What happened to India when the British arrived? HOW INDIA WAS DRAINED OF ITS WEALTH; India: ‘Milch Cow of the Empire` On receiving silver bullion from Spain for the provision of 4,800 African slaves, Britain had a surplus of silver which it then used for trading with India. At Battle of Plassey in 1757 British troops commanded by Robert Clive defeated the Bengal ruler a Mughal viceroy and put in British puppet. Robert Clive said there would be little or no difficulty in obtaining absolute possession of these rich kingdoms. At this point silver was no longer needed for trading with India. 

Before British rule, there was no private property in land. The self- governing village community handed over each year to the ruler or his nominee a share of the years produce. East India Company put a stop to this and introduced a new revenue system superseding the right of the village community over land and creating two new forms of property on land – landlordism and individual peasant proprietorship. It was assumed that the State was the supreme landlord. Fixed tax payments were introduced based on land whereby payment had to be made to the government whether or not crop had been successful. As one British put it we have introduced new methods of assessing and cultivating land revenue which have converted a once flourishing population into a huge horde of paupers. Indeed the first effect was the reduction in agricultural incomes by 50% thereby undermining the agrarian economy and self- governing village.

In 1769 the Company prohibited Indians from trading in grain, salt, betel nuts and tobacco and discouraged handicraft. Company also prohibited the home work of the silk weavers and compelled them to work in its factories. Weavers who disobeyed were imprisoned, fined or flogged. Company’s servants lined their own pockets by private trading and bribery and extortion. Goods were seized at a fraction of their price and resold to their owners at five times their price.

In 1770s one writer said of Bengal : one continued scene or oppression. Systematic plunder led to a famine in which 10 million people perished. Bengal was left naked, stripped of its surplus wealth and grain. Famine struck in 1770 and took the lives of an estimated one third of Bengal’s peasantry. A Commons Select Committee report in 1783 said that natives of all ranks and orders had been reduced to a State of Depression and Misery.

In 1787 a former army officer wrote: In former times the Bengal countries were the granary of nations, and the repository of commerce, wealth and manufacture in the East…But such has been the restless energy of misgovernment, that within 20 years many parts of those countries have been reduced to desert. The fields are no longer cultivated, extensive tracks are already overgrown with thickets, the husbandman is plundered, the manufacturer (handicraftsman) oppressed, famine has been repeatedly endured and depopulation ensured. As India became poor and hungry, Britain became richer. Colossal fortunes were made. Robert Clive arrived in India penniless – activities of Company investigated by House of Commons. The Hindi word loot was introduced into English language because of the plunder of India. Colossal fortunes helped fund Britain’s Industrial Revolution e.g.:

  • 1757 – Battle of Plassey
  • 1764 – Hargreaves spinning jenny
  • 1769 – Arkwright’s water frame
  • 1779 – Crompton mule (whatever that is)
  • 1785 – Watt’s steam engine

When British first reached India they did not find a backwater country. A report on Indian Industrial Commission published in 1919 said that the industrial development of India was at any rate not inferior to that of the most advanced European nations. India was not only a great agricultural country but also a great manufacturing country. It had prosperous textile industry, whose cotton, silk, and woolen products were marketed in Europe and Asia. It had remarkable and remarkably ancient, skills in iron-working. It had its own shipbuilding industry in Calcutta, Daman, Surat, Bombay and Pegu. In 1802 skilled Indian workers were building British warships at Bombay. According to a historian of Indian shipping the teak wood vessels of Bombay were greatly superior to the oaken walls of Old England. Benares was famous all over India for its brass, copper and bell-metal wares. Other important industries included the enameled jewellery and stone carving of Rajputana towns as well as filigree work in gold and silver, ivory, glass, tannery, perfumery and papermaking.

All this altered under the British leading to the de- industrialization of India – its forcible transformation from a country of combined agriculture and manufacture into an agricultural colony of British capitalism. British annihilated Indian textile industry because a competitor existed and it had to be destroyed.

Shipbuilding industry aroused the jealousy of British firms and its progress and development were restricted by legislation. India’s metalwork, glass and paper industries were likewise throttled when British government in India was obliged to use only British-made paper. The vacuum created by the contrived ruin of the Indian handicraft industries, a process virtually completed by 1880, was filled with British manufactured goods. Britain’s industrial revolution, with its explosive increase in productivity made it essential for British capitalists to find new markets. India turned from exporter of textile or importer. British goods had to have virtually free entry while entry into Britain of India goods was met with prohibitive tariffs. Direct trade between India and the rest of the world had to be curtailed. Horace Hayman Wilson in 1845 in The History of British India from 1805 to 1835 said the foreign manufacturer employed the arm of political injustice to keep down and ultimately strangle a competitor with whom he could not have contended on equal terms.

While there was prosperity for British cotton industry there was ruin for millions of Indian craftsmen and artisans. India’s manufacturing towns were blighted e.g. Decca once known as the Manchester of India, and Murshidabad-Bengal’s old capital which was once described in 1757 as extensive, populous and rich as London. Millions of spinners, and weavers were forced to seek a precarious living in the countryside, as were many tanners, smelters and smiths.

India was made subservient to the Empire and vast wealth was sucked out of the subcontinent. Economic exploitation was the root cause of the Indian people’s poverty and hunger. Under Imperial rule the ordinary people of India grew steadily poorer. Economic historian Romesh Dutt said half of India’s annual net revenues of pound 44m flowed out of India. The number of famines soared from seven in the first half of 19th Century to 24 in second half. According to official figures, 28,825,000 Indians starved to death between 1854 and 1901. The terrible famine of 1899-1900 which affected 474,000 square miles with a population almost 60 million was attributed to a process of bleeding the peasant, who were forced into the clutches of the money- lenders whom British regarded as their mainstay for the payment of revenue. The Bengal famine of 1943, which claimed 1.5million victims were accentuated by the authority’s carelessness and utter lack of foresight.

Rich though its soil was, India’s people were hungry and miserably poor. This grinding poverty struck all visitors – like a blow in the face as described by India League Delegation 1932. In their report Condition of India 1934 they had been appalled at the poverty of the Indian village. It is the home of stark want…the results of uneconomic agriculture, peasant indebtedness, excessive taxation and rack-renting, absence of social services and the general discontent impressed us everywhere..In the villages there were no health or sanitary services, there were no road, no drainage or lighting, and no proper water supply beyond the village well. Men, women and children work in the fields, farms and cowsheds…All alike work on meagre food and comfort and toil long hours for inadequate returns.

Jawarharlal Nehru wrote that those parts of India which had been longest under British rule were the poorest: Bengal once so rich and flourishing after 187 years of British rule is a miserable mass of poverty-stricken, starving and dying people. And this situation was further accentuated by the communist governance for coming several decades after Independence.

India was sometimes called the ‘milch cow of the Empire’, and indeed at times it seemed to be so regarded by politicians and bureaucrats in London. Educated Indians were embittered when India was made to pay the entire cost of the India Office building in Whitehall. They were further outraged when in 1867 it was made to pay the full costs of entertaining two thousand five hundred guests at a lavish ball honouring the Sultan of Turkey.

In India, the hunger and poverty experienced by the majority of the population during the colonial period and immediately after independence were the logical consequences of two centuries of British occupation, during which the Indian cotton industry was destroyed, most peasants were put into serfdom (after the British modified the agrarian structures and the tax system to the benefit of the Zamindars – feudal landlords) and cash crops (indigo, tea, jute) gradually replaced traditional food crops. Britain’s profits throughout the 19th century cannot be measured without taking into account the 28 million Indians who died of starvation between 1814 and 1901.

Author: Madhav shastri

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