One of the main reasons for the Europeans to sail the oceans was to find new trade routes to Asia, especially, to India. The adventure was inevitable as the land route to Asia was now held by the Ottoman Empire since 1453 CE (In 1453 CE, Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans, which led to the fall of the Byzantine Empire) and an alternative trade route had to be discovered, for the sake of trade and profits.
But, besides monetary prospects, another significant reason/motivation for all European colonisations in different parts of the world is almost always ignored. It was an inherent ideology of “western supremacy”. This idea is often referred to as “the white man’s burden”: a self-proclaimed responsibility of the west to subjugate and civilize any other person, who does not fall under the category of the “west”.
Accordingly, the Europeans, who “discovered” India had both intentions in mind. But, it was the British, who were the most successful among them. They not only succeeded in controlling most of the Indian Territory, but also successfully colonized various aspects of the Indian society like culture, politics, economy and education. They have since become an inseparable part of our history.
Hence, in their conquest of India, two important objectives of the British emerge: Profit and spreading civilization among Indians. This article briefly examines how the hostile and atrocious policies of the British, intended to achieve the above mentioned objectives, systematically impoverished the Indians, both physically and mentally.
Before proceeding to look at how the British rule shattered the Indian economy, it will be useful to consider the respective macro-economic situations that prevailed in Britain and India before the Indian subjugation.
It should be noted that the British, during the 16th and 17th centuries, were in a bad shape. In the sixteenth century, “England was a backward country”, says Robertson. In the early 17th century, says Mill, Britain was, “oppressed by misgovernment or scourged by civil war, (with) affordable little capital to extend trade, or protect it”. [Lajpat Rai]
Specifically, from the available data, the GDP of Britain was only $2,815 million (in 1990 international $, same unit until otherwise specified) in 1500 CE and $10,709 million during 1700 CE. [Angus Maddison]
On the other hand, India was the richest country on earth until early periods of the 2nd millennia. Accordingly, India’s GDP in the year 1000 CE was approx. $33,750 million. Later, in 1500 CE, it was $60,500 million. During 1700 CE, it was $90,750 million. [ibid]
India was also one of the major trading nations in the 18th century. In fact, India had a monopoly in the supply of high quality finished textiles and spices. In 1750, her trade amounted to about 24.5% of the total world trade. India and China (whose contribution was a little over 32%) together contributed to more than half to the total world trade. [David Clingingsmith &Jeffrey G. Williamson]
Later, India’s GDP in 1870 CE was $134,882 million and it was $222,222 million in 1950 CE. However, the GDP of Britain rose to $100,179 million (at 5% average growth) in 1870 CE and then sharply rose to $347,850 million in 1950 CE. [Maddison]
The growth rates of both the countries show the vast gap between their economic growths. Through the 250 years from 1700-1950, the average growth rate of India was only 0.6%, whereas Britain grew at an average rate of 12.6%. In other words, the UK economy was only 4.6% of the Indian economy in 1500 CE; it was around 12% in 1700 CE. It then rose to be around 74% of the Indian economy in 1870 CE. (It should be noted that the British economy was already on an up during the early 19th century to be around 32.5% of the Indian economy in 1820 CE. This period from mid-18th century to mid-19th century was when the East India Company had directly controlled many Indian territories and ports). Then, finally in 1950 CE, the process had reversed and the Indian economy had become around 64% of the British economy. This clearly shows the rise of the Britain and a simultaneous fall of the Indian economy during the period of the British engagement in India.
In the early second half of the 18th century, England witnessed a tremendous change in its economy and society. The phenomenon was called the Industrial revolution, which brought in dramatic improvements in working culture, people’s Income and their health and lifestyles. This in fact spread all over continental Europe within the next few decades. While, it is true that the industrial revolution gave a big push to Britain’s economy, a major portion of the huge capital investments that was required for the success of the revolution was itself supplied by India.
Moreover, the hostile financial policies of the British like ruthless taxation, discouraging Indian industries like textile and ship building, trade restrictions, etc. significantly contributed to the downfall of the Indian economy. The British (both under the East India Company and the British crown) simply shipped away huge amounts of wealth with practically no returns to India. In the words of Macaulay,
“……Treasure flowed to England in oceans; and what was lacking in England to make the fullest possible use of the mechanical inventions made by Watt and others was supplied by India. The influx of Indian treasure added considered to England’s cash capital………” [Lajpat Rai]
In fact, trade with India opened the doors of fortune to the East India Company. According to Macaulay, the company’s shares, which was priced 245 in 1677 almost reached 500 in the later years [ibid].
Though, an in depth analysis of specific policies is not in the purview of the present article, a brief analysis of one such policy i.e. taxation would assist us in understanding the general scenario at that time. Such an analysis was conducted by Hyndman, a British author, who as a responsible English man was the biggest critic of the British conduct in India.
Accordingly, the total tax levied on the Indian people during 1857 CE was 24,110,000 pounds, that is, around 2 shillings, 6 pence per head. However, in 1876, it had drastically risen (in 20 years) to become 36,000,000 pounds (round figured), which gives us the per capita tax to be 3 shillings, 9.5 pence. [Hyndman] Further, the per capita produce (can be considered as an income) was 31 shillings, 6 pence [from mid-18th to mid-19th centuries]. [ibid]
To see how much of this was needed to provide for the actual necessities of life, Hyndman looked at the per prisoner maintenance charge in the then Indian prisons. There, it costed around 46 shillings or 2.3 pounds to maintain a prisoner per year. This, however, does not include enough clothing, house allowances, repairs, costs of household equipment, etc.
Now, we have a situation where a person needed more than 46 shillings for subsistence plus 3 shillings 9.5 pence to pay off his/her taxes but earned an Income of only 31 shillings and 6 pence. That is, all his expenses, including the taxes may have required more than 50 shillings (at least around 55 to 60 shillings), but his income was only around 31 shillings. This huge deficit in a person’s balance sheet was not an aberration, but continued year after year for decades together, which made the financial situation of the people deteriorate. This, in-turn, forced the people to borrow money from moneylenders, which inevitably may have placed them insurmountable debts.
Hyndman, thus, observes, rather with pain,
“……Even as we look on, India is becoming feebler and feebler. The very life blood of the great multitude under our rule is slowly, yet ever faster, ebbing away…..” [Hyndman]
But, this deterioration in people’s welfare did not curtail the loot carried on by the British. This loot: the outflows of huge amounts of cash and kinds of monetary value from India to Britain during the colonial periods, are often referred to as a “drain”. Though, the exact amount of “drain” may never be known, many economists have given varying, but reliable estimates of this loot after examining the issue in depth.
In all, the total outflow of wealth (in the form of taxes, tributes, profits, etc.) from India to Britain was estimated to be approx. £6,080 million (for the period till the end of 19th century only) by Mr. Digby. However, Hyndman, writing in 1906, puts the figure at £40 million per annum, while Mr. A.J. Wilson fixed it at £35 million per annum. [Lajpat Rai] On the other hand, Mr Shashi Tharoor, MP in Rajya Sabha, in a recent debate at the Oxford University, vehemently argued that the British loot of the Indian treasure escapes the imagination and amounts to a total of approx. 3.4 trillion pounds sterling.
As enormous as it may seem, the above figures captures only one side of the story. The public debt of India (payments from India for British expenses on wars and expeditions, etc., which was often not adequately paid back) was around $35,000,000 in 1792. Gradually, it rose to be $215,000,000 in 1845, $1,535,000,000 in 1913 and $3,500,000,000 in 1929. [Will Durrant]. However, the total contribution from India, in cash and kinds, to British wars alone, amounts to approx. 9.25 billion pounds (in today’s value) according to Mr Tharoor.
Adding to this loot was the immense pain inflicted upon India, by the British, directly or indirectly, by caring little for the lives of millions of Indians. While violent crushing of hundreds of freedom fighters was almost a routine, an estimated number of deaths due to famine in India, since 1770 till independence, stood at over 25 million people.
However, these deaths were not due to the lack of production of food. The available food was either shipped away or was sold at outrageous prices, which almost always forced the already poverty stricken population to starve and die.
Seeing the then situation of the people, Sir Wilfred Scawen Blunt says,
“Though myself a good conservative….. I own to being shocked at the bondage in which the Indian people are held….; And I have come to the conclusion that if we go on developing the country at the present rate, the inhabitants, sooner or later, will have to resort to cannibalism, for there will be nothing left for them to eat ” [ibid]
It should also be noted that the Indian economy, which contributed 23% of the world economy during the 17th-18th centuries was down to around 4% in 1947. Such was the loot conducted by the British for most of their period in India. This, however, does not capture the exact picture of the sufferings of the then people. We can only imagine the poor conditions of the people for generations after generations. Moreover, this was not the only tool used by the British to break the Indian people. The financial atrocities caused physical damage, but the British wanted to influence the minds of the Indians too.
English education: A tool of mental subjugation
The British found out that the best possible way to enslave the minds of the Indians was through the introduction of the English education. The indigenous education system, which was referred to as “A beautiful tree” by Mahatma Gandhi was dismantled and destroyed. A strong emphasis was given to teaching the Indians about European literature, western art and languages, so as to make the English speaking Indians alien to their own culture and traditions.
Thomas Babington Macaulay famously (or infamously rather) argued in his “Minute on Indian Education” (2/2/1835) delivered in the British parliament that the British had to do their best to create a class of individuals in India, who would be Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, opinions, morals and intellect. He, after discounting Indian culture, arts, languages, etc. as primitive and useless, declared that an entire library of eastern literature is equivalent to just one shelf of English literature.
It was vastly argued by many like Carey and Wilberforce that the barbarity in which the Indians lived was bitter and the only cure for this was to cut them off from their Indian-ness. The British also believed that the presence of westernized Indians would facilitate in the smooth function of the Raj.
In a paper presented to the parliamentary committee on education in India in 1853, Sir Charles E. Trevelyan, an officer of the Bengal civil service observes, thus:
“………. The natives will not rise against us because we shall stoop to raise them; there will be no reaction because there will be no pressure; the national activity will be fully and harmlessly employed in acquiring and diffusing European knowledge, and naturalizing European institutions.”
To forward this cause, various seminaries were started to educate the Indian youth in English and western literature. No doubt, these institutions provided the much needed knowledge of modern sciences to young Indians, but at the same time, they not only alienated these young Indians from their culture, but also from indigenous knowledge systems (both science and arts). Thus, in a highly systematic manner, English and everything associated with it was promoted and made to replace India’s indigenous education system.
It was decided in 1835 by the then Governor General of India that no new support or assistance would be provided to teachers and students pursuing native subjects and languages. It was also decided that all the funds of education would be spent on promoting English education alone. In 1838 (within only 3 years), the seminaries established under these objectives were 40 in number.
Following this, Trevelyan provides the statistics for the sale of books by the School Books Society for the years 1834 and 1835; out of a total of 51,823 books sold; 31,649 were English books; 4,525 books were partly in English; only 16 books were of Sanskrit and all the remaining books were either in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Bengali or Hindi.
The result of these efforts was visible on the ground as early as 1838. While noting the success of the new education policy, Trevelyan says that there has been a wide taste for English among the youth trained in the Hindu college at Calcutta and notes that the moral effect of the English education was so deep that some of the Hindu youth born in noble families had developed an impatience for the restrictions of Hinduism and also a disregard for its ceremonies and rituals. He then notoriously predicts that another generation of such people would alter the very fundamental notions and feelings of the Hindu community. This perhaps was the first sign of self-alienation; our own people developing a sense of animosity towards their own identities.
Swami Vivekananda rightly observes on the issue of English education that,
“The child is taken to school and the first thing he learns is that his father is a fool, the second thing that his grandfather was a lunatic, the third thing that all his teachers are hypocrites, the fourth that all his sacred books are a mass of lies. By the time he reaches sixteen, he is a mass of negation, lifeless and boneless.”
Christianity and Conversions
Another method used by the British to civilize Indians was to Christianize them. They believed that the religion of the Indians, i.e. Hinduism was the root cause of all the evils that was prevalent in India.
Alexander Duff, a Scottish missionary and leading educator had opined that the Indian philosophy, in essence, conveyed vain, wicked and foolish conceptions only. For him, Hinduism was utter darkness and the Christian task was to somehow do everything possible to demolish this gigantic fabric of idolatry and superstitions.
When the East India Company was at the helm of affairs in India, many thinkers such as Edmund and Burke had started to argue that the company has to consider and take care of its moral responsibilities. In his personal capacity, Charles Grant, a junior officer in East India Company even drafted a proposal for the mission in 1786-87 and conducted a vast campaign for years for its implementation with no real gains however. In 1793, William Wilberforce, influenced by the work of Charles Grant moved his famous resolution known as the “Resolution on Missions”.
But, the East India Company did not consider any of the above as it was wary of openly supporting the Christian missions fearing that any religious interference would lead to the awakening of the Indian, especially the Hindu consciousness.
This stance of religious neutrality of the company was substantially challenged in 1813, when its charter was considered for renewal. It was argued that the Christianization of the Indian people would bring them at par with other subjects and also increase their loyalty to the masters in England.
Claudius Buchanan, a loyal and devout Christian missionary voiced the opinion that God has laid upon the Britain the solemn duty of evangelizing India and the government, instead of hesitating, must fully support the cause of Christian education and the war on Hindu superstitions.
Overall, the need for Christian missions in India was widely supported and this led to the attachment of a missionary clause into the company’s charter of 1813, granting permission to those, who wished to come to India for promoting moral and religious “developments”, to propagate English and preach Christianity. A sum of 100,000 Rupees was also allocated for the cause.
Later, in the charter act of 1833, a regulation was laid out for the permanent presence of missionaries in India. Provisions for the Anglican hierarchy in Calcutta and for the establishment of the Dioceses in Madras and Bombay were also introduced.
After, the changes made in 1813, the missionaries started coming to India in large numbers declaring that the solution for the Darkness of the Indians was the introduction of “light”. In 1853, the Queen proclaimed that the equality, which the Indians would receive with their other counterpart subjects of the crown would breathe a sense of religiousness, generosity and benevolence.
These developments made the missionaries an important hand of the British administration in India. It also led to an unholy nexus wherein the missionaries and the colonial masters implicitly (sometimes explicitly) supported each other. The missionary writers through their over-exaggerated, one-sided atrocity literatures propagated around the world that, if not for the British, India was on the brink of falling into the grasp of barbarity and backwardness. They were, as Mahatma Gandhi called Catherine Mayo, professional drain inspectors. The poverty, diseases, etc., many of which were the direct results of British policies were projected to be the effects of “Hindu Superstition”.
Moreover, the missionaries were allowed to open mission schools where thousands of young Indian minds were educated. Trevelyan makes it clear to us that the Christian priests coming to India took full advantage of these schools to influence the young minds.
Monier Williams, a Sanskrit professor in the University of Oxford acknowledges the role of missionaries and says,
“With regard to the progress of Christianity in India, I will only at present record my opinion that the best work done by the missionaries is in their schools…………… the ancient fortress of Hinduism is in this way being gradually undermined. The educated classes look with contempt on idolatry.”
It can also be seen that the missionaries used crooked and deceptive means to achieve their goals. One of the special target groups for them was the tribals. In a speech delivered at the Baptist Missionary Society in London, Sir Richard Temple said that it is a duty of every Christian to spread their religion, and that Hinduism and Buddhism is dying and the special focus of missionaries must be on tribals.
In conformity with this, in the census of 1911, it was very clear that 9/10th of all converts in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Sikkim regions belonged to the 4 major tribal communities viz. Oraons, Mundas, Kharis, and Santhals.
Moreover, Monier Williams advises the missionaries and also the people of England that it should not be a surprise, if the missionaries in India have to become all things to all people, following, St. Paul, in order to win over Indians to Christ. Furthermore, it is a well-established fact that the missionaries took great advantage in situations like famines and disease to lure innocent people to convert. In 1923, a publication from America named “India and its Missions” discussed the advantages of famines and diseases to Christianity. It says,
“The famine has wrought miracles. The catechumenates are filling, baptismal water flows in streams and starving little tots fly in masses to heaven.” [Ram Swarup]
Various tactics like coercion and deception that were used for converting Indians were discussed in great detail in a report presented to the government of Madhya Pradesh, popularly known as Niyogi Committee Report of 1957. It can be considerably assumed that these very means were practiced by missionaries in British India as well.
Due to all these efforts, the Indian Christian population, which was in meagre numbers (perhaps around 2 lakhs) during the 18th century had risen to 18,62,634 by 1871 at almost 8% average growth rate over a span of 100 years. In 1951, Christians were 83,05,026 at over 4% average growth rate over a span of 80 years (not adjusted for partition). However, the growth rate of the Hindus for the same period (1871-1951; adjusted for partition) was around 1.5% average.
The British had a clear goal: to westernize and Christianize India, using all possible means. Though, the British were not the first foreigners to rule over us, they had an important distinction over their Islamic predecessors. While the Islamic invaders caused much violence and immense physical damage and reduced Hindus to second class citizens at many places, the distinction of enslaving the Indian mind goes to the British. The British, in many ways, are solely responsible for the mental self-alienation and physical deprivation of the Indian population, whose deep effects are visible even today. India is free today, but the Indian mind is still colonized.
- Lala Lajpat Rai, “Unhappy India”, Popular Edition, (Revised & Enlarged.), Banna Publishing co., Calcutta,1928. (pdf file), https://hindustanbooks.com/books/unhappy_india/Unhappy_India.pdf
- Angus Maddison, “The world economy: A millennial perspective”, OECD, 2001.
- David Clingingsmith and Jeffrey G. Williamson, “India’s de-industrialization under British rule: new ideas, new evidence”, Working Paper 10586, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, June 2004, (pdf file), http://www.nber.org/papers/w10586
- Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Minute on Indian Education” 2/2/1835, (pdf file), http://home.iitk.ac.in/~hcverma/Article/Macaulay-Minutes.pdf
- Charles E Travelyan, “On the education of the people of India”, London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longmans, Pater Noster -Row. 1838. (pdf file), https://archive.org/details/ontheeducationof015100mbp
- Monier Williams, “Modern India and Indians: Being a series of impressions, notes and essays” 3rd edition, London: Trubner and co., Ludgate Hill, 1879. (pdf file), https://ia600301.us.archive.org/28/items/modernindiaandi00wilgoog/modernindiaandi00wilgoog.pdf
- Ram Swarup, “The issue of ethical conversion”, Hinduism and Monotheistic Religions, Voice of India, New Delhi, 2009.
Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.
Philosopher and Economist, writing on Philosophy, History and current affairs.
One thought on “India before British conquest”