The idea that British rule in India was a force for good is not uncommon in Britain and even in certain sections of westernised Indian elite. Read right-of-centre British newspapers and you will regularly find articles and columns that glorify Britain’s colonial past, giving the impression that Britain was spreading the light of Western Civilisation to the dark corners of the world. Many British history books still do their best to highlight the benefits that British rule brought to the numerous colonies, rather than the hardships.
Recently in an interview with the BBC, Niall Ferguson, a British historian who has recently produced a six-part documentary series for Channel 4, and also works in a research department at Oxford University, said that British rule greatly benefited the ruled nations and people. To be sure, many white Britons, perhaps even the majority, think that the colonial era is not something to be proud of. But at the same time it must be acknowledged that the idea of British rule as benevolent is not just a fringe idea. In this light it is worth examining some facts about the British Raj that are seldom discussed in the media.
History is never black and white. There are benefits that come out of otherwise bad situations. In the case of India, British rule certainly did have some benefits, such as development of previously absent infrastructure. Of course, colonial historians such as Niall Ferguson will be fast to point this out:
By the 1880s the British had invested £270 million in India, not much less than one-fifth of their entire investment overseas.
But at what cost were these investments made? The pro-colonial authors miss out or even cover-up some basic points about the British Raj, which should be the foundation of any debate about the ‘merits’ of colonialism,
The economic devastation of India under British rule is discernible from the fact that India’s share of world trade fell from 17% percent in 1800 (almost equal to America’s share of world trade in 2000) to less than 2%. It is a very telling fact that during British rule of India, British per capita gross domestic product increased in real terms by 347 per cent, Indian by a mere 14 per cent. But even more important are the famine statistics of British-controlled India.
According to British records, one million Indians died of famine between 1800 and 1825, 4 million between 1825 and 1850, 5 million between 1850 and 1875 and 15 million between 1875 and 1900. Thus 25 million Indians died in 100 years! Since Independence, although poverty still exists, there have been no such mass famines, a record of which India should be proud. Funnily enough, there is no mention of this by pro-colonial authors. It is certainly a strange omission on their part and something they should be ashamed of. Perhaps not surprising as it would make British investment in India seem trivial and pointless by comparison. Any rational person would rather avoid millions of deaths than have a few railway tracks built and some land irrigated.
How did these famines occur? The main reason was not bad weather or natural causes but rather the breaking up of India’s indigenous crop patterns. The British replaced food crops such as rice and wheat and instead forced Indian farmers to produce jute, cotton, tea and oil seeds, which they needed as raw materials for their home industries. The implication of this in times of shortages was catastrophic, as the famine figures show.
Niall Ferguson also credits the British with labouring to improve India’s public health:
It was the British who introduced quinine as an anti-malarial prophylactic, carried out public programmes of vaccination against smallpox – often in the face of local resistance – and laboured to improve the urban water supplies that were so often the bearers of cholera and other diseases.
Once again, there is some truth in this, but also some omission, and some downright distortion. On the subject of smallpox vaccination, it is well documented that before the British arrived, Indians had a system of immunisation against smallpox, in which cowpox was used inoculate against smallpox. The British doctor J Z Holwell wrote a book in 1767 describing the system, accepting that it was safe and effective. European medicine did not have any treatment against the disease at that time.
Inoculation against smallpox became a part of Western medicine by 1840. No sooner did that happen that the British in India banned the older method of vaccination, denouncing it as barbaric, without making certain that sufficient number of inoculators in the new technique existed. Smallpox in India became a greater scourge than before. This is not the only example in which the British undermined and even banned indigenous systems of knowledge, particularly medicine, creating dire consequences.
In writing this article I am not trying to stir up bitterness. As I have mentioned, many if not most white Britons see colonialism as a dark part of their history, and refrain from glorifying it or acting triumphant over it. I am simply trying to combat the smug, celebratory version of Imperial history that is in vogue in some circles. This distorted version of history should be discarded into the dustbin of history.
This article is dedicated to the millions men, women and children, of India as well as other nations, who perished in unnecessary and avoidable famines during the colonial era.