolics…..”

“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. Several patents that had remained unfunded suddenly found industrial sponsors once the taxes from India started rolling in. 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.

In addition, the scientific basis of the industrial revolution was not a uniquely European contribution. Several civilizations had been adding to the world’s scientific database – especially the civilizations of Asia, (including those of the Indian sub-continent). Without that aggregate of scientific knowledge the scientists of Britain and Europe would have found it impossible to make the rapid strides they made during the period of the Industrial revolution. Moreover, several of these patents, particularly those concerned with the textile industry relied on pre-industrial techniques perfected in the sub-continent. (In fact, many of the earliest textile machines in Britain were unable to match the complexity and finesse of the spinning and weaving machines of Dacca.)

Some euro-centric authors have attempted to deny any such linkage. They have tried to assert that not only was the Industrial Revolution a uniquely British/European event – that colonization and the the phenomenal transfer of wealth that took place was merely incidental to it’s fruition. But the words of Lord Curzon still ring loud and clear. The Viceroy of British India in 1894 was quite unequivocal, “India is the pivot of our Empire …. If the Empire loses any other part of its Dominion we can survive, but if we lose India the sun of our Empire will have set.”

Lord Curzon knew fully well, the value and importance of the Indian colony. It was the transfer of wealth through unprecedented levels of taxation on Indians of virtually all classes that funded the great “Industrial Revolution” and laid the ground for “modernization” in Britain. 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.

Colonial Beneficiaries

Another aspect of colonial rule that has remained hidden from popular perception is that Britain was not the only beneficiary of colonial rule. British trade regulations even as they discriminated against Indian business interests created a favorable trading environment for other imperial powers. By 1939, only 25% of Indian imports came from Britain. 25% came from Japan, the US and Germany. In 1942-3, Canada and Australia contributed another 8%. In the period immediately before independence, Britain ruled as much on behalf of it’s imperial allies as it did in it’s own interest. The process of “globalization” was already taking shape. But none of this growth trickled down to India. 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)

Those who wish India well might do well to re-read this history so the nation isn’t brought to the abyss once again, (and so soon after being liberated from the yoke of colonial rule). While some Indians may wax nostalgic for the return of their former overlords, and some may be ambivalent about colonial rule, most of us relish our freedom and wish to perfect it – not gift it away again.

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One response to “Myths of British India

  1. Bharat Nair

    Please send this article to this fool-

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