Razib Khan, Unherd, June 24, 2021
British rule of the Indian subcontinent has been blamed for a lot: the rise of predatory capitalism, the centuries-long decline of South Asia into deep poverty with the concurrent industrialisation of England and, of course, the flowering of the ideology of white racial domination over non-white peoples.
Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India puts the kibosh on these assertions. In it, Roderick Matthews argues that there was no fixed plan, either in the inception of British India or the hasty exit; the vaunted connection between the British and Indian economies was marginal at best; and though the rise of racial supremacism was a feature of the cultural landscape of Victorian England, the colour hierarchy in India had roots prior to the 19th century, and was caught up in a roiling vortex of broader currents in the Western world.
He kicks off the narrative conventionally enough in 1600, when the East Indian Company (EIC) was founded, and ends it in 1947, when the British Raj transferred power to the newly independent states of India and Pakistan. In Peace, Poverty and Betrayal, the EIC never transcends its 17th-century origins, when it was a tool of the British monarchy battling the Portuguese and Dutch on the high seas, skulking around the margins of the Mughal Empire to obtain minor trading concessions. Despite the later pomp and circumstance, Matthews argues persuasively that the EIC remained an institutionally weak organisation from its beginning to its very end.
How, then, did the British become masters of the subcontinent by 1800? Well, Robert Clive conquered Bengal for the EIC at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. But again, this was not part of any plan. Clive looted what would today be billions of pounds, and was put on trial by Parliament for his actions. Clive’s protégé, Warren Hastings, was impeached by Parliament for extortion, embezzlement and committing judicial murder against a personal enemy. The fall of India to the EIC was a conspiracy of individual greed rather than a coordination of imperial power.
But British hegemony in India was born of more than the private interests of rapacious aspiring nabobs. The total chaos of the mid-18th-century Mughal collapse was such that India fell into their laps. In the war of all against all that defined India in the 18th century, Clive and Hastings were only exceptional in that they were British. By the second half of the century, India was divided between warring Mughal vassals bickering over who could manage to hold the emperor hostage.
Across the vast centre of the subcontinent, an array of warlords allied to create the Maratha Confederacy, which persisted as a power across the whole of the 18th century. Though lionised by modern Hindus for defeating Muslim invaders, at the time the Maratha playbook of raids geared toward looting and destruction left only fear and loathing in its wake. The Maratha invasion of Bengal in the 1750s resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Yet while men such as Clive and Hastings clearly operated purely on the basis of selfishness, a widely agreed fact, their leadership of the EIC arguably brought relative peace to the Indian subcontinent. Matthews notes that during the 1857 Indian Rebellion, the cities of Bengal stayed loyal to the EIC and the British, as did most of the native princes. Both factions preferred the peace of British India to the potential chaos — something akin to China under the warlords — that might have been unleashed by a rebel victory.
This cultural liberalisation within India in the 19th and 20th centuries was not just a tone-deaf top-down imposition from the Anglo-Indian elites, but a process that occurred in concert with native professionals. Much of the urban elite of India was educated in the British system, realising Thomas Babington Macaulay’s vision of “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first leaders of India and Pakistan, both trained as lawyers in London.
The reality of permanent chaos in decision-making leads us to the conclusion that the great prosecutions of British misrule in India are off-base. India as a part of the British Empire was a matter of prestige and pride for the ruling gentry, but its economic connections to the metropole have been greatly exaggerated. India’s poverty in the 20th century had more to do with the fact that its economic basis, subsistence agriculture, did not change much from the 18th century.
In contrast, Britain was at the forefront of industrialisation before the conquest of India. Nationalist Indian observers such as Shashi Tharoor in his polemical Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India argue for a zero-sum world of wealth redistribution, but European nations without extensive colonies also underwent rapid development in the 19th century. The EIC itself was marginally profitable, and made many of its largest windfalls in the China trade. Taxation and goods remitted to Britain were always minimal.
The true impact of the British relationship with India was not economic, but cultural and social. It is an undeniable fact that the political and legal systems which constitute the machinery of the modern Indian state to this day are inherited from the British. The economic “great divergence” between the West and the rest of the world was a universal feature of the 19th and 20th centuries, not something special and peculiar to the relationship between India and Britain.