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The British in India: An Accurate Account

British Indian Empire 1909 Imperial Gazetteer of India
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Written by Lawrence James

Tirthankar Roy’s new book, How British Rule Changed India’s Economy: The Paradox of the Raj, is a careful, measured and very well-evidenced answer to those who choose to see Britain’s control of India as rapacious and destructive. As Lawrence James explains in his review below, Roy demonstrates that Britain’s supposed economic exploitation of India has been greatly exaggerated; that the Raj did not prevent the growth of India’s economy and the foundations of her manufacturing base; and that British policies and institutions laid a basis for improved health, education and civic life among India’s population.

History cannot be written in the subjunctive: it is about what happened. What did not happen or might have happened are speculations which lead us into historical cul-de-sacs. These can be fascinating, even attractive, but they remain fiction. The commonest form of hypothetical history hinges on the question: ‘What if?’  It prompts a variety of answers, and a huge number of these are infinitely comforting to those who feel that History has in some way treated their ancestors unfairly, even cruelly. Their descendants join a modern brotherhood and sisterhood of victims by ancestry whose present misfortunes stem directly from perceptions of past injustice or denied opportunities.

Over the past few years, historians, politicians and polemicists have asked the question: ‘What if there had been no British Empire?’  The answers have generated more heat than light and they have coalesced into a loose thesis intended to make the British people feel guilty and ashamed for what is now presented as three centuries of relentless but rewarding exploitation of the world’s weak and poor.

One example may serve for many. Here is William Dalrymple on the activities of the East India Company during the second half of the 18th century: its ‘conquest of India’ was ‘the supreme act of corporate violence in world history’ (The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, 2019). Yet Dalrymple’s text reveals a country in which a political vacuum had been created by the lassitude and impotence of the Persian Mughal dynasty. The upshot was an extended three-cornered power struggle between the indigenous land-owning aristocracy, the French Compagnie des Indes and the British East India Company. Indians, many of them professional soldiers, fought on all sides, with the wars serving as a welcome source of income.

At the same time, some servants of the East India Company were prospering beyond the dreams of avarice.  Dalrymple and others have accused them of rapacity and of draining India of capital resources. Professor Tirthankar Roy of the London School of Economics takes a more measured, analytical view of how much the nabobs pocketed. He admits that there were a few sharks, such as Robert Clive, but that even in their heyday in the 1760s the Company was taking a mere 13% of Bengal’s revenues and much of this to pay for military and administrative costs.

Roy’s How the British Raj Changed India’s Economy: The Paradox of the Raj offers a thorough and well-researched survey which demolishes the notion of British rule in India as a prolonged smash-and-grab raid which stifled economic growth and pauperised its inhabitants. Rather, he argues that British economic policies rested on an ‘openness’ which exposed India to the ‘movement of goods, capital, skills and technologies’. This fostered growth and slowly eliminated famines. Between 1850 and 1930 India passed through ‘a globalisation process, not unlike the one that has happened since the 1990s’. During the earlier period, India became the ‘fourth largest cotton textile mill industry and the tropical world’s largest iron and steel industry emerged in India’.

As well as showing how the Raj’s economic policies provided the impetus for enterprise and growth, Roy nails the myth that they were a step backwards for India. This myth is based on an estimate that in 1800 India produced 25% of the world’s GDP and that this had fallen to between 2-4% a century later. This is an absurd assumption:  industrial and agricultural production in Europe, America and Japan had risen prodigiously over this period. In about 1750, world GDP totalled $650 billion, and in 1900 it stood at $2,225 billion.

As well as charting India’s economic progress under the Raj, Roy draws our attention to one frequently-ignored feature of imperial government in India (and in the rest of the Empire): the introduction of Western medicine, medical education, clinics, hospitals and public health authorities. Alongside innovation, there was the systematic investigation of the causes of such endemic diseases as malaria, leprosy and cholera. In the case of the latter, once the disease had been discovered to be carried by water, remedies were applied and death rates fell during the 1880s and 1890s. As Roy notes, progress on the medical front was slow and the resources were often limited. Nevertheless, the Raj reduced deaths from disease, laid the foundations of India’s health services and secured the ascendancy of Western preventive and curative medicine. By the 1920s, India’s population was beginning to increase and has continued to do so ever since.

A growing population was also a consequence of the authorities’ measures to forestall and alleviate famines. Railways were crucial in food distribution, allowing areas with surpluses to move food to areas where crops had failed. After 1900, famines were no longer frequent catastrophes – there had been three during the past twenty-five years but, for the next forty odd years, India could feed itself. There was one exception, which was the 1943–1944 Bengal famine. Roy carefully dissects its causes and course, concluding that ‘it has never been explained’. Unique wartime circumstances are among several contributory factors and he argues that it is impossible to prove culpability on any single one, and crude to attempt to do so.

Throughout this book, Roy provides ample evidence that the Raj strengthened, enlarged and diversified the Indian economy and bolstered India’s role as a competitive international trading power in Asia. Chapters and summaries offer honest, balanced and methodical historical accounts which are invaluable for anyone – particularly students, at whom the book is aimed – seeking an answer to the question: ‘What did the British Raj ever do for India?’

Lawrence James is the author of Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. His The Lion and the Dragon: Britain and China: A History of Conflict (Weidenfeld and Nicholson) will appear in August 2023.

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Lawrence James