Day 8 India, Tharoor’s Inglorious empire

Friday, 30 December 2022

Friday, 30 December 2022

I should pace myself, define my work sessions better and give the 77-year old a chance. Instead, I charge on and end up like today, feeling listless and uncreative. Or it might, more banally, just be the onset of a simple cold. But my mood also has to do with my starting to read one of the more serious books on my list, Shashi Tharoor’s “Inglorious Empire. What the British did to India”. 2016 (17). It’s part revulsion at what cupidity led the sometimes gormless younger sons of the aristocracy and unattractive others to do. But also an awareness of the extent of the task to try to understand how British colonialism and imperialism worked, the need to look at not just textiles, but the Indian steel industry, shipbuilding etc. and understand the effects of the clashes of social forces and that we are not dealing with the workings of a machine but a process where various outcomes were possible.

I have quoted five short extracts from Tharoor’s work below to give a feel of his book.

“In power, the British were, in a word, ruthless. They squeezed out other foreign buyers and instituted a [an East India] Company monopoly. They cut off export markets for Indian textiles interrupting longstanding 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 a widespread if unverifiable, belief), breaking their thumbs so they could not ply their craft”. (p,6)

“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´. (p.7)

“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”. (p,7)

“Under the British, the share of industry in India’s GDP was only 1.8 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”. (p.9)

“As late as 1896, Indian mills produced only eight 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 disruption of the World War 1 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 1946). (p.8)

I haven’t studied Tharoor’s sources. His extensive bibliography indicates that he is a serious and painstaking author. He is an academic but also a Congress politician. His book interests me a lot and I think will be of great value to me, not least the bibliography. My negative reactions so far are that I sometimes find it hard to pin down his sources (although that might only reflect the fact that I have only nibbled at the introductory pages, the balanced and weighty coming perhaps later. His description of India and its economy as it was before the British took charge makes it sound as if India was more advanced than I believed it to have been (although undoubtedly British actions led to rolling back development) and that the depiction of social forces, the possibility of Indian capital developing in the interstices of an increasingly bureaucratised empire, is not (so far) sharply drawn.

Revisionists would undoubtedly quibble with his statistics (and he would defend them). But I am broadly convinced of much what he says. I do not believe that the British were at any point in India to help what they regarded as a benighted and backward country, that was very largely an ideological smokescreen. They were there, both during the colonial and the imperial periods, to make money, and they did; the white man was not shouldering a burden, he (she) was a burden.

And if a thief, who has smashed up your house while removing your valuables, happens to leave a fine ladder and torch behind, this is not a mitigating circumstance (doffing my cap to the Indian railway system).

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